religion

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 Home Office can go back to where it came from, if you ask me.

Immigration is all over the news today. The last few days have seen a very, very uncomfortable atmosphere developing, which has been widely likened to that seen in Nazi Germany. In a bid to curry favour with UKIP voters (for which read either bigots, or just sadly ill-informed people), the Home Office have begun gleefully posting pictures of people of colour being shoved into the back of vans, along with bragging about how many illegal immigrants they have rounded up in that particular day. And then there is that bloody van driving around too.

Now, dear readers, I am going to sort of write something vaguely political. I'm going to do so in my own, incompetent, ranty way, so do forgive me if it ends up having very little to do with anything except for my thought. I've had very little sleep last night, and am grumpy as anything already. There might even be some mild swearing. There will almost definitely be terrible typos. Just stick with me, though, eh? 

Can a white, British girl like me get angry about such things? well, in short yes, and there are many, many similar angry people out there. All it really takes is to have a heart, and some empathy for other humans, to realise that what is going on out there is very, very wrong. Okay, so people might be in the country illegally, and they should have done it by the books ideally. But its easy to see that these people are hardly lying on a bed of solid gold rose petals, being fanned by the poor, downtrodden white folk who have lost their proper job because an unspecified European could do it cheaper. They're probably working crappy jobs for little pay and long hours, and probably living in shitty places. They're dealing with constant shit from ignorant white people.  And they're here because its a better life than what they left behind.

If you were to switch the TV on at about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, you will probably find a programme on called A Place In The Sun, or similar. In such programmes, white, middle class, British couples tramp around a foreign country looking for a quaint little 6 bedroomed villa with an olympic sized swimming pool and a simply darling, quaint, local little village just down the road where there are all the amenities *they* need to suit *their* needs, and all for a charming price of £5000. "oh, well its a different way of life", they say. "The pace is so relaxed over here. We don't even mind if it takes 20 mins for Betty down at the Dog and Duck to bring us our steak and kidney puddings- there are plenty of other ex-pats for us to talk to in the meantime" 

Why is this sort of immigration not such a problem? Why do we as a country not think that actually we are in no place to criticise, when we merrily trample the globe and plonk ourselves down wherever we like, safe in the knowledge that we can merely speak up to overcome the language gap?

Immigrants to the UK might use our free healthcare system. They probably use it because they're sick, and given that they are humans, and  I don't like to see anyone feeling under the weather, I'm pretty cool with that. What of our English acquaintances over in Spain? They'll be paying their way, right? They won't be discussing ways to get round recent changes to the country's healthcare systems on Expat forums, oh no of course they wont. You might also be interested in this article in today's The Lancet, which looks at just how much UK Health Tourism there actually is compared to what the papers say. The implications of UK citizens buggering off to Mexico for cheaper plastic surgery, then returning with a nasty infection that needs to be treated by the NHS don't seem to be shouted about in the Daily Mail quite as much as they probably should be.  

Well, but they are at least there legally. It's not like British people would be in a country illegally now, would they? And its not like there would be a massive outcry if the Australian government decided to start doing random checks on anyone wearing a bowler hat just in case they happen to be evil British illegals. 

I was nearly an immigrant once. I was going to move to Canada. I studied for nearly two years and passed the PEBC Evaluating Exam (7 hours and a 72 page syllabus, including questions on High Performance Liquid Chromatography, if you please). I kept going back there for holidays and interviews and the like. I was welcomed warmly wherever I went, and was able to freely explore the cities without fear. I knew that, had I moved over there, I wouldn't have had to spend my life having to justify my place there, or defend the fact that I had a job which could have gone to a Canadian citizen. We British folk have that privilege and it is the very scraping-of-the-barrel-least that we can do to at least acknowledge it.

As for stopping people of colour on the street to see if they are an illegal immigrant... Its somewhat of a revelation to me that in this day and age anyone can look "a bit foreign". Believe it or not, Home Office, but there have been black people in this country for many, many years. Some of them were even born here. And then some of those have gone on to have children too. I know, right? What a revelation that British people aren't all pale. Some of us don't even wear socks and sandals with our cricket whites. People just look like people, and unless they happen to be walking around with their noses stuck into a copy of The Illegal Immigrant's Guide To Avoiding Detection By The UK Home Office, there's really no way to judge.

Are we really that insular an (Anglo-Saxon) nation that we can't see our own double standards? Are we really that unable to see people as people, and look past their colour, nationality, and creed? Yes, we are wired to want to stick with people who are similar to ourselves. But it really doesn't take that much effort to overcome that and look through minor differences and just take each person on an individual basis. I know I have generalised horribly in the words above, but I am doing so to demonstrate a point- that the double standards in this country are really quite horrific. And yes, there are many facets to the whole thing that I haven't considered here, blah blah blah. In the end, all I am trying to say is that I'm very saddened, ashamed and disheartened by this whole nonsense, and that I'm a firm believer that immigration is a beautiful, enriching thing that should benefit everyone. Its not scary, its not negative, and it means that we are a better, more versatile and robust country because of it. 

If you're reading this and thinking 'hmm, well maybe, but there needs to be limits, and UKIP's immigration policies seem to make sense', then this is a plea for you to dig a little deeper into what those policies are, the evidence that they are based on, and who they benefit. 

If you're reading this and thinking 'naive lefty silly girl', then get lost. If, however, you're reading it and thinking 'naive lefty silly YOUNG girl' then by all means go right ahead.

Hxxx

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