Friday, August 24, 2012

Book Review: Atheist Voices of Minnesota

Nearly a year after I initially submitted my essay, the book Atheist Voices of Minnesota will finally appear on store shelves nationwide. The electronic version is already available in various formats, so if you prefer that medium you can follow the link above, but for those of you who prefer a physical object you can show off to all your friends or have signed by one or more of the authors, the long wait will be over on Tuesday*. A few weeks ago I attended a special gathering for everyone who had contributed an essay or helped in some other aspect of the book's production, and there picked up a few copies for my own use. Though I knew some of the other authors, up until that point I had not read any of the other essays that appear in the book. But now that I've had the chance to absorb the entire collection I imagine you'll be wanting my take on it all, even though as an author I can hardly be considered unbiased.

The first thing you should know is that this is not a parade of arguments about why it is highly unlikely that any of the various divine beings thought up by humans over the past few thousand years actually exist. Nor will you find arguments about why the many forms of organized religions are harmful to individuals and society. There are plenty of great books that already do that, such as The God Delusion and God is Not Great. So if you want to bolster your atheist convictions I highly recommend you read those. The purpose behind Atheist Voices of Minnesota is altogether different and is twofold: First, it aims to showcase the wide variety of atheist perspectives and how they inform the way each individual atheist lives his or her life, and second, that amidst this diversity there are many common struggles that atheists often face, most of which stem from having to live in a larger society where the great majority is either ignorant of your views or actively hostile toward them, and where the default assumption is that a person is religious.

The book fulfills this purpose remarkably well, and while I must admit that not all of the essays are Pulitzer-worthy explorations of the human condition, many of them (including mine, I hope) will stick with you long after you read them and contain moving accounts of dealing with life's big questions and issues. Birth, death, gender identity, substance abuse, parenting, work, family conflict, diet, marriage, culture shock, and childhood trauma are all covered in one or more of the essays. Many of them also contain some kind of coming out story (there is a whole section devoted to this) or a narrative of how the author came to embrace the atheist perspective. In reading them you will find honesty, humor, frustration, joy, confusion, sadness, determination, and wonder, but one thing you will not find is despair.

If this book does anything, it is to convincingly dispel the myth perpetuated by many of the religious that atheists live without hope and are morally bankrupt. While none of us featured in the book could be called complete paragons of virtue, all of us are trying as best we can to live decent, ethical lives, and consider courses of action based on how they will potentially affect other people and the environment, not on whether they conform to arbitrary standards from a book written long ago by people with no knowledge of modern life. And while we have all experienced pain and grief and anguish, we continue to have hope for the future and each in our own way work toward making this world a better place for ourselves and those who follow us.

So if you are an atheist, you need to read this book to hear the stories of your fellow atheists in their own words and know that it is possible to have a happy, meaningful, openly atheist life, even if it is in a society that often expresses contempt at the fact of your very existence. And if you are a religious person, you need to read this book to confirm whether or not all of those things you have heard about atheists from your clergy and fellow believers actually hold water. But whatever your stance in life, you will come away from Atheist Voices of Minnesota with a better understanding of who atheists really are and the convictions that shape our lives, and realize that if we pose a threat to anyone's beliefs, it is only because those beliefs pose a bigger threat to us and to society and thus need to be challenged.

This book was not created to change minds (although if it does, more power to you), but to show the rest of the world that atheists are not just isolated individuals hurling rhetorical fireballs at religion from their perches in the ivory tower, liberal media, Hollywood studio, or other supposed bastion of secularism. We are in your community, working jobs across all fields, on every rung of the social and economic ladder. We celebrate, grieve, question, laugh, suffer, love, and live. We are your neighbors, classmates, co-workers, sisters, brothers, spouses, and (though you may not know it) friends. We are here, we are sincere, get used it.

 *All of the profits from sales of the book are being donated to Minnesota Atheists, a 501(c)3 organization, and none of the authors are receiving any financial benefit from appearing in it.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Shadow of the Past

Today is the 150th anniversary of the start of the conflict now known as the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. While there was certainly involvement by federal troops and officials, the conflict was fought almost entirely within the borders of the four-year-old state of Minnesota, and most of the combatants on either side had lived there for at least a few years. In one sense, the conflict was simply among the more bloody episodes in a systematic, decades-long campaign of forced relocation, material and cultural deprivation, and at times outright genocide perpetrated by the United States against the American continent's first settlers. But it was also unique in many ways, most memorably in the number of civilians, of both native and European heritage, who were killed, and it's scars remain among their descendants to this day. In its aftermath, the city of Mankato witnessed what is still the largest mass execution ever conducted on U.S. soil, where 38 Dakota men were hanged for their roles in the conflict, and in the years afterward the tribe was driven almost entirely from Minnesota.

My own ancestors did not arrive in the state for another generation, but they benefited from the conflict because, at least on my mother's side, they were able to farm land that had once been Dakota. And in a larger sense anyone who is a citizen of the United States has also benefited because the territory we occupy and the resources we use came at the expense of the prior inhabitants who were killed or driven out. Of course those prior inhabitants were no saints, often fought among themselves before and after the Europeans arrived, and were not so great stewards of the environment as modern myth would have us believe, but their suffering was (and in many places still is) real, and their anger is just.

While the atrocities of the conflict cannot be undone, they should be remembered and recounted in a way that makes sure everyone's story is told and that recognizes that the actions of the Dakota were a response to years of ill treatment by the federal government and the territorial and state governments of Minnesota. So wherever you are this weekend, take some time out to reflect that while our country was founded on some noble ideas, it was also created through a whole lot of theft and murder.

A proclamation from Governor Dayton on the anniversary:

A PBS documentary on the conflict (which was really my first exposure to it when it aired nearly 20years ago): The Dakota Conflict

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Coincidence on an anniversary

Later today I will be going to a nice little soiree for the authors of the essays featured in the soon to be released book Atheist Voices of Minnesota (you've already pre-ordered your copy, right?). I am looking forward to meeting the other contributors to this greatly anticipated anthology and to reading the other essays. It is an interesting coincidence that this event occurs today, since I consider August 4th to be the anniversary of my own deconversion, way back in 1994. While, as my piece in the book describes, my leaving Christianity was more of a gradual disassociation as I discovered more and more about it that I could no longer square with my growing understanding of both science and ethics, as opposed to a clean and sudden break, I recognize today because it was when I realized that not only was Christianity not for me, but that all religions, as products of historical contingency and purely sociological forces rather than having any grounding in physical reality, suffered from its same flaws.

Though the book will officially be available in stores on August 28th, you can buy a copy early next weekend at the Regional Atheist Conference in "Mr. Paul". And if any tickets are left, come with us to the 'Aints game this coming Friday.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Five years ago today...

I was riding the light rail to my then girlfriend (now wife) Katie's apartment after work and saw a long line of emergency vehicles near the Metrodome. When I arrived there the news that the 35W bridge over the Mississippi had collapsed was already on every media outlet and I sat dumbstruck that such a horrific event could happen so close to where I lived. At the time it seemed to be a metaphor for everything that going wrong at both the state and national level, as GOP politicians twiddled their thumbs while the country was literally crumbling. I hope then that it would be the wake-up call the public needed to finally remember that investment in infrastructure is essential to maintain a well-functioning economy, but so far the level of commitment necessary to make any meaningful dent in the number of bridges and miles of roads in desperate need of repair or replacement has not yet materialized. Some folks get it, and there has been no lack of effort to create and pass the legislation to authorize funding for all of the projects that are waiting to be done, but unfortunately we are still being held hostage by that small slice of people who will do anything to avoid having to pay their fair share of the upkeep for this project we call civilization, but nonetheless continue to profit massively off of a system that they have rigged in their favor.

In Minnesota I am hopeful that the current electoral cycle will bring in a crop of legislators who understand that the provision of infrastructure is one of government's primary responsibilities and will raise the revenue necessary to make it happen. Nationally, I am not so sure, which is a shame because last I checked interest rates remain at historic lows, so it is the perfect time to finance projects that will reap benefits for a generation. Not only would the economy suffer less loss from delays and inefficiencies in the transport of goods and people, but all of the people hired to work on the projects would have some money to spend for a change, and that can't be bad for the economy, can it? At this point anyone with an R in front of their name has their fingers in their ears to prevent any such heresy from penetrating their thick skulls since, as Upton Sinclair once said, it is difficult to get somebody to believe something when their paycheck (in this case, campaign contributions from the .01%) depends on them not believing it. Just one more reason why in the short term we need to use the system that exists to remove the people blocking meaningful action by their kowtowing to the wealthy few, and then reform that system to ensure that the paralysis that is currently its defining characteristic never plagues us again.

I didn't know anyone who was injured or killed in the collapse, and that number was thankfully much lower than it could have been. But we owe it to them to make sure we don't have any bridges that fall down again.