Are Atheists Fully Human?

Not according to Cardinal Cormack Murphy-O’Connor, recently speaking on BBC radio. Apparently a transcendent relationship with God is an essential part of the human experience, and one without which an individual cannot be fully human.

No word yet on whether the good Cardinal also finds sexuality an essential part of the human condition. One hopes, for the sake of local altar boys, that he is celibate – as indeed the Catholic Church demands he should be. Does he consider that this makes him less than human also, I wonder? I expect the Cardinal would reply that just because he can do something doesn’t mean that he should, or that he simply must.

So how does his abstention from one essential part of human experience somehow make him any more completely human than those who choose to abstain from a different (and much less necessary) part?

Answer: it doesn’t.

NYT: Nontheism Rising

The New York Times has published one of those feel-good stories today. At least, it makes me feel good: More Atheists Shout It From the Rooftops.

More than ever, America’s atheists are linking up and speaking out — even here in South Carolina, home to Bob Jones University, blue laws and a legislature that last year unanimously approved a Christian license plate embossed with a cross, a stained glass window and the words “I Believe” (a move blocked by a judge and now headed for trial).

They are connecting on the Internet, holding meet-ups in bars, advertising on billboards and buses, volunteering at food pantries and picking up roadside trash, earning atheist groups recognition on adopt-a-highway signs.

Of course, those of us within the community have seen this sort of growth for some time now. It is nice to see a mainstream media source like the Times acknowledging it, though.

Kiwis becoming less religious

A recent study by Massey University has shown a sharp rise in the number of New Zealanders without religious affiliation. 40% of Kiwis choose not to be religious, up from 29% when a similar study was performed 17 years ago.

The study also showed that just over half (53%) of those surveyed said that they believed in God, although half of those had doubts. Just over a third of the respondents claimed to be religious.

“The study shows that God is not dead, but religion may be dying,” says Professor Grendall, who headed the project. With no change in those who believe in a “higher power” rather than a specific god (at 20%), Grendall believes that “…perhaps the apparent decline in religiosity reflects a decline in traditional religious loyalties – rather than a decline in spirituality as such.”

This tracks with the most recent census results, with 29.6% claiming no religion in the 2001 census – a figure that rose to 34.7% just five years later in the 2006 census. This rapid rise in the numbers of non-religious is likely to be age-related. Only 11.8% of those over 65 recorded no religion in 2006, while 43% of children (aged 0-14) claimed the same status.

Massey news item here.

Can your country beat these statistics? Comment below…

The Auto-Pygmalion – by Eva Jones

The Auto-Pygmalion and the Christmas Creation

Last night I went with Greg to see his little niece in a Christmas play – secretly, I expect, he is hoping to show me how the wonder of the Christmas message, performed by the pretty children he would like us to one day have ourselves. The niece’s overdone joy at seeing me and the look that passed between Greg and his sister indicated a family plot.

I enjoyed the play, as much as one can when one can’t claim ownership of one of the performers, but the sister was not best pleased. The niece was playing Mary, and admittedly, she did look very lovely – at least until the fight between her and the child playing Joseph over who got to hold the baby when the Wise Men came to look at it. There was shrieking, over-excitement, and a beheading as the doll was smashed repeatedly into the ground until its head came off, to general wailing.

I loved every minute of it.

But apart from the humorous side of things, what struck me was that part of the reason I loved it was the change of story. Without meaning to, I’m sure, and to the dismay of the parent-teacher association, those children recreated the Christmas story their own way. It was still a story, just not the expected story.

What is it about Christmas that inspires creation? Not just in disastrous plays, but in decorations, music, art… Whether you believe in the religion behind it (I don’t) the mythology behind the birth of Christ has transformed into a yearly festival of story. Some call it the greatest story ever told (I don’t). And that story is essentially an act of creation, isn’t it?

451px-annunciationBut where is the human element in this creation? Did Mary contribute DNA, or was she merely an incubator? If the last, is there really any human part to the basis of this creation story at all? Where in the story do we fit?

If humanity has no part in this creation, the same cannot be said for the aftermath. Even if we believe that the story was divinely rather than humanly created we can still respond to it – elaborate upon it, mimic it, update it. To make it more our own? Is that why there is a tendency to alter it, to massage the imagined scene into something we can more easily relate to – something closer to us in the time-space of our imaginations?

There is no specific day in the Christian calendar for celebrating the act of Creation, where God supposedly thought to himself “Right, today is the day. Let’s start on the creation of light. Now what did I do with those photons?” In that sense, the celebration of that belief seems to have found an underlying place in the birth of Christ. The whole of nature responds to it – or so we imagine. Even the stars in the sky are not immune.

And neither am I. It’s a pretty story, and I respond to some aspects of it – most especially the old Christmas carols. But it’s the substitution of celebration that interests me most. The Auto-Pygmalion is interested in the question of creation; how can she not be? Not so much the question of outer world creation, as that is explainable by modern science, but the question of the creation of the inner world.

As a species we create, and as broad groups of cultures there are focal points for our creation. One of these focal points is mythology. We respond to traditional, scripted stories that speak to us in a mythological way, but we respond especially well when we can take part in them, recreate the original story. In a culture descended from the Christian mythic interpretation of world events, we instinctively recognise the story of creation. Perhaps that is why singing Christmas carols is so popular – even if we do not believe, it allows us to take part in the story, recognising it as a story. You do not have to believe in Christ to appreciate Come All Ye Faithful, just as you do not have to believe in flying, fire-breathing reptiles to sing along to Puff the Magic Dragon. But by doing so, non-believers can take part in a story that is not our own, and by taking part make it our own.

Ironically, is this not what Mary did? She gave birth to Christ, brought the story of Christ into the world. But according to the mythology, she did not create him – Jesus was planted in her womb by God. Mary did not create the story, she was merely the page it was written on. But no doubt she felt he was partly her own, and her interpretations of his actions and words and story would have been influenced by the lens of motherhood.

nativity_smallSo when I think of Christmas, it is primarily Mary that I think of. You don’t always have a choice with stories – sometimes you get caught up in them all unwilling. One can’t honestly say that Mary chose to become pregnant by a supernatural power – the poor girl had little choice in the matter. The story steam-rolled over her in an act of creation in which she had no part.

As an artist it is this aspect of Christmas, and of Mary, that does not sit well with me. Who would want to be at the mercy of a story like that? I’ve said it before, and will say it again: the only stories you can trust are your own, the stories you create by will rather than reaction.

But when push comes to shove, if will is better than reaction, reaction is better than nothing. Better to have some control, some presence, some creativity within the story than none at all. Perhaps that is the reason that celebrating Christmas has caught on so over the millennia, whether the people who celebrate the story believe in its veracity or not.

And perhaps that is why Greg’s niece, not half an hour after her play ended in the most wonderful shambles, was able to say, in pleased satisfaction: “We did do well, didn’t we?”

Yes. Yes you did.

Read more of Eva’s posts at her blog.

The Invisible Atheist – by Garnet

This month Nexus would like to welcome a new columnist. Garnet’s focus will be how she finds life as an atheist – an invisible member of society. Welcome, Garnet!

Some time ago, on a forum that shall not be named, I had a short-lived blog titled “The Invisible Atheist.” A friend asked me why I selected that title. Well, part of it comes from my experience in being actively shunned once in my life. When I left the last church I regularly attended, everyone, even people I had thought were my friends, shunned me. This is highly irregular behavior for a Southern Baptist church, by the way. What I didn’t know is that the church I attended wasn’t part of the Southern Baptist convention. I didn’t know this until a few years later. But, I digress. While I had not yet become an atheist, it certainly reinforced feelings I had experienced for most of my life of being on the outside looking in and of being an outcast.

All my life, from time to time, I’ve felt as if I was invisible. There are times when I can slip through rooms full of people and never rate a look, let alone have someone attempt to engage me in conversation. There are times when I can be in a store waiting for service and none of the staff will “see” me and they will go to help everyone else instead. I can’t tell you how many times in my life I’ve heard the phrase, “Oh, I didn’t see you there.” I think that I am a bit of a chameleon and that when I’m in certain moods, I just blend into the background.

It’s an oddity about me. Most times, I’m a highly visible outgoing person. I’m a business analyst, so I spend a lot of time conducting presentations and meetings and work sessions. I have no problems speaking to groups of people both small and large. Some of the work I’ve done in the past has required that I not only deal with groups of people, but also with fairly intense one-on-one conversations.

But then, the mood strikes and I begin to feel like the outsider, the leper, the one who is outcast and unclean. It’s as if I slip into a cloak that hides me and I move through places and right by people without being noticed at all. I often feel this way when I’m around my family these days. It’s as if we don’t have anything in common anymore and it’s my fault because I moved away, I’ve stayed away and I’m different.

It’s also a feeling I experience the most as a direct result of my atheism. It’s often manifested when I’ve interacted with certain believers and no matter what I say or how I say it, they keep returning to the falsehoods they’ve been taught about atheists. They joust with straw men instead of engaging in conversation with me. It’s as if my answers to questions are invisible and meaningless. There’s a feeling I get from some Christians that atheists should just shut up and slink away. We are bothersome, evil and the good folk would just rather not deal with us at all, thank you very much.

I think the main reason that I titled the blog the Invisible Atheist is that outside of bulletin boards I rarely discuss my beliefs. I tend to disengage from workplace and social conversations about religious beliefs. In real life, I only discuss beliefs with people whom I know and trust. That means that in essence, I’m an invisible atheist in a veritable sea of believers.