Tuesday, August 26, 2014

What if Your House Was on Fire?

     An interesting metaphor that occasionally comes up when we complain about proselytizing is that of the burning house. As in, "If I knew you were asleep in a burning house, you'd want me to wake you up and get you out, right?" Occasionally, a similar metaphor is made with the idea of a plane going down and handing us a parachute.

     And you know what? That makes sense. I fully understand why you would want to get someone out of a burning house, or off of a crashing plane. But let's extend the metaphor into a parable, shall we?
     Bob bolted up from his bed, thrust into panicked wakefulness by the hand violently shaking his shoulder.

     "Bob! You have to get out of the house! It's on fire!"

     His heart hammered even harder in his chest at those words. Adrenaline burned the weight of sleep from his limbs, driving him to fling back the covers and leap to the floor. He stumbled in the darkness, lurching and almost falling before being caught by a man's arm. The dim light spilling in from the window wasn't quite enough for him to make out who it was, and his sleep-fogged mind hadn't quite caught up to the furious action of his body well enough to identify the familiar-sounding voice.

     "I'll wake Donna," the mysterious figure hissed, "you get the kids and get them out!"

     Bob nodded his head and stumbled out into the hallway. A shock of pain lanced up his leg as he stubbed his toe on the door frame, and he cursed under his breath. He fumbled the light on and, squinting his eyes against the sudden brightness, limped quickly toward the kids' rooms.

     "Wake up! Fire!"

     Dimly he was aware that the smoke alarm wasn't going off, but spared only a moment of gratitude toward the unknown man who'd woken him. If the smoke detector was faulty, they might all have died in their sleep!

     A few minutes later, the whole family was gathered out on the street, huddled together and shaking in reaction. David, the five-year-old, was snuffling back frightened tears. Other than than the soothing sounds Bob and his wife Donna were making to reassure the children, no other sound could be heard on the street.

     No other sound?

     Bob cast a confused glance at the figure who had roused them from their beds, a figure he now recognized as their neighbor Matt.

     "Did you call the fire department?" he asked.

     Matt looked back at him, the smile if evident relief on his face fading a little at the question. Then he shook his head. "No."

     Bob frowned and fumbled at the pockets of his pajamas, but of course he'd left his phone behind in the rush to escape the house. He sighed, looking back at their home regretfully. Faint light shown steadily from the upstairs windows and from the front door, which they'd left open when they burst out onto the lawn.

     Bob's regretful expression dissolved into a thoughtful frown as he regarded the steady spill of incandescent light from the house. His gaze flickered over the windows, starting upstairs and ending with the darkened basement windows.

     "Honey," he glanced over at his wife, who raised her head from where she had still been involved in comforting their frightened children. "Do you see any flames?"

      She looked back at him, nonplussed by the question, before turning her face toward the house. After a moment's frowning concentration, she shook her head.

     "Maybe in back?" she ventured uncertainly.

     Bob's stubbed toe throbbed painfully. A light breeze wafted from the direction of their house, tinged with the scent of the honeysuckle that grew along the backyard fence. He didn't smell any smoke.

     "Matt, are you sure there's a fire?"

     "Oh, absolutely! Can't you tell?" Matt gestured toward the house emphatically, as if inviting Bob and Donna to see for themselves. "Bright orange flames! You guys would have died for sure if I hadn't gotten you out!"

     Puzzled, the couple looked back at the house, then at each other.

     "Matt..." Donna ventured uncertainly. "I don't see any flames."

     "I don't smell smoke, either." Bob added.

     Matt seemed unphased by their skeptical replies. "Oh, no, you wouldn't. They're invisible, smokeless flames. But trust me, the house is fully engulfed. You're really lucky I was here to save you!"

     Bob and Donna stared at Matt for a moment, as if he'd grown a second head. Even the children seemed to snap out of their fear reactions at the man's words.

     "Invisible... flames?" Bob finally ground out. "Invisible... smokeless... flames?!" his voice began to climb in volume.

     "Yep." Matt nodded, seeming for the moment to be unaware of Bob's rising irritation as he fished inside the pocket of his blue robe to produce a piece of paper. "Just like it says here."

     Bob stared incredulously at the flyer Matt now held out in front of him. It was titled "Everybody's House is on Fire." A bunch of them had been spread around the neighborhood over the previous week, but Bob had taken them for some kind of goof and had simply thrown out the one that had appeared in his own mailbox. Nobody could have taken the nonsense written on them seriously, could they?

     "That's insane, Matt!" he burst out, gesticulating toward his clearly-not-burning home. "Just look at the house! There's no fire!" Just then Alice, Matt's wife, came rushing up from the direction of the neighbor's home. She was dressed in her own red robe, feet clad in slippers, her face wide-eyed and voice breathless.

     "Oh, thank God, Matt! You got them out in time!"

     Bob could only stare at the couple for a moment, his mouth opening and closing wordlessly as he struggled to comprehend their behavior. "You... you think the house is on fire, too?"

     "Oh, yes!" Alice nodded emphatically in response as her husband slipped an arm around her shoulders. "Evil-looking blue flames, all over the house!"

     Bob muttered something under his breath, looking again at the house.

     "What was that?" asked Matt?

     "You said they were orange flames, Matt."

     "Oh, no!" Alice piped up. "They're definitely blue, just like it says on the flyer!" Bob had read the flyer; it didn't say anything about the color of the flames. "Because they're, you know, spiritual! What other color could they be but blue?" Her tone denoted utter incredulity that anyone could possibly have disagreed with her.

     "By which she means orange, of course, just like the flyer says." Matt squeezed his wife's shoulder affectionately. She looked up at him in perplexity, opening her mouth as if to say something. but Bob wasn't about to watch them argue over the color of invisible flames, and turned back toward his own family. He spread his arms in a herding motion, gesturing them back toward the house.

     "Right... everyone back to bed."

     This cut off the budding disagreement between his neighbors as they both leapt forward to grab at his arms.

     "No! You can't go back in there! You'll all die!"

     Bob tore himself loose and whirled back toward them. "There's no fire!" he yelled, spreading his arms again - this time in a protective gesture meant to gather his family behind him and separate them from his neighbors. He was drawing breath to continue when he was interrupted by Donna's gentle touch his shoulder.

     "Honey, the kids are scared."

     The angry words stopped in his throat, and he looked back at the children. They were both crying now. Amy, his seven-year-old daughter, snuffled quietly "I don't want to burn to death!"

     His children's distress heightened his anger, but at the same time sharpened his focus so he could channel it into something productive. So after casting a glare a Matt and Alice, he crouched down next to his kids and made a conscious effort to force calm into his voice.

     "There isn't a fire. Daddy is going to go look through the house and make sure it's safe, OK? I won't let anything happen to you."

     It took a few more soothing words, but at last the children were calmed down enough to let him go. While Donna stood between the kids and their neighbors, Bob went back into the house. A thorough exploration of all floors revealed no fire, and no signs of smoke. He finished the search in his bedroom, where he retrieved his cell phone from the nightstand. He noted with some irritation that it was past two in the morning before heading back downstairs and outside to rejoin his family.

     Donna was engaged in an animated exchange with the neighbors as he approached, and he could tell from her voice and body language that she was not a happy woman even before he got close enough to make out the words. Matt seemed to be trying to hand her a piece of paper, which she repeatedly pushed away.

     "No, I will not sign your petition!" Donna was on the verge of outright yelling by the time Bob was in earshot. he stepped up his pace to join her more quickly.

     "What is it now?"

     "They want me to sign their petition to get invisible flame safety courses taught at school!" Donna replied. He could tell she was struggling to maintain her temper.

     "Right... that's enough," Bob growled, pointing his phone at Matt and Alice. "I've been through the house. It's fine, and we're going back to bed."

     Matt stepped toward them with a distressed expression, only to stop short when Bob thrust the phone aggressively toward him.

     "Geeze, Bob? Why are you so mad? We're just trying to help."

     "Why am I mad?! I have to work in the morning. Donna has to work in the morning! The kids have school, and you've got them so scared it'll be a miracle if I can get them back to sleep at all! Over NOTHING!" Even as Bob spoke, he and Donna were bundling the kids back toward the house and away from the other couple. Matt and Alice started to take another step after them, but Bob held up a hand. "And I swear, if you don't back off right now I'm gonna call the police!"

      The next night, Bob climbed exhaustedly into bed next to his wife. She was already asleep, and Bob was dragging heavily. It had taken forever to get the kids to sleep the night before, and they'd only managed it by letting the children come in to share the bed with them. Out of an abundance of caution, Bob had called the fire department first thing in the morning to have them send someone out to inspect the house. They'd found nothing, of course, but the delay had meant he was late for work and had to stay late as a result. So it was with a sense of great relief that he pulled the covers up and rolled onto his side to close his eyes for some much-needed sleep.

     Suddenly, his phone started blaring on the nightstand. His eyes flew open, and he fumbled the phone to his ear. "Hello?"

     "Bob! You have to get out of the house! It's on fire!"

Monday, August 11, 2014

What’s With All the Questions?

You may have noticed that all of my post titles take the form of questions. My usual format is to pose a question in the title – either one that I have heard from religious people about atheistic topics, or that I have about some aspect of religiosity. In the first case, I try to answer the question to the best of my ability, and in the second I will explain why I have the question and/or pose hypothetical answers of my own.

Why do I do it that way?

I’ll be honest with you. At first, it wasn’t a conscious choice. I think that it wasn’t until after I put up my third post that I realized I was even doing it. At that point I actually started thinking about it, and I realized that it was wholly appropriate for a number of reasons.

For one thing, asking questions is exactly how many atheists reach that position in the first place. It’s a very common story, when listening to an atheist describe how they left religion behind, that it started when they began asking questions about their world and about their religion. Many will tell how the answers they got from the religious perspective were unsatisfying or illogical, and in the worst cases the response they got wasn’t an answer at all; just a pat admonition that they weren’t to question. So in many ways, the asking of questions is the signature activity of the atheist.

Also, I ask questions because I’m curious about the answers. What do you mean by objective morality? Why do you believe what’s in your holy book? What don’t you understand about my world view? What don’t I understand about yours? Am I asking the right questions? Do my answers make any sense? A question is an invitation to engage, to better our understanding of each other and the world we live in.

My blog takes the form of questions because it’s not really meant to be a one-way street. The point isn’t just for me to pontificate at you. I mean, I can do that, sure. I’m now twenty-four posts in to doing that (for the most part). And I enjoy writing it. I hope you enjoy reading it. But it’s not yet everything I hope that it can be.

So I guess what I’m saying is: ask your own questions!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Will You Fly Away?

So a few weeks back I was visiting my parents, who are religious. My grandmother, who is extremely religious, also lives with them now, and makes a habit of inviting us to go to church with them whenever we happen to be there on a Sunday morning. Well, on this particular occasion my daughter agreed to go, and I went as well.

The service wasn’t too bad to sit through, apart from disagreeing with most of what was said. Except for one really jarring piece that disturbed me greatly, and apparently my daughter as well based on later conversation. That piece was one of the hymns, where the entire congregation stood up and sang the following words to the strains of joyful musical accompaniment:

Some bright morning when this life is over
I'll fly away
To that home on Gods celestial shore
I'll fly away

I'll fly away, oh glory
I'll fly away in the morning
When I die hallelujah by and by
I'll fly away

When the shadows of this life have gone
I'll fly away
Like a bird from these prison walls I'll fly
I'll fly away

I'll fly away, oh glory
I'll fly away in the morning
When I die hallelujah by and by
I'll fly away

Oh how glad and happy when we meet
I'll fly away
No more cold iron shackles on my feet
I'll fly away

I'll fly away oh glory
I'll fly away in the morning
When I die hallelujah by and by
I'll fly away

I'll fly away oh glory
I'll fly away in the morning
When I die hallelujah by and by
I'll fly away

Just a few more weary days and then
I'll fly away
To a land where joys will never end
I'll fly away

I'll fly away oh glory
I'll fly away in the morning
When I die hallelujah by and by
I'll fly away
I'll fly away

I’ll be blunt about it: that is creepy as hell!

I mean, it’s not like it’s a horribly uncommon hymn. It’s actually pretty popular. As they were singing it, I could remember having sung it myself back when I still went to church. I just never really thought about it. But after being out of that culture for so long, catching this glimpse from an outsider’s perspective was like a punch in the gut.

I was standing in the middle of a crowd of better than a hundred people, all of whom were singing about how awesome it would be to die!

I mean, does anyone ever stop to think about how deranged that is? Doesn’t it trouble any of these people?

And we’re not even talking about dying to serve some great cause for which one might be glad to sacrifice oneself. The song portrays merely being dead as something so great, so wonderful, so glorious that being alive seems like “shadows,” by comparison. Life, in all its wonder, complexity, and vitality, is compared in this song to “prison walls,” and “iron shackles.”

OK. I get that Christian theology teaches that heaven will be a better existence than what we have here on earth. And in that context, I suppose it even makes sense that death would not be portrayed as something to be feared; that it could possibly even be a good thing. I can see why someone might want to believe that, in that it certainly allays anxiety induced by the fear of death. I guess I just don’t see why anyone actually does believe it.

And songs like this go well beyond trying to allay fears of death. They celebrate death. This song joyfully asserts the glorious wonderment of being dead as if it were an established fact that the singer were soaring off to an eternity of bliss (which, by the way, isn’t a certainty even within the context of the religion). It portrays death as something you should want far more than you should want to be alive.

If you’re like me, and don’t believe in the god posited by the religious traditions of which such hymns are a part, this sort of thing is very disturbing. It actively disparages the one and only life we know we get – the one we’re living right here and now – and encourages people to joyfully cast that life aside in favor of one that nobody has ever managed to demonstrate even exists. It looks like a hideous con game with people’s lives as the stakes rather than just their money. Except that nobody who gets to the other side of the con ever gets to come back and warn us that the con artist’s confident assurances of a better life are lies. You never have to hear from the victims about how they treated their real lives like a place to wipe their feet while waiting for the better life to show up, only to find out after they died that there was no better life. So you get to tell yourself that the reason you never hear about that disappointment is because those people are so full of joy and fulfillment that there is nothing for them to warn you about.

But it seems to me that the reason you don’t hear the complaints of the victims is the simple and obvious one: they’re dead.

So will you fly away? Maybe, maybe not. I can even hope for your sake that you will. But I can also hope, for everyone’s sake, that we not count on it. That we can dispel this song’s vision of this life as “shadows,” “prison walls,” and “iron shackles,” and give each other (and ourselves) the joys and comforts we know we can give in the here and now.