Why S.E. Cupp gets it wrong

I’ve known for a while that conservative commentator S.E. Cupp is an atheist.  While S.E. is not shy about admitting she does not believe in God, she’s not exactly advertising it either.  It is more or less just another fact about her.  And, to a large extent, I think that attitude is very good; being an atheist should be no more remarkable than any other personal belief.  We all need to strive for a society in which people are judged by character and actions, not supernatural beliefs or lack thereof.

But then I came across this article on The Blaze a couple weeks ago, and it got me thinking about S.E. as she relates to the secular community at large.  Atheists and agnostics are always looking for notable examples of respected folks who do not believe in a deity.  Not because we need to prove to ourselves that we are good people (we, for the most part, are).  But for every famous person who comes out as a non-believer, it becomes more and more “normal” and unremarkable.  Just think of how coming out as gay has become less of a scandal each time.  The first ones were immensely brave; now the reaction generally goes from “meh” to “he’s just seeking attention.”

So how does S.E. play into all of this, when she plainly admits that she would not support an atheist President? Well, one line in particular bothered me greatly:

“The other part of it — I like that there is a check, OK? That there‘s a person in the office that doesn’t think he’s bigger than the state,” she continued. “I like religion being a check and knowing that my president goes home every night addressing someone above him and not thinking all the power resides right here… Atheists don’t have that.”

This to me shows a deep, tragic misunderstanding of what it means to be an atheist.  It plays into a common misconception that atheists believe in nothing besides themselves.  It is this false belief that leads many believers to treat atheists like immoral, hedonistic animals with no moral compass.  It’s perhaps the most damaging stereotype out there, and it irks me immensely that S.E. seems to be endorsing it.

The large majority of atheists believe in being decent, moral, ethical people.  Why?  Not because some book or spirit tells us to, but because we choose to.  We realize that this life is all we have and that the golden rule is a pretty darn good idea to live by.  Are there atheists who are awful people?  Of course.  But – and this cannot be hammered enough – there is NO reason to believe that believing in a supernatural deity of some kind makes you a better person.  Inasmuch as it does, it is based on a risk-reward system that says good folks go to heaven and bad folks burn in Hell.

And while I’m not one to question one’s personal beliefs, I’ll admit that the last part of it makes me wonder if S.E. is really comfortable in her own skin.  She does not believe in God, yet believes that a President somehow gains wisdom from a being that does not exist.  She believes that as an atheist she lacks this and that that makes her and fellow non-believers unfit for office.  I can’t pass judgment on whether her atheism is genuine, but she seems to have not arrived at a point yet where she is totally comfortable.  Though, in her defense, this is hard when she operates in a political world where religiosity is assumed.

Furthermore, S.E. also drops this line which is almost as bothersome:

“Because I do not think that someone who represents 5 to 10 percent of the population should be representing and thinking that everyone else in the world is crazy, but me.”

That’s just malarkey, S.E.  Sorry, it just is.  It is nonsense to say that an atheist cannot represent the rest of America.  Again, are there atheists who think all religious folks are crazy?  Sure.  But as myself and S.E. both demonstrate ably, there are plenty who, while not believing in God or an afterlife, still respect religious folks.  In fact, I’ll bet there are atheist/agnostic leaders right now that you don’t even know about, because they are able to judge and rule fairly.  It certainly seems to me that religious folks have done far more damage to individual liberty that atheists could ever hope to, so I’m not sure where the idea comes from that they are better moral actors.

I believe in a strictly secular government that allows for free expression of religion.  Since I do not subscribe to any sect, nor to a consider myself part of “organized irreligion,” I believe I may in fact be MORE able to make policy decisions that are pluralistic and tolerant.  An atheist who understands the worth of religion and who believes in personal liberty is uniquely situated to make unbiased judgments.  And this is why it scares some people who want to move closer to theocracy.  Now, I’m not suited for office for other reasons, but I firmly believe that there are many atheists who have the temperament to do so.  Regardless, the underlying point is this – it is wrong for anyone, religious or not, to say they will not vote for someone based on personal faith or lack thereof.

I respect S.E. and believe she can do immense good for increasing tolerance and acceptance of atheism.  But she does us no favors whatsoever by endorsing false stereotypes.  We have every right, and in fact DUTY, to express our beliefs as plainly and openly as religious folks do.  So here is what I’d say if I could address S.E. – be yourself, don’t be ashamed of your beliefs, and don’t accept false ideas just to get along.  There are people who will hate you for your non-faith.  Don’t give them quarter – they are wrong, and we can prove it to them.  Above all, stay strong, my fellow non-believer, and keep fighting.

My Year 2012 In Music – Mid-Year Edition

Last December, I did a post that I was very excited about doing – a post about music.  I’d say I purchase quite a bit of it.  Some I’ll listen to once or twice; but others I’ll have on repeat for weeks.  The following is a listing of great albums I’ve purchased this year, complete with Amazon links and, if available, a YouTube link to one of my favorite tracks.  The list is in no particular order.

1. Hospitality – Hospitality

This is a great new indie-pop band that just released their first album, the self-titled Hospitality.  And I’d say they are off to a good start.  The album is a nice collection of fun, catchy tunes.  You’ll definitely dig this album if you’re into bands like Camera Obscura, Belle & Sebastian, etc.  The track that stuck out to me was “The Birthday”.

2. Allo Darlin – Europe

It’s hard to describe Allo Darlin without sounding cheesy.  Their songs are utterly infectious tales of love and happy times.  I’m not exaggerating when I say this band will raise the spirits of all but the most jaded listener.  Their second album expands and grows their sound, refining it while still being insanely fun and sweet.  Your sample track is “The Letter”.

3. Trampled By Turtles – Stars & Satellites

Bluegrass is simply one of my favorite forms of music.  It’s hard to match the energy it can provide.  There are many great bands out there today, but this album by the group Trampled By Turtles has provided me with many enjoyable listens.  The whole thing is good, but your sample track is “Alone”.

4. Tennis – Young & Old

Tennis is a bit of an oddity.  It sounds like something straight out the 50’s and 60’s, but yet fresh.  They are powered by the husband-wife duo of Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley.  Alaina’s vocals are consistently strong and sweet, and the songs consist of great little pop tunes, all under 4 minutes long.  Great summer listen. Sample song is “Origins”.

5. Of Monsters and Men – My Head is an Animal

This is an awesome new folk/chamber pop band out of Iceland.  They are already starting to get attention, and I honestly think they could be huge.  Their songs are layered, catchy and often beautiful.  My favorite is called “Sloom”:

6. Sara Watkins – Sun Midnight Sun

Sara Watkins produces a nice blend of country, bluegrass, and indie pop.  I couldn’t find it on YouTube but the song I keep coming back to is “Lock and Key”.

7. Regina Spektor – What We Saw From The Cheap Seats

Ah, Regina.  She’s settled into her own niche of super-quirky pop that her fans, myself included, can’t get enough of.  He latest is another great collection of songs.  It’s better than Far, not quite as good as Begin To Hope.  Standout tracks include “How” and “Firewood” but the whole thing is worth a listen.  Here is the aforementioned “How”:

8. Okkervil River – I Am Very Far

Finally, a bit of indie rock.  Okkervil River makes me think of Wilco with some My Morning Jacket.  Very good stuff.  Favorite tune is “Piratess”:

And that about does it.  There’s plenty of other stuff out there that I’m sure I missed.  Feel free to suggest things you think I’d like… I love to find new stuff!

Why Americans are moving pro-gay marriage, but also pro-life

When talking about so-called “social issues” in politics, the subjects of same-sex marriage and abortion are very frequently mentioned in the same breath.  The assumption goes like this – if someone is on the conservative side, that person will both favor banning gay marriage and banning abortion; if that person is on the liberal side, he will support gay marriage and abortion rights.  However, in reality there is no fundamental reason that the subjects need to be linked.  It is entirely possible, and in fact quite common, for someone to be okay with gays marrying but find abortion to be objectionable.

And in fact, the polls show this to be the exact direction that Americans are moving.  Most people now favor gay marriage rights, and the amount of Americans calling themselves “pro-choice” has shrunk while “pro-life” has gained share.  This fact should not be the least bit surprising to anyone who understands the issues at hand.  Gay marriage will naturally become more popular because it is a message of inclusion; the arguments against it are weak and becoming weaker as more people realize it will not hurt them in any way.  And as for abortion, improved medical imaging, the survival of fetuses at increasingly earlier stages, and wider acceptance of contraception has rendered abortion less necessary and more morally questionable.

Yet it seems that in our mainstream politics, we are still largely defined by the idea that you must take a certain position on each issue based on your political side.  It’s part of our idiotic political culture that demands absolute fealty to one party’s positions and spits upon those who find themselves in between.  If a Republican finds himself supporting gay rights or anything other than the extreme, terrifying pro-life stance of Santorum and Bachmann, he is excoriated and called a “RINO”.  If a Democrat favors anything but totally unrestricted abortion, he is called anti-woman.  As a country we suffer from the ridiculous idea that people fit nicely into one of two camps, and those that don’t like either camp that much are thrown to the wild.

Instead, what we need to adopt are reasonable stances on both abortion and gay marriage.  Republicans and conservatives need to understand two things, lest they be thrown to the dustbin of history.

First, that abortion is going to be legal to some degree, likely for a very long time.  I realize that this is hard to accept, but it’s reality.  However, the pro-life argument is very strong and gaining ground.  Conservatives should not shy away from this.  The argument that unborn life is worth something is compelling and rational.  The huge mistake to make is to push too hard, and go too far, to such an extent that regular folks are repulsed.  Mandatory ultrasound laws (including those requiring invasive probes) are a disgrace, as are vague, poorly realized “personhood” laws.  The goal posts are moving – but they need to be moved slowly.

Second, that gay marriage is inevitable, and that arguments against it are becoming increasingly weak.  It was already incredibly hard to convince someone that their hetero marriage was “threatened” by Bob and Steve down the street being married.  So anti gay marriage rhetoric has increasingly become reduced to playing on people being uncomfortable with homosexuality and disgusting fear mongering about people being able to marry their dogs.  Ideally, the state should get out of  marriage totally; but if it is in the business, it must treat all parties equally.  One’s personal discomfort with gay sex has literally NOTHING to do with what public policy should be.

This is the direction that most Americans are moving.  It makes sense as the younger generations become more at ease with gay people and abortion becomes more seen as something to be avoided.  A smart leader understands these trends and steps ahead of them instead of lagging behind and playing to the worst of us.  The American public is increasingly growing tired of the games being played.  It’s time for us to act like adults and make the case for our positions.

The parsimony of hate

It is often said that love and hate are just two sides of the same coin.  Both are intense emotions that can cause people to react in wholly irrational ways.  Both twist our viewpoints and our perception of others.  And both can be utterly exhausting and draining.  The difference is that while love carries with it the possibility of great reward, hatred offers no such satisfaction.  It makes us wish ill on others; it destroys our compassion and our humanity.

Which is why the field of politics is often so frustrating to those of us who don’t swim in its murky waters everyday.  While I’m a long-time observer I am, by choice, limited in my role as a belligerent for any side other than that of liberty for myself and my fellow man.  There was a time when I drank from the kool-aid bowl that is conservative politics; I was a daily consumer of Rush, Beck, and Hannity.  I was daily instructed that liberals were anti-American and evil.  It made me feel like I was one of the Good Guys fighting to protect America.

But after a time, I began to see what was going on.  It finally took the election of Obama to make it all clear.  Feelings and opinions on both the left and the right switched overnight.  The left quickly became pro-war and didn’t give a wit about civil liberties.  The right became unhinged with disgusting conspiracy theories, aspersions about Obama’s religion, and opposition to his policies even when they mirrored those of his predecessor.  Government spending, which ballooned to gargantuan levels under Bush, suddenly became a national emergency.  It was clear that the right had its very own version of derangement, and it repulsed me.

Yet when one dips one’s toes into the political waters daily, it is still possible to become inured to the ugliness that often pervades that world.  Sometimes, though, there comes an event that brings out the worst in people.  Such an event happened yesterday with the sudden, tragic death of conservative icon Andrew Breitbart.  Now, to be entirely frank, I did not like this man and found his methods often very objectionable.  But he was by no accounts an evil man.  He did what he did because he felt it best for his country.  And above all, he was a friend, a husband, and a father.

One glance at much of the left-leaning world, though, and you’d think we was literally flying a blimp over the nation spraying toxic gas on innocent citizens.  The Twitter world was flooded with liberal-leaning folks openly celebrating his death.  Even supposedly “respectable” sites and magazines reacted to Brietbart’s death with glee.  After all, who cares if he left a wife, four children and countless friends?  He was on the other side!  He worked for the other team!

Of course, if one is honest, the right would react the same way were it a liberal icon like Michael Moore.  One only has to look at the comments of Rush Limbaugh this week towards a “feminazi” he disagreed with, calling her a “slut” and a “prostitute”.  Those are nasty words to use for any woman, let alone one whose only crime is differing in politics.  And it’s hardly out of the ordinary.  This kind of language is used every day on both sides, usually against people that the speaker doesn’t even know.  Merely disagreeing is warrant to judge the person’s morality and worth.

And the emotion that strikes me the most when I see hate on both sides towards political opponents?  Deep sadness.  I am sad for my country that we’ve been told to hate those who disagree.  I am sad for my friends who have come to believe that liberals/conservatives are literally bad people who want to cause harm.  I am sad that I at one time bought into this poison (though I’m glad I left it).

Above all, I am sad that millions of my fellow Americans are wasting their hatred on each other simply because they play for the “other team”.  It’s a profoundly stupid reason to dislike someone.  If you are going to spend this kind of emotional energy on someone, they’d damn well better be someone who actually harmed you, not just voted for the other guy.  I hate criminals who prey on the weak.  I hate terrorists who blow up innocents.  And I’m supposed to feel that same way against someone for having the wrong letter after their name?

It’s awful and it has to end.  It’s tearing us apart and turning neighbor against neighbor, brother against sister, parent against child.  And it’s all in order to make us get out and vote for one wretched “team” over another.  Well, I’m long through with it.  I’m saving my hate for those who deserve it.  We’d all be better off as people, and as a nation, if we did the same.

Why I am not an anti-theist

Like any other belief group, atheism comes in a number of flavors.  Yet, it seems that without fail, one group gets most of the attention and serves to define atheism for outsiders.  This group is the anti-theists – those who believe that not only is there no god, but that belief in god(s) is inherently harmful for society.  The anti-theists are by far the most outspoken and activist segment of atheism.  Many of the most well-known atheists, from the late Hitchens to Dawkins to Penn Jilette to Ricky Gervais, would likely define themselves as such.

To a large degree I understand where these folks are coming from.  I’ve read both “God is not Great” by the late Hitchens and “The God Delusion” by Dawkins (the latter of which is far more worthwhile, IMO).  I’ve read about many of the bad things that religion has done – justifying slavery, triggering war, relegating women and gays to second-class status.   And I think the religious folks, if they are being honest, would admit that horrible things have been done in the name of God.  You’d be hard-pressed to find someone eager to defend the Inquisition or the Crusades, and we very rightly retch when radical Muslims use the Koran to excuse terrorism.

But I’m also someone who cares far more about how people act and treat each other.  It is my fervent belief that being a good and decent person does not require religion.  However, it is also my belief that religion is by no means antithetical to being a good person, and in fact for many spurs it.  As someone who spent many years in the church, I met countless people who were given great joy by their faith and driven to be better people and improve themselves.  Sure, I also met many who were the opposite – petty, judgmental, and unkind.  But then, that dichotomy is found in any group.

I simply know too many people who are given incredible peace and comfort by their faith for me to consider religion an inherently bad thing.  Do I disagree with their beliefs?  Of course, and if the subject comes up, I’ll do my best to debate it with respect and fairness.  One thing I know is that the vast majority of religious folks are not stupid, weak, or foolish.  They are simply people who, in their search for truth and meaning, have come to a different conclusion than I have.  I spent many years in the theistic ranks, and I see definite merit to pro-God arguments even if I now disagree.

Religion will never go away, as much as the anti-theists would like to believe.  We can either do our best to live with each other, or we can live in conflict and division.  I reject the culture war that many conservatives claim to exist; but I also reject the culture war that anti-theists see themselves as waging.  Prayer is not a threat to me, nor are public expressions of faith, so long as neither is forced on me.  And I will continue to count religious folks amongst my dearest friends.

My year in music – 2011

Music is something I greatly enjoy, yet it is something I rarely get to talk about.  I have a few friends on Twitter that have similar tastes but the subject just does not come up that often.  So, in order to share a little bit about what I like and have been listening to this year, I thought I’d share a smattering of music I purchased and enjoyed in 2011.  No human alive, save for those for whom it is their job, can listen to everything that comes out.  So if you by chance see my selections and think there’s another artist I might like, don’t hesitate to comment or speak up!

In no particular order, here are a few albums I bought this year, along with links to Amazon and, if I could find one, a YouTube video.

1. Wye Oak – Civilian

This is a fantastic album.  The title track, “Civilian”, was one of my most listened-to tracks of the year.   Wye Oak creates a sound that is complex and somewhat haunting, with interesting religious overtones and just enough of a rock edge.  Listen to the track below… it is awesome.

2. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

As a massive fan of Fleet Foxes’ first offering, this one had high expectations from me, and did not disappoint in the least.  This is one of those albums that gets better with each listen as you discover new levels.  Expertly crafted songs.  My favorite track is hard to pick, but I’ll go with the title track, “Helplessness Blues.”

3. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

Now this one was a bit of a departure for me.  I’ve never been a fan of music with a lot of electronic sounds.  But this one quickly won me over.  It is a complex, interesting collection of songs that is simply a great listen.  Tracks I particularly liked include “Cruel” and “Cheerleader”.

4. Pistol Annies – Hell on Heels

I don’t buy a lot of country music (maybe one or two albums a year).  A lot of it, quite frankly, sucks.  But the Pistol Annies go back to classic country goodness to produce a very enjoyable record.  Favorite tracks include “Lemon Drop” and “Bad Example”.  Below is the only one officially on YouTube, the title track.

5. The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow

This is just a fantastic debut by two musicians who have amazing chemistry and produce some of the most pleasant music I’ve heard this year.  Pretty much every track is a nice listen.  One of my favorites is “Girl With The Red Balloon”.

6. The Head and the Heart – The Head and the Heart

I’ve heard this band compared to Mumford & Sons, another one of my favorite groups.  But I found this ensemble to be somewhat lower-energy, a little more laid-back.  There are some great tunes here though, I’d suggest “Lost in my Mind,” “Ghosts,” and “Down in the Valley” to start.

7. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

This one I just discovered about a week ago so it just made it under the wire.  Really good music, with a harrowing theme about England in turmoil.  Worth a purchase for both reasons.

8. Belle and Sebastian – If You’re Feeling Sinister

Yes, first of all I do realize this album came out in 1996.  So I’m a little behind here – give me a break, I wasn’t always a big music fan.  But if you’re someone who has not heard this, or even more so if you’ve never heard Belle and Sebastian, this is pretty much the most perfect indie pop I’ve heard.  Every song’s a winner.  I’m so glad I decided to dig into B & S this year – better late than never.

So there you go.  As promised, a sampling of what I was buying and listening to in 2011.  I bought plenty of other stuff too (through eMusic and Amazon) but I either haven’t had the chance to fully take it in, or it just simply did not stick with me.  I might add one or two if I discover a glaring hole.  But for now, I’d invite you to enjoy the videos I posted and perhaps discover some wonderful new music!

My brief personal Christopher Hitchens story

I first got involved in politics around my junior year in college when I decided to join the Conservatives Club on campus.  In the fall of 2004, the club invited Christopher Hitchens to speak on campus and give his rebuttal to the film Fahrenheit 9/11 by Micheal Moore.  As a new member, I was fortunate enough to be invited to eat dinner with Mr. Hitchens at a local restaurant (which, we had to ensure in advance, served Johnny Walker Black).  In attendance were about 20-25 club members.

At the time I had just heard of Hitchens and was not familiar with his work.  Purely by chance, my seat at dinner was right next to him.  As he consumed his glasses of whiskey, I remember briefly engaging him in conversation about some trivial topic… I believe it was something like how technology was changing the world and how today’s children would never know a time without computers.  Silly, I now know in retrospect, but nonetheless he was perfectly engaging to a young 21-year-old computer science major.

I don’t recall much about the speech itself.  And looking back, I’m not sure why he spoke on such a trivial topic.  I highly doubt Hitchens himself remembered much about his brief visit to Lewisburg, PA, especially considering his likely blood alcohol content during the presentation.  As I recall this brief encounter I feel like, though I did not appreciate it fully at the time, he was certainly an interesting person to meet.

Hitchens was a remarkable fellow, as I’m sure will be communicated by the numerous obituaries popping up from nearly every major news site.  He pissed off almost everyone at some point.  I don’t think anyone ever shared, or will share, his particular blend of opinions.  But they were all unified by his absolute persistence in stating his opinion, no matter what it might be.  Let us all take that from him and learn to stick up for our beliefs, even when they may offend.