‘What’s wrong with your [atheist] son?’

1012322_10151523519214327_1746269383_nI was informed that last night, at a graduation party my mother attended, a woman (let’s call her Jane) approached my mother and allegedly said to her, “What is wrong with your son?”

Jane was allegedly saying nasty things about me because I publicly identify as an atheist and am vocal about church/state separation issues [Jane was complaining about activism as far back as 2009 concerning a courthouse nativity scene which was taken down and later integrated into an inclusive display!]. Amidst Jane’s complaints about me were phrases like ‘Wait until I see him’ and statements like ‘I don’t approve of what he is doing.’ By the way, since ‘Jane’ is a neighbor, she’s free to ‘see me’ at any time and chat.

Since 2009, some people — including cousins, aunts, and uncles — have said nasty things about me to my mother and father. Rather than speaking directly with me, they talk to my mother and father…and in almost all of these cases they never talk with me about their complaints despite their knowing how to reach me either online or in-person/telephone. Rather than having conversation with me, they are nasty toward my family members who have nothing to do with my activism, are largely uninformed about my positions, and do not identify as atheists.

I feel sorry for these religious individuals who miss an opportunity for conversation and understanding and instead are hateful toward others and family members of atheists. This is just another way, it seems, that religion can be so harmful and divisive. As always, I welcome discussion with religious individuals. I’ve had open-to-the-public debates and discussions. My social networking sites are open for comment. People can even comment anonymously.

Remember, people who are so bothered by the fact that I publicly challenge religion, 1 Peter 3:15, “If anyone asks the reason for your faith prepare a defense and do so with gentleness and respect.”

P.S. I don’t really sweat it. I understand that with activism comes people who will hate me. I do my best to talk about the issues in a respectful manner although I realize the message can sometimes be provocative (especially since it challenges peoples’ cherished beliefs). Discussion is welcomed, but if people are going to be nasty and immature I cannot do much about that. I take pride in who I am and will not let a neighbor whom I really do not know undermine my self-esteem or interfere with my activism.

#TAM2014 recap

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Photo with James Randi

#TAM2014 was a great experience.

The long experience that was The Amazing Meeting (#TAM2014) has concluded. Thanks to fundraiser supporters and promoters — some of whom I was able to meet at the event — I was able to afford the conference excursion and archive the conference via Twitter – mostly in the form of live-tweeting – and provide updates and photos through Facebook.

As The Amazing Meeting program and website promised, the conference was packed with panel discussions; presentations; talks; workshops; movie screenings; comedy acts; and Penn Jilette’s Rock & Roll, Donut, and Bacon Party which included filming for an upcoming movie dubbed Director’s Cut in which the audience was included.

The schedule was so packed I was quite tired throughout the event – even after naps and about five to six hours of sleep each night. Travelling, too, and waking early for a 6AM flight (which was later delayed) likely contributed to my exhaustion, but I was able to live-tweet throughout the event and not skip sessions for need of sleep.

Conference hall of ~1200 attendees

Conference hall of ~1200 attendees

TAM2014 staff recommended, during the opening remarks and throughout the conference, to engage in conversation with conference goers and JREF staff. Throughout the experience, since most of my time was spent live-tweeting, I did not have too much time for social interaction outside of scheduled meals, but the social interaction – when it happened – was worthwhile.

People were friendly, talkative, open to discussion, and positive. I met many people with whom I have interacted with in online forums and social networks. Some approached me thanking me for my activism and shining a skeptical light on goings-on in online spaces. Those who did not know who I was, though, were still happy to chat and – like the others I was familiar with – were very pleasant.

I arrived in time for the Thursday welcome reception which was a great time to socialize. I particularly enjoy when conferences build in time to interact with staff and attendees )not all conferences do this and instead cram the schedule with talks and panels). Friday started with a breakfast buffet which, like the other conference meals, had great variety including vegetarian options. There was more than enough food allowing for multiple trips to the buffet line in the large conference room for anyone who was very hungry.

Live-tweeting

Live-tweeting

Carol Tavris’ speech ‘Who’s lying, Who’s Self-Justifying? Origins of the He Said/She Said Gap in Sexual Allegations,’ (see a Storify here) well-received by the crowd, was a personal favorite of mine. Tavris said that as skeptics we should question everything, including sexual assault allegations, and should not be considered ‘rape cultured’ for doing so.

She also highlighted the fact that people are quick to believe testimony [of women] about sexual allegations – so much so that faculty members of Duke University, in a famous case of a false allegation, before a collection of evidence [outside of mere testimony] or a trial, collectively signed a letter siding with the false accuser.

Tavris cautioned people about jumping to conclusions and encouraged a skeptical mindset when evaluating allegations. She also noted that people can be mistaken and not necessarily lying when making accusations because memory is faulty, miscommunication happens, and people are often not direct about their wants.

Tavris’ talk was a much-needed strong rebuke of modern feminism and its common memes — ‘a woman would never lie about a sexual allegations,’ ‘our society glorifies, excuses, and contributes to common sexual violence against women,’ ‘a drunk woman in all cases (even when she and her partner are intoxicated) is considered to have been raped if she has sex,’ — as advanced by popular and influential commentators.

Of course not all feminists are like that, but many are — including those from well-funded advocacy groups, government organizations, and popular commentators – so much so, I would suppose, that Tavris felt the need to address these issues and note, “this is not the feminism I signed up for” within her speech.

Tavris noted ‘sexual stupidity’ which results in criminal charges including a case at Occidental College in which a woman was asking – through text messaging — a man about a condom because she wanted to have sex. Following the sex, coupled with alcohol, the man was charged with rape and expelled from his university. Tavris also explained that alcohol leads to people making poor decisions and that consent is a blurry, confusing, and complicated topic which does not always include verbal, direct, and clear affirmation.

Photo with Zoe of the Antisocial Justice Podcast

Photo with Zoe of the Antisocial Justice Podcast

Elizabeth Loftus’ talk ‘The Memory Factory,’ Bill Nye’s keynote address, Daniel Loxton’s talk ‘A Rare and Beautiful Thing,’ Steven Novella’s talk ‘How to Think Like a Skeptical Neurologist,’ and Richard Saunders’ talk ‘Looking into the Psychic Mirror’ were five other speeches which I found compelling. I will not go into great detail about these talks in this piece (I don’t want a super-long blog post).

This conference – outside of the entertainment, social networking, and archiving through live-tweeting — was quite valuable for me because I will be able to use the information in my professional role of working with students who have disabilities — better relating with them and adding skeptical thinking into the classroom setting – and in my study of Mental Health Counseling in addition to my internship and practicum hours which are approaching.

I would like to attend this and similar conferences in the future if I am not working and/or have vacation days in addition to having the required funds (conferences often are not inexpensive for me), but do not have any specific plans in mind for 2014 at the moment apart from the 2014 Pennsylvania Counseling Association Conference which I hope to attend this Fall with my peers and instructors from Marywood University because the trip is affordable – mostly paid for by the university I attend. It’s additionally difficult to plan at the moment because my schedule for the Fall semester, because of approaching practicum hours, is uncertain.

Thanks again to the JREF staff; supporters who made this conference experience possible through donating to and promoting my fundraiser; those who thanked me for my live-tweeting, activism, and online contributions; and everyone who was so welcoming and friendly at #TAM2014. I would rather not name names because I would surely forget someone. You know who you are!

As always, feel free to comment below. Consider surveying my live-tweets from #TAM2014 and watching videos of TAM presentations when they become available. JREF staff promised videos will be uploaded following the conference.

Nothing Prevails Like Prayer banner update

'Nothing Prevails Like Prayer' banner

‘Nothing Prevails Like Prayer’ banner

Last week, I lamented the fact that a banner reading ‘Nothing Prevails Like Prayer’ was unprominently displayed on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre.

While I don’t believe prayer prevails, I do believe that citizens who submit banners should have their messages prominently placed and equally so in relation to other banners.

To date, this is the second unprominently placed banner I have observed on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre. The first unprominently displayed banner was a banner I hung in response to a National Day of Prayer event.

When banners are unprominently placed — displayed on the reverse side of the Public Square scaffolding structure while others are placed on the front side which is far more visible — it appears to be the case that city officials are showing preference toward some views because banners are not equally prominent. I would like to see a separation of church and state in which government officials are neutral on matters of religion, displaying messages at equal prominence regardless of their content.

Last Thursday, I spoke in-person with Community Relations Coordinator Liza Prokop requesting that the ‘Nothing Prevails Like Prayer’ banner be moved to the front of the scaffolding structure and for future banners to be placed on the front side – at equal prominence.

Prokop explained that the city has discretion over where the banners are placed and noted that since the Farmer’s Market season — June through November — has started, banners other than those from Market sponsors, those who pay $3000 for banner placement and other perks (mention in promotional materials, vendor space, logo/banner creation), will be placed on the reverse side of the scaffolding structure.

I asked where such a policy was, noting that my right-to-know request explained that there is no policy/document about banner placement and Prokop told me that there is no written policy. I explained to Prokop that absent a banner policy people would get the impression, like I did, that the city is not treating citizens equally in regards to banner displays.

Side view of scaffolding structure showing NDOP banner facing event and FFRF banner text out of sight

Side view of scaffolding structure showing NDOP banner facing event and FFRF banner text out of sight

I can understand that Market sponsors, since they are paying for a message to be placed specifically for the Farmer’s Market, would have their banners displayed on the front side of the scaffolding structure but, as I explained to Prokop, there is a good deal of room for other banners to also be placed on the front side of the scaffolding structure [there is currently only one displayed Market sponsor].

Additionally, although city officials indeed have discretion over where banners are placed on Public Square, officials should be obligated to treat messages equally [absent a legitimate policy about where banners are placed]. If city officials want to charge a premium for front display and charge a lesser fee for rear display, for instance, this should be stated in a policy.

Going forward, I would like to see the city of Wilkes-Barre to create policies in regards to banner placement to allow for more transparency so that citizens may know what they are paying for and where there banners may be displayed.

While Prokop’s explanation allows for more clarity, I am still not satisfied given that when my banner was placed, the ‘May is Mental Health Month’ banner was displayed more prominently even though — as I noted in previous posts — the organization which displayed that banner did not have an event on Public Square. If it is the case that hosting an event on Public Square allows for more prominent banner placement, the mental health banner should not have been displayed more prominently in comparison with my banner.