Sunday, December 23, 2012

Why I Care About the Atheist Movement (AKA The Poop Story)

So, lots of people know I talk about poop a lot. This story will be no exception, although in this case it isn't my poop I'll be talking about.

Flash back to 2007. I was a conservative Christian who was losing faith (but stubbornly clinging to it, since I knew nothing else), and I was also a high school senior deciding where to go to college. I had visited a tiny Christian college in a small town in Iowa (pop: 10,000) and fallen in love with it and decided to go there.

Fast forward to 2010: I'm back from a semester spent in Johannesburg, South Africa, very progressive, and an atheist-- and now back in this conservative small town and hyper-religious campus. I was frustrated with how completely pervasive Christianity was on campus (often, I'd be "tricked" into going to religious events-- posters would advertise events such as a campus-wide game of Capture the Flag but wouldn't mention the 30 minutes of "sharing testimony" before we could play-- not that doing that is wrong, simply that I think it is disingenuous to say "open to everyone!" and not mention that it was essentially a Christian group). Wanting to see if there were any other non-theists on campus and to hopefully start a community, I asked Twitter how I could start an atheist club at my school. I was directed to the Secular Student Alliance (who I now work for, full disclosure). I requested a Group Starting Packet, managed to find a faculty sponsor, and put an announcement on the student announcement page that simply read "Atheist, Agnostic, or generally non-religious? If you're interested in starting a Freethinkers' Club, email me!"

Campus blew up. I got emails from staff members (to my pleasant surprise, the staff and administration was very supportive about my right to start the group), fellow atheist students (who had mainly been quiet about their non-beliefs, which explains why I thought I was the only one), and Christians (some of whom were very supportive, and some of whom were very upset). 

Here's an example of what someone who was friends with me on FB said (and one of their friends, followed by my response):

The whole conversation went on for pages, and someone who didn't attend my school (or even know me) stood up for me, but of course everyone kept arguing against him and called me a "jackass." My comment was deleted shortly after it was posted, and so I unfriended the person who made the status (although, to this person's credit, they sent me an email a few days later with a semi-apology, and a year or two after I graduated this person eventually became involved in the SSA at my school. To my knowledge, they are not an atheist, but they are now supportive of secularism/secularists, so that worked out better than expected in the long run). 

However, conversations were started on campus, and that was what I wanted. In order to start a club at my school, you needed 10 signatures of people who supported the club formation. I think I got somewhere around 35 signatures, all from people who shared my sentiments: campus was not a very friendly place to non-Christians. So, I filed all the necessary paperwork and posted the time and date of the first meeting.

So many people showed up to our first meeting! I was thrilled! We had a great, positive meeting, where people talked about how they felt excluded frequently, how they would have pamphlets about Jesus pushed under their doors at night, how people would be rude or dismissive when one of them said they didn't want to participate in a religious ritual, how professors called them out in class for not "believing," and a whole litany of other microaggressions. This group, we all hoped, would change that-- or at the very least, offer a safe space where those microaggressions wouldn't happen and where we could feel safe talking about our lack of beliefs.

I left the meeting feeling better than I ever had in my three previous years at the school. The next morning, I woke up, still flying high from the excitement from the meeting. I opened my door to go take a shower...and a garbage can full of liquid fell on me. "This is a minor inconvenience," I thought to myself as I picked up the can-- that's when I realized it wasn't water, but urine. I started crying and texted the Hall Director so the cleaning staff could come by to clean it up, showered, and left for classes that day.

I came back that afternoon and felt so discouraged. Why were people reacting like this? A handful of Christians had shown up to the meeting, not to argue, but to show support for us. Why couldn't more people just talk to us so they knew we weren't just sitting around, bashing Christians? Didn't they realize they were the majority on campus (and in the country) and that our tiny little group was in no way threatening to them? It was so frustrating. However, as discouraging as having a bucket of urine fall on me was, it also strengthened my resolve to keep the group going. 

So, the meetings continued...and so did the harassment. Posters were torn down more often than left up, or they had "fuck you" or "die atheist bitch" written on them, people would leave anonymous notes in my mailbox about how much they hated me and how awful I was for starting the group, my door handle was superglued (so I couldn't get my key in the lock), not to mention the rumors or passive aggressive comments made to me in class (before, of course, refusing to have an actual discussion with me about the group). Nothing topped what happened Easter weekend, though.

I went home for Easter weekend (since I lived about 7 hours from campus and didn't have a lot of opportunities to see my family during the year), but only after a very serious deliberation about going to the American Atheists conference in Des Moines that year. I was driving back to campus with a girl who lived in my hometown, and my neighbor (and the girl with whom I shared a bathroom) in my dorm called me. The conversation went like this:

Neighbor: "Hey Sarah...are you on campus?"
Me: "No, I'm still about 2-3 hours away. Why, what's up?"
Neighbor: "Um...somebody did something to our bathroom."
Me: "What did they do?"
Neighbor: "...It's covered in shit."
Me: "What do you mean?" (Thinking she meant someone had sprayed our toothpaste everywhere or something, which I had seen done before)
Neighbor: "It's covered in shit."
Me: "Yeah, I get that, what kind of shit?"
Neighbor: "Actual shit. Like...human."

Yep. Someone(s) had shit in our bathroom and then smeared it all over my half. On the counter, on the floor, on the mirror, above the light...the real cherry on top was when they put all my soap, shampoo, and toothbrush in it.

Luckily the cleaning staff had it all cleaned up by the time I got back (and my friend was willing to drive me to Wal-Mart so I could buy new toiletries), but still, the damage was done and the message was clear.

By this time, I think the administration was sick of dealing with my problems (and by that I mean the problems people had with me) and they didn't even try to find out who did it. I ran into the head of security a couple days later and asked him how the investigation was going, and he hadn't even heard about the situation (and it was a small enough school that he would have heard of it).

I know other members of the group faced harassment as well, but nothing quite as severe.

It was frustrating, but the group kept going, and is still going today. I like to think I changed some people's minds, but even if I didn't, I made a safe space for people to talk about their lack of beliefs. There were several people who told me I was the only atheist they had ever met, so at the very least I was able to help some people realize atheists are real people.

The curious thing I've noticed looking back now (2 years removed) is the response people had to it: almost every single person I told either assured me that most Christians would never do that (which I would never think or claim), or they reacted with anger (either toward Christianity or at my school). The only person (aside from close friends) who I can recall focusing on how I, as a person, reacted and felt about it, was Todd Stiefel (at the 2011 Texas Freethought Convention). I remember going to my room after our conversation and crying, because it did still hurt-- yet most people used this story as an opportunity to make it about their agenda (either for or against Christianity).

I'm not going to say the people who did it did it because they were Christians, or because they were "bad Christians" (both arguments I've heard), they did it because they're malicious people who probably felt threatened by someone who thought differently than they did. It was a shitty (ha ha) thing to do, and I would never condone anyone doing something like that to someone. To be honest, it feels pretty dehumanizing to have someone hate you SO MUCH that they willing touch their own feces to smear on your stuff.

I wanted to write this story much earlier, but I either felt too mad or hurt about it until about now. My life rocks now, I have a great partner, a job I love, two adorable cats, and we just bought a house. However, I still want to share this story because I want people to know what it can be like to be an atheist (or just to be different) in a small town. It's scary, and it's rough.

That's why I encourage groups like Secular Student Alliance affiliates. A lot of people on places like r/atheism ask "Why would you meet? Atheism isn't a religion!" and my response is this. Because being ostracized because of your beliefs really sucks, and it's nice to have a community that supports you. Funnily enough, even though it was me starting the group that caused the harassment, it was also the group that got me through it.

So, I guess I'm pretty much over it now. However, if you're moved by my story and want to help, donate to the SSA, because somewhere out there there's a student going through what I went through or worse, and we want to help them. Or just share this story. Or just don't poop on anyone's stuff, for any reason, ever.

And that's my poop story. Now you know.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Why You Don't Really Love Hermione-- But You Should

So I've been re-reading the Harry Potter books for the 10,000th time, and the same thing struck me that always does-- everyone (I'm talking about fans of the books here, not characters within them) talks about how much they love Hermione. Hermione is by far my favorite character in the series, and it might be a bit hipster-ish of me to feel this way ("Ugh, I don't want liking her to be so mainstream!"), but seriously, it drives me up a wall when people talk about how much they love the series and love the character but completely fail to understand her character.

Now, when I'm talking about fans, I'm usually talking about the people on reddit who post pictures like these: 

Usually with oh-so-clever titles like "My, How You've Grown Up, Hermione," or "Hermione the Atheist." (also usually accompanied by the quote: ""But that's - I'm sorry but that's completely ridiculous! How can I possibly prove it doesn't exist? Do you expect me to get hold of - of all the pebbles in the world and test them? I mean you could claim that anything's real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody proved it doesn't exist!"). 

Now, here are my bones to pick with this. First of all, the grown woman in these pictures is Emma Watson, who is an Actual Person and not a fictional character. I'm sure Emma Watson is a lovely person, but that doesn't make her Hermione Granger. Stop sexualizing a child (since, for the majority of the books, Hermione's character is not even 16 years old-- also why I find "Sexy Hermione costumes" to be really creepy). point here is, Hermione is a strong female character. She is unabashedly intelligent, courageous, kind, and many other traits. The trait I like most about her, however, is her commitment to standing up to bullies and calling them out, and more importantly, standing up for people or creatures who are in the minority and/or are being squashed by the majority.

If we take this and apply it to reality, it means that Hermione does and is all of the things that you hate in a person. She'll correct you when you're wrong-- and all skeptics and atheists react well to that, right? She'll also give you hard truths when you need to hear them, even if you don't want to.

I see Hermione in a lot of the women I respect. She stands up to Umbridge directly when Umbridge starts behaving unfairly toward the students (and jeopardizing their safety by refusing to teach them defensive magic)-- much like my friend Miriam of Brute Reason when she tells her university's administration to "wake up" in regards to the substandard level of care and attention given to mental health issues on her campus. Sure, a lot of people can grumble about bad administrations, or do things to make the administrator's lives more difficult (like vandalism or making unhelpful remarks), or simply leave the school because they don't want to fight for better things (not that I am in any way blaming someone who would leave the school in order to take care of their mental health)-- but Miriam doesn't do that. She gets shit done. She's now meeting with higher ups at her university to talk about the issues on campus and her suggestions on how to improve mental health issues on campus.

Then there's the fact that Hermione is willing to go against what everyone else believes or to call out big and powerful people in her world (like popular sports players or the Minister of Magic). I don't mean something like bragging about how you're an atheist to a generally atheistic crowd, I mean calling out a very famous and well-known atheist author or pointing out the misogyny of popular culture like my friend Chana has (by the way, 'geek culture' is pop culture, as much as you may try to deny it). 

Hermione also speaks up for minorities, oppressed, and generally ignored groups. You see this when she starts SPEW (Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare) that everyone else laughs at, or when she defends Eloise Midgen (the girl who is always referenced as having terrible acne), among other times. I see this in my friend Kate, who takes the time to transcribe videos from conferences so people who are hearing impaired can appreciate them as well. Hermione takes the time to care for those who show not a shred of interest in her (like Kreacher), the same way Kate encourages us to care and love for one another.

Hermione is like the progressive vegan who reminds you that eating animals is wrong because it is immoral and destroying our planet, like my friend Simon does (she doesn't have a blog, or I'd link it here, but she does this a lot in person, like when she and her partner create a non-profit to make free websites for vegan organizations). Hermione does this time and time again, much to the chagrin of the main characters (and every other character, to be honest), but she's right. She has a strong moral compass, and she follows it at all times, even when it's inconvenient.

Of course, Hermione gets harassed for supporting unpopular positions (like that Voldemort has returned or the importance of SPEW), much like Jen McCreight. We don't often see Hermione break down due to the torment of her peers, but I think that's more due to Harry's inability to deal with other people's emotions than to Hermione's unending perseverance-- although, let's be honest, she's quite a strong woman, just like Jen is).

While Hermione is the Reddit Atheist's heroine for pointing out illogical thinking, she also doesn't encourage being a shitlord to people she disagrees with. She goes out of her way to be nice to muggles, the group that wizards regularly look down upon or ignore. She encourages inter-house cooperation, even when tensions between them are running high (see: during Quidditch season), like my friend Sarah does during the Great Skeptic War of 2012. She goes out of her way to be nice to house elves, to the possible detriment of her own comfort. Hermione makes a point of not caring about her appearance (she is described as "unrecognizable" when she dresses up for the Yule Ball). If a stereotypical reddit atheist met real-life Hermione, he would hate her and call her a cunt.

I realize all of these analogies aren't perfect. I also realize that I'm leaving out many women I respect, so I'm sorry (it's more me being too tired to write more but also realizing that if I leave this as a draft I'll never finish it, so I'm just gonna hit post). 

But the next time you (and by "you," I more mean redditors and/or misogynistic nerds) want to whine about how you'd prefer a girl like Hermione over someone vapid like [insert x popular female celebrity], just remember, there are Hermiones all over the place-- you're just too busy shunning, harassing, mocking, or ignoring them.

[By the way, I have a feeling I'm gonna get a lot of hate for calling out "reddit atheists"-- I know, not everyone on reddit is an awful person, but let's face it: there are some serious sexism problems on reddit. Pictures of me have frontpaged a handful of times (namely because I work in a job that allows me a lot of opportunities that r/atheism would appreciate), and I'm either told that I'm hot, or ugly, or look annoying, or should be raped, or something like that. It's usually not "wow, congratulations on raising $1,200 for the SSA!" or questions about my job-- nope, it's "wow, check out her rack!" or "god, she looks annoying." So, yes, I know not everyone on reddit is awful, but if you are going to act like there's no problem there, then you're just objectively wrong.]