Handling Stressful News as an Atheist

praying hands and bible

Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

When one is religious, as I used to be, the first thing to do when something goes wrong is to pray. It’s almost a reflex. When you see an ambulance drive by, you bow your head. When you get bad news, you fold your hands. When you’re anxious about something, you lay your troubles at the feet of Jesus.

I’ll admit that I haven’t had many difficult situations to deal with since deconverting. Aside from some test anxiety and performance anxiety before giving some solos for my school’s music program, my life had been pretty calm, until a few months ago. I wrote this post long before the Paris attacks and the San Bernardino shooting reawakened our nation’s fears of terrorism, but I think now’s as good a time as any to further add to the discussion about prayer and what it really does for both the person praying, and the person the intentions are for.

My fiance, who is a generally healthy person, caught a bad sinus infection over the summer. He has a pretty strong immune system, so when he gets sick it typically doesn’t last long. I’ve seen him have a fever for a day and wake up the next morning healthy, so I wasn’t too worried. Then a few days later, I woke up to a phone call from his parents. He had been hospitalized during the night, complaining of chest pains. It turns out, the infection he had was viral, not bacterial, and it moved to his heart. His heart had been significantly weakened, but it was still going. He didn’t have a heart attack, thank goodness. I went to visit him the next day, and he just wanted to go home. He was worried about his health, and significantly weakened, but he was still himself, and that put me at ease more than anything.

Medical situations are some of the worst to face. I’m seeking work now, but that’s an issue I can resolve with clear steps. I know I’m contributing to a solution even if it takes a while. That simply is not the case when a loved one is in the hospital. Nothing I could do myself would make the problem go away, and when you’re religious, that’s a time when prayer is a particularly accessible source of comfort.

Even as an atheist, I was tempted to pray, given the situation, but I resisted that urge; I knew it wouldn’t do any good. I worried about him almost constantly until I saw him. I was still worried up until the moment he was finally discharged, but once I’d visited him, I felt significantly better. It’s a bit like the way I would feel better after praying. I felt like I did the right thing, and like it was a helpful thing to do. I used to think I’d never feel that relief again, but I felt it when I visited him, doing something tangible. In fact, I felt it more strongly than I ever felt with prayer. I knew I was getting personally involved, not simply asking for someone else to do something. Besides, being in a hospital waiting for test results or for an illness to go away is a slow process filled with periods of anxiety and boredom. While it may not have affected the final outcome–he would have gotten well regardless of whether or not I’d showed up–I was able to sit with him for a couple of hours and keep him company, helping the time to pass and at least alleviating some boredom.

Some people argue that prayer makes people feel better, and I’ll admit that it does. I’ve experienced it myself. But now I know that finding some small helpful thing to do–like visiting a sick friend, cooking dinner for a struggling family, or helping someone change a tire–is by far more rewarding to both the person helped AND the do-gooder than prayer. I don’t just feel like I’ve fulfilled an obligation as I would in the case of prayer. I feel like I’ve done what I can do to help. I feel helpful. And I know that feeling is justified because it’s accompanied with action. When something bad happens, whether it’s headline news or something more personal, I hope that as a community of human beings we can all come together and find tangible ways to help.

Feel free to leave a comment. All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!

Nancy

“Women are Special Because They Can Have Babies”: A Sexist “Pro-Women” Argument

 

madonna with child statue

Image courtesy of sritangphoto at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

There are many reasons why the Catholic Church is not the best when it comes to women’s rights. I’ve definitely hit on the big ones on this blog before: banning women from the priesthood, refusing to acknowledge divorce, and of course fighting constantly against women’s reproductive rights. But there’s another way in which the Catholic Church is pretty darn sexist, and it’s less about a position on a major political issue than it is about the church’s overall view of women and the language many of its adherents use to describe us.

A point I often heard growing up in the conservative Catholic homeschooling community was that women were special. That we were a beautiful, wonderful part of God’s creation. I can get behind that sentiment minus the whole God thing–until they would give their favorite example of why women are so special: they can create life. Don’t get me wrong, the whole babies thing is cool, and it is part of what makes me female, but this is often used as the only point to support this idea that women are beloved by God, and when one combines it with the things women are forbidden from doing by the Catholic church, keeping us from holding the top leadership roles in the church and controlling us on matters of reproduction, it’s easy to see why a woman might come to the conclusion that we’re only valuable as vessels for human life, not as individual human beings ourselves.

This idea wasn’t just spoken by the homeschooling families around me. It abounded in our educational materials, especially the religious ones. In a lecture that was part of a tangential talk on a Bible Study DVD, the speaker expressed this idea in the context of the Adam and Eve story: (I’m paraphrasing from memory here.)

“The woman is God’s most complex, beautiful creation. She can create life. Think about how incredible that is. I’m a guy. I can’t do that! You know, God created women after man like she’s a second draft. Like how your new phone can do more than your old phone. She’s so much better.”

On the surface, this sounds totally benign and kind of pleasant. I loved the particular lecture this one came from at the time. But it’s doing it again–placing women’s value in their uteri, in their reproductive organs. And talking this way, describing women as the second draft after men, makes it seem like our reproductive abilities are a new feature like a front facing camera or something. They’re not. Our reproductive organs are just a fact of our existence just like men’s reproductive organs are. I don’t see Catholics praising men for their magical baby-making semen (though if you have, let me know in the comments.)

Talking about women this way does a few things

  1. It boils us down to literally a single biological fact about our bodies. That doesn’t elevate us at all. If anything, it diminishes us to a single role: that of a mother. It’s a beautiful, wonderful role, and a very difficult, extraordinary, and important job. I hope to be a mother some day. But that’s NOT my only goal or dream, and there are plenty of women for whom motherhood is not appealing at all. Which brings me to my next point.
  2. It undermines women’s reproductive choices. If the best thing about being a woman is having children, then it’s not a stretch to argue that women who don’t want children should still be having them.
  3. It’s seriously offensive to infertile women, or women with medical conditions that make pregnancy dangerous. It implies that women who can’t have children are broken, or missing something that’s supposed to come with this “new model.”

Women have fought for a long time to be able to vote, to enter the workforce, to have equal access to education, and to have control over reproduction so that we can choose the life we want to live. Perpetuating this idea marginalizes us.

Furthermore, in Catholicism, this idea is often further perpetuated by the myth of the virgin Mary, who is celebrated for her “yes” to God, agreeing to be a mother to Jesus. She is held up as the ideal woman: the perfect example of how Christian woman should live, because she agreed to carry a baby to term. She is the Catholic mascot for “siding with God” on matters of reproductive rights. If it’s good enough for Mary, it should be good enough for the rest of us, right? But Mary is just the teacher’s pet. She’s the student whose A+ ruined the curve for everyone else. She’s a fictional character. She doesn’t represent all women. Even if we knew her to have definitely existed, she’d only be one person in one time period with one set of experiences.

I realize that the example of the talk that brought up this idea came completely from my own memory. To supplement that, here’s a Catholic Answers page straight from the horse’s mouth in which a Catholic describes Catholic teaching on men and women. Notice how the primary difference they list is that women “give physical life” and men “give spiritual life” (the priesthood. An arbitrary rule they impose.) Furthermore, as I mentioned was their tendency earlier, they also bring up Mary who, let’s face it, is revered more for her ovaries than anything else.

Have any of you encountered this idea that women are special because of their reproductive abilities in your own church communities, former or current, (regardless of denomination)? What are your thoughts on this? Feel free to leave a comment. All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful to others and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!

Nancy

 

Christian Radio Station Asks for Money in a Dirty Way

99point1FMad

A friend of mine from college who lives in New Jersey saw this on her parents’ kitchen table a couple of weeks ago and sent this picture my way. She says it’s a post card advertisement for Star 99.1 FM, a Christian radio station in New Jersey. I really don’t have a problem with this radio station existing, or with them asking for donations from their listeners. I do, however, have a serious issue with what they’re implying through their word choice in this ad. It says:

“I was without a job for over a year and that was a very difficult time for our family of 4.

We really didn’t have extra to give, but God was tugging at our hearts to support Star 99.1 . Just two weeks later I found the job of my dreams.

God is good, faithful, and He keeps His promises. Thank you Star 99.1 for doing His work and for being His voice, hands and feet in the community.”

-Ivan

Look familiar? It reminds me an awful lot of something John Oliver talked about in his video on televangelists and their tendency to go after desperate people for monetary gain. Here’s that video in case you’re curious.

This is really despicable. I’m currently doing mundane temp work to make ends meet (in other words, not default on my student loans) and someone else in my position or a worse one might read this and think, well, I’m struggling financially but how about I make that worse by donating money! Clearly donating to the right place will get me the job I need.

I mentioned this to my mother, who’s a devout Catholic and a fan of our local Christian radio station, and even she thought this was making an inappropriate suggestion. Donating to a Christian radio station is NOT the same as looking for a job. It’s not the same as filling out applications and networking and revamping your resume and writing cover letters galore. I sincerely hope that no one, upon seeing this ad, thought “Well, I’ll have to skip dinner a few times but maybe God will fix my financial woes if I donate money!”

I know that’s not what the station means for its mail recipients to get from this ad. I also realize that the person making the statement in the ad about finding his dream job is supposed to be a listener, not a representative of the radio station. However, I’m also positive that someone who works for the station still had to look at the ad and approve it. Someone affiliated with them saw this and thought, “Yep. In today’s job market and economy, this is an appropriate way to ask for money.” That’s not OK.

If this had been an organization that wasn’t religious, I don’t think anyone would just stand by and consider this normal. But for too many people, this makes total sense. Of course God is waiting for you to donate to His radio station before giving you that dream job you’re looking for!

Have any of you seen similar examples of religious organizations appealing to desperate people for monetary gain? Feel free to leave a comment. All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!

Nancy

I’m Not Praying for Paris: Looking for Ways to Help

Image courtesy of Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The western world is pretty shaken up by what happened a few days ago in Paris, and the response on social media and worldwide has been huge. YouTube changed the red block behind “Tube” to a French flag. Various landmarks around the world have been decorated with blue white and red lights. People are putting the French flag over their profile pictures on Facebook, and sharing memes that say “Pray for Paris.” I’m sure you’ve seen them.

This is comforting for some people, but it all strikes me as a way to make ourselves, as outsiders in this situation, feel better. It may feel comforting to you, but I don’t know that it’s really helping the situation. As an atheist, I’m pretty sure the world can do better than just pray. So what can we do?

  1. Skip posting about this on social media in a way that is primarily self serving. It’s OK to say your thoughts are with France, but don’t go on about your feelings. This is not about you. I realize most of social media is, but tragedy isn’t.
  2. Read the news. Stay informed. Call out people who want to banish all Muslims from the country or imprison all the Syrian refugees. (Sadly, I’ve heard such suggestions from members of my family.) These sorts of tactics have been tried in various countries throughout the world (think of Japanese internment during WWII in the US for instance) and they’re a very bad idea that will only further marginalize people who are part of this minority religion in that country, and  as we’ve seen over and over again in this conflict, oppression will lead to more recruitment for ISIS and other extremist groups. There has to be a way to prevent these attacks that doesn’t involve oppressing minorities or religious discrimination.
  3. If you’re in the area, see if you can donate blood, or volunteer your time with an organization that’s helping. If you’re not–say you’re in the US or some other country, donate your money to the Red Cross or other groups that are mobilizing to help victims. This article lists some options, but always do your research before choosing a charity organization to give your money to.

Last but not least, acknowledge that there have been many more lives taken in terrorist action in the Middle East, and if you’re going to try to do something tangible for France, you should at least consider doing something similar for the people in the Middle East too. The western media, at least in the US in my experience, has a tendency to prioritize western problems over those in other continents, and I get it. We as a people have a tendency to worry more about the people we identify with. We might not be able to magically change the fact that we feel emotionally for people in Paris but not Syria, but we can at least direct our thoughts to the Middle East and stop skipping over news stories involving that region. It does start to feel like more of the same after a while, but we need to acknowledge the privilege we have in the west that for us, events like 9/11 and the one in Paris are not an everyday occurrence. There’s a reason people are fleeing Syria in droves, and maybe we should give two bothers to maybe learn what their flag (flags at the moment, actually) and the flags of other nations with this issue, like Pakistan, Iraq, and so forth, look like.

I realize this is a very emotional time for many people, and I hope I haven’t offended anyone with this post; I don’t mean to downplay what happened in Paris. It is a real tragedy and we should do what we can to help, but I really do think that we need to also stop ignoring areas that have been facing terrorist attacks on a regular basis just because they’re mostly populated with groups to which we in the west have trouble relating.

Feel free to leave a comment, especially if you have any further advice on how to offer help to Paris and other nations currently suffering from terrorist threats and attacks.

Happy thinking

Nancy

Why Catholic Hospitals are Messed Up

In the above video, Hemant Mehta discusses several procedures that Catholic hospitals refuse to perform under the excuse of religious objection. We’re not talking about an individual objecting. We’re literally talking about entire hospitals refusing to provide procedures relating to reproductive health. This is a major problem because Catholic hospitals are EVERYWHERE. There are even places in the US where you’re hard pressed to find a hospital that isn’t Catholic.

Hemant brings up the fact that many of these hospitals are opposed to tubal ligations (tying women’s tubes). This is news to me, and it’s disturbing to learn. I was part of the Catholic pro-life movement for years, and at least in my area, the only arguments I’d ever heard against tubal ligations were against them being forced on people, which is something I think most people can agree is not a good thing.

I do remember my parents saying that they didn’t approve of that surgery, or of vasectomies, but their hatred of contraception focused primarily on things that they believed could lead to abortion like hormonal birth control and IUDs, and things they believed might encourage premarital sex like condoms. Something like this is usually done by older couples, often people who have already had children and don’t want anymore. As a result, this procedure doesn’t usually generate as much outrage among devout Catholics as the pill and sex ed. As Hemant explains, it’s often done after a C section at the request of the mother.

Yet these hospitals are refusing to perform the procedure, arguing, if I understand correctly, that it gets in the way of letting God have control over whether or not you have a baby. If you know about Catholic teachings on how to avoid pregnancy during sex, you may see how this begs a question: why even preach natural family planning (as the church does)? If the Catholic church is that opposed to couples doing anything that would prevent pregnancy, regardless of whether or not it can cause an abortion, then why even encourage women to track their cycle when trying not to conceive? Isn’t that, as they argue it, getting in the way of God?

Hemant also brings up cases of pregnancies that implant in the wrong place, in which abortion is the best and safest option, but of course Catholic hospitals want nothing to do with that.

In the midst of arguments about individual people being allowed to say no to a task that runs contrary to his or her conscience while on the job, is it too much to ask that we stop treating organizations like people? If the nearest hospital to you is Catholic, and you want one of these procedures they object to, it’s going to take you some time to get transferred somewhere that will do what you need.

As elections come around, I encourage everyone to look locally. Vote for people who care about access to all healthcare, including reproductive healthcare, and vote out politicians who think it’s OK to treat the Catholic Church like a person with an objection. We’re just lucky our hospitals aren’t being run by Jehovah’s Witnesses, or we’d be dealing with a preventable death toll from blood loss.

Any thoughts on this? Feel free to leave a comment. All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!

-Nancy

Missionaries of Charity Stop Adoptions in India Over Inclusive Legislation

The religious order founded by Mother Theresa, the Missionaries of Charity, has decided they will no longer attempt to find homes for the children in their 13 orphanages in India. Their reason for this? Apparently India has made new legislation that allows single people to adopt, and the Sisters of Charity think it’s better for children to remain parentless than to be raised in single-parent homes. You can read more about this here.

The article explains that the sisters have two primary concerns:

“First, [Missionaries of Charity] will not allow adoption by single parents; second, they also have issues with couples, one or both of whom has had a divorce earlier.”

While Catholicism does not technically have a teaching forbidding single parents from raising children, it does prohibit divorce, and many Catholics are also against adoption by LGBT people. Catholic teaching on divorce is very harsh. It literally preaches that once a marriage exists, it cannot be undone. The only situation in which a married couple can separate in Catholicism is through something called “annulment,” which is a process by which the marriage is reviewed by a variety of church leaders and declared to have never happened in the first place. In other words, if a marriage doesn’t work out, the only situation in which that can be admitted is to claim that the marriage never took place, or was not valid in some way. The idea that someone could make a mistake, marry the wrong person, divorce, remarry, then want to have children, is clearly too much for some Catholics, and in this instance we see this attitude affecting orphans in India. Orphans who, as the article explains, are very unlikely to be adopted in the first place because of red tape and stigma. If that’s the case, why make the process any harder? The silver lining in this story is that this is happening because India passed legislation that allows more people to adopt. That, at least, is something to be happy about.

How does Catholic teaching on homosexuality come into play here? Well, you can take it straight from the sister’s mouth:

Speaking about the decision not to offer adoptions, Sister Amala told local media: “The new guidelines hurt our conscience. They are certainly not for religious people like us. … What if the single parent who we give our baby [to] turns out to be gay or lesbian? What security or moral upbringing will these children get? Our rules only allow married couples to adopt.”

I’ve heard my own parents argue that being raised by two dads or two mothers will “confuse” children. Despite the fact that homosexuality is not a choice, they seem to fear that children raised in a situation that does not prohibit other sexualities will lead to more gay children.

There is also a common argument that there are things only a father can do for a child, and things that only a mother can do, with the idea being that children need not only two parents, but that those parents need to be opposite genders in order to properly raise children. This idea is detrimental because it may be keeping some children with ZERO parents from having ANY. Furthermore, it’s based in gender norms. I can’t think of a single thing that a man can do that a woman cannot, and vice versa, when it comes to parenting. A good parent is a good parent. Any argument I can think of for something one gender can do that the other can’t has more to do with the typical roles assigned to each gender by society, and to stereotypes of the genders, not to anything that can be stated definitively that applies to all men or all women.

Ultimately, I’m frustrated to see a Catholic charity organization stop participating in a charitable action over the thought of someone they disagree with doing a good deed like adopting a child, especially in a country that has trouble adopting out its 20 million orphans (according to the NPR article).

If you have any thoughts pertaining to this, especially with regards to gender and parenting, feel free to leave a comment. I’d be happy to hear other opinions. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!

-Nancy

Surprise Surprise! Most Women Don’t Want to Be Nuns

I stumbled upon the video above while reading the news a few weeks ago, and I love the topic. I’ve always wondered why women would choose to make religious vows in the first place. Since I don’t fully understand it, I can’t really speak to it. As for the question of why many women are choosing not to, however, I definitely have personal experience with that side of the decision, and I have to go with the sociologist’s answer in the video more so than the sisters’.

I was raised during a growing shortage of Catholic devotees to priesthood and religious life. As a result, I was encouraged to consider whether or not I had a “calling” to be a nun or sister. (In case you’re wondering, the difference between the two is that nuns are cloistered, living completely isolated from the world, and sisters are not. If you’ve seen a “nun” in public in real life, she’s technically a sister.)

I remember taking baths when I was four or five years old. When I got out, my dad would dry my hair with a towel. He would drape it over my head and put “sister” in front of my first and middle names playfully. “Sister Nancy Therese!” I suppose to him it was a bit like when I got a bit older, and would test out my first name in my diaries with the last name of my crush. (Nancy Bier. Nancy Smith. Nancy…well, I won’t tell you my fiance’s last name.) It was cute at first, but after a year or so of my dad’s teasing, I started to resent it.

At that young age, I was absolutely positive that I wanted to meet someone nice and get married. I never questioned it, even as I grew to understand that for some people, marriage just isn’t appealing. It always was to me. In middle school, I drew my dream wedding dress and “designed” bridesmaid’s dresses to go with it. I had a running list of people I would invite. A lot has changed for me since then. I’ve lost my religion, met new friends, and lost touch with many of the people on that list. Yet I never lost the wedding part of my dream for the future. I just stopped picturing it happening at my family’s church.

I don’t know for sure whether or not there have been girls in my generation who grew up that sure of a dream to take religious vows. Maybe some did, but I have little doubt that even for children of devout families like mine, girls have a wide variety of aspirations, many of them involving marriage and a career.

It’s often difficult for someone who made one choice to understand why someone would choose the opposite, and I think that’s partly what’s going on with the sisters in the video. They’re right that technology has changed the world. But I think that technology has more to do with whether people are religious in the first place, not why the more religious people who are still out there choose not to take vows and don habits. The internet, with its vast array of information available at people’s fingertips, has led to people leaving the Catholic church in droves. But that doesn’t explain why the people who stay with the church aren’t choosing to take vows.

My experience choosing marriage and a career definitely fits the sociologist’s answer: “It’s not like ‘Will I get married or will I go into religious life?’ It’s more like, ‘Will I get married, or will I do these 16 other things?'”

Being a nun or sister isn’t a super attractive lifestyle in the first place because it restricts freedom in many ways. The biggest drawback for me was always the vow of chastity, or as I saw it, losing the freedom to date. Even before I knew what it was, I had a pretty high sex drive, and there was no way in hell I was going to give up the opportunity to be with a guy someday. But sisters–that’s right, even the ones who aren’t cloistered–give up a lot of other freedoms too.

For instance, the sisters who teach at my family’s church have taken a vow of poverty. They literally earn less than minimum wage. They’re given a tiny allowance that lets them buy groceries. There are several of them, and they share one car. As someone who is currently in a family with 3 cars and 4 drivers, in which I am the extra driver without a car, I can’t imagine sharing one car among four or five adult women. Plus, the fact that religious women aren’t really paid for their work, when they often do difficult jobs like teaching high school, is pretty disgusting to me. I realize their vows forbid them from taking the money, but to me work is work regardless of who’s doing it and I don’t like to see anyone not get paid for their labor. It’s the principle of the thing.

Because it’s such an unappealing lifestyle to me, I would need pretty extreme circumstances to even consider becoming a religious sister or nun–and that was the case even when I was Catholic. If I had to choose between two not-so-awesome choices like arranged marriage and sisterhood, I’d probably choose sisterhood. (That way, at least I’d maintain full control over my own vagina.) But that’s really the only circumstance I can think of in which I’d definitely opt for becoming a nun or a sister.

Women today have far better prospects than a choice between marriage (ownership by one’s husband) and religious life (marriage to a fictional character [Jesus]). We can do pretty much anything we set our minds to. We can be doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, scientists, athletes, writers–you name it, we can do it. Better yet, we can have a career AND raise a family at the same time. Gone are the days when marriage meant having to give up your career. You can live all aspects of the American dream!

It boggles my mind that I’ve actually met two different women near my age (fellow millennials) who eventually chose to be religious. I wish I were closer to at least one of them so that I could ask her why. The fact that I knew two such women at all is pretty crazy considering the demographics of religious women in my country. According to this article by The Huffington Post, as of 2009 only 1% of religious sisters in the US were under the age of 40. Think that’s bad? Only 2% were 40-49 years old. Just 6% were aged 50-59. This means that as of 2009, 91% of sisters in the US were 60 years old or older. I doubt that they’ve gotten much younger since then.

This decline in new members of religious congregations in the US, if current trends continue, means that in another decade or two, spotting a nun will be a bit like spotting a payphone today. People will think, “Wow, I didn’t know they still existed!”

As a woman who appreciates how much better I have it today than I would in the time periods when sisterhood was more popular, I can definitely live with that future. It feels good to know that sisterhood, instead of being one of the two available options to women, as it was for a very long time, is just one small unappealing option today among the myriad of futures women like me can choose for themselves.

What are your thoughts on religious life? Are you surprised to see the number of religious sisters in the US drop so low? Were you ever encouraged to consider religious life? Feel free to leave a comment. All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!

-Nancy

Papal Enthusiasm

popefrancis

This week is absolutely rife with enthusiasm for the visit of Pope Francis, and since I’m a blogging ex-Catholic, here’s my two cents.

I live in the northern east coast, and life here has been altered somewhat as a result of the Pope’s visit. Roads have been closed, bridges blocked, and buses have been hired to take visitors to Philadelphia. This is not a terrible thing. A famous public figure’s visit is definitely a big deal, and Pope Francis has a lot of power as the head of the Catholic Church. I respect him for who and what he is, and I’m really happy to hear that he’s been primarily talking about climate change and poverty rather than abortion and gay marriage. I’m liberal. I can get behind Catholic teaching on climate change and poverty.

With that being said, his visit has brought a new wave of articles like this one on how the pope is changing the church and making it more liberal. While there’s no denying that compared to his predecessors he’s significantly less conservative, Pope Francis is not liberal, and has never been liberal by any stretch of the imagination. This is partially because one of the selling points of Catholicism is that it’s resistant to change.

I can’t tell you how many times during my upbringing I was told that Catholicism was the right faith because it’s the version of Christianity that was supposedly founded by Jesus. The speech went, “It’s correct because it came first.” Never mind the fact that the church hierarchy and a lot of its traditions that are now rules developed later, Catholics see the lack of change in their faith as a sign of how right they are. Catholicism is known for its traditions, right down to details that the younger generations realize don’t matter, like what gender the person you marry is, or whether or not someone has been divorced. Even if Pope Francis does want to change some of those traditions, he’s going to have to do more than call for a synod to discuss them. He’s going to have to make decisions that could put his leadership at risk, because it threatens the “we never change” culture of the religion.

You know those big “changes” where a pope said the church was OK with belief in evolution (though it isn’t a mandatory part of the faith, just an option) and now Pope Francis says climate change is real and a problem? Both of those are issues in which the church could essentially claim that it wasn’t changing its opinion. Belief in evolution doesn’t change the belief that God created the world; many Catholics simply see it as an explanation of how God supposedly did it. Unlike many other forms of Christianity, they don’t take the entire Old Testament literally. As for climate change, belief in that is simply seen as an extension of the church’s teachings on “stewardship,” or care of the Earth.

Those changes both worked out fine when it comes to the religion, but changing the church’s teaching on much-discussed social issues such as abortion, contraception, divorce, female priests, and gay marriage would involve the church issuing some sort of mea culpa akin to the Mormon religion’s announcement in 1978 that black people could now become priests and would no longer be excluded from many temple activities. See how the Mormons had to make it seem like a revelation from God? I have trouble imagining anything short of such a claim would change Catholicism on these issues, though I hope to be proven wrong. It would be an obvious example of the religion changing with the culture of the world, and that would mean breaking the idea of “in the world, not of it,” which is of course a big no-no.

The way I see him, Pope Francis is a well-meaning person with a kind heart. Unlike previous popes, his priorities are in a slightly better place. I think if I met him on the street, I would like him, but that doesn’t change how I feel about Catholicism. He’s still the head of an organization that oppresses women–like me–by fighting against reproductive rights, an organization that can’t handle the idea of gay marriage even if it occurs in a secular setting, and an organization whose main purpose is to convince everyone that a myth is true and that the key to immortality is to get really involved in the organization. The Catholic Church, like the Church of Scientology, is still a scam, no matter how much charity they do.

Weeping Mary Statue Dupes my Dad

One night a few weeks ago, my dad came home from work late, as he often does, and strode up to my mother. “Smell my forehead. Smell anything?”

My mother sniffed. “No. Should I?”

“I’ve been blessed by a special oil,” he said. Apparently a priest from the church he attends on work days found out about a statue of Mary–Jesus’ supposedly virgin mother–that supposedly is miraculously leaking oil, but sometimes also blood and tears. The oil is blessed, the priest said, and the priest acquired some from the statue, which resides at a church in a neighboring state, for the purpose of blessing people. Yes. He is claiming that a statue is literally leaking magic oil.

Curious, I did some online research. I’d heard claims of statue-related miracles before, but this was the first time I’d heard of one crying. I couldn’t find anything that was definitely the same one my dad supposedly was blessed by, but look how many people really believe this shit! This blog post, for example, is absolutely nuts. A Mary statue exuding pearls and glitter? This quote is my favorite part:

We spent a couple hours in prayer, veneration and meditation before the healing service would begin that evening. During that time, we spoke with some lovely Christian ladies who had brought scotch tape. With it, we clumsily lifted a variety of colorful escarchas (a mysterious Gift of holy glitter) off our pews. It seemed, the more we lifted it, the more escarchas appeared.

It’s as if the writer never used glitter for art projects when he or she was a kid. Glitter gets everywhere. Seriously, it’s small, good at falling into crevices, and it sticks to things. I have no doubt that these people discovered glitter on the pews, however, I also have no doubt that said glitter was just the usual craft store type. For crying out loud, it might not even have been placed by anyone on purpose, but rather come off the outfit of a fashionable 8-year-old who attended an earlier mass.

The craziest thing about this weeping Mary statue phenomenon though, by far, is that the Catholic church, which is definitely not the most skeptical organization in the world, has rejected most supposed “crying statue” cases as hoaxes–but not all.

This (fairly long) “documentary,” for lack of a better word, on weeping religious icons, contains a fairly long list of them, some of which have been approved by the Catholic Church. The disclaimer at the beginning of the video reads:

The Magisterium of the Catholic Church makes all authoritative and final decisions regarding any individual or collective claims of personal apparitions of the Blessed Mother. The apparitions and/or lachrymations associated with La Salette, France; Fatima, Portugal; Akita, Japan; Syracuse, Sicily; Cochabama, Bolivia; and Civitavecchia, Italy; have been approved by the Church. Other sites and lachrymations cited in this program have not been formally approved.

What I get out of that is, yes, the Church does do some things to try to weed out the most obvious hoaxes. But as I watched the video, I kept noticing that while they used scientists to test the claims of the faithful about the religious icons, a step I definitely support, the scientists never seemed to be asking the right questions–the ones I, a person who is genuinely skeptical of these claims, would like to have answered. I almost wished they’d consulted Penn and Teller, or some other magician, because my main concern is not even so much that there needs to be a scientific answer to the situation. It’s such a bizarre one that I’m not even sure science is always useful except to maybe test the substance and see if it’s real. Really, my main question is, has a human being tampered with these statues and other icons to make them cry?

It wouldn’t be that difficult to take an icon, put it into a thick frame, and insert some sort of tube with olive oil in it right before the producers of the “documentary” came to view it. And I kept thinking, why blood and oil? Why are so many of these not actual tears? The first answer that comes to mind is that maybe those other substances are more dramatic (in the case of blood) or easier to come by (in the case of oil). It all seems so suspicious to me that I’m a bit disappointed in the people the documentary keeps bringing on to talk about it. Many of them go further than verifying that they believe the icons’ tears are real. They add interpretation to it, claiming that the tears are a sign that the religious figures depicted in the icons are sad, and concerned about some sort of horrible calamity to come. They see them as a “desperate call to holiness,” of course–but literally all they’re seeing are tears coming out of a religious icon. I’ve cried for reasons as silly as not being able to eat cheese when I thought I was lactose intolerant and as serious as being concerned because a loved one was in the hospital. Are these people really suggesting that they can interpret these tears? Because if a stranger told me they knew why I was crying, they’d probably guess wrong.

Also, concerning the ones involving blood, I’d like to see them test all the people who have regular contact with the statue–the priests, altar servers, what have you–and do a DNA test comparing the blood to each of those people. I’d be willing to bet that the blood from the statue belongs to one of them. There’s definitely a strong motive, especially for a pastor of a parish with an aging congregation, to fake a miracle. What better way to increase the number of your churchgoers?

Have any of you encountered miraculous claims? What are your thoughts on these?

Feel free to leave a comment. All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!

-Nancy

A Message to Lukewarm Catholics

Hemant Mehta of the Friendly Atheist blog recently posted the video below to his YouTube channel, The Atheist Voice. In this video, he addresses the people I’ve often heard called lukewarm Catholics: people who identify as Catholic but don’t really practice the faith, and often reject one or more of the church’s major beliefs.

In short, he’s saying if you support LGBT rights and/or a woman’s right to choose, if you believe that women should be able to become priests, or if you don’t believe that the silly little cardboard-tasting wafer becomes Jesus at consecration–why do you stay in the church? Check it out here:

As an ex-Catholic, I couldn’t agree more with the message of this video.

One of my favorite parts of the video is when he addresses people who may want to change the church from within. As an ex-Catholic who was pretty devout and knows a thing or two about church hierarchy, I’d like to expand on this point.

As a lay person (a non-clergy church member) you may think you can change the church from the inside, and that’s extremely admirable, but at the moment, there is simply no way for you to do that at the scale you would need to in order to really make an impact. Even if you were a priest, you couldn’t do much. The only people inside the church hierarchy with any power to change the way the church approaches a political or spiritual issue are the cardinals and the pope. Worse, even if you were in one of those positions, the church is generally not supposed to change its position on things. Don’t believe me? Just look how long it took for the church to apologize for its treatment of Galileo, and acknowledge that the earth revolved around the sun. Your eyes aren’t fooling you. The above New York Times article saying the pope was making it official was published in 1992. The pope who did it was John Paul II, who was pope during my lifetime. (In case you’re wondering, Galileo lived from 1564-1642). That’s how long it took for one individual to change the Catholic teaching on something as basic and scientifically obvious as heliocentrism. Pope Francis, the current pope, has been facing harsh criticism since he called together a giant meeting of Bishops and encouraged them to have an intelligent discussion on issues like treatment of divorced Catholics and (gasp) gay people. The church is so resistant to change that its high-up members literally can’t handle even a discussion of the idea that some of its habits concerning certain groups of people need to be evaluated objectively.

On a different note, as an ex-Catholic I have some points of my own, specifically directed at lukewarm Catholics pushing their children though Catholic religious education and sacraments. I’ve heard some family members explain why they push their children through the Catholic initiation rites of baptism, Eucharist, and confirmation even though they aren’t Catholic themselves, and the reason is absolutely ridiculous:  “It’ll make it easier for you if you marry someone who’s Catholic if you’ve been through all these things.”

This is a crazy argument. I don’t hear anyone saying the same thing about literally any other religion, including protestant Christianity. No one has ever told me, “You should participate in Jewish/Hindu/Muslim initiation rites in case you marry a Jew/Hindu/Muslim.” The advice also doesn’t make any sense within the context of Catholicism, because newsflash, the Catholic church does not specifically forbid Catholics from marrying non-Catholics.

I’ve heard several adults tell friends of mine (and my little brother) that even if you don’t consider yourself Catholic, receiving confirmation specifically (which in case you don’t know is like a Catholic bar mitzvah, a coming of age ritual)  will make it easier for you down the road if you marry a Catholic, since there are so many Catholics around. Since I like to fact check these things, I looked it up: the only sacrament that makes it easier to marry a Catholic isn’t confirmation; it’s baptism. The church believes that it’s important that both parties be Christian, and will accept a Christian baptism as a real baptism.

Does this mean a Catholic and a Buddhist can’t get married? No. If you check the link in the paragraph above, you’ll see that although it’s frowned upon, a mixed-faith couple can get permission from a bishop to marry. This does mean it’ll take more time, but so does taking the classes necessary to prepare for confirmation. My mother, who is a church musician, has attended multiple weddings between a Catholic and a person of a different faith–even an Eastern one like Hinduism. Furthermore, with the current rate at which young people are leaving the Catholic church, often replacing it with no religion at all, and considering how easy it is to just have a non-Catholic wedding with a non denominational officiant or even a humanist one, it is extremely unlikely that putting yourself through extra Catholic religious education and rituals will reap any benefits for you aside from making your conservative parents happy.

(Besides, Catholic weddings require MORE ritual. There’s a mandatory 6 month waiting period, and you have to go through special meetings with the priest called “Pre-Cana.” For crying out loud, marry in a non-denominational church, or outside, or in a fancy hotel. Catholic weddings are way overrated.)

The bad news is, since most of the big Catholic sacraments (baptism, Eucharist, confession, confirmation) typically happen to minors, you may not have much say in the matter if this is currently the position you’re in. The good news is, if you do have some say in it, you now have some useful arguing points.

This post was all over the place, but ultimately my message to lukewarm Catholics is, you already suspect that this religion isn’t for you; if you didn’t, you’d be more dedicated to it. Maybe you’re really some sort of Christian. Maybe you’re atheist, or maybe you just don’t know. That’s all OK. But stop pushing your kids through rituals you don’t even believe in. Stop calling yourself Catholic in polls, giving the church more power by making it seem way bigger than it really is. There may be a religion out there that you’ll believe in wholeheartedly, or maybe there won’t be. Maybe you don’t care enough to search for the answer to the question of God, and that’s OK too. Just admit to yourself that that’s where you are. Trust me, letting go of Catholicism isn’t the pile of guilt Catholics like to say it will be. It’s a breath of fresh air.

Happy thinking!

-Nancy

As usual, feel free to leave a comment! All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.