atheism

The Ultimate Christmas album for the Existentially Wounded

"It's why, it's why we hang lights so high
and gaze at the glow of silver birches in the snow
Because of the dark, we see the beauty in the spark
We must be alright  if we could make up Christmas night"
-Tracey Thorn, Joy. 


Now, I'll admit that at this time of year, I can get rather annoying.

I love Christmas, I really do. I'm often to be found wearing antlers and tinsel. I put my decorations up at the first opportunity humanely possible, and start on the mince pies in September. This year, I excitedly bought myself a Lego advent calendar, despite the incredulity of the guy behind the counter in the shop. I also have snowman hoodie which yes, I shall wear out in public.

As a child-free, cynical, atheist adult, it might seem like this is a hard time of year to enjoy. And, to be honest, you're probably right. It would be a whole lot easier to throw in the towel and grumble about how commercial it all is, and how I just wish it was over and done with and everything can go back to normal. But I refuse to give into this, and put quite a bit of effort into maintaining my child-like delight at the festive season.

Obviously, its nothing to do with god. And don't get me wrong, I love the presents too (dear parents, if you are reading this, please do take note that I shall never be too old for Lego). But my desperation to enjoy this time of year runs somehow deeper than all that. I don't need to link it to religion, nor do I need to experience it through a child or partner. Christmas reminds me of my own, hard-won personality.

For me, it is about traditions. And these traditions, as they shift and change slightly each year, somehow reinforce my own self to me. Back in what now seems like a lifetime ago, my ex-husband and I took joy in forming new traditions together at this time of year. It was a way of reinforcing ourselves as a couple unit, of forging our own little family ways. Small things, like buying a new special decoration for the tree each year, came to mean a lot to us.

When my marriage broke down on Boxing Day 2010, I had to start again. Everything I had known up until that point fell apart, and my hopes and dreams, which I had been carrying like a shield all my life, shattered in a matter of hours. I had to begin again from scratch, and it was often the smallest of things that seemed to make all the difference to me.

The next year, my new, empty Christmas tree seemed somehow symbolic of how I had to start to collect some traditions of my very own. These traditions would belong to me, and me alone. I started picking up little decorations here and there, and now I have a rather lovely collection of bits and pieces to adorn my home with. And I've done the same with traditions: baking certain things at certain times, (including my beloved Christmas pie), drinking startlingly strong fruit wine in a particular pub on Christmas Eve with my friends, seeing Rare Exports at the cinema, taking part in a gingerbread contest, and many others. Some of us even go so far as to throw ourselves into the freezing North Sea on Boxing Day which not only washes away any vestiges of hangover cobwebs, but also distracts me from the awfully sad memories I would otherwise be thinking about.

Winter is a dark and often terrifying time for many of us. Dark mornings and dark nights make it easy for the sadness and emptiness to creep in. Getting home to a cold, dark, empty, one-bedroomed flat can start to feel like a failure. But then I pop on the tree lights, and I have something to focus on, some little pinpricks of hope that, in the end, the world is full of good people, and I will be able to spend some quality time with those who I love most- my friends and my family. And I will have an excuse to fill my flat with sparkly things, and wear glitter eyeliner.

Christmas is, to me, an acknowledgement that times will be dark and hard ahead, but that I will get through those times, with the help of those around me. It reminds me of how far I've come, and how proud I am of myself. It reminds me of all the good I have found in the world, of all the little bits of help I have gotten from the most unexpected sources, of all the new people I have met and the pride I have in my oldest friendships. If humankind has the presence of mind to plonk a huge celebration in the middle of the darkest season (even if they have done so on the pretence of a god I don't believe in), then that's fine by me, and I shall do my damnedest to make sure I embrace it with gusto.

I love the standard Christmas songs. I'll dance about to a bit of Slade with the best of them. But the saccharine jingle bells of most of the tunes you'll find on Now Thats What I Call The Ultimate Best Ever Christmas Tunes In World... Vol 3 don't seem to quite catch the nuances of the festive season for me. I've only come across a few songs which do, and I have collected them here for your auditory pleasure. I'm keen to know of more, so if you have any you would like to recommend, please do let me know, either in the comments, by email, or by tweeting me (@SparkleWildfire). What I would like to do is create a playlist of genuinely good, beautiful songs that evoke both the joy and the darkness of Christmas.

Joy by Tracey Thorn.
Tracey Thorn's (of Everything But The Girl fame) Christmas album Tinsel and Lights, which she released last year, was a total revelation to me. Its a gorgeous, calming album which hits just the right pitch of melancholy and joy for this time of year. I think this song says it all really.

Snowglobe by Dean Owens.
I saw Dean play at the Tyneside Cinema just before that fateful christmas of 2010. This is a lovely, sad little song about having depression or mental health issues over Christmas time. It serves as a reminder that mental health issues don't instantaneously resolve over the festive period, and that this time of enforced happiness can be extremely hard for many.

December Will Be Magic Again by Kate Bush
You may already know by now that I absolutely adore Kate Bush. Even the title of this song is poignant. This song has the same theme to me as Joy: its about using tradition to cover the darkness of the winter.

Winter by John Smith
This is simply the best, most beautiful song about the baby Jesus that I have ever heard. I first saw John play as support for John Martyn, and I have since seen him live several times and been reduced to tears by him. I absolutely adore his voice. I don't mind that this is a song about the nativity: to me it is a song about a story, and I just love how plaintively he sings that "I was there" line.

A Christmas Fable by The Selecter
I love a bit of ska. I've spent a full day agonising over which song to go for from this single. Then it occurs to me: its a double A-side, so I can legitimately have both. The songs are supposed to symbolise the light and dark sides of christmas, so they're pretty perfect for my playlist. Skank 'Til Christmas is all about letting your hair down when everything else in life has gone to shit (I love the references to the current financial situation), whilst a Christmas Fable is about a rather distressing family breakdown on Christmas day.

River by Madeleine Peyroux & K.D. Lang
A cover of this track also appears on the aforementioned Tinsel and Lights album. Thanks to the ever marvellous Ian Robinson (@eyeswideshut75) for suggesting it.

White Wine in the Sun by Tim Minchin
Thanks to Steve Haigh for reminding me of this. There's so much truth and humour in this gorgeous little tune, and it really sums up a good old family Christmas.

The Atheist Christmas Carol by Vienna Teng
This is just gorgeous.Thanks to Jackie (@Jackpot73- one of those new people so I am so thankful for having met this year) for

Silent Night/ 7 O'clock News by Simon and Garfunkel
Pretty self explanatory.

Love is All We've Got by Paul Fisher
I have loved Paul's music since the first time I saw him at a folk night when I was still underage drinking. I can remember being completely astounded by the noises that were coming out of this guy on the tiny stage upstairs in the Egypt Cottage pub. Turns out he has made a beautiful, gorgeous, poignant Christmas song this year which I will be listening to over and over.

Candle Song 3 by Mojave 3.

Tar Barrel in Dale by Rachel Unthank and the Winterset
Another one suggested by the lovely Jackie. A New Year's song about a Northumberland tradition. This year has been so cruel to so many of my friends and people I know, so I listen to this hoping that the new one brings those who I love some luck.

Hxxx

P.S. Here's my Sparkle Wildfire Top Festive Tip for the year: mulled wine liquid soap might seem like a good idea in the shop, but its really not. You end up smelling like a wino.

I ain't afraid of no ghosts... oh hang on.

"Girls, come over here. You'll be safe from the evil spirit on this side of the vault. A lady came in today and blessed it- you can see how she left healing flowers as part of the ritual."

This sentence would appear at first glance to be the sort of thing that would send me into an apoplectic rage. There is so much woo encapsulated in that one little sentence: ghosts (which don't exist), sexism (the men were left on the un-blessed side), god (who doesn't exist) healing flowers (medicinal woo) and rituals (spiritual nonsense which makes no difference). 

However, standing in the pitch black, musty cold of one of Edinburgh's vaults, clinging onto my friend Hesther and a complete stranger for dear life, I found myself repeating in my head 'its alright, I'm safe. A lady has been in and blessed it. Nothing bad is going to happen' over and over again in a desperate and unsuccessful bid to stave off hysteria.

This was just over a year ago. Every year, my friends and I take a trip over the border to take in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. In amongst the sight-seeing, drinking, burning of the candle at both ends, and stand-up comedy binging, we always tend to do something ghostie-related. Edinburgh is a very charismatically historical and spooky city. The first year, we went to Mary King's Close, then last year was a vaults tour. Each time, I have shown myself up as a pathetic, borderline hysterical scaredy-cat.

In another vault during last year's tour, we were told how a coven of Wiccan witches had tried to use a particular vault as a meeting room (I suspect meeting room isn't the correct terminology, to be honest, but never mind.). They had moved some stones to form a protective circle in the middle of the vault, but found that terrible things happened when they were inside the circle, including the appearance of a terrifying, animalistic evil demon which trapped them in the vault, stalking the corridor murderously so they couldn't get out. The tour guide very dramatically informed us of how no one had set foot inside the circle in her presence, but how she would leave us alone for a while and we could do so if we wished, before swooping out theatrically. Now, you and I know that this was just a room, and a tourist putting a toe into a circle of inert stones is not going to make a non-existent demon turn up.

However, as one chap went to put his foot within the circle, an inhuman sound emanated from the corner of the vault. It could only be described as a guttural shriek, and went something like:

"DONTEVENFUCKINGDAREORIWILLKILLYOUWITHMYBAREHANDS"

Something like that, anyway. I can't quire remember the exact words I used. Here I was, an atheist who believes firmly in science, screeching violent threats at a complete stranger all because he had moved his foot vaguely in the direction of the stone circle. I was, to say the least, utterly terrified, and it was only after a good few vodkas in the bar afterwards that I started to calm down.

But this was before I started to get really interested and involved in skepticism. I've since found myself being a whole lot more rational about many aspects of my life, and applying skeptical principles, critical thinking, and rationality has become a lot more second nature to me. This year's tour, which took in some supposedly more active vaults, as well as a graveyard and mausoleum, home of Edinburgh's most active and evil poltergeist, would be a breeze. After all, I would be able to calmly rationalise all aspects of it and see it for what it really is: pure entertainment. Skeptical pharmacist extraordinaire that I am, I would be serenely smirking at all of my friends and the rest of the tour group as they clung onto one another and shrieked.

Umm, well...

As it happened, I was marginally less hysterical than last time. I would love to say that this was due to my skepticism, but in actual fact is due to the fact that there was a bigger group of people, the tour guide was more comedic than dramatic, and that I had imbibed some gin beforehand.  But I do mean marginally. I was still clinging onto whoever was near me for comfort, (whimpering "don't leave me, please don't leave me"). I used up the last vestiges of my phone's battery for light because I was so terrified of the darkness. In the graveyard, I was telling myself that ghosts were less powerful in the open air, rather than that ghosts do not exist. In the mausoleum, I consoled myself with the fact that the Mackenzie poltergeist would probably like me because I'm an atheist and not a catholic, rather than that it is merely a tall tale made up to appease tourists and that there was a perfectly rational explanation for everything. Barely a rational thought crossed my mind for the whole sodding one and a half hours of the tour.  

It would seem then, based on this n=1 social experiment, that one is perfectly able to be paralyzingly frightened of something that you don't believe in, given the right circumstances. In the dark, having to listen to stories of ghostly hands grabbing at ankles, i can confirm that there is a minority part of my brain that not only takes over the rational, skeptical majority, but beats it into a pulpy submission then stamps on it repeatedly.

Hxxx

P.S. Spirits almost definitely did have something to do with the fact that I randomly fell over just before the tour even started.

 

The Godless Matinee

A while ago I- with the help of all of you lovely lot- collected together a little playlist of songs with an atheist theme. It was a great post to write, and what I love about it is that I still get suggestions now, or will be absent mindedly listening to something and will think "ooh, I must add that to the list". I love very much that many of you now have atheist playlists on your MP3 playing devices, and that I've had a tiny part to play in that.

Its been at the back of my mind for a while that a similar list for films should be in existence, then I was kicked into action by the same suggestion from the lovely Alom Shaha. Great minds and all that, eh? So here we have it, a humble list of films with an atheist or godless theme.

Some House Rules first. Be warned that I am the sort of person who will get up halfway through a film to tell someone off for talking, or having their phone on during a film. Even minor rustling of food packaging drives me crazy. So may I politely request that you follow this Code of Conduct, and we'll all get along fine.

So, phones off? Right, well settle in, get comfy, and lets watch some films. 

Remember guys, let me know if you want anything added. email me at healthydoseofskepticism@gmail.com, tweet me @SparkleWildfire, or leave a comment. I'd love to include your reasoning for choosing the films too.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) as suggested by @krypto: "All about the goodness of people. Polar opposite of religious remake"

Winter Light (1963) as suggested by @eyeswideshut75: "Bergman was tormented by atheism all his life.  i wouldn't say he was a one who celebrated it - to him one of the great pains in life was the silence of God, and this is never more evident than in Winter Light, Bergman's most unflinching and searing portrayal of personal, emotional and spiritual suffering.  the main character is a country priest who has lost his faith, but continues the rituals and tasks of his religion out of servitude, fear, a lack of anything else to do, out of service to his (ever dwindling and hopeless) congregation, and out of any cowardice to actually face up to this.  that Bergman's father was a strict Lutheran pastor adds whole new dimensions to the film." There you go, Ian, I did use more than two sentences after all.

The Wicker Man (1973) I recently rewatched this as part of an all-nighter at my beautiful local cinema, and it struck me how differently I viewed it now, as a more self-aware atheist than the first time I saw it. It seems like an odd choice at first glance, given it is entirely about belief of one form or another. But from an outside observer's perspective, its really interesting. Staunch catholic Sergeant Howie seems utterly repressed by his Catholic faith, whereas the paganism of the Summerisle residents initially seems full of freedom, but soon becomes a clear example of cargo cult science. In the end, all parties end up looking daft- the residents useless singing  in the face of failing crops whilst Sergeant Howie cries out in vain to Jesus, who can't save him from a fiery death. Oh, and sorry for the spoiler, but lets be honest here- the title is a spoiler anyway.

Carrie (1976) I only watched Carrie for the first time a couple of weeks ago. Not the most flattering depiction of religious families really, is it?

Life of Brian (1979) "He's not the Messiah. He's a very naughty boy!"

Star Trek V (1989) as suggested by @_TheGeoff.

 

Chocolat (2000). i add this on a Friday night of what has been an exhausting week. I've just watched Mother, a Korean film which is not what one would call a laugh riot, so I figured I had earned a sugary sweet, mindless film. (Mindless films are actually quite rare for me, with the exception of zombie films. I tend to shy away from anything that even vaguely resembles a rom com.) Its been over ten years since I saw this, so I had completely forgotten how atheist it is. And you can't beat a bit of Binoche.

Touching The Void (2003) as suggested by @damonayoung

Kingdom of Heaven (2005), as suggested by @JPSargeant78

Conversations with my Gardener Dialogue Avec Mon Jardinier (2007). This film has been chosen by North East Humanists as one for their film night next year. I haven't seen it yet, but am happy to take their word for it that it contains many of the sorts of values held by humanists.

Religulous (2008), as suggested by @epparry. I'm watching this as we speak, and crying laughing at the Holy Land Experience bit.

The Invention of Lying (2009) As mentioned in Alom's book.

A Serious Man (2009) as suggested by @Buster_Bear

Whatever Works (2009) I'm sure I saw somebody suggesting this but I can't find who it is, so my apologies

The Infidel (2010) in which a lapsed British Muslim finds out he is actually Jewish. Its not godless as such, but it does call into question the ridiculousness of hatred between the different factions of religion.

Four Lions (2010) because one if the only ways we have of dealing with the horrors of terrorism and religious freedom extremism is to make black comedies and laugh at it. When I saw it at the cinema I was left uncomfortable at the riotous laughter going on around me: its a film of hilarity mixed with deep sadness, but many appeared to be missing the sadness bit. Through the humour, the dangerous ridiculousness of violence based on religion is addressed, along with the manipulation it involves. In the end, you're left feeling that when it comes down to it, a belief in god is about as valid as a belief in rubber dinghy rapids.

The Ledge (2011) as suggested by Alom Shaha

Paul (2011) as suggested by @Alex250175. "beautiful moment of revelation"

Side Effects (2013) as suggested by @Dilip_Modhvadia. In his words "a good film apart from Jude Law's nauseating performance".

Philomena (2013) as suggested by the ever wonderful @obsolesence

 

Anything by Michael Bay. Because any merciful god would surely not allow such atrocities to exist.

 

Hxxx

Apostasy: a Heathen's perspective

Sometimes, you come across things in life that really open your eyes and you find yourself gazing into a world that you had no idea about. The Apostasy Project is one of those things. 

Being a lower-middle-class-ish white girl with a loving, secure, and easy-going family, I've never really had to think about a lot of the things I am. I can breezily make declarations about my lack of faith and no one would really bat an eyelid, even those that are more religiously inclined. Not everyone has access to this privilege. 

I know I've said this before, but I really can't thank my parents enough for their laid back -some would say lackadaisical- attitudes to my religious upbringing. They purposefully didn't force any religion on me as a child, their conviction being that it was my choice-when I was old enough to make that decision- what to believe in. They gave me the gift of a neutral baseline on which to impose my own beliefs, or lack of them, as I wished.

I went to a Christian school, but all that really meant was sitting through a couple of minutes of prayer in assembly. There were no consequences of not praying- it was just another boring part of assembly to accept and get through before the more interesting bits of the school day started. School plays were religiously themed sometimes, (but also, on one notable occasion, Neighbours themed) but none of this really had any effect on me or the rest of my life decisions and was viewed by most of us kids as vaguely ridiculous and uncool.  I have very little knowledge of any religion, to be honest, because I just don't really need it in my life- I'm a modern day heathen, in the unruly, uncivilised sense of the word, you could say. 

So I've been pretty much oblivious to the sorts of issues that people who have to walk away from a religion can experience. Recently, thanks to The Apostasy Project, I've been reading with interest the accounts of people who have walked away from their religion. It had, to be honest, never really occurred to me that 'coming out' as an atheist is potentially just as traumatic an experience for some as the more traditional version of 'coming out' that people would think of- as being gay. Like some gay people, apostates also risk losing respect, family, friends, and their whole communities simply for stating that they no longer subscribe to the same belief system. What I'm realising too is that these sorts of issues can apply across the board religion-wise too: it's not just those that people assume to be more fundamentalist.

 

Given all of this, it's amazing really that anyone ever does come out about losing their faith. But, when the alternative is living a lie, why should people have to keep their lack of faith secret? The more apostates speak out, the more normalised it becomes, and hopefully a more open, civilised and accepting society follows. Making the decision to question and walk away from a religion which shaped your childhood is an incredibly brave thing to do, and those of us who are lucky enough not to have to do so might not appreciate that.

 

The Apostasy Project has been set up to support people in this position, and its an important role to play. If any of you lovely people can help them out, please do. 

 

Atheists are, by definition, a ragtag, diverse bunch. Some would say that with only a lack of belief to unite us, it's impossible that we could build the sort of religious community one would find in, say, a church. But I don't think that's true, and I think it's important that we build a sort of atheistic extended family in order to be more visible and frankly, just because its much nicer for us all to feel that we belong somewhere. This is my little chunk of solidarity to apostates everywhere, then, for what it's worth.


Hxxx


P.S. Be sure to also read John Sargeant's account of leaving Jehovah's Witnesses, which are beautifully written: Part One and Part Two

Take all of it, every scrap

There are many things in life that are not black and white. There are many arguments in which I can see where all sides are coming from, and I can understand the root of why people would disagree with me. Yet there is one area which is consistently contentious, and yet my brain can genuinely not comprehend the other side of the debate.

I'm talking about organ donation.

The news yesterday was good: there has been a 50% increase in organ donation since 2008. And yet there is still a long, long way to go.

"Last year, 125 families overruled an individual's intention to donate."- BBC News

I really, really struggle to understand why anyone would object to organ donation. I just cannot get my head round it. And overturning an individual's decision to donate their organs seems particularly bizarre to me. I understand that in the acutely shocking and devastating situation of a death you might not be thinking clearly, but... I really just don't get it. 

Maybe its my atheism. Maybe its the fact that I see death as just that and no more. I don't see it as the start of a new journey into the afterlife, or the first step on my way to meeting my maker. You just die and that's that. So I suppose its easy for me to disassociate myself from the shell that's left. I don't feel creepy about the idea that there could be bits of me in other people: in fact I feel positively proud that I might be able to help in any way.

Religions offer us a legacy. They give us the promise of a new beginning after our death, and so go some way to assuage the fear of nothingness that might follow. But it's a legacy that, in my opinion, is pretty useless. It might be comforting to our loved ones, but in the long term view of things on this planet, that doesn't mean a great deal when there are people whose lives could be made better by a chunk of my flesh being implanted into them when its no longer any use to me.

Not that I think every objection to organ donation is on religious grounds, but I suspect it may be a fairly important part of it for some people. Atheists are often told that we're evil, that we have no morals, and that we are going to hell, but to me it seems that organ donation is clearly the more morally good choice when the alternative is wanting to keep a dead person intact for ceremonial reasons. 

Some people just think its icky: the idea that a bit of you will be in someone else. I had an ex-boyfriend who thought organ donation was wrong "because its just weird" (he's an ex for a number of very definite reasons, and this is quite a prominent one). Well, I think a lot of things are icky, but they still get done because they have to be done. I can think of more pleasant things than having a smear test, for example, but I do it because it is a necessary evil. And, one has to remember a key point: you're dead. Things don't seem so icky or weird to you any more because you no longer exist. 

Fig 1. Handy flow chart for deciding whether to sign up for organ donation

Fig 1. Handy flow chart for deciding whether to sign up for organ donation

urely there is no better legacy than giving parts of ourselves to allow other people to go on living healthier, longer lives.  

And so, your homework is to (if you haven't already), think about it, speak to your loved ones about it, and sign up to the Organ Donation Register 

Hxxx

Firewalk with me: Science, Religion, and some very, very hot coals

Firewalking is, to be honest, great fun. I did it last year and I shall again be strutting over burning embers in a few week's time, to raise money for The Stroke Association, for which I would be very, very grateful if you were to throw your spare pennies in my direction.

I remember from last time that we were told in the pre-firewalk training that you needed the following three things to be able to firewalk successfully:

1. Fire connection- you have to know that it is a real-life fire, not a trick, and that it is going to be really, very hot. We were encouraged to go and hold our hands above the coals so that we knew that it was hot before walking. Apparently, if you tell yourself it's not hot, it just doesn't work.

2. A belief in a theory. You need to have some faith that it works, and that you're not going to end up as barbecue fodder. 

3. Intention to walk. You need to stand at the start of the walk, and know and want to walk across the fire. Supposedly there have been studies done where they blindfolded experienced firewalkers and they were unable to do it unless they knew when they were stepping onto the fire.

"They believe that the power of Saint Constantine—the religious power—allows them to do it and that that is a miracle," Source: National Geographic

Some people believe they're able to firewalk because of their aura and golden light coming from their heart chakras and that sort of thing. The evidence for this appears to be a couple of photos which I'd imagine could easily be explained by the fact that a) you're moving and b) you're walking on fire, usually in the dark so its pretty likely that there's going to be a bit of a glow on photos. 

Other people believe that it's God who allows them to firewalk, and indeed firewalking is an integral part of some religious rituals and is generally considered to be a very spiritual experience.

You'll hopefully know me well enough by now to know that I'm unlikely to go in for this as an explanation. Indeed I'd suspect that if there was a God in control of such matters there'd be even more likelihood of me getting toasted feet, and he's probably see to it that I got hit by lightning or something at the same time, just for good measure, to prove a point and to punish me for all my years of non-belief. Is there any evidence that this option is the truth? In short, no. 

So that leaves us with physics then. Now, it's been many years since I actually did any physics, and admittedly my physics teacher spent more time attempting to give electric shocks to a boy called Alistair than anything else, but I know enough to be pretty damn confident that out of all the options, this is the one that makes sense. It's all about conductivity- because coal and wood are pretty feeble conductors of heat, and because you're walking, there isn't enough time for the heat to transfer to your feet to cause any burning. The evidence for this? Well, lots. Sticking your hand in an oven is an oft-quoted example, and few people declare that to be a spiritual experience overseen by a God, do they? 

Here's the thing: does any of this actually matter? According to the guy who did our training last time, apparently not, as long as you believe that something will get you across safely, it doesn't really matter. If only such attitudes were employed in other aspects of life, one can't help but wonder how many lives would have been saved/made better. 

So does believing in science make firewalking a less impressive experience? Surely if you take out the belief in a protective spiritual presence it would lose its appeal, right? In truth, this couldn't be more wrong. It feels magical, and every bit as much like you are conquering the impossible as it must do for spiritual types. The fact that its caused by the physical characteristics of different types of matter doesn't make it any less transcendent, scary, or beautiful. 

Of course, having said all this it'll be just my luck that I'll end up in a burns unit after my next one. I hereby give you permission to laugh heartily if this is the case. 

I'll just leave this here again, just in case you want to lighten your wallets....
http://www.justgiving.com/Firewalk-WithMe 

Hxxx

An Atheist's Mixtape

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby is undoubtedly one of my favourite books. I have a very dog-eared copy which I have read many, many times, to the point where each time I re-read it I'm often surprised to find a line which I had assumed was actually my own thought, its so ingrained into my being. Yes, I'm the kind of person who cries at live and recorded music, and I'm one of the "people of a certain disposition (who) are frightened of being alone for the rest of their lives at twenty-six" (except for I had the same fear at much younger ages as well). Of course I've always wanted to be in a relationship with a musician so I can be mentioned in sleeve notes, and I have no idea what came first- the music or the misery, but I know that my love of music is probably responsible for my (now rather repressed) tendency to be hopelessly romantic.

So, when there was a bit of a conversation about atheist songs on Twitter this morning, it seemed the obvious thing to do to attempt a Barry-From-Championship-Vinyl-Style Desert-island, All-time Top five list of Songs for Atheists.

Of course I've failed miserably at this task: I've had so many suggestions that I can't bring myself to agonize over which should be cut, and in what order they should appear in. So instead, I give you a compilation, a mixtape of all your atheist suggestions.

"To me, making a tape is like writing a letter- there's a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again... You've got ti kick off with a corker, to hold the attention... and then you've got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you can't have white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music, and you can't have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you've done the whole thing in pairs, and... oh there are loads of rules."

So stick these songs onto on your generic fruit-based MP3 player device, press shuffle, and enjoy.  If  you've made any of the suggestions, do  with your reasons so I can add them in, and I'll obviously be happy to add anything else you lovely folk care to suggest too.

God's Song by John Martyn: It may be controversial, but I'm going for the John Martyn version, mainly because I love pretty much everything that he has done. He is indeed one of the artists who have made me cry seeing them live. I think his tone and voice are particularly suited to this song.
 

Don't Fear The Reaper: Any version really, I tend to lean towards the one by Caesars, just because.
 

This Must Be The Place by Talking Heads: I'm not entirely sure why, as its not particularly atheist-based, but it sprung into my head and I have found myself listening to it a lot. I guess I just think its about being grounded in this life, by love rather than any vague notion of an imaginary god. I could, of course, be completely wrong, but its probably a bit safer than trying to shoehorn Psycho Killer in somewhere instead, as that would really annoy the Christians ;) I guess I should throw Heaven in there somewhere too.
 

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Churchhouse Blues by The Dodge Brothers: because why not throw in a bit of skiffle? And whilst I hate to see gin wasted, it would seem that burning church houses down with it could be seen as a worthy cause for many atheists.

God by John Lennon: as recommended by @deep_anchor

What If No-one's Watching? by Ani DiFranco: as recommended by Alom Shaha. It makes an appearance in his book and all, don't you know :)

I Don't Believe In You by Talk Talk: as suggested by @spiderkemp

Gone to Stay by Freakwater: as recommended by @kzelnio

Glory Hallelujah by Frank Turner: as recommended by @MarkRTurner and @jackpot73

Everything Alive Will Die Someday by George Hrab: as recommended by @RespectMyCrest

Intervention by Arcade Fire: as recommended by @RespectMyCrest

Blasphemous Rumours by Depeche Mode: as recommended by @RespectMyCrest

Eternal Life by Jeff Buckley: as recommended by @RespectMyCrest

Allow me to intervene again at this point to also put in Hallelujah, the Jeff Buckley version. And no, not just because I was-and probably am still- utterly in love with him, but that line:"And it's not a cry that you hear at night/ It's not somebody whose seen the light/ It's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah'... The way Jeff sings it has a devastating note of bitterness which...resonates. And yes, it is also about rude things which God would no doubt not approve of.

Wake Up by Arcade Fire: as recommended by @RespectMyCrest. by his own admission it may not be strictly atheist, but if I'm allowing myself This Must Be The Place, I'm allowing Joe his amazing songs also :)

No God, Only Religion by Spiritualized: as recommended by @astrotomato. Oh, and by the way, the pharmacy nerd in me loves Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space. That album packaging was just fantastic.

On and On by Tom McRrae: as recommended by @RespectMyCrest

Imagine by John Lennon: as recommended by @helgestad, @kasilas and @deep_anchor. It's true, it needs to be in the list. But I can't help but hear our old friend Barry from Championship Vinyl scathingly declaring that it's simply too obvious. 

Thank God I'm An Atheist by Al Baker: as recommended by @jackpot73

I Will Follow You Into The Dark by Death Cab for Cutie: as recommended by @jackpot73

Enjoy Yourself by The Specials (or any other version you fancy): It occurs to me that this could be the quintessential atheist/humanist anthem.

Epitaph by King Crimson: as recommended by @rupagulab

I Could Build You a Tower by Get Cape, Wear Cape, Fly. People who know me well will know that I think GCWCF (is) are one of the most consistently perfect bands (person) around nowadays. I therefore nominate this song, which isn't entirely about atheism but does address the age old problem of evil, fundamentalism etc. It's also very beautiful, as is the whole of the album Searching For The Hows And Whys, which I think is as close to an entirely perfect album as I have found. 

Dear God by XTC: as recommended by @PublicSerpentOz and @j2blather

God is a Spider by The Cherry Poppin Daddies: Not strictly an atheist song I guess, but one expressing a painful dissatisfaction with a god. Also: great band name for this sort of a list. And everyone needs more ska-swing-big band-punk in their lives.  

A Rational Response by Greydon Square: as recommended by Alom Shaha. Some welcome rap for our list. I must admit that despite a flirt with hip hop in my younger years I've never heard of Greydon Square, but a quick glance at his Wikipedia page suggests he's pretty interesting. And apparently he's also known as The Black Carl Sagan, so who could argue with that?

Had To Thank Someone For You by Nev Clay. Nev is a local folk singer who I first discovered when I was a teenager, and love his witty, beautiful music with a passion. I've just stumbled across this gorgeous little ditty and knew it was just perfect for this list- "but last night i knelt and prayed like a little kid again - i had to thank someone for you. and i don't know or care if anything was listening. i had to thank someone for you."

Atheist's Lament by Aidan Moffat  as recommended by @Jon Mendel. He's right, I'm not entirely sure how this has been left off the list for this long!

And clearly, no self-respecting atheist song list would be complete without a bit of Tim Minchin. As recommended by @obsolesence we're going with Ten Foot Cock and a Few Hundred Virgins and, of course The Pope Song.

So there we have it so far. Clearly, this is the sort of thing that I will lie awake at 3am thinking about ("OMG I need to put <insert obscure song> in, why didn't I think of that already, its so obvious. but not too obvious, obviously")

Let's talk about death, baby

Yep, settle in, dear friends, and lets have a think about death. Specifically, assisted suicide. 

This subject has come up quite a bit recently in the field of pharmacy and medicine. The PJ online are asking me to vote on whether or not I would refuse to dispense a prescription as part of an assisted suicide. The GMC is revisiting guidance to Drs. It's time to have a bit of a think about how we as pharmacists feel about playing a part in death.

There's a word which I think should be associated with death, and that word is dignity. People on the brink of death are still people, and I think in such discussions that fact is often forgotten,. We talk about our professional ethics, our religious choices, the impact it would have on us and our consciences, but I think we should talk-and think- more about the thoughts and needs of each dying patient. 

We're all frightened of death of course. I've been lucky enough that I haven't had much experience of it so far, but I've had enough to have experienced the lack of control one feels when faced with the death of a loved one. And all the bizarre rituals, funerals, cremations, all of these things that we do are desperate attempts to claw some control and dignity back from the situation. 

And so it is that I personally don't really need to think that much about this decision. I wouldn't hesitate to dispense medicines for assisted suicide, if it is going to give someone the dignity that they so richly deserve. 

People who believe in a god may think this is a typical example of an immoral atheist wanting to go on a legal murder rampage, playing god and interfering with when someone's "time" is. But in actual fact i think it's more about caring for the person involved, giving them respect for the person they are-and were. We need to remember that they remain a person to the end- and so should be allowed the right to choose, right up until the end.

Hopefully that makes sense. 
Hxxx 

Thoughts on a child-free life

In my initial post, I said that I would mainly be blogging about skepticism in healthcare. Well, it turns out that I'm actually more able to churn out random nonsense about other -occasionally rather deep- aspects of my life more easily. And, as i'm getting more involved in skepticism as a whole, it's amazing to me how it's touching all the other aspects of my life as well, reinforcing vaguely held ideas and making me much more able to express my views to other people.

The other night I was at a bit of a 'do at a friend's house, and I had a conversation with one of my friends who I think is absolutely brilliant but I don't see that often in which I found myself employing some skeptical skills unexpectedly. The conversation was about the thorny issue of children.

So, here we go. I don't want children. Here is the standard conversation that I am used to pretty much every time these words leave my mouth:

Other Person:  "Oh.... OH?! REALLY?"
Me: "yes, really"
Other Person: "what, ever?"
Me: "no, never. At least I can't see myself ever having a space or need in my life for them in the future"
Other Person: "But you don't know what you're missing!"
Me: "yes, yes I do, thank you very much."
Other Person: "but it's different when it's your own"
Me:  "I'd rather not take the chance that it isn't"
Other Person: "oh, I knew someone (or alternatively, I used to be) just like you. And they (I) went on to have 20 kids and they (I) love them to bits."
Me: "umm, right. Well I don't think that's going to happen here"

And so it goes on, time after time, as if one day, during one of these generic conversations, I'm going to go "actually, do you know what, you're RIGHT!, I'm off to procreate RIGHT NOW"

I actually believe that the idea that you'll have children is very similar to religion, in that it sadly often doesn't even occur to people that there is an alternative option. It's just accepted as routine that you'll grow up, you may get married, and you'll have kids. I doubt many people ever think to challenge this notion, and as a result I think a lot of people don't address their own concerns about becoming parents before they do, and I'm sure this is a source of great angst and sadness in the world today.

I'm often confronted with a momentary look of blatant hatred when I confess that I don't want kids to people, before they get the chance to rearrange their face.  I sometimes get the feeling this may be a "hey, damn, I wish I'd thought of that!" reaction. Sometimes I see people over-enthusiastically posting on Facebook about how marvellous their kids are and I really can't tell who they are trying to convince.

My friend has found herself having to think about whether or not she wants children, because other people are constantly forcing her to think about it. Because she's been with her boyfriend for a prescribed amount of time, the "when are you getting married, when are you having kids" conversation is being thrown at her regularly. We talked for a while and it seems she's inclined to think she doesn't want them, but its such a social norm that she almost can't believe that this could be an option for her.

As you'll know from my previous post about atheism, I agree very much with Alom Shaha's notion that atheism needs to be more visible as an option to stop a lot of misery. I think similarly about not wanting children. I'm told I'm selfish for not wanting them, that I'm abnormal, that I'm somehow doing my gender and humanity a disservice. And I am selfish, but is it not more selfish to have a child because its simply what you do, then potentially spend a lifetime suppressing low-level regret and resentment? I could start on about overpopulation, blah blah blah but that's usually just too much effort for these types of conversation.

It strikes me that, like a lot of things in life, most people take this decision on face value instead of examining it with skeptical principles. And, after questioning yourself and your deeply held beliefs and societal norms, you still want to go ahead, then fine, I sincerely wish you all the best. It seems to me that a healthy dose of skepticism- in all aspects of life- is always worthwhile.

Like atheism, I've confronted my lack of desire for children, and I accept and embrace it, even in the face of some moments of fairly serious pressure to the contrary. I have no need or space for a child in my life, and I can make my own purpose and legacy without having to create and drag a new life into the equation. I'm comfortable with my decision, I just wish that everyone else was as comfortable with it as I am. Comfortable enough that the sort of conversations above- that I and many other child-free people (by which I mainly mean women) have to go through all the time- don't have to happen anymore. Comfortable enough that its an accepted life decision and not seen as an eccentric quirk.

I could rant on for days about this subject, and I may well revisit it in future posts. I hope that's not too boring for you.

Hxxx

 

On thinking about God.

I think I have probably always been an atheist. I can't remember having any revelatory moments in which I realised the idea of God was dead to me, and I also can't remember ever really, truly having a need for a god. I remember a few occasions, in those awful dark moments that pounce on you in life, that I wanted a church to go to. A physical place of comfort, which would surround you with warmth and love and knowledge that everything in the world would get better eventually. But I don't think that really had anything to do with an actual wish for a god. And in actual fact, I feel really quite uncomfortable in churches, like at any moment i'm going to be found out and burnt at a stake. 

What I realised quite recently, though, is that this has never actually been a conscious decision to not believe in God. And how could I have been reasonably living as an atheist for so long without ever really confronting how I came to be this way?  I was actually quite startled about how little I knew about atheism (or agnosticism, for that matter)

I was so, so lucky in my parents, who I think both had a Catholic upbringing (I say think because I have literally no idea what religion my Dad is. We've simply never had that conversation). Their attitude was very much: "let her make her own mind up when she's ready". Though my Mum believes in God, she thinks that if he is so omnipresent, there's no need for her to traipse to a church when clearly she could be getting on with something more interesting. I'd never say it to them, but I'm so thankful to them for letting me just drift along pretty much ignoring anything religious. I went through a bit of a phase of deciding i might be Buddhist as an early teen (yes, yes- I was a bit of a hippy-goth type creature, and I refuse to be ashamed of it), and my Dad in that way which is typical of him showered me with leaflets for the Newcastle Buddhist Centre and even bought me a book about being a buddhist. Even now I'll claim occasionally to be a Buddhist, but this is only when I'm grasping for an excuse to make someone else kill a creepy crawly because I'm too scared to. 

I'm also utterly unknowledgable when it comes to religions, including Christianity. I'd just much rather find out other stuff about people than their religion. I want to know if they're nice people, if they're funny, what they do for a living, and who they think will win the Great British Bake Off, rather than which church they go to or whether they believe in the right god or not. I figure my ignorance is bliss, provided I spread it liberally over all religions. Although offering a Jewish vegetarian some bacon brownies may not have been my best moment. 

There is a reason that I've been thinking about my own lack of belief, and that reason is a Skeptics In The Pub talk by the (exceptionally charming) Alom Shaha. His talk was brilliant, and I found I was sat there thinking 'why have I never thought about any of this before and yet it all makes SUCH SENSE'. (I'm really not going to go into every thought I had during his talk, except to say... *swoon*). I bought his book, The Young Atheist's Handbook (whilst attempting and failing to not blush and make a stupid joke about only buying it so I can feel young) from him and voraciously read it over the following week. I found myself doing all sorts of thinking about my lack of belief.

YAH


Now, I would absolutely love to write an eloquent, concise review of his book but I doubt I'd do the genre of book reviewing justice. I'd just like to say that it's very beautiful, and that you all should buy it, if you haven't already. I've found that since reading it, I'm a whole lot more confident and vocal about not needing belief in god now and in discussing this with other people without having fear of offending anyone. At least I know my own lack of belief now stands up in the face of my own questioning. And, in the face of that, I started reassessing a fair bit about the rest of my life- how I feel about love in the wake of my divorce, for example. It sounds a bit far-fetched that one little purple book can do that sort of thing but I guess sometimes the most profound moments appear very unexpectedly.

Anyway, all of this is a very long-winded way of saying: I have thought about it, and I'm now very confident that I just don't have room or need in my life for a god. I'm fine (and actually weirdly comforted) by the thought that this is it: there's nothing beyond, no afterlife, no higher being, no destiny... Just this, and this is what we make of it ourselves.

Oh, and if you're wondering: I think Danny will win this year's Great British Bake-Off, but Iwant Brendan to win.

H xxx