Nexus Interview: Santa

Nexus is very pleased to be able to introduce to you the big red man from the North Pole, Santa! Welcome, Santa, and thank-you for taking time out of your busy schedule to be interviewed by us.

You’re welcome. I don’t usually do interviews, you know.

We do know. Why is that?

There’s only so many carols and religious readings I can sit through before I want to kill someone. And that’s just not very Christmassy. They’re nice enough if you believe in them I suppose. But I’ve got to much to do this time of year to be bothered with that.

You don’t believe in Christmas?

Fuck off. It’s an organised commercial holiday there to make money by commemorating the birth of some poor bastard who came to a sticky end. If he existed at all, that is. If you were me you’d want a bit less of it too.

Um. Well, I don’t quite know what to say.

If you had to haul around all the junk I do every year, you and your poor bloody back would know exactly what to say, I can tell you! It’s March before I can stand up straight again.

I suppose Christmas has become very commercialised…

santaYou’re not kidding. And most little darlings get more presents than they deserve. What poor kid actually needs Barbie’s Dream House with a lean-to dog kennel and spa for the homeless? You know what’s going to happen to little Sally when she gets that, don’t you? She’ll play with it for a week or two, break it, grow up to have ludicrously high expectations for her own life and, when she doesn’t turn out to be a seven foot tall peroxided freak with too much money and an angelic personality, adored by he-of-the-missing-genitals and the local destitute, she’ll top herself.

Okay…

That’s when her parents will say, “We should have gotten her a nice book.” I don’t mind delivering books.

Aren’t they heavy, though? What about your back?

Eh. If it’s for a good cause… And you know, if it’s just one small present each, I can send an elf down the chimney with that. I only have to go because their puny little bones generally collapse under the weight of all the crap in the sack.

You know this by experience, then?

Oh, yes. They’re annoyingly fragile. It’s so hard to get good help these days.

At least it would give you some exercise…

Are you calling me fat, missy? What’s your name again… where’s my list. Can I borrow your pen?

No! I suppose it’s not your fault. All those mince pies, cookies, sherry and milk-

Can I just interrupt you for a minute?

Public announcement please, folks: listen up. I have to cater to your greedy children over the longest night of the year. You’ve no idea what it does to the body to have to shift between time zones all night long, plus the dilation effect of squeezing it all in. And all of this on a freezing night, with icy blasts coming straight at me. Not to mention the endless hours of staring at reindeer arse. I DO NOT WANT FUCKING MILK!

After all I do for you lot every year, alcohol is the least you can give me. Okay? Carry on, then. What were you saying?

I was just going to suggest that maybe if the elves ate some of the goodies, then maybe, um, maybe you wouldn’t be liable to keel over from a heart attack next time you drag hefty little Timmy onto your knee at the local shop?

Don’t remind me. I remember him! Put in an order for more video games. He’s getting a ball, and he better bloody use it.

Does he want a ball?

Who the hell cares? It’s not like he’s been the perfect kid. Screams at his sister, pulls wings off flies, bullies kids who don’t believe in God… try to tell me you feel sorry for him now, ha!

Can you make it an exploding ball, Santa?

I don’t know… have you been good this year.

Yes!

Are you lying to me?

Yes. But honesty should be rewarded. Go on… it can be my present.

Go on, then. Don’t say I never gave you anything, though. I hate that.

Okay. Thanks, Santa. So, one could say that you’re not blind to the difficulties of the job? It must be tiring…

True. But it’s only once a year so I can cope. A lot of people don’t know this, but Mrs Claus does most of the work during the year. She’s a lawyer, see. Spends her time arguing with the elves about how good is good enough.

So if the kiddies don’t like what they get, and it’s because they weren’t good, don’t take it up with me. I think the missus has a form you can fill out somewhere, apply for a hearing to change their legal status.

Do many people do that?

Not that many, no. She bills those that lose for time wasted, you see. And they all lose.

So while she sorts out who gets what, you make the toys?

The elves make the toys. Do I like like a handyman to you?

So during the year, you do what, precisely?

Eat, mostly. What? It’s cold up there, you know! I need a good layer of blubber. And the reindeer stew doesn’t make itself.

reindeerI guess not. Hang on, what?! YOU EAT THE REINDEER?

We don’t have the climate for tropical fruits now, do we? Reindeer get old, you know. What d’you want me to do, chuck ’em out in the snow to starve after all their years of service? This way they get a good quick end and a nice long soak in wine sauce.

Wine… wine sauce?

All that running about, they can get pretty tough. And it’s not as though they don’t have an easy life the rest of the year. Build up a nice layer of fat, especially if you get them half-way through the year, before they go into training.

But, but… Dasher? Prancer? Vixen?

My dear. How long do you think reindeer live? They were lovely beasties, but they were born in the early 18th century. But don’t worry, their descendents live on, even if they are a little inbred. Let’s see, we’ve got a Bilbo, a Britney… and I think little Barack is having his first trot this Christmas.

Screw them. What about Rudolph…?

A little later than Dasher et al., but still dearly departed, I’m afraid. Had a lovely nose. Bright, shiny… always had a good run with him. That nose… it went down well sliced and grilled on toast, as I recall. With just a little onion.

I think I want to go home.

You do look a little green about the gills. Perhaps you’d better go lie down. It was a pleasure meeting you.

Be good, now.

Hanne Stinson on the Atheist Bus Campaign

Hanne Stinson is part of the British Humanist Association, and very kindly agreed to be interviewed about the role of her organisation in the atheist bus campaign. Thank-you, Hanne!

bus-2

How did the idea of godless buses come about? Was there anything that jumpstarted the BHA to get involved, and what did you hope the outcome would be?

The idea came from comedy writer, Ariane Sherine, who wrote a ‘Comment is Free’ article on the Guardian website when she saw Christian bus advertisements with quotes from the Bible. The website the advertisements directed people to (http://proclaimingtruthinlondon.org/) condemned those who do not follow Jesus’ teachings to “spend all eternity in torment in hell”. Ariane suggested in her article that people might want to contribute to a more reassuring message for the non-religious, and the campaign has grown out of that. We thought this was an excellent opportunity to reach people who are not religious with a simple message that it’s OK not to believe in a god, that you don’t have to worry about all that, and can still lead and good life without religion – and enjoy it. So we got together with Ariane to work on the advertising campaign together. We hoped to raise £5,500: enough for ads on 30 bendy buses in London for 4 weeks, and to raise awareness of the fact that many people are atheist or agnostic and of the BHA.

What has the response been like? Obviously it is being reported all over the world, but do you have any idea what the people in the streeet are saying? How much of the reaction is positive, and how much not?

The response has been quite overwhelming. The appeal hit its target within a couple of hours, and so far we have raised nearly £120,000, which means that we can take the advertising campaign nationwide. And the media response, not only in the UK but around the world has been quite phenomenal – it’s been reported from Russia to Australia to Nepal to Rwanda, and it looks as if similar campaigns are going to be launched in some other countries too. What has really struck me has been that almost all the money has come in small donations – mostly £10 or less – so this is ordinary individuals saying they want to see these advertisements on buses and, from the messages they leave on the donation site message board, what comes across very clearly is that these are people who feel they have never had a voice. The response has also been overwhelmingly positive. We have had a few negative reactions from people saying we are attacking religion, or that the message is offensive, which I find quite interesting as no one complains that messages like ‘Jesus is the only path to salvation’ are attacking atheists or attacking other faiths. Some people seem to apply different standards when the non-religious say what they believe.

How did you decide on the slogan? There’s been some discussion round our part of the internet that the “probably” shifts the theme from atheism to agnosticism, and that the message might have been stronger without it. How do you feel about that?

There are a number of reasons why we chose the slogan ‘There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’. We wanted the message to be positive and reassuring, and we wanted to reach not only people who have firm atheist or humanist beliefs, but also people who no longer believe the religion they were brought up in, but are perhaps not quite as confident in their non-religious beliefs. And we didn’t want to offend people who are religious either. We also wanted to get across that many people who describe themselves as atheists or humanists would say that one can never be 100% certain about a negative. If there were ever convincing scientific evidence of the existence of god, people who base their beliefs on evidence and reason would have to reconsider their position. Not that I think that is every going to happen!

Will you be using different slogans in the future, and would you take suggestions? It seems the perfect excuse for a competition…

We have now agreed to take the campaign nation wide, and we are looking at the possibility of using different slogans, or perhaps adding to the existing slogan with a bit more information, or something about the issues that humanists and atheists face in society.

How long can we expect to see the godless buses running?

We are going for a 4 week campaign, starting in January, although the timing may not be exactly the same in different cities. And if we continue to raise money for advertisements it will probably go on longer – perhaps in additional cities.

What’s the excess money – if any – going to be used for?

More buses!

Have you heard any news about the possibility of similar campaigns being carried out in other countries?

We know that humanist organisations in some other countries are considering this. There will almost certainly be atheist buses with either the same of different slogans in the USA and Australia, and quite likely a number of other countries.

Interview: KafirGirl

Thanks to a suggestion from last month’s interviewee, Steve Wells from the ASB, this month we’re interviewing KafirGirl, who is currently blogging her way through the Quran. Steve calls it “by far the most entertaining blog I know”, and it is pretty damn fantastic. If you haven’t seen it yet we highly recommend it. KafirGirl is an ex-Muslim who started doubting as a kid and has been an atheist for the past 9 years, and we’re happy that she was gracious enough to let us ask her some questions!

Hi KafirGirl. Can you tell us a bit about your experiences with religion as a child? What does a good Muslim kid generally do to learn about their religion?

My parents taught me to pray when I was really young — 4 or 5, maybe. I don’t really remember praying all that much when I was a kid, though. I started Quran lessons with an imam soon after that. He would come to our house every day after school and teach us how to read the Quran in Arabic. My most distinct memory of those lessons was the way my mom would throw a scarf over her hair when the guy showed up, and immediately yank it off when he left.

When we moved to the States, my parents sent us to Islamic Sunday school at the local mosque. It was a mostly Arab mosque and they were pretty hardcore about learning the Quran and praying. We had to keep charts of how often we prayed and everything. My brother and I got busted for forging our mothers’ signature on our prayer charts. Twice. (Note to any would-be forgers out there: if two of you are going to fake the same signature, only one person should handle the signing part. And also, don’t erase the signature and do it over if you don’t get it right the first time. Seriously.)

Our parents pulled us out of that mosque and made us to go a Pakistani-majority mosque, which was a lot more lax about stuff. No prayer charts, for starters, and it was a lot more informal. Nobody yelled at you if your headscarf came loose, for instance. We had Quran lessons, group prayer and separate discussion group for boys and girls. That was basically where we could sit around and ask questions about how to take a ritual shower after your period ends, or where babies come from. Major awkwardness.

Anyway, that was pretty much the extent of my religious education. I think most Muslim kids have the same general experience: they learn to pray and read the Quran, and they go to mosque, which is just as much of a social thing as it is a religious one.

You started having doubts fairly early: about 8. What prompted this?

I think, in my case, it actually helped that I grew up surrounded by church-going Christian kids. It made me question how different religions could exist. Why was one friend a Baptist while another was a Methodist? Where did Islam fit in with all of this? Why did we pray differently if it was to the same God? I started asking these questions really early on and it set the wheels in motion.

Living as a religious person in a religious community can tend to reinforce faith. Do you find, as a minority within your family community, that a closer knowledge of religion can also help the individual (and outnumbered) atheist to reinforce their doubts?

Before I started reading the Quran, my Muslim friends would say things like, “If you read the Quran, you’ll believe again.” Well, turns out they were wrong. I think reading the Quran has not only reinforced the doubt, but also armed me with better arguments and a snarkier attitude. I highly recommend it! In fact, I’m planning on reading the Bible when I’m done with the Quran. If I still have the will to live, that is.

Your blog talks about your parents’ reactions to your disbelief. Your dad’s comment on his worst mistake, teaching you to think, is pretty brutal. How were you “taught to think”, and how would you suggest more Muslim kids get the opportunity to do the same?

My dad has always been highly critical of rote learning, which is exactly how the Quran is taught. Memorizing something is not the same thing as understanding it, and I think that’s the downfall for a lot of Muslim kids. That’s also why it’s such a huge pain in the ass to argue with a lot of Muslims. They’ll just repeat the same thing over and over again without really knowing what it is they’re saying.

Anyway, my dad taught me think by encouraging us to ask questions and to read everything we could get our hands on. You know those kids’ books with titles like “The Big Book of Why” and “1000 Science Questions & Answers”? He got us a ton of those, and I devoured them. Books like that taught me that it’s important to ask “why” and “how.” Unfortunately for my dad, I started asking those questions about Islam and it turned me into an atheist. Doh!

So what made you start blogging your experiences in studying the Koran? Do you think it’s been an effective way of connecting with others, and getting your point of view across?

I decided to blog my way through the Quran when I realized there was no way I would read the book without some kind of accountability. It’s unbelievably boring, and I’ve had many, many false starts where I’d make it a few pages in before getting bored and moving on to something else. I think putting my thoughts out there for others to read would make me a little more likely to keep up with it, and so far, so good! I’ve connected with some really great people, and they’re teaching me as much as I’m teaching them. It’s fantastic.

What, in your opinion, is the best and the worst bits of the Koran that you’ve blogged so far?

I think the hardest posts I’ve written have been the ones dealing with the Quran’s views on women. How anyone could possibly say that Islam is a feminist religion is beyond me. The best parts — or at least my favorite parts — have been the scientific “miracles.” There is some seriously bad science in the Quran, and that always makes for entertaining reading. Flat earth, anyone?

Please… tell us about the LOLmuslims, we LOVE them. Are they your favourite part of the site?

lolmuslim
The idea for LOLmuslims started when I was Googling for images to use for the blog’s banner. I found some pretty amusing pictures of Muslims at a protest, and it just clicked. It’s been way fun to make them…and it gives me a nice break from reading & writing about the Quran!

I think my favorite part of the site is probably the comments section. And I’m not just saying that to kiss my readers’ collective butt. I’ve learned so much about all 3 Abrahamic religions from people who are way smarter and more knowledgeable than me. They make my brain hurt. Best feeling ever!

What kinds of reactions have you been getting? Are they mostly from religious or atheists, and how much do their beliefs (or lack thereof) govern their responses to you, do you think?

The reaction to the blog has been overwhelmingly positive. The vast majority of responses I get are from atheists, and they’re thrilled that someone is taking on the Quran. I’ve gotten a lot of emails from ex-Muslims — some who are open about their non-belief, and others who have to hide because they live in a country where it’s not really safe to be an open atheist.

The religious response falls into a couple of categories. Christians tend to push the Bible (“There’s none of that hateful stuff in MY book!”). It’s like they think it’s their job to swoop in and bring the ex-Muslims to Jesus. The Jews that contact me are mostly atheists, so we’re cool. And then there are the Muslims. The Muslims who email or comment are preachy and pissed off and insulted. I’ve had a few death threats, which is pretty much expected these days. Mostly it’s just ranty emails about how I’m wrong and headed to hell.

Oddly enough, a lot of Muslims refuse to believe that I’m an ex-Muslim. Readers will occasionally email me some blog or forum with a rumor about my “real” identity. A few weeks ago, I read that I’m actually a Jewish man from Buffalo, New York. More recently, I read that I’m not one person, but a team of Israeli spies, working around the clock to spread lies about the Quran. One site actually said it’s impossible for me to be a Pakistani girl because my writing style is clearly that of a man’s. …yeah.

Unfortunately, you feel safer being anonymous. Many of our readers are life-long atheists from communities where atheism is close to the norm. Can you explain to these readers particularly what it’s really like to always have to be so aware of what you are saying?

It’s funny because in my everyday life, I don’t feel like I have to be wary of what I say. I’m one of those outspoken types — I believe the latest catchphrase is “militant atheist.” I’m actually very open about my atheism with my friends, siblings, and even my coworkers. My anonymity is most just on the internet (see above about death threats from loonies).

The only people I won’t really discuss my atheism with are my parents. They’ve made it pretty clear that they don’t want to argue about it, so I just don’t bring it up.

What’s been the most rewarding part of the experience for you?

I actually know what I’m talking about now! When I argued with Muslims before, I didn’t really know how to respond to some of their claims. And now I can point out specific verses and call them out on their crap.

I also think I’ve been able to dump a lot of emotional baggage when it comes to my family. I feel like I’ve spent my entire adult life hiding who I am and what I (don’t) believe for fear of hurting their feelings, and I finally realize that I don’t have to do that anymore.

The whole thing has been a very positive experience.

And finally: readers of your blog know about your epiphany with pork. What’s your favourite way of eating it now?

If there is a heaven, it tastes like broiled pork chops. Little salt, dash of pepper, a metric ton of diced garlic and you’re good to go!

Interview: Steve Wells, from the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible

This month Nexus is pleased to interview Steve Wells, the bloke behind the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, where a lot of us first got our start in critically reading the big book. Thanks, Steve! If you haven’t checked out the ASB before, take the opportunity to give it a read: you won’t be disappointed. And if you’re looking to get a reference copy for yourself, check out the CD-Rom version, which can be sent right to your door!

How did you come to be non-religious? Were you raised that way, or did you have a deconversion experience?

I was raised in a non-religious environment, with an agnostic father and a vaguely Protestant mother. By the time I was twelve, I considered myself an atheist and I argued with anyone with any form of religious belief. It always seemed obvious to me that God was imaginary and religion was only superstition.

But then, after graduating from high school, I read the New Testament. I didn’t immediately believe it, of course, but I was taken by the personality and sayings of Jesus. I was primed and ready to believe, and when it comes to religion, that’s all it takes.

While I was in college, my older sister became a Catholic, and she and I had many long conversations about religion. I began to attend mass occasionally with her, and while I didn’t actually believe any of it, I started to admire the teaching and tradition of the Catholic Church. Before I knew it, I had convinced myself that I actually believed it, and decided that I wanted to become a Catholic priest.

This was in the seventies, and the Church was still trying to figure itself out after the Second Vatican Council. I wasn’t interested in being a new Catholic; I wanted the old Church, with the old mass in Latin and the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. So I entered a traditionalist seminary, which is where I started to lose my faith.

I began to argue with the seminary professors about the doctrines of the Church. How could there be no salvation outside the Church? Does that mean my family is going to hell, along with all other non-traditionalist Catholics (which is pretty much everyone)? I had problems with nearly every teaching, but it was the idea of hell that did me in.

So I left the seminary, but I remained in the Church. A few years later I was married with four kids, all of which were baptized Catholics. But by the time our last child was born, my faith was pretty much gone. One day while returning from a camping trip (I still remember the exact moment), I told my wife, Carole, that I no longer believed any of it and I wasn’t going to pretend any longer.

Poor Carole (who was raised a traditionalist Catholic) was pretty upset over that. She got out all our catechisms and theology books, saying she was going to convince me that I wrong. That lasted about a week or so, and then she decided she didn’t believe any of it either. We’ve both lived a lot happier ever after.

What made you start up the SAB? Why do you think it’s a necessary
resource?

I started the SAB while trying to talk my sister (the one who had previously converted to Catholicism) out of becoming a Jehovah’s Witness.

You see, I’d never actually read the Bible before, not all the way through, anyway. Oh, I tried back when I supposedly believed in the darned thing, but I just couldn’t make it through Leviticus. But I decided it had to be done to keep my sister from becoming a JW.

It didn’t work, of course. She became a JW anyway, and she still is to this day. But I managed to finish reading the Bible, and I was shocked with what I read.

I started to highlight the interesting stuff: yellow for absurdity, red for cruelty, green for contradictions, blue for sex, etc. And then it occurred to me. Why hasn’t anyone done this before? Why hasn’t a skeptic created an annotated version of the Bible with all the interesting stuff highlighted? And with that idea, the SAB was born.

I originally hoped (and still do) to create a print version, but then the internet came along and I knew it would work there. So I created the SAB website in November of 1999 and have been working on it ever since.

What do you tell religious people – Christians, for instance – when they ask you why they should read your version of their texts?

Well, it’s not really my version. It’s just the Bible, with my unimportant remarks attached. The important thing is for people, believers and skeptics, to read the Bible and to think about what they’ve read.

I try to highlight the things that would be of most interest to someone who is trying to decide what to make of the Bible. Is it a good book? Could it have been inspired by a kind and loving God? Does it contain any contradictions? Does it conflict with science and history? What does it say about women, homosexuality, and family values?

If after reading the Bible a person decides to believe it is the Word of God, well and good. But a sane, kind, intelligent person is unlikely to do so.

How long did it take you to do? Did it surprise you that you were able to pick out so many errors and questionable statements? Which of your “categories” [e.g. Absurdity, Injustice…] gets the most use?

I started 18 years ago highlighting verses in the Bible with boxes of index cards for the annotations. It began with my own color-coded highlights; then I consulted other books and eventually the internet for additional material.

I’m not sure which of the categories get the most use, although believers like to focus on the contradictions. That’s because they are so easy to explain away. (“That’s what it says, but that’s not what it means”, etc.) Explaining how a kind and loving God would send two bears to rip up 42 little boys for making fun of a prophet’s bald head (2 Kings 2:23-24) is tougher.

What’s been your favourite chapter to do, and why?

The book of Judges is probably my favorite. It’s just a series of bizarrely cruel stories thrown together for no apparent reason. I cannot imagine a book less likely to have been inspired by anyone or anything remotely resembling a kind and loving God.

People can buy copies of the SAB on CD. How’s it looking on getting a print version out soon?

Not so good, I’m afraid. I contacted publishers before the SAB site was created, but they were reluctant because the book would be expensive to produce and its author was completely unknown. After the site became fairly successful, I expected to get a few offers from publishers, but so far that hasn’t happened. But maybe it will someday.

I see you’ve got a pretty good association going with the Brick Testament – we interviewed Brendan Powell-Smith recently as well. How did that get started?

Yeah, I love the Brick Testament. The BT stories capture the essence of the Bible in a way that simple words cannot. They are also very funny, of course. The Bible stories are silly to start with, but with legos, they are hilarious.

You’ve also done the Koran and the Book of Mormon. Do you see any commonalities in argument across the texts?

Yes, there are many similarities. Joseph Smith tried hard to make the Book of Mormon sound like the Bible – way too hard, in fact. Mark Twain said that if you took the and-it-came-to-passes out of the Book of Mormon, it would be nothing more than a pamphlet.

The Quran is the only book I know of that might even be crueler than the Bible. It is a short, very repetitive book that can be summed up with these words: “And for the disbelievers, Allah has prepared a painful doom.” Of course that is the same message as the Bible and the Book of Mormon (Believe or be damned), but the Quran is much more explicit about it.

Do the three religious communities whose books you’ve done react the same to your versions? Is there anything you focus on that they find particularly annoying?

I have been surprised with the reaction to the Quran (SAQ ) and Book of Mormon (SABoM) from Muslims and Mormons – or from the lack of reaction, that is. There are many Christian responses to the SAB, but none to the SAQ or SABoM. And I’m not sure why that is. Maybe they figure it’s better just to ignore them.

Christians try to ignore everything but the contradictions. When God behaves badly in the Bible or commands people to commit atrocities, the believers pretend not to notice. I think that’s because most believers don’t know what’s in the Bible and those who do don’t talk about it. What happens in the Bible stays in the Bible.

Do you have any plans to do any more religious texts?

No, I won’t live long enough to do a decent job with what I’ve already started. The Bible, Book of Mormon, and the Quran are way more than one person can adequately handle. (Which is why I’m glad Sam Harris’ Scripture Project <http://samharris.org/&gt; is going to take over for me!)

What has been the most rewarding part of the whole experience for you?

Helping others to honestly think about the Bible, Book of Mormon, and the Quran. I believe people will make the right decision about these books if they take the time to find out what is in them. If the SAB helps them to do that, then my work has been worthwhile.

Interview: Pete Hautman, author of “Godless”

Pete Hautman won America’s National Book Award for Young People’s Literature with his novel “Godless”, and has been kind enough to let Nexus interview him about some of the questions raised in the book. Thanks, Mr. Hautman!

peteThe idea for “Godless” came out of the memory of yourself 35 years ago, in your own mock-worship of a water tower. There are probably a lot of kids who, just for fun, make up their own mythologies in the same way. How do you think this adds to their knowledge of religion?

When you want to teach a kid to draw, you hand him (or her) a crayon and some paper. If you give him a coloring book and tell him to stay within the lines, well, that doesn’t work so good. Smart, curious teens are always revising, modeling, and recreating the social systems they are asked to adopt. It’s part of the normal and admirable exploration of the world, and it starts in the womb.

The Chutengodian Commandments are pretty funny – especially the one about not eating asparagus. I agree it’s quite disgusting. The idea of having to create your own commandments is, depending on your perspective, either frightening or fulfilling. Do you create your own, and how do you integrate them into your life? Would you recommend personal commandment creation as an essential part of ethical maturity?

I am rather fond of asparagus.

We all create our own commandments. Most of us use existing religious, social, and cultural rules as a model, then we tweak them: You shall not kill. Unless it is in self defense. Unless they really piss you off. Unless they control large oil reserves. Unless they scare the crap out of you.

There are a lot of religious parallels in “Godless”. The most obvious is probably Shin, the Pod-God, deity to his collection of gastropods. Shin comments that God is a matter of relativity. Do we find our own gods, do you think? Do you think that they can be found outside religion – for example in science?

Modern science is notable for its lack of gods, but it does have some similarities with religion, and it relies, to some extent, upon faith—as in, I have a degree of faith in my endocrinologist, without which it would be impossible for her to practice her craft effectively. I also have “faith” in the theory of gravity, even though I do not understand it. For the most part, however, science and religion are antithetical.

To answer your question a different way, we each create our own gods and our own religions in the same way we create our own commandments. Everybody sitting in, say, a Lutheran congregation does not believe in the same version of God, and each of them has a unique interpretation of the tenets of their denomination.

Do you think the traditionally non-religious can find or need to find spiritual fulfilment outside organised religion?

I don’t know what “spiritual” means. As for fulfillment, I do not think religion is at all necessary for one to live a joyous, productive, and admirable life. I know hundreds of non-religious people who sleep well at night and cannot wait to get up in the morning.

The Chutengodian kids join the Church of the Ten-Legged God (CTG) for several reasons – for fun, to show irreverence to their parents’ beliefs, as an excuse to flirt or to find adventure, and as an interesting intellectual exercise. How well do you think this tracks with an individual’s need to join a religious community today?

Never having joined one I cannot say, but I suspect that the impulse to join a religious community is driven more by loneliness and fear and desire for approval than it is by curiosity and adventurousness.

It should also be said that there are practical reasons for joining a church. One might thereby gain emotional support of a community, business contacts, mating opportunities, child care, and so forth.

Shin’s curiosity eventually turns into obsession, and there are times when Jason, the founder of the CTG, is on the verge of being convinced by him even though he knows it’s not actually real. How much do you think the faith of others impacts on what we think we already know?

The impact is immense. A person with strong “unshakeable” faith is enormously attractive. We are hardwired to respond positively to confident leaders, and faith is confidence taken to an extreme. When someone believes something without showing a shred of doubt, we feel compelled to consider their point of view.

The group eventually splinters into rival churches with different sets of commandments. Do you think it’s possible to retain one monolithic faith in an age of questioning?

Sure, people do it all the time. But why would you want to?

Although it starts as a joke, the CTG has some serious consequences and Jason is forced to confront them on his own terms. What do you think he has gained from his experiences?

He learned that he has power, and that with power comes responsibility—and a price.

You end with Jason commenting he has “religion, but no faith”. What do you think is the essential difference between the two?

Faith is a belief in something that is so powerful that it can withstand almost anything including physical evidence to the contrary, logical inconsistency, and personal travail. It is a psychological phenomenon.

Religion is a formal system of worship—a system developed by humans. One might think of it as a sort of construct, a machine for communing with the Almighty.

Jason’s story is essentially a journey to that place where he has “religion, but no faith”. That’s a journey a lot of people are on these days. Where do you look for the answers?

I just look at the world around me. Answers abound.

Interview: The Brick Testament’s Reverend Brendan Powell Smith!

A big thank-you to Reverend Brendan from The Brick Testament, for agreeing to be interviewed by Nexus, and for kindly giving us permission to feature some of his LEGO pictures here. Thanks, Brendan!

If you’ve never visited the Brick Testament before, we can highly recommend it as being both fun and informative. You can even buy Brick Testament books and LEGO characters (the Holy Ghost will crack you up)!

We have to ask: what put the idea of the Brick Testament into your head?

I’ve been fascinated with religion ever since I became an atheist at about the age of 13. Prior to that I had been a regular churchgoer and my mother was even a Sunday School teacher at our local Episcopal church. But as my childhood was approaching its end, I had this idea (I’m not sure from where) that it would be a good idea to “prepare for adulthood” by consciously trying rid myself of what seemed like childish ways of thinking. I recognized superstitions for what they were, and tried to turn away from “magical thinking”. I didn’t intend for any of this to affect my religious beliefs, but in the end it did in a profound way, and soon enough I found myself the only atheist I knew amongst my family, friends, and community. And being in that situation really made me wonder just what it was about religion that kept so many others believing.

So I studied religion and philosophy at Boston University, and that’s when I first read the Bible through for myself. I found that experience so full of surprises that I have never really gotten over the shock. I guess I must have been expecting something very dry and boring, but found instead that it was chock full of lurid stories, high drama, and terribly obscene behavior. I was realized that there must be very, very few people who have ever actually read this book. And so from that point on I knew it would be a worthwhile project if I could think of a way to retell these stories in a way that could capture people’s attention and still stay true to the original.

It wasn’t until a few years out of college that I happened to get back into LEGO building as an adult. But then it was only a matter of time before it occurred to me to try building some scenes from the Bible out of LEGO. And while constructing the LEGO Garden of Eden and designing Adam, Eve, and God, I came to see that this could be just the novel sort of medium I’d been looking for to bring a wider knowledge of the Bible’s stories to people unready or unwilling to slog through “good book” itself.

Did you have a lot of LEGO as a kid, or did LEGO-deprivation drive you to desperate measures?

Even though I grew up fairly poor, I was lucky enough to have had a pretty good size LEGO collection. It was definitely my favorite toy, but I wouldn’t say I was a stand-out builder as a kid. Around the same time I went through the period of “preparing for adulthood” by questioning my beliefs, I also decided I better put away my childhood toys, so the LEGO got packed away in my parent’s basement for the next ten years. My girlfriend, on the other hand, was truly LEGO deprived in her childhood. She had three older brothers who were always given given LEGO as presents, but she was only ever given Barbie and was terribly jealous. So once we moved into our own place and had jobs, she and I started buying up a lot of LEGO on this new website called eBay. We bought many of the cool sets that I’d missed out on from the late 80s and 90s, as well as people’s old LEGO collections that they were no longer using.

How much LEGO do you have, anyway?

I’ve never stopped to count, but it’s a lot. It’s not as much as some other adult LEGO builders, and actually, a lot of people get the idea that my collection is bigger than it really is because they don’t realize that I am constantly dismantling things I just finished photographing so I can use the same bricks as the raw materials for the next set of stories. Best I can tell you, it’s about $15,000 worth of LEGO, and that it’s enough to cover the floor of my living room in bins of bricks.

How long does it take to make a chapter?

I’ve illustrated 363 Bible stories so far, and an average story is told using about 11 or 12 still photos. One story takes about a week to complete, start to finish, including reading and scripting, building characters and sets, photography, photo processing, and website building.

Who’s your favourite character, and why? Go on, we know you have one…

It may seem cliche, but I have to say my favorite Bible character is Yahweh himself. I don’t think I would have been nearly as inspired to create this project if it weren’t for the continuous outrageous and depraved actions of the Bible’s main character. Power-mad, belligerent, masochistic, petty, woefully insecure, extremely dangerous and unpredictable (and seemingly not too bright) Yahweh exhibits all the worst attributes of man. As such I can only really consider him a “favorite” character in the way a Star Wars fan might consider Darth Vader to be their favorite character. But if you were to stop and imagine if Darth or Yahweh were real and not just fictional, you might be more hesitant to think of them as “cool” for things like blowing up a planet of innocent civilians, or ordering genocides and torturing people to death.

trinity_new_large

Have you ever been contacted by the company that makes LEGO, and if so – what do they think of what you’re doing?

As it says on the website and my published books, the LEGO Company does not authorize, sponsor, or endorse The Brick Testament. You can probably understand why they want to keep a certain distance from themselves and an art project using their bricks that depicts so much violence and the occasional sex scene. So they’ve never given the Brick Testament any sort of official stamp of approval, but neither have they condemned it.

On a very unofficial level, I have heard from individuals who work for LEGO that they are fans of The Brick Testament, so that’s always nice to hear, but obviously they only speak for themselves.

We see you had to put up a page dealing with reproduction permissions. Do you know how many Sunday schools use your stuff? Does it make you giggle into your pillow at night?

Starting a couple of years ago I noticed I was getting more and more permission requests from churches to use material from The Brick Testament in their Sunday School lessons and sermons. Before long I was getting 1 or 2 requests per day from religious organizations around the world, but especially in the UK, Australia, and the United States. I had been responding to these requests personally until the point where I found it was taking up too much of my time, so then I set up a special page of the website to try to automate the permission process (which generally allows for free offline, non-commercial use so long as they tell me where their church is and give a brief description of their proposed use). Now I don’t have to deal directly with these requests, but I check in on them every so often, and for example, February 2008 saw 51 e-mail requests from churches around the world.

It was fairly surprising at first to have religious people and religious organizations react so positively to The Brick Testament, given that my own reaction to these Bible stories is almost always a strong reinforcing of my atheism, particularly concerning the God of the Bible. But then again, I do retell the stories very faithfully in the sense that this is exactly what you’ll find in the Bible itself if you read it yourself. I make no demand that other people come to the same conclusions I have about the Bible or religious beliefs in general, but I do think everyone is better off making those decisions from a standpoint of increased knowledge of the Bible’s contents, so the more this project reaches religious folks and finds a receptive audience, the better.

{Ed: an example of Moses enforcing the will of God}

moses

How are the book sales coming along? Do you plan to put out any more books?

It has been wonderful to have many stories from The Brick Testament website get published in the three hardcover Brick Testament books, and to see those books get published in seven different languages. The first book, Stories from the Book of Genesis, did very well and is, in fact, currently sold out with about 35,000 copies in print. My publisher just informed me today that they are likely to order another print run of that one. The second two books covering the Story of Christmas and the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments have not been selling quite as briskly, and so my publisher has been holding off on continuing the series for now. Personally, I tend to think that there’s a very large and receptive audience out there who simply have not been made aware of the books’ existence. But then, I’ve never been the best marketer, and I have generally relied on word-of-mouth for the website’s popularity.

We love your “thought balloons of God”. How tempting is it to put in stuff that is, shall we say, less than accurate? How do you resist that temptation, Reverend? We don’t know that we could…

I try to be very careful in how much I insert my own non-Biblical text into the illustrated Bible stories. I’ve worked very hard to maintain certain standards so that people can trust that what they see in The Brick Testament is the same as what they’d read in the Bible. So, for instance, you’ll never find anything other than direct Bible quotes (with chapter and verse always cited) below each illustration to show that it is exactly such-and-such a part of the Bible that the photo above is intended to illustrate.

That said, within the illustrations themselves, I’ve adopted the use of speech balloons like the ones found in comic books to show which character is speaking. And on occasion I will have a character speak (or think) a line that is not a direct bible quote. Often times this is done solely for the sake of clarification, such as when the Bible reads “And King David explained all this to his son.” Obviously King David is meant to be saying something, but his exact dialogue is left out, so I’ll do my best to add in what seems most appropriate for him to be saying in that circumstance. You are correct, though, that in addition to these entirely innocuous insertions, I will occasionally add a piece of dialogue or a thought balloon that functions more as an aside to the audience for a silly laugh, or to draw attention to a puzzling or often-overlooked aspect of the story, etc.

I do try to restrain myself from such additions because I don’t want The Brick Testament to function primarily (or even significantly) as a venue for my own commentary on these Bible stories. I wouldn’t want these asides to give readers the sense that I am changing the story from how it appears in The Bible. For the sake of transparency, any and all such non-Biblical lines are put in medium gray text instead of the usual black.

One of our readers would like to know how you get the non-standard faces on your LEGO figures. What do you use to draw so small?

One of the things that drew me back into LEGO building as an adult when I discovered that the LEGO figures were now being made with distinctive faces instead of the one single “smiley face” I had known throughout my youth. There were maybe 75 different faces when I got back into LEGO, but each year the number expanded, and there’s probably more than 300 unique face designs today.

Even with all that variety, many of the LEGO figures’ faces are useless to a Bible illustrator because they’ll have things like printed-on sunglasses, microphone headsets, or more bizarre sci-fi stuff. So I will occasionally modify an official LEGO face to make it better suited for my purposes, but this is almost always done by taking something away from the face rather than adding something to it. I’m just not a good enough artist to draw my own faces. But I am just handy enough with a hobby knife to carefully scrape off things like the giant white sideburns that adorn the official version of the LEGO face I chose to use for Yahweh.

But most of the character faces you see in The Brick Testament are unaltered official LEGO faces that were from some LEGO set that came out between 1995 and today. When new LEGO sets are released, the first thing I always look for is whether or not there are new faces that I might use for The Brick Testament. It’s expensive and time consuming to try to attain one of every new face that comes out, but I very much want to have the maximum amount of choice available when I create the characters for The Brick Testament, so I do what I can.

Do you ever feel any sympathy with God when their little LEGO faces just won’t go right? Have those uncooperative figures ever been smote, or flung across the room in a healthy, cleansing rage? We ask because we think they should be used to it by now.

legosurpriseAs mentioned above, I don’t do much in the way of drawing on the faces myself–about the only example I can think of is this: Back in 2001 when I was first starting, there really wasn’t any official LEGO face that expressed shock. So when Adam and Eve realized they were naked, and I wanted them to go from smiley-faced to shocked, I had to resort to drawing a Mr. Bill style round open mouth. It’s only been in the last year that LEGO has finally made a shocked face I might have chosen to use instead:

What are the responses to the Brick Testament like? Have you gotten any hate-mail?

I’ve received thousands of e-mail responses to The Brick Testament, and I’d say about 99% are positive, but once every month or two I’ll get a negative response. I’m not sure any would truly qualify as hate mail. The thing that 1% of responders tend to complain about most is that I depict the sex in the Bible.

It always comes as a bit of a shock to me that someone could browse through The Brick Testament and it’s endless string of depictions of the Bible’s most horrific and grotesque violence (including stabbings, stonings, immolations, flailings, decapitations, massacres, mutilations, drownings, and public torture) and not bat an eye or worry that such things might be harmful for children to view, but at their very first sight of “naked” LEGO figures in a sex pose they feel great moral outrage.

I suppose I should have gotten used to that by now, but I’m not, and I don’t know if I’ll ever understand that worldview regardless of how widespread it is.

Finally, we’ve heard a disgusting and scurrilous rumour that you’re not really a reverend, Reverend. If in some ungodly parallel universe this was actually true, what faith would you choose to bestow your capacity for reverend-ness upon?

I take the term “Reverend” in its literal sense, as denoting someone who is revered. As long as there are a few people out there who feel a smidgen of reverence toward me, I feel justified using the title. In my mind it’s as silly and self-aggrandizing a term as “His Majesty”. I certainly don’t think ministers and priests are any more justified in their use of the term than I am.

Interview: Leslie Zukor from the Freethought Books Project

This month Nexus is interviewing Leslie Zukor, the brain behind the Freethought Books Project, which provides free secular and freethought books to prisoners in the United States. Thanks go out to Leslie for agreeing to be interviewed!

leslieFirstly, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? What do you do when not collecting books for prisoners?

I have many interests. I am an avid Houston Astros fan, and I have been a devotee since grade school. Jeff Bagwell is a favorite of mine, so I collect his baseball cards and game used memorabilia. In addition to loving baseball, I can often be spotted taking pictures of Reed’s squirrel population. I love these eccentric critters, and I share that love with others through the medium of digital photography. Since I was nineteen, I have also had a passion for bringing speakers to open up people’s minds about various social issues. In my time as President of two disparate political clubs, I have brought speakers such as Daniel Dennett, the Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, Serrin Foster, the President of Feminists for Life of America, and Chris Mooney, the author of The Republican War on Science. I also love to collect autographed books, which I obtain at various lectures.

How did you get involved with freethought? Were you raised that way, or did you deconvert?

I was raised in the Reform Jewish tradition, had a Bat Mitzvah, and attended Sunday School until the 10th grade. In our classes, we didn’t learn about Bible stories; rather, we talked about current events as they affected Jewish identity. I will forever be thankful that I was not raised in the Orthodox tradition, as I never would have grappled with such important social issues. In my teenage years, I was a staunch conservative, but also in many ways a freethinker. I used to involve myself in Republican causes, but I found myself in constant disagreement with various parts of the GOP platform. Politics was frustrating, because people would turn the cold shoulder if you had an earnest disagreement with any part of their agenda. I yearned to be a part of a political movement where dissent was respected, and where people valued the fact that I didn’t entirely mesh with either party’s values. I didn’t totally become a freethinker until I was 18. Wondering why Bertrand Russell was the bete noir of conservatives, I decided to pick up a copy of Why I Am Not A Christian after my senior year in high school. The original purpose of my literary endeavor was to be able to better understand the other side. Even though I didn’t agree with Russell’s politics, his commentary on religion spoke to things I had deeply believed, even though I never had the words to express them. For some reason, when growing up I always thought the question was “What religion is the correct one?” rather than “Atheism is a viable alternative to the traditional faiths.”

So once you knew freethought was for you, what made you decide to become an activist?

Back in the fall of 2003, I went off to Wellesley College in the Boston-area. Even though I had semi-deconverted, I was still active in conservative causes. It was really my experience in the Wellesley Alliance for Life that led to my becoming a freethought activist. While the group was in theory non-discriminatory, it was obvious that you didn’t belong socially if you were not a Catholic. Because of my leadership role, I learned of ideas that were quite simply put “shocking.” Chief among these is the proscription against birth control. I wondered how the Catholic religion could say “No!” to birth control when it fervently opposed abortion. As a staunch pro-lifer, I didn’t understand why people wouldn’t want to lower the abortion rate by encouraging safer sex. Naturally puzzled, soon I found out; Roman Catholicism proscribed against birth control. On this issue – and several others, as I would later learn – the word of the Church was final. Simply put, no one was allowed to question the Pope. This was reflected in the many events that club leaders attended; pro-life gatherings felt more like Church services than strategy sessions on how to reduce the number of abortions. If all this sounds bad enough, what was worse was that Massachusetts state pro-life organizations behaved unethically, because they believed that their cause was god’s cause. In the words of one group’s lobbyist, “We are doing God’s work by saving babies!” As he admitted to me privately, the ends justify the means when it comes to pro-life tactics. In short, it was perfectly rational to transgress moral boundaries on behalf of the Lord’s justice. In sum, the more I became associated with these people, the more I was convinced that there was a dire need for freethought activism, that is, a voice on campus for people who came to their own conclusions via rational thought, not Papal orthodoxy.

Can you tell us a little bit about what the Freethought Books to Prisoners Drive actually does?

The Freethought Books Project promotes critical inquiry about religion primarily among the prison population, but also among mental hospitals and low-income individuals. Typically, we will receive a letter from a prisoner asking for freethinking literature, and we will fulfill it from our stock of books or on Amazon.com. Our goal is to let people know that there are other perspectives besides the fundamentalism that is all too often presented under the guise of addiction recovery programs. The Freethought Books Project runs because of the generous donations of many in the secular movement. Authors such as Michael Shermer, Paul Kurtz, and freethought organizatons such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Secular Student Alliance have been instrumental to the success of this project.

How did you come up with the idea?

I now attend Reed College in Portland, Oregon. In my first year at my new college, there was an a box outside the bookstore marked “Books to Prisoners.” However, the actual drive was quasi-defunct, and the only books that were ever in the box were tattered rejects, and one or two books if that. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could collect freethought books for prisoners?” I thought to myself one day, as I peered into the empty box. Furthermore, I believed that as human beings, prisoners deserved more than old hand-me-down books. A socially aware citizen, I was only too knowledgeable of the fact that the Bush administration pushes faith-based addiction recovery programs among the prison population. Not everybody was religious, I knew, and it really wasn’t fair to the inmates to only get one perspective. After all, there are many individuals for whom religion does not provide meaningful answers about how one should live. It was to help those individuals that the Freethought Books Project was begun.

Why do you think it is important?

Education and civic literacy are of preeminent importance among the prison population. All too often, inmates are only presented with the Christian side of current issues in the “culture wars” of the 21st century. This is unfortunate, as not everyone shares the same beliefs and not everyone will be inspired by the same literature. As a result of the one-sided environment faced by many prisoners today, providing alternative views is a must. Furthermore, it is surprising how much people underestimate the transformational nature of inspiring titles. Since I have been invigorated by freethought literature, it is likely that the same books I have read will have a similar affect on at least some inmates. And such is my goal with the Freethought Books Project.

How did you get started? I wouldn’t know where to begin…

First of all, I needed to find out if there was support for getting freethinking literature in to prisoners and prison libraries. Thus, I wrote to prison-donating organizations across the country, mainly to see if they would be receptive to freethinking literature. I got many affirmative answers, so I knew there was support for our project. Then, I solicited donations from Reed Secular Alliance club members, as well as local freethinking organizations and people on the Internet Infidels Discussion Board (IIDB). It was through a private message from author David Mills that this project really took off. Mills, the author of Atheist Universe, told me to ask some authors he knew to donate books, and all those whom I contacted contributed multiple copies of their works. At that point, I took Mills’s advice a step further. I thought that if these authors were so generous, then why not ask others in the freethought movement to donate books. Thus, I wrote to several authors and had a 90% success rate in the first year of my project. Among the highlights of our collection are Dan Barker’s Losing Faith in Faith, Michael Shermer’s How We Believe, and Prometheus-donated The Reason Driven Life. After we had given to a number of prison-donating organizations and there was an awareness of our project, soon enough did we get requests from prisoners themselves looking for freethought literature.

Did you have any experience working for charities, or was it a case of sink or swim?

Honestly, I jumped into the deep end on this one! Although I have volunteered my time to several causes, I had never assumed a leadership role on a service project. Thus, developing the Freethought Books Project was a matter of trial and error. To begin with, I had no idea about where to solicit donations. Until David Mills contacted me, I had never even thought to write to freethinking authors. The one thing I should stress is although I had never done this before, I was devoted to the trial portion of trial and error. I made my project known through posting on several message boards, I solicited contributions from club members, and I asked freethinking organizations in the Portland-area. In short, I wasn’t afraid to fail, even when I received skeptical responses on message boards.

What reactions have you gotten? Has any of it been negative?

The overwhelming majority of prisoner letters have been positive. Here is a sampling of the gratitude we receive on a semi-weekly basis:

“This sounds too good to be true….Material such as this is hard to find in prison, where everyone is a supposed Holy Roller.” -Raymond

“Thank you so much for the books & magazines. Several of my like-minded friends & I are really enjoying them.” -Adam

“There are no appropriate words to approximate the appreciation you so aptly deserve. The constant inculcation of the Christian myth is a vexation that cannot easily be overcome.” -Brian

“Dear Leslie,

I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to receive your kind package containing a number of freethought books. It is also important for you to know how extremely valuable your service is to people in my situation, for currently you represent the only source of distribution for such material. And for that you deserve much praise. You most certainly have found a gaping niche and are filling it admirably.

As a point of amusement you will no doubt be interested to learn that when I was called to the mail-room to take delivery of the above, the officer, upon examining some of the titles, immediately sought the chaplain’s opinion. And, although the look of disdain on his face spoke volumes, he nevertheless was obligated to allow me possession of the entire parcel. He now ignores me in the hallways!

I sincerely hope that you will continue to provide assistance to folks such as myself for many years to come, for I am keenly aware of its significance. Therefore, here’s wishing you much further success. And again, thank you for your kindness, generosity, and prompt attention to my letter.

Be well!

Ben.”

We have only gotten one negative letter. This prisoner made a donation to the Secular Student Alliance, so the group’s Executive Director, August Brunsman, suggested that I send some books his way. He responded that he did not need to be a “parasite” on the freethought movement, and that he didn’t want any more secular books. Luckily, letters like his have been an aberration.

If the people reading this would like to help you (maybe by donating books to your organisation) how would they go about doing that?

http://www.freethoughtbooks.org has all the information you would need to donate to this worthy freethought cause.

Would you recommend other freethinkers get involved in some sort of activism? What has it done for you, and what has been the best thing about it?

I would definitely recommend that other freethinkers get involved with activism. It is one thing to hold firmly to your convictions; it is quite another to take a stand for ideas in which you believe. I would especially recommend service work. Not only does it promote a positive image of freethinkers, it allows one to be creative in terms of seeing a problem and expending resources to remedy it. It is the greatest feeling in the world to have an idea and then to see it in action, and to be helping individuals at the same time.

Finally [the stock question, thanks due to Pavlov’s Dog], why do you want to make baby Jesus cry?

Never has the goal been to make Baby Jesus cry. If prisoners want to read Christian literature, then I have no problems with that, so long as the taxpayers aren’t in any way subsidizing a particular religion. However, from the testimonies of individual prisoners, I know that the secular perspective is all too often ignored. That’s what the Freethought Books Project seeks to remedy.