The Six People You’ll Meet at a Religious Retreat for Teens

I’m working on a post about religious retreats and emotional manipulation, but it’s not quite ready yet. I’d like to get a post out while it’s still today, so this one’s mainly just for fun. Here’s a list of the six people you’re likely to encounter at a religious retreat or other large youth-oriented religious event.

1) The Addict

This is the guy (or girl) who says he’s done drugs. Specifically, he’s addicted to alcohol and he smokes weed. Maybe he’s done something else too that he refuses to name for dramatic effect. He’ll get up there at the retreat and testify that even though he’s done all these things, being at this retreat makes him want to change. From now on, he’s going to be clean, because Jesus. Next week, you’ll still catch him cutting class to do pot.

2) The one who Needs Therapy

This is a person who tells everyone there that he or she has been abused in some way. Maybe he remembers being beaten by his father, or she wants to tell you that her boyfriend raped her. Whatever the story, you believe it, but you’re not sure how you feel about hearing it. This person just proclaimed their very damaging past publicly to a group of strangers, and sounds like they need psychological help. Like The Addict, they’ll end their story with “It’s all good because Jesus,” but for this person, it seems even more tacked on. It seems like they’re desperate to tell someone their story, regardless of whether or not this is the appropriate setting. You hope they get the help they need so they can stop confessing to retreat groups.

3) The Pop Culture Preacher

This is the priest/minister/monk/nun, etc. who is totally with it. He (or she) will make references to whatever the latest teen sensation is, and every few sentences there’s a joke. You’re more interested in the humor than his message, so when he eventually gets serious and tries to lead you in prayer, you zone out. You wish more priests/ministers/monks/nuns, etc. were like this guy. He makes religion entertaining.

4) The Purity Pledger

This is someone, typically a girl, who says she’s had sex, but won’t anymore. When she gets home, she’s going to have a serious talk with her boyfriend about sex. Whether that “talk” even happens has yet to be determined, but you can bet your own future sex life that by the time she’s in college, she won’t even remember having made this promise because let’s be honest, sex is awesome.

5) The Purity Spokesperson

Generally female, but sometimes male (or a couple that preaches together). This person’s job is to guilt you into not having sex. “Picture your future husband watching what you and your current boyfriend are doing on that couch,” she may say. “You know you’re not going to marry him. Would you still do it if your future husband were watching?”

Some of her arguments may seem reasonable. It’s certainly good to avoid pregnancy and STIs. But then, right when she has the audience agreeing with her, she takes it too far. “I saved my first kiss for marriage,” she says, “and I recommend that for all of you.”

“Well…that ship has sailed.” a solid three quarters or more of her audience thinks, and her influence over them is lost at that point.

6) The CHRISTIAN Musician

This is the person or group that was hired to provide Christian entertainment. Their songs will be even more repetitive than the majority of popular music. If there were any alcohol on the premises (ask person number 1?) you could make a pretty successful drinking game if you drank every time the lyrics said “Jesus,” “Halelujah,” “Grace,” “Cross,” or “lift up.” If you’re ever forced to listen to the sorry excuse for music that is Christian Rock, I recommend this.

A big thanks to my little brother for corroborating on some of these.

What do you think about this list? Do you have anything to add? Have you experienced a religious retreat? Feel free to comment. As always, all opinions are welcome. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!


Religious Freedom and Privilege

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

Discussions of religion often don’t include the topic of privilege, but the concept does apply to some extent. defines privilege as “a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most: the privileges of the very rich.” The idea of privilege is often applied to discussions of race, wealth, and/or gender, but here I’ll be examining how it can apply to religion.

In the United States, where the majority of the population identifies as some kind of Christian, to identify as a Christian yourself comes with a positive connotation. I remember watching a recording of some old Red Skelton shows with my dad, during which the comedian said something like “God bless” to the audience. I’ll never forget the way my father’s face lit up when he heard that. He gasped cheerfully, “He believed in God!” At the time, I too took that realization as a positive fact about the old comedian. Now, I’m more neutral. I’m glad celebrities and other people feel confident and comfortable being open about their beliefs. However, since I no longer hold an association with the religion, such a proclamation does not change my opinion of that person positively or negatively.

Proclaiming one’s Christianity is not simply an exercise in a religious freedom in the United States; because it is the religion of the majority here, it’s also a great way to gain a huge following and support. Just look at Tim Tebow, and the vast majority of US politicians. For a person in the public eye, calling oneself Christian can lead to personal gain. It’s a way of utilizing the privilege that comes with belonging to a majority group. This doesn’t mean that everyone who proclaims his or her Christianity is doing so for this purpose, nor does it mean that these people shouldn’t be open about their faith. However, many politicians make their adherence to Christianity a fairly big deal as part of their campaigns. I suspect they do this because they know it will win over a significant number of voters.

With this in mind, I instantly thought about privilege the other day, when posters plastered in my dormitory hallway informed me that the Catholic club on my campus will be hosting a “Religious Freedom Workshop.” I don’t know for sure what will go on there, but the fact that it is being held by a Christian religious organization makes me concerned that they don’t realize that their club isn’t the one that needs to be especially concerned about religious freedom. My only hope is that they will welcome religious minorities into their “workshop” and consider their fears. I’m tempted to show up and see what happens, but might not have time or the energy.

My main concern is that this workshop will turn into a bunch of Christians getting together and whining about how they’re being persecuted, complaining that there’s a war on Christmas, and asking questions that ignore very obvious reasons for the status quo. I can’t help but picture them asking why so many people are against the teaching of creationism in public schools. Will they waste time bemoaning the fact that many also oppose allowing public school teachers to teach religious doctrine or lead a class in prayer? I’ve addressed several of these questions in my post Thoughts on Prayer in Schools so I won’t answer those questions in depth here, but they really are pointless. When your faith is the majority, your fears of persecution are minimal compared to other faiths.

If the Muslim student association or Hillel held the same event, I would have a slightly different expectation. Smaller groups have smaller representation, and have reason to fear being ignored, mistreated, or ostracized by the majority. Muslims especially have to deal with this right now due to the current problem of terrorism. As an atheist, I’m part of a minority group too when it comes to religion. To my knowledge, my school does not have a humanist or secular student organization, but I would hope that if one existed, it would consider participating in, or co-sponsoring this event, in order to steer the conversation in a useful direction. For atheists and other religious minorities, violations of religious freedom can mean things like this happening. For Christians, as the majority, concerns about religious persecution tend to come down to this question: “Why can’t everybody be expected to learn about and practice my religion since most people follow it anyway?” For religions with fewer followers in an area, concerns about religious freedom are very different. They have to ask: “Will I (or my kids) be forced to pray to or worship a god I don’t believe in, or prevented from worshiping the one(s) that I choose?”

You may be wondering why I care about this as an atheist. After all, atheism is technically not a religion; it’s a lack of belief. I care because there aren’t many of us compared to other groups, and we rely on religious freedom in order to simply live our lives the way we choose. Religious freedom, contrary to some clueless politicians, includes freedom from religion. This is because separation of church and state means the government can’t require you to follow any religion, or promote one over others. That’s not a bad thing. It’s what allows Catholics to continue to practice Catholicism, while Buddhists can be Buddhists and atheists can just not have religion. We live in a time and place where legally, all of that is OK. Let’s keep it that way, please. Let’s not whine about nonexistent persecution, and just work to promote the idea that if we’re OK with people having any religion they want, we should also be OK with them not being forced to practice ours. Just as I would never support legislation that would require students to pray in schools, I also would not support legislation that would punish someone for praying by him or herself in public. Leading prayer can be inappropriate in some situations, but sitting down and folding your hands before a meal is not and should not be against the law. However, nor should digging in and chowing down immediately with a thought to thank your mom who actually made you that sandwich.

What do you think about religious freedom and privilege? As usual, feel free to comment. All opinions are welcome, just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!


Homeschooling: My Experience

Image courtesy of photostock at

Image courtesy of photostock at

As you may know if you’ve read some of the posts on my blog, I was homeschooled for the majority of my education. As a homeschooler, I used to get a lot of questions in my daily life about whether or not I enjoyed it, how I made friends, etc. I always answered those questions positively, but lately I’ve had some negative feelings towards my personal homeschooling experience, and a change of heart in how I think homeschooling should be treated by the government. I don’t think it should be banned, nor do I think that every family that homeschools does so for the wrong reasons. However, I might personally have benefited from going to public school in high school, or from being homeschooled in a different way. I can’t possibly cover all of the details of my entire homeschooling experience in one post (it encompasses the majority of my education, with the exception of 9th grade and college), but I’ll summarize what I remember and discuss my working opinion on it.

My homeschooling experience was pretty good in elementary school. My mother taught me how to read, and how to do math, as well as other subjects. While I did get a bit behind in math (I took forever to learn multiplication), I loved being homeschooled. I had plenty of close friends who were my age–most of them also homeschooled–who either attended church with me, or went to the same weekly co-op* classes.

Well into my elementary school years, but not quite at the end of them, my younger brother was diagnosed with dyslexia, and my mother began to focus most of her attention on him. While I probably didn’t experience as much educational neglect as some, even my mother will admit that she found herself focusing less and less on my education in order to help my brother learn to read. She also had to walk him through other subjects since he couldn’t sit down and read a chapter in a textbook by himself, or fill out a workbook without assistance reading and writing. His dyslexia was severe; eventually she realized he was beyond any assistance she could give him, and put him in public school. I don’t blame her for spending so much time with him initially in the hopes that she could continue to homeschool him. However, I am frustrated that she never really returned to me afterwords. Even after he went to school, she supervised my education about as much as a high school substitute teacher does.

Because I loved to read, I was reading–Nancy Drew and The Saddle Club, but from about fifth through 8th grade, I learned very little without teaching it to myself. How was I supposed to know what I should be learning about? My mother did give me educational materials, but because she barely supervised me, I excelled in the subjects that interested me and almost completely ignored the ones that didn’t. Thankfully, she found some decent math books (The “Key To” workbooks saved me from complete mathematical incompetency.) So I began to make up for lost ground in math. She also gave me books on ancient Greece and Rome, and I completely devoured the book on Greek Myths she gave me. I recently found a timeline she helped me make, which I never finished. It began with the creation story, and included such Biblical adventures as “The Flood,” interspersed with real historical events. There was a constant thread of Christianity throughout my education, and it invaded every subject. Even the Key To books were made by a Christian company.

9th grade was terrible. My mother decided she didn’t have it in her to homeschool me through high school (not that she was supervising me much to begin with), so I asked to go to Catholic school. The one I attended turned out to have a terrible administration, and a heavier workload than what I have in college right now as a senior. I was a straight A student somehow, but I was exhausted and miserable. Because it was a private school, my parents blew what little money they had saved for my future college education paying for it; (which shows they didn’t have much saved up, but still). In hindsight, I should have gone to public school. Seeing how miserable I was, my mother took me out of that school at the end of the year to homeschool me again. She told me public school was my other option, but I refused at that point. I didn’t think it could be any better than the private school, since that was “real school” too, and my experience had been so terrible.

Homeschooling for high school was very different from homeschooling for the lower grades. There are fewer people who continue all the way through those years, so I often lost my peers to traditional education. Another way in which high school homeschooling differs from other years is that for many families, the question of being able to get into college is a big deal. This means being more organized, perhaps even homeschooling through a school that provides a diploma (I used NARHS). This was a good thing, because for once I was keeping track of my courses, the time I spent doing them, and what I did. My mother got me involved with a Catholic homeschooling co-op too, thinking that would be a great way for me to meet more high school aged homeschoolers, and take some classes. The co-op involved families with children of all ages, and the year I joined, about two thirds of the high schoolers were about to graduate. I didn’t make many friends there, though. I quickly discovered that they were from a stricter form of Catholicism than my parents–something I hadn’t known existed.

I’m working on a page about this now, but basically, some Catholics refuse to acknowledge the decisions of the Second Vatican Council (also known as Vatican II), and insist on some rituals that seem antiquated to the more mainstream, Roman Catholics. Wikipedia describes this stricter group as “Traditionalist Catholics,” but I knew them as Tridentine Catholics–“Tridentine” referring to the type of mass they attend, which is always in Latin.  Since my experience with this group, I’ve heard them referred to as “fundamentalist Catholics.” While they aren’t Biblical literalists, that description and the negative connotation of “fundamentalist” illustrates the way I felt about many of their beliefs, even when I was a practicing Catholic.

To make a long story short, these people were Catholic versions of the Duggar family. The average number of children in a family was somewhere around six or seven. It would be higher except for those families with low fertility or who married at an older age. I knew one woman who had birthed twelve children naturally. Another mother at that co-op told me that Catholics need to have lots of babies because Muslims are having more babies than Catholics, and it’s important to maintain a Christian majority. Most of the Tridentine women also followed what they referred to as “Vatican Modesty Guidelines.” I had to do a bit of searching to find what they were talking about–something about necklines and two fingers…but I found this page here, and suddenly understood why they all dressed like they were from the wrong decade, while the boys dressed normally. (The Duggars dress a lot like them, if you’re curious as to what that looks like.) The Tridentines had sexist habits too, for example, they always asked boys to lead prayer if there were any on hand, even if the only one available was six years old and not particularly good at leading prayer. Not only did I not fit in in my jeans and t-shirts, but I was also a woman. I soon discovered that the preferred Tridentine options for my gender were between perpetual baby making and joining a convent, neither of which appealed to me. I wanted 2.5 kids and a nuclear family, a fairly conservative aspiration, and for that, I was strange.

After two years of not learning much at co-op, and rebelling a little, my mother sent me to my local community college to take classes. It was a fantastic decision. I earned transferable college credits that wound up saving me time and allowing me to take more courses that interested me when I became a real undergraduate. I also learned real information. I took a chemistry course–my first well-taught science course, perhaps in my entire life. I also took intro to psychology, a course I recommend to everyone. Aside from my time at the community college, most of my homeschooling experience in high school was useless as far as learning is concerned. I was thoroughly under prepared for my college major (English) because I read very little cannon literature in high school, and did little to no analysis of what I read. My mom didn’t know what was typically required and didn’t bother to research it for the most part (or didn’t implement what she’d researched). I took two years to finish geometry, and the same amount of time to finish biology, and can’t remember much. I taught myself algebra II, and wound up retaking it in college. I taught myself physics, inventing my own labs, and I’d be lying if I said I actually learned anything. The best I could do was memorize. I couldn’t really apply much of my knowledge. Lucky for me, the tests weren’t hard.

One of my biggest complaints about my homeschooling experience is the quality of the educational materials with which I was supplied. My mother, like many of the Christian and Catholic homeschoolers we knew, believed that Christian publications were the best option, since they proclaimed God-centered facts. The problem she didn’t anticipate was that in order to do this, they often had to teach false or irrelevant information. Take the American history book that was forced upon me in high school, for example. My middle school years had been filled with trips to historic sites in places like Williamsburg and Philadelphia, so I had a clear sense that America had more protestant than Catholic influences, but this book begs to differ. In it, I learned a version of American history that emphasized Catholic contributions to US history above all others, and frankly stretched some facts upon further examination.

Perhaps the worst texts I ever used were the LIFEPAC high school health workbooks from Alpha Omega publications. The name of the publisher alone gives away the bias, and boy did it have one. It was a fundamentalist health text that spent way too much time on spiritual instruction and skipped sex ed altogether. It also contained tons of outdated information that even I, sheltered and under instructed though I was, noticed.

I did graduate with a high school diploma. I did finish my work. The paperwork says I was educated, but in hindsight, I beg to differ. I’ve spent every year of my college education playing catch-up in my classes, and in my social life. My home education did not prepare me for life outside of home. I prepared myself for that life with little assistance in far too many areas.

Because of my experience, I support legislation that would set some regulations for homeschooling. I’d like it to remain legal, but there needs to be a system in place to prevent educational neglect, while still giving parents the freedom to help their children learn at their own pace and in whatever learning style that best suits them. I personally believe that homeschooled students should be evaluated about once per year, maybe twice. They should have to show that they’re actually doing work. I strongly feel there should also be legislation preventing parents from using propaganda textbooks. Sure, teach your kids your religion, but don’t corrupt their education with it by refusing to teach them anything else. I’m fine with parents choosing their texts as long as the options are all actually good, factual ones. Currently, there are way too many pseudo-educational texts, and homeschoolers use many of them.

The problem I have with homeschooling isn’t homeschooling itself. It’s the fact that so many families choose it in order to shelter and indoctrinate their children. I was hardly exposed to non-Catholics prior to college. I didn’t learn how sex worked until I was 15, and many of the “facts” I was given about it at the time were incorrect because I learned them from another high school kid.

This sheltering and indoctrination is what I often jokingly refer to as homeschooling “on the wrong side of the closet.” It’s a serious problem though. Some children enter the world having no idea that a fair number of the people they’ll meet in the working world will not follow their exact form of Christianity, will not be straight, will not be white, and will not be republican. It shocked the heck out of me when I first realized as a college freshman that the majority of students in one of my classrooms thought the legalization of gay marriage in the US was inevitable. I agree with those people now, but I used to think it couldn’t possibly be true; everyone I’d met before then, except for a handful of people, supported DOMA. I was so sheltered that I hadn’t been exposed much to democrats. I don’t want future children to be as unaware of reality as I was, or to grow up without ever being taught important facts. I want them to be more prepared than I was for everyday life outside of their parents’ watchful over protection.

What are your thoughts on homeschooling? Have you had an experience with it? Feel free to comment. All opinions are welcome, just be respectful and think through your comments before posting.

Happy thinking!



* (In homeschooling “co-op” is when a group of parents who live near an area, often but not always subscribing to the same religious beliefs, get together regularly with their kids, and the parents take turns teaching classes to groups of the kids in subjects that they’re good at. A parent with an art background taught art, one with a chemistry background would teach chemistry, etc. It’s as close to traditional school as homeschooling usually gets.)



Monitored Visitation: The Shackles of Courtship

Image courtesy of stockimages at

Image courtesy of stockimages at

Imagine being restricted to monitored phone calls, and visitation during specified hours, with guests who must go through a detailed security screening. Sounds like prison, right? What if dating worked that way?

While this does not reflect how many people experience dating, it is the reality for some, who participate in a form of dating commonly used and promoted by the deeply religious:  courting. Courting is often defined as dating with marriage as the ultimate goal. Despite it being a fairly accepted definition in my experience, I find it to not be a very clear one. There are plenty of people who consider what they do “dating,” not “courting,” for whom marriage is still the ultimate goal. I consider myself to be one of those people. True, dating can be casual, but many people enter long-term relationships prior to marriage with the intention of finding a spouse or life partner, and those relationships should not be discounted as less serious just because those involved do not label themselves as “courting.”

Another problem I have with that definition is that it says nothing about how it differs from dating in practice, only how the two differ in intent. In my experience, the main difference in the way the two are practiced is who is in control. In dating, the people making the decisions are typically the people who are dating each other. While a dating couple may choose to involve their families by introducing each other to them and asking for their advice, that isn’t typically the be-all, end-all. Dating partners are free to make their own decisions, with or without their parents’ approval. Courtship, in my experience, is the complete opposite. In courtship, the parents of the couple (especially the girl’s parents) tend to have at at least a fifty percent say in every decision–sometimes more. It is usually the father who has the most power, as the man and head of the household. He often maintains complete veto power over any and all decisions. As one girl explains, “my parents were firmly entrenched in the values of courtship, and any potential relationship would be controlled completely by my father.” (Check out her story about rebelling against her patriarchal family here.) In courtship, the parents are with the couple every step of the way, sometimes in ways that are downright invasive, and excessive. This control is the main issue I take with the practice.

At one of my homeschooling co-ops back in high school, there was a young couple (seniors) I suspected would be getting together soon. They were always side by side at co-op, and had chemistry so thick that the air practically dripped with their excitement to be with each other. I soon discovered that they were together in a sense, however, they were expected to court. I don’t know much about their courting experience because we weren’t close, but I did hear one startling thing:  when it came to communication over distances, they were required to limit themselves to infrequent phone calls–every other week. Furthermore, each and every one of those phone calls had to be monitored by their parents. I realize this sounds bizarre. What parent tells his or her daughter “Oh, you two want to talk? You can call him next Thursday. But I have to be on the other line.” It’s ridiculous. I used to make excuses for it. They’re teenagers, I said. Their parents want what’s best for them. Maybe their parents don’t trust them to date, so they’re taking extra precautions. This kind of parental monitoring doesn’t end when children turn 18, though. In families that practice courting, this level of parental control is expected, no matter what age the children are when they begin to look for a future spouse. You may have laughed when you saw 30-year-old Toula Portokalos in the beginning of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, living with no freedom at the mercy of her father’s control, but there are real people in the United States living this antiquated life.

Fast forward four years. I’m now a senior in college, and during the fall semester, one of the student organizations I’m part of planned a mandatory, 2-day retreat for its leaders. As annoyed as I was for having to attend something at a time when I had a great deal of assignments due, I had a good time and really got to know the other members of the group. In a brief dull moment though, I did a head count, and realized someone was missing. Someone who had attended every meeting. On the way back, one of the attendees told me why. The missing student is Indian. (Meaning, she’s from India. I wish I didn’t have to explain this, but there was this idiot called Columbus.)  Her family is very strict, and as a rule, they do not permit her to spend the night anywhere other than home without her parents. No slumber parties. No retreats. Nothing. If she were under 18, I wouldn’t make a big deal about this, but she’s an adult college student with a job. Legally, she’s autonomous, but in her family, she isn’t. While this particular example isn’t overtly part of the culture of courting, I suspect that it stems from a similar source. This type of precaution, like the excessive monitoring of potential suitors, is often presented by conservative families as a way of protecting the girl’s purity–her virginity. The father ensures it by keeping his eye on her. I do not know if this is the case for her family, but a fair number of Indian families practice arranged marriage. It is still common in their culture, and I have known a young man who was nearly forced into one. Excessive parental control works well with a culture that promotes parents’ choice over the couple’s. The more I learn about courting, the more I see how it can become dangerously close to arranged marriage.

Why is courting even popular when it is so controlling? Like many things in the conservative world, the popularity of courting is largely due to a negative attitude toward pre-marital sex. It is the perfect way for parents to do their darnedest to prevent that awful deed. During my strict religious upbringing, the idea that pre-marital sex can ruin relationships was presented to me frequently. Supposedly, couples who have sex before marriage do not get to know each other as individuals, just as objects to fuck. This makes their relationships doomed to fail. Also, God doesn’t like it, therefore courting is the Godly thing to do. The important thing, as usual, is keeping people “pure.”

Maybe there’s a way to do it right, but based on what I’ve seen of it, it sucks. If anything, courting actually prevents couples from getting to know each other thoroughly enough to commit to marriage, thanks to the constant chaperoning and excessive parental involvement. The more I think about it, the more I worry about people like that aforementioned couple I knew, and the Duggar daughters of 19 Kids and Counting, who also believe in courtship rather than dating.

Because they are in the public eye, the Duggars are an excellent example of courtship that can be examined in detail. An article I found, called “The Duggars’ 7 Rules of Courtship” sums up some of their courtship rules. Much like that young couple I knew, the Duggar children are somewhat restricted to monitored correspondence. Their parents expect their text messages to each other to all come in the form of group texts that go out to the Duggar parents too. The article describes how that works, and quotes the father of the family, Jim Bob, on the subject:

“It’s neat to see their conversations,” says Jim Bob, adding that the couple texts about everything from scripture to their future as a family and ideas on parenting. For the most part, Jim Bob and Michelle don’t chime in. But occasionally they do.

I’ve seen conservative parents comment on their children’s Facebook pages, actively getting in the way of their children expressing opinions that differ from theirs. Because of that, I find it hard to believe that Jim Bob and Michelle don’t chime in much, and don’t influence the conversation much with their presence. Even if they exercise restraint and really do only comment “occasionally,” the fact that they are included in the conversation means that every text is carefully constructed; it is a performance. The daughter must uphold the image of absolute purity that the parents expect, and the man must tread carefully, choosing subjects of conversation that are fit for the dinner table. If they really do have conversations about their future and ideas on parenting, I doubt they do so using their real opinions and observations because of the possibility of offending the ever-watching Duggar parents.

What kind of relationship are they building? I was relieved that shortly after that quote, it says that the couple is permitted private phone conversations for one hour per night. That’s a step in the right direction–but only a step. How private is a phone conversation in a family with 19 kids who share bedrooms (which is the case for them)? Where does the couple go to find privacy? What if they want to have a conversation about sex? If you’re serious about marriage, you need to (at some point) have open dialogue about sex, about your expectations, hopes, fears, and to clear up any confusion you have about how it works before you–you know–start. I realize they believe in waiting until marriage, but imagine going into your wedding night having never had the chance to talk to your spouse about what’s going to happen that night? That conversation is important, and with mommy, daddy, and 18 siblings wandering around, it’s not likely to occur.

I’d complain about their “no kissing, no hand holding” rules, which I’ve always considered to be extraordinarily excessive, (I know people who set similar boundaries), but really, it’s up to the couple to decide what physical boundaries are right for them. For some people, the boundary is “no butt stuff.” For others, it’s “clothes stay on.” I’m fine with that. I’m a little concerned, though, that the parents had too much say in this decision. While I understand that the parents want their children to practice the kind of pure relationship building that their religious beliefs mandate, as I’ve stated in my post about purity pledging, it works a heck of a lot better when the couple chooses it for themselves, setting boundaries that they think are important. If a couple says “We’re not kissing before marriage” because their parents want them to, but that doesn’t fit what they want as a couple (or as individuals), they’re probably going to end up kissing before marriage. I say this as someone who practiced “purity” because my parents believed kissing should be the furthest one goes before marriage, and watched my line get redrawn further and further and further until finally I literally said “fuck it,” and did just that. I wasn’t making a purity pledge for myself. I was making it for them, for my religion, and for the people around me who said it was the right thing to do. As those reasons melted away, so did my sexual boundaries. I’m not the only one who’s experienced this phenomenon either. It’s an 8-part story, but this girl promised she wouldn’t kiss before marriage as part of her courting experience, and in short, that’s not what happened.

Ultimately, in any form of romantic relationship building, the actual members of the relationship are the important ones. They need to form a bond with each other. They need to find common ground. They need to understand and appreciate their differences. They need to learn how to talk about subjects they wouldn’t discuss in front of their parents, because those subjects will all become part of their lives if they get married. I’m completely fine with “dating with marriage as the ultimate goal.” What I’m not fine with, is two adults dating under the constant watch of daddy and mommy, with daddy getting the final say in any and all decisions. An adult should be able to have a private conversation with his or her significant other without their parents’ knowledge or permission. An adult should be able to make his or her own decisions.

Happy thinking!



Thoughts on Prayer in Schools

I spent some time at home from school for the weekend, and got into a pleasantly civil discussion with my extremely Catholic brother about prayer in schools. Basically, he wanted to know why atheists tend to oppose it. After all, isn’t preventing prayer violating freedom of religion? In the process of answering him, I thought, well, that’s a good topic for a blog post too. Here’s as brief of an explanation as I can muster.

I used to think that preventing prayer in schools (and it must be pointed out that the prayer that is being “prevented” in my country is nearly always Christian), was a terrible idea. After all, God is watching over us, and it can be very important for religious people–students and teachers alike–to acknowledge Him as they start their day, and ask for his blessings and guidance. Now I’m going to say something surprising. I don’t have a problem with people praying. I used to do it all the time, and when I was stressed out, nervous, or afraid, it brought me comfort, and I’m sure it does the same for most believers.

As far as I am aware, the United States has laws against teacher-led prayer in public schools. (They don’t apply to schools with religious affiliations as far as I am aware. I briefly attended a Catholic High School, and we prayed the Hail Mary in some form before most of our classes. They do, however, apply to public institutions, which are not supposed to have teacher-led prayer in the classroom.) If praying isn’t a problem for me, why do I think this rule is important to uphold in public schools?

Because while praying isn’t a problem, forcing people who don’t believe or who worship a different deity than you to pray to your deity is. Imagine you are a Christian student attending school in an Islamic nation, and Muslim prayers to Allah are a mandatory part of your school day. How do you feel? These are not your prayers. This is not your faith. If they are mandatory, then you have no choice but to participate in them, regularly. One can argue that this could be seen as worshiping “false Gods,” something that certainly violates freedom of religion.

Let’s say that prayer isn’t mandatory, and you do have a choice. The school is still choosing one religion over all others, and promoting practice of that one religion among the student body. What about other faiths? If prayer for one religion is to be allowed, shouldn’t prayer for all faiths be encouraged in this way? To do this in a truly inclusive way in a religiously diverse school would eat away at precious class time trying to hold prayers that would appease the people of different faiths. Wouldn’t it be easier for everyone involved if prayer were simply a private matter, which students (and teachers) were of course welcomed to do, but which was not squeezed in to the school’s already tight schedule? This would avoid, at a bare minimum, alienating people of different faiths, and in religiously diverse schools would prevent large chunks of students’ time being devoted to appeasing multiple faiths.

I realize that to some, this may sound like an effort to be too inclusive. Why do these people of other religions deserve to be treated this way? They’re not the majority. A Jewish student who doesn’t want to pray to Jesus is certainly less common in the United States as a whole than the Christian student who wants to. But that doesn’t mean that we should alienate that student in favor of the majority. It’s for reasons like this that our government isn’t a straight democracy. Sometimes what the majority wants actually hurts minorities and limits their freedoms. As an atheist, were I still in high school, I would feel very uncomfortable in my former Catholic school, because those prayers are part of the day, and to pray them would be a lie for me. Even if I did have faith, I would feel the same way as a Muslim, Jew, or Hindu.

Regardless of whether or not you think that this country was founded on “Christian” values, it was largely colonized originally by people seeking freedom of religion, often fleeing persecution in their homelands. There have been plenty of cries for “religious freedom” by the Christian majority, and I support their right to demand it. However, it’s ridiculous to cry “persecution” and demand religious freedom for your own majority without also ensuring that other groups are extended that same freedom. In the nature of fairness, the best way for schools to create an environment friendly to students of all faiths, is to promote none, and allow students to practice them as they see fit. Students in public schools are not forbidden to pray. Saying grace in the cafeteria or praying “Dear God, help me with this test,” will not get you suspended. But that freedom is extended to students of all faiths, and has to be, in order for these schools to be truly religiously “free.”

Happy Thinking!


Variety of Religious Practice: Head Coverings

Ever notice how even within a single religion, religious practice varies significantly from person to person? It can vary slightly, or it can vary a great deal, depending on the person, and the situation. It’s a phenomenon I will refer to as variety of practice, and I’ve noticed it a lot in my encounters with both my previous faith, and others around me. Religious head coverings are part of many religions, and they are no exception to variety of practice. In fact, they are a very easy way to discuss the phenomenon since they are easily observable.

Take Islam for example. If you mention religious head coverings, it’s the first religion on people’s minds, and for a good reason. There has been much debate over whether or not it is oppressing for women to be forced to cover their heads, or even in some cases their entire bodies. But not every Muslim woman covers her head. In countries like the the US, where we aren’t supposed to let any one religion make laws for other people (although we have had some difficulty following that rule lately), there is no law saying that, for example, all women must wear the hijab (headscarf), or the burka (full-body covering where only the eyes are unveiled.) This means that except in cases where there is heavy familial pressure to do so, women are able to choose the religious garb that they believe they should wear. Some choose one of the aforementioned head coverings, but others choose not to wear any at all, even though they identify as Muslim, and follow the teachings of Islam. From what I’ve read (and please correct me if I’m wrong. I’m not an expert on Islam), there is some debate as to whether or not the verse in the Quran instructing women to be modest actually implies that they should wear a hijab or burka, or simply that they shouldn’t show any cleavage. This leaves it up to the Imams, and individuals within the Islamic community to decide for themselves whether not women should dress that way, and to what extent. Naturally, some women prefer to look like everyone else on the outside, and don’t want to walk around with something that identifies them as belonging to a specific religion on their heads. Others may feel that the hijab or burka is an excellent way to practice their beliefs, and wear it because they want to.

Not all head coverings are for women, though. Sticking with eastern religions, let’s look at Sikhism. Strict Sikhs are taught never to cut their hair, and they wear their hair in turbans as part of their religious practice. I happen to live in a town that has a significant Indian population, and some of my neighbors are Sikh. One guy I met at my local community college surprised me when he told me he was a Sikh, because the Sikhs I had met all wore turbans, and he had short hair that was clearly visible, and not covered by a turban. I had assumed he was Hindu or Muslim, based on his nationality and his short hair, but nope. He’s Sikh. He explained to me that even within his family, some men wear turbans while others don’t. It’s just a matter of how strictly they follow their religion’s teachings. Some are very strict, while others, like him, prefer to dress like everybody else.

Married orthodox Jewish women, like Muslim women, are taught to cover their heads. If I understood what I read about this correctly, they believe, as many Muslims do, that hair is sexual, and something that should only be revealed in certain situations, such as to their husbands. In some communities, Jewish women are supposed to cover their heads in the synagogue only. In others, they are expected to also cover their heads in public. There are even some rules about women having their heads covered while their husbands are praying. There is huge variety of practice in Judaism, so it is very difficult to speak for everyone in the religion (and I am not particularly experienced with Judaism either). Some Jewish women wear a scarf or hat, but many, believe it or not, cover their heads with wigs! While this sounds odd (seriously, if showing hair is bad, why is wearing a wig any better?), my understanding of why this is considered a solution is that revealing one’s own hair is what is questionable, not showing some kind of hair in general. But again, it depends on the person, the community, which rabbi a woman listens to, and certainly how strictly she adheres to the rules as they are explained to her. Not to mention, not all Jews are orthodox, and to my knowledge, non-orthodox Jews are far less likely to require a female head covering when out in public. I can’t speak for non orthodox Jewish rules for in the synagogue though, as I have never been to one.  For more information on Jewish teachings about female head coverings, I found this article helpful and interesting:

Jewish men are also expected to cover their heads when they pray, which makes me kind of happy with Judaism. I mean, if you’re going to require one gender to cover their heads, why not expect the other one to do it too? If you don’t think God is sexist, then that’s probably the way to go when it comes to head coverings. According to the article I found, Jewish men are expected to always cover their heads while in prayer, but not everyone wears a yarmulke or other head covering at all times. This article mentions that some take the head covering idea to an extreme, and actually wear one on top of the other–it’s extra spiritual or something.

Then there’s Christianity. A surprisingly small percentage of Christians know this, but Christianity actually does have a rule about head coverings, and some people do follow it. 1 Corinthians 11:5 says, “But every woman praying or prophesying with her head unveiled dishonoreth her head; for it is one and the same thing as if she were shaven.” That comes from the American Standard Version, and I found it online. But you can look at other translations, and they all say pretty much the same thing. See this link if you don’t believe me and scroll down to where it says “Other Translations.” Or just look the verse up in your Bible.  

I actually knew a Christian girl when I was growing up, who strongly believed this verse was true, and decided to cover her head at all times. I’ve seen recent pictures of her and she’s not doing it anymore, but at the time she thought, you know what, I might end up praying at any time potentially, so covering my head ensures that I’m always ready. And I totally respect that decision. But most Christian women don’t even know this verse exists. And many who do (and I used to be one of them) choose not to follow it. I, for one, didn’t like covering my head. I also disliked doing anything just because I was a girl. I didn’t think religion should be sexist. 

Catholic women don’t usually wear female head coverings anymore, but they used to. In my family’s church, I’ve only seen one or two women cover their heads, and it’s a pretty big church. But I was raised Roman Catholic. What Catholics don’t want you to know (and I’ll talk about this in a page I’m working on, because I think this fact should be broadcast to the world), Catholicism is divided on some pretty fundamental issues. There is a group of Catholics called Tridentine Catholics, or Traditional Catholics, and they basically reject the decisions made in the Second Vatican Council, and follow the old ways of worship. These included having women cover their heads in mass, among other things. They wear what’s called a mantilla, also known as a chapel veil, which is basically this lacy thing that looks a bit like an oddly shaped doily. If you’d like to know more about it, check out this link:

I actually think the mantilla is very pretty. I don’t buy the bullshit about how it’s modest. It’s barely covering the hair. (Seriously, they’re lace. You see right through them.) I do, however, recognize that for some women, it is a sign of reverence and devotion. But this is America, so they don’t have to attend a church where doily-wearing is mandatory. They are free to make their own decisions about whether or not to cover their heads, and they do. 

Variety of practice doesn’t just apply to head coverings. It applies to other aspects of worship and religion. I’ve heard people argue, for example, that you can’t be Catholic if you’re willing to vote for a pro-choice politician, or a politician who supports marriage equality, but guess what! There are tons of tithe-paying Catholics who do it all the freaking time. Tough titties. People are people, and while you may be able to get them to believe in your God, you can’t necessarily get them to agree with you on everything. Just look at how many directions Protestantism has gone in since the reformation began. People will disagree, and will join forces with others who have the same ideas. But even within those groups, there will be variety. Because ultimately, people are individuals. They are not defined by the groups to which they belong. As a matter of fact, it is the people who define those groups. As an atheist, I see this more and more in cases of religion, and it explains why there is so much variety of practice in something that’s supposedly created by God–it’s not. It’s being created, passed down, and recreated by people every single day.

Happy thinking!

Feel free to leave comments, even if you’re correcting me on something. While I may disagree with religions, I don’t want to misrepresent anyone’s beliefs, which is why I often include links to pages written by people who actually follow a particular religion. I trust them to explain it accurately.



Spiritual Warfare: How it’s All in Your Head

Many religious belief systems involve a good vs. evil situation—you know, the good supernatural deity fighting an evil supernatural being. In Christianity, this situation is a fight between God and the devil, also known as Satan or Lucifer. The devil is believed to be cunning, powerful, and have a whole slew of people under his control. Psychics, witches, gay people, teenagers who play Dungeons and Dragons or listen to Rock music—you name it, Satan has it. Yet somehow, God is always believed to be winning.

Theists who believe in spiritual warfare often expect to see signs of it, mini spiritual battles, in their own lives—and they do. As a child growing up Catholic, I was raised to believe in spiritual warfare, but I wasn’t really convinced. I noticed at an early age that only the people who believed that everything was attacking them seemed to get “attacked,” and people like me who were super religious but didn’t look for signs of the devil at the grocery store, never seemed to have to face him. At first I was disappointed—I wanted to show my faith and face the devil. But I also had a skeptical bone in me that said, he’d better make it clear that he actually is the devil before I go all “prayer-warrior” on him (because that’s what you’re supposed to do). I was also skeptical about the so-called “power of prayer.” But that’s a topic for another post.

Witchcraft, and any other form of “magic” is perhaps the most common thing to associate with the devil. This is probably because there are so many Bible verses preaching against it. My dad’s personal favorite was Exodus 22:18, which says, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” But there are plenty more. Leviticus 19:31 says, “Regard not them that have familiar spirits, neither seek after wizards, to be defiled by them: I [am] the LORD your God.” See this link to read more, and if this isn’t your favorite version of the Bible, by all means look up the verses in yours. 

Having read Leviticus 19:31, it’s hardly surprising that Christians often freak out about the Harry Potter series–I mean, Harry Potter is a wizard, and the Bible says not to “seek after wizards,” therefore, wizards are against God, and anything against God is OF THE DEVIL! This is the kind of reasoning that got Harry Potter banned from my household and my reading lists for most of my young life, for fear that it might open up a door to the spirit world and taint my soul.

Luckily, either the panic about the Harry Potter books died down, or my parents gave into my pleading, because when I was around 12 or 13, they finally said yes and let me read the books–or rather, my mom said yes. My dad, who was and still is a very spiritual man to the point of ridiculousness, would never allow it, so my mom said, you can borrow the books from the library as long as you don’t let your dad see. And I did. And I got through most of the then 6 books before my dad caught on. Unfortunately though, one day I was careless and forgot to hide the book before he came home from work, and he had a fit. He said he felt extraordinary uneasiness and knew that evil had come into the house through that book, and I was to return it immediately. Instead, sensibly, I hid it again so that he couldn’t burn it in a fit of spiritual fervor (I didn’t want to lose my borrowing privileges). Then I thought about it, and I realized that the book had been in the house for several days, and the previous books had been in the house for days or even weeks at a time. I liked to borrow a book and read it, then read it again to remember it better, so I would keep them for the full length of the borrowing period when I could. I had even started reading the books to my younger brothers, so I sometimes had more than one Harry Potter book in the house at a time, and my dad never noticed “spiritually” that they were in the house until he saw the book. Even my middle school aged self thought, isn’t that funny? If it truly was the devil, and if the book were truly making him feel uneasy, shouldn’t the book have done that regardless of whether he consciously knew what was causing the uneasiness? I mean, if this was the same uneasiness that comes from Tarot cards, ouija boards, and playing Dungeons and Dragons, shouldn’t it not matter whether the person knows what’s there? Shouldn’t the spiritual person just feel the spiritual attack, and then have to tear through the house to find whatever’s the conduit of the evil?

Ironically, just last year I caught my dad watching reruns of the Harry Potter films on TV, and even tivoing them to watch later, so clearly his stance has changed. But as a child, that really got me thinking about the whole spiritual warfare thing again. I mean, it didn’t seem to affect people who didn’t believe, nor did it seem to affect people who believed in God but didn’t believe in spiritual warfare, so it seemed to me to be a self-perpetuating belief. And that seems to be the case for many things that theists freak out about.

Penn and Teller did a great episode on ouija boards, in which they did a great experiment that shows that it’s actually being controlled by the people using the board, not by a spirit. Long story short, if you blindfold participants and rotate the board 180 degrees without telling them, they will still move the board to where they think the “yes” and “no” options are, even though they can’t actually see them, and with the board rotated, they will be wrong every time. To see that experiment, go to this link and watch the video from about 2:00 in to 5:30.

Then there are psychics. Growing up I was always told that, as was supposedly the case with Harry Potter, psychics could open the door to the devil and other demons. I was taught that even touching something a psychic has touched can lead to possession by a demon, and that if I were to consult with a psychic, or otherwise communicate with the spirits, I could be letting evil spirits into the world and into my life, which was a very dangerous thing to do. There is a whole Penn and Teller Bullshit episode on psychics, and I highly recommend checking it out, but now I’m going to use a different example. There’s an episode of the show “Trading Spouses” where they brought on this lady named Marguerite Perrin, who is an absolute psycho. Frighteningly enough, she reminds me of my brother’s godmother, who believes strongly in spiritual warfare and often talks about “putting on her spiritual armor” and other nonsense. Here’s a link to the video. Try to focus on how she reacts to meeting the guy in the suit before she finds out he’s a psychic, and then how she reacts AFTER she finds out.

Basically, this lady is totally civil to the man when she meets him initially. Doesn’t freak out about him having demonic traits. But then, when she finds out what he does for a living, she throws a fit.

This lady is so funny, yet such a perfect example of so called spiritual warfare, that I have to point out another clip, where she goes ape shit over a dryer that she seems to think is possessed or something. Seriously, it’s a dryer for crying out loud.

If the devil has in his control all of these people, as well as tons of ordinary, everyday objects like broken dryers, then we’re seriously screwed. It often makes me wonder why so many people think God is winning.

It all makes way more sense when you think about spiritual warfare as a product of an individual’s imagination. In fact, it explains a lot of things.

Happy thinking!

Worship: Why Do It?

Something that Catholics get a lot of crap for is worshiping figures other than God, such as idols, Mary, and the saints. They say no, we’re not worshiping those people, we’re honoring them, as you would honor a war veteran or a hero. They’re role models. And I get it. I understand the distinction between honoring the saints and worship, and I don’t see anything wrong with considering the saints great role models if you’re religious (except in the case of St. Rita. But that’s a topic for another day.) I do, however, take issue with the act of worship itself, and what the supposed necessity of worship says about who God is.

Think about it. Why does God want us to worship Him, and why should we do it?

Here are some reasons I can think of, and my responses to them:

1)  God is our creator. He made the universe, so we need to worship Him.

Well, ok. I like to paint. I sure do appreciate compliments on my painting skills, but I don’t want my friends and family to worship me for them. Compliments should be earned, so they shouldn’t come in a continuous stream. They should appear when they are deserved so that they mean something. Sure, if one believes in God, He would appear to have done a great number of good things. He is believed to have created the universe, so sure, praise Him for that. Thank Him for that. But why do that every minute of every day for the rest of your life, and expect everyone else to do that too? Doesn’t God expect us to do other things with our lives than shower Him with praise? Doesn’t He eventually (or instantly since he’s omniscient) get tired of people bowing to Him and repeating prayers like the Our Father (a.k.a. the Lord’s Prayer) over and over again? While writing this, I’m listening to my parents pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet, which is a repetitive prayer kind of like the rosary that is (surprise surprised) prayed using a rosary. It’s somewhat shorter, but it’s just as repetitive. Catholics are fantastic at repetitive prayer. They have a ton of prayers to choose from, and can combine them into advanced combo prayers like the rosary, which somehow are supposed to get them more attention. But now, God has to listen to a ton of people saying the same words over and over again. It’s like getting a form letter from every single person on Earth instead of a personalized message. It’s not more personal, and it doesn’t do anything to “build a relationship with God,” a goal I will address later.

2) Worshiping God will help us get to heaven.

That seems an awful lot like kissing up to me. Assuming it does help us get to heaven, that would mean that God only wants people who kiss His ass and grovel before Him to come to paradise. Imagine if you’re the smartest person in the world, and everyone else doesn’t come close to your intelligence. Wouldn’t you want to encourage the people around you to learn more, and to reach their full potential in the hopes that you can have some real intellectual companionship? According to Christianity, God would rather have a bunch of “faith-filled” people bowing to Him and singing His praise over and over again than real friends. A truly omniscient God should find this boring, but the Christian God loves it.

Which brings me to reason number 3:

3)  Worshiping God and praying to Him will help you build a relationship with Him.

As nice as it feels to receive a compliment, I expect more out of my relationships with people than endless praise and admiration. I crave things like intellectual stimulation, companionship, and a helping hand when needed. If I wanted someone to praise me endlessly, I’d hire someone to do it. It would get old really fast, though. I’ve heard many times that prayer is how one forms a relationship with God, and that worship helps with that too. But what kind of relationship involves one person expecting constant praise and worship, and the other person giving it obediently? That sounds like the relationship between an evil villain and his terrified lackey. I mean, Voldemort has that kind of relationship with some of his Death Eaters. What kind of benevolent God wants his ass kissed? An insecure God, of course. But an all-powerful, all-knowing God shouldn’t be insecure, should He? That just doesn’t fit. Either God doesn’t need to be worshiped, or He isn’t the God Christians believe Him to be.

Seriously, what does God get out of being worshiped? I’ve seen TV shows where an evil character (usually a cartoon) grows more powerful the more people shout compliments at it, or praise. That’s not how God’s supposed to be though–He’s supposed to already have all the power He needs. He can do whatever He wants, and should be intelligent enough to expect more from His INTELLIGENT creations than perpetual groveling.

This video on YouTube posted by DarkMatter2525 let me know that I wasn’t the only one to see a problem with this, and it partially inspired this post. His channel in general has helped me view my former religion in a way I hadn’t before, so I highly recommend checking it out.  

Happy thinking!