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Letter to 12-Year-Old Me

Letter to 12-Year-Old Me

I’m sure a lot of us, when we were kids, had to do those cutesy little school assignments where we wrote letters to our future selves. After reading reading the popular blog Hyperbole and a Half, I decided to take a page from writer Allie Brosh’s book and offer a response to my young self who wrote a letter to my older self. However, I can never remember exactly when I wrote those letters and at what age, so I’m going to simplify this whole thing by writing a single response to myself at one of the most defining – and worst – ages of my life. My 12-year-old self is probably where I started to fall into a rocky road mentally because it was where the mental obstacles I faced probably hit their apex and where I could have used some real advice and guidance by someone who understood what was happening, and the fact that I was extremely impressionable and clueless.

Dear 12-year-old me,

You need to quit worrying about how to suddenly make yourself cool to your classmates. They’re assholes. Every last one. And at least half of your teachers aren’t any better. Hell, last year the teachers at Follow Through let one of your classmates get away with blatant physical assault. I know that part is finally over, but let’s look at the roster of people you are forced to interact with every day in school: There was the one kid, Tim, who was actually one of your good friends until sixth grade, when he decided he enjoyed making fun of you with a group he fell into and left you out of. There are those two who you think were decent friends once upon a time, but they sort of led you down the path. It’s not good-natured ribbing when they make fun of you – it’s them trying to make you jump through hoops for their own amusement.

Your best bet is to transfer to a different school. I know that’s a scary prospect, but you’re going to be doing that in a couple of years no matter what happens anyway, so why not? I know you’re worried about your social life, but that’s not exactly storming the beaches these days. So get the hell out. Make a fresh start. Considering what you’re going through, the evil you don’t know is a far better option than the evil you know. The deck is stacked against you there, and like I said, even the teachers don’t give a shit.

Speaking of terrible teachers, I can’t stress this enough: Quit listening to Pastor B in confirmation class. Nice man, well enough; but all he’s doing is selling you a bevy of half-truths and outright lies in an effort to scare you and warp you into his own way of thinking. Don’t worry about the prospect of more parent/minister chats. Fuck how much they annoy your parents. You don’t owe either of them jack shit for making you go through this. If anything, you should be doing MORE to piss off Pastor B and force more private conferences. The man is a walking boob who is selling snake oil, and what’s more, Mom and Dad both KNOW he’s a walking boob who’s selling snake oil. To this day I still haven’t the slightest idea of why they believed shoving me through confirmation class was so important. It was a waste of their time, an inexcusable waste of my time, and you ended up coming out all the worse because of it. In fact, a better thing to do is just refuse to keep going to confirmation class until they give you a satisfactory answer to the question of why you are being forced through it. “It’s traditional,” “It’s what young men do,” and “because I said so” don’t fucking count. Your parents were great, but sending me to confirmation class was a stupid thing to do back then, and considering what you’ve gone through since, in hindsight it’s a galactic fuckup. And they both know it.

Confirmation class will only have bad effects that will hurt your social development. It’s going to fill you with a sense of guilt and self-unworthiness which you’re STILL trying to get over; it’s going to make you feel a sense of shame whenever you realize you have romantic and sexual feelings toward a woman, which will take you years to expunge; it’s going to turn you into a homophobe, which will also take years to get over. It will act as a suppressor to your inquisitive personality and you’ll start trying to swallow your questions and ideas. You’re going to notice the rift between religion and basic science and let it tear you apart. You WILL eventually meet a new minister who is going to act as your guide through the tricky aspects of religion and take your questions seriously without offering the usual platitudes about reading more Bible or Just Believing, but that won’t be for another 12 years. Right now, you can spare yourself a lot of self-resentment by embracing your doubts and questions. Challenge Pastor B, stand up and demand answers to his propaganda statements, and don’t be afraid to walk out of class when the situation calls for it. Again, your parents royally fucked up by sending you there, and it’s vitally important that you drive that point home right now rather than in another 20 years.

Now let’s concentrate on something your folks did get right: Man, you need to find something to do besides school and confirmation class that gets you out the door. Yes, I know video games and books are your escapes right now, but you need human contact. You also need something challenging to try so you’ll be more willing to develop the talents you have. You recently taught yourself to play the piano. By everyone’s accounts, you weren’t too bad at it, either. Maybe you could keep going along that route and become the master of an instrument it’s widely believed to take ten fingers to master. Django Reinhardt messed his fret hand up in an accident and still became arguably the greatest guitarist who ever lived. Rick Allen played drums after his goddamned ARM was ripped off in a car accident!

No, your hand is not an excuse. There are several things which may cause you trouble, but you won’t know what you can and can’t do until you actually try them. You’re creative, so act like it. If something requires fingers that you don’t have, find a way to improvise.

Lastly, don’t let yourself fall into a self-destructive mental state. I’ve been there; it’s not fun. You’re awesome. You aren’t some freak show – you deserve dignity, respect, and the right to a life. You deserve to be around people who like you for who you are and don’t care about some arbitrary birth defect which you can’t change. You’re going to realize all this someday; but that someday can come a lot sooner and make your life a bit easier if you start taking the advice I just gave you above.

Sincerely,
Yours Truly at 34

The Newfound Sexism of Atheism

The Newfound Sexism of Atheism

Recently, one of my favorite websites, Cracked, posted an article about the various problems with the current wave of atheism. Someone posted a link to it in a Facebook group for atheists that I’m a part of, and the bombardment of usual commentary bullshit began. The author of the article, according to commenters, didn’t understand atheism. Or he wasn’t a real atheist. Or he hasn’t read the work and philosophies of the people he wrote the article to take down. Things of that nature.

Unfortunately, this has been a recurring problem I’ve had with atheism ever since I declared my own atheism back in 2005. Atheism is a single belief: There is no god. Yes, it’s really that easy. You don’t believe in any gods, and you’re therefore not bound to any weird rules about dieting and thought crimes or caught going against a moral which is more common sense and human decency than morality. When I started reaching out to other atheists, though, I ran into one of those odd contradictions that we so frequently see in life. Instead of a group of people devoted to rational thought and discussion, many of the atheists I spoke to were devoted to a weird theocracy of their very own. The author of the Cracked article had a point which I’ve now spent ten years trying to make: Atheism has become enslaved to a hardcore ideology. Hell, prominent atheists are even campaigning for atheists to be renamed “Brights,” and in some places, local atheist organizations are offering de-baptism ceremonies. My mind is boggled and I’m wondering if the Center for Inquiry is going to start offering people the opportunity to visit and pray to a random cloud.

I find it pretty damn incredible that a group of people that prides itself on not having to follow silly religious pageantry is unable to spot the hypocrisy in this. And no, I’m not going to mince words or gussy it up into something pretty in order to hand-wave it: Hypocrisy is exactly what it is. The whole thing about living and letting live apparently only applies if you’ve renounced all beliefs. It’s one thing to talk about rationality and reason and science to a religious person with an open mind who asked and is truly interested. Even if this religious person accepts the logic offered by the atheist, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to renounce their god, and personally, I’m okay with that. If the logical outlets are rejected in favor of mocking and joking the belief system away, then you’ve turned into a missionary, and it’s time for you to break out the crusader sword and smallpox blanket, because you’re just a short step away from that.

My biggest concern about atheism, though, is that it now seems to be turning into exactly the kind of thing I predicted ten years ago: An exclusivist Old Boys’ Club. Atheism is more like a religion than ever, thanks to an apparent influx of so-called mens’ rights “activists.” Richard Dawkins, who first seemed like a real rallying figure for atheists upon his publication of The God Delusion in 2008, stated a few years later that some rapes are better than others, claiming that date rape is better than knifepoint rape and writing off people with whom that statement didn’t sit well by telling them to learn how to think, and blaming women for bringing rape onto themselves. Michael Shermer is a rapist – he got a woman drunk to the point of defenselessness and blackout at a religious conference and forced her to have sex. That’s rape, and all Shermer had to offer was an apology on his website. He should be rotting in a jail cell.

Of course, a lot of people are lining up to defend this sexism. After decrying a lot of the world’s oldest religions as sexist by antiquated beliefs and laws because women always seem to get the short end of the stick, there’s seems to be a disturbing number of atheists who are quite happy with women getting the short end of the stick. Atheists are on the downward spiral when it comes to being inclusive towards those without the Y chromosome.

The irony is that atheism has such a storied history that goes hand-in-hand with feminism. One of the original suffragists, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was famously critical of religion to such a point that she published a book in 1895 called The Woman’s Bible. Although her critique came off as harsh back in those days, they’re now pretty much universally accepted. American Atheists was founded by Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who fought for the separation of church and state. A civil rights campaigner and female atheist from the 19th Century, Ernestine Rose, got her start by rebelling against her arranged marriage when she was 16. Today we have Malala Yousafzai, who took a bullet to the head for wanting to go to school, an event the atheist community points at as evidence of its moral superiority. One of the blogs I’m connected to is called Skepchick, a community of skeptical bloggers who are women – and one, I should probably mention, that formed its own convention after every other convention it tried to attend and report on got a little too fresh with its writers.

You’d think atheists would have some kind of respect for that, but nope! Atheism has two major problems: One is with feminism itself, and the other is with its staunch refusal to acknowledge its problem with feminism. What we have instead are Mens’ Clubbers like Sam Harris offhandedly talking about womens’ problem with atheism comes from its lack of a nurturing worldview, then defending that by engaging in more sexism, then defending that by attempting the “if it’s true, it ain’t sexist” defense. There’s a certain Youtube commentator, The Amazing Atheist, whose nutjob takes on feminists reel in millions of viewers. I’d love to dismiss him as some outlier, but if you misread the statement “millions of viewers,” well, then you should also understand that most videos on Youtube are lucky to get a few hundred, so The Amazing Atheist seems to have quite a bit of pull. Even Penn Jillette is in on the anti-feminism train, although I can’t rule out giving him a pass because Jillette’s whole career revolves around offending people, and he can be seen defending certain rights for women sometimes.

Atheism is starting to reek of the same bullshit that festers in the whole Gamergate movement. Gamergate is widely claimed – pretty much exclusively by its own members, but widely claimed nonetheless – to have started out of concern for ethics in video game journalism. That’s not true. While it probably does have a few people who are legitimately in it because they’ve been burned by bad reporting, Gamergate gets its jollies by mocking and threatening women who had the nerve to enjoy a hobby once thought strictly to be man’s territory. Now we have a sick form of atheism starting to stink of this same sexist philosophy. Atheism is actually performing a worse disservice, in fact, because so many women who are put off by the outpouring of conservative religious beliefs in the superiority of men look for solace in atheism.

Atheists are spending too much time trying to act as though atheism and feminism are two different things. They’re not. A lot of people have bitched that Cracked, as well as other, more respectable journalism and scholarly sources which have also pointed this out, don’t know what they’re talking about. They only wish they didn’t. And if atheism thinks it can win a battle against feminism for my own soul – or whatever passes for a soul in your personal belief system – well, let me put it this way: I’ve been a feminist for 34 years. I’ve been an atheist for ten, and my belief that women are people served as a major impetus for walking away from two religions because their followers failed to justify their scriptural drivel.

Marcus Borg and the Atheist

Marcus Borg and the Atheist

I went atheist in 2005, and in retrospect, it probably shouldn’t have taken that long. After all, I had spent an enormous number of the previous years being told half-truths and outright falsities in two different religions which effectively brainwashed me into thinking the sky god was going to smite my ass the second I had any kind of thought he considered impure. Of course, impure thoughts to my god were more like what popular culture considered impure thoughts to god: No booze, no sex, no swearing, no blasphemy – you know, all the best-known euphemisms for “no fun.” I had also learned in both direct and indirect manners that I had to look down on all the heathens and work hard to show them the great holy light.

Unfortunately for all the ministers I had during that time, I also had an inquisitive personality and had met enough different kinds of people that I learned to overlook their backgrounds. There was no way I would ever be able to do this religion thing both ways, and seeing as how the latest text message from either of my religions had arrived in the Dark Ages, it was god and religion that finally got the boot. Switching religions is a weird experience, and leaving it completely can give a longtime believer the heebie-jeebies. I developed an immediate hate for all religions at first which sent me into a good year-and-a-half-long spat with, for lack of a better term, shock. Religious belief isn’t something you can turn on and off if you were interpreting your teachings the way I was. It was a slow, gradual realization, and by the time I reached my big “Eureka!” moment, I was overcome with anger – anger at myself for being a blind dummy, anger at this god I suddenly didn’t believe in, and anger at the system that had successfully warped me into thinking “can’t sleep; god will eat me” all the damn time. I entered a period where all discussion about religion resulted in my impersonation of a Fox News pundit.

Ten years after the fact, my relationship with god is still irreparably ruined. My relationship with religion, though, began a significant upturn in the last half of 2006. I happened to be invited into a religious community with an open mind and an acceptance of anyone at face value. I gravitated toward them because I could talk or ask questions about religion and not get simple answers. Later, we held book groups, and it was in those groups that I started reading the work of Christian scholar Marcus Borg.

Most of my friends claimed Borg’s most famous books, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time and Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, as their biggest influences. Unfortunately, I still haven’t gotten around to reading either of those, so my first look at a Marcus Borg book was The Heart of Christianity. To put it bluntly, it was a whopper. There was eye-opening, revelatory material on virtually every page. Borg frequently questioned the stuff written in The Bible and invited his readers to look at the old historical context of everything written in it. It was primarily through the writing of Marcus Borg that I started to realize my beef with religion wasn’t exactly religion itself so much as it is the contemporary way of practicing it. It soon dawned on me that I’d had it all wrong – religion was never about easy answers or morally black and white viewpoints, and my big mistake all these years was in trying to interpret it that way.

I later got around to reading more of Borg’s work, like Speaking Christian and The Last Week. They kept right on crushing everything I thought I knew about religion. What I keep interpreting out of Borg’s work are messages contemporary followers of Cowboy Jesus fight like hell to deny: Religion is a dynamic entity that keeps growing and changing with the times. As religion evolves, its followers also evolve for both better and worse. So while both the fundamentalists and progressives are both willing to argue that followers in the past had it wrong, they frequently disagree on the direction in which religion was meant to evolve in. My view on Jesus himself was also radically altered; I ultimately began subscribing to a view of Jesus as a radical rebel who was executed in a gruesome way because he spent his life mouthing off to the wrong social caste. This was a form of Jesus I could actually follow and appreciate.

I started reading books written by other religious scholars as well, the most notable of which is probably Brian McClaren. They all managed to drill into my head a lot of things my younger, more fundamentalist self would have cringed at: Probably the most important thing they had to teach me was that being a good Christian meant doubling down to improve your community rather than your church. I also started to see that being Christian as applied during the Roman Era didn’t mean switching your set of religious beliefs, which meant that anyone who wanted to be Christian within the community was welcome – early Christianity, in fact, was considered just an odd little offshoot of traditional Judaism. In other words, truly old school Christians were able to be anything while still being Christians. Since Christianity was based more around the strength of a community which rejected the Roman caste system, being Christian didn’t require the acceptance of the god/man hybrid today’s Christianity revolves around. In fact, it didn’t really revolve around the acceptance of a god at all.

That makes possible what should be an impossible contradiction: My reconnection with Christianity went hand-in-hand with a fierce reinforcement of my atheism. No, I’m not going to call myself a Christian again, but the work of Marcus Borg has given me a view of religion which is a little like The Doctor’s view of humanity: Extremely frustrating because of what it gets used to justify, but I’m also in awe of its potential for good. Yeah, you might say I’m now completely lost and confused, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing; after all, being lost and confused is frequently the best way to see clearly.

Happy Thoughts

Happy Thoughts

We live in a very sorry world which bombards us with bad news coming out of all orifices. So there are times when it helps to make a small list of the things in the world to be grateful for.

1 – Paris Hilton hasn’t been in the news lately.

2 – No movies based on Saturday Night Live sketches have been made in years.

3 – The Stanley Cup Playoffs are going in full swing.

4 – New Star Wars movies are in the works.

5 – The Polar Vortex is over, or at least the worst part of it is.

6 – Original basic cable television programs are better than ever, and truly worth watching.

7 – Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr., and Samuel L. Jackson.

8 – Keeping a food diary is the easiest way to control your weight, and it’s cheap.

9 – Masturbation. It’s sex with someone you love.

10 – A lot of creative and thoughtful podcasts are free.

Why I Question

Why I Question

My annual catch-up with Nanette ended up waiting a few days. She had just flown in on a flight from Malibu, and those travel change climate colds don’t wait for anyone. So instead of doing the how-ya-been routine at Grace Commons per normal, we ended up going to one of the local coffee shops a few days later for the latest highlights.

At one point, Nanette asked me if there was a place in my life now that filled the question cavity left in my heart after leaving Grace Commons. There really isn’t, and distance has been the determining factor in my ability to find one. While some people have asked me why I don’t simply attend the Wesleyan place across the street and down a block – thus completely missing the point of what made Grace Commons so important to me, why I went, and my entire fucking belief system – I’ve run into a couple of potentials. One was a dead end because of distance and time. The other, which was located right on the UB campus, was a dead end because it seemed unwilling to tackle a lot of the big issues I have.

During our conversation, Nanette once again presented me with the question many people, herself included, asked me a million times: Why? What is it that makes me, an outspoken disbeliever, attend this odd little church in an attempt to find some sort of spirituality? I gave Nanette my answer. It seemed like a reasonable answer, and at the time, it sounded convincing enough, at least in my own little world. Honestly, though, I can’t remember a single word of the answer I gave. A million times being asked that very question have resulted in about two million different answers, and that doesn’t even include the overlap. Through every iteration of the question and the explanatory statements I always struggled to come up with, I’ve been asking myself that very question. I hate organized religion, so what was the entire point of going into a registered presbyterian church during prime football hours? I would cite the old Catholic guilt theory, but I’ve never been Catholic.

Finally, I think I have the answer. Not one I was forced to improvise on the spur of the moment, but the thought-out, honest reflection that I’m really feeling. Of course, it came to me in the fashion of that perfect insult comeback in that I managed to think of it after our meeting, but here it is.

The first reason is that this world keeps putting the strain on us to pick and choose between either the wonder of knowledge and the wonder of imagination. Grace Commons was able to find a way to offer me both at the same time. I love the solid inarguability of those fun little things that give us greater understanding on the universe – maths and sciences – and am guided in large part by my vast imagination. And let’s face it, some of the stuff written in these holy books is pretty ridiculous. It doesn’t take an evolutionary biologist to see just how much of it was pulled from the air to go with what was thought to be scientific fact back in those days, and back then people believed that when it rained, the sky was obviously crashing to the earth. Yet, it’s my imagination which has been a primary source of comfort, companionship, and imagination for an enormous chunk of my life. I haven’t seen a science yet that has been a divinity killshot, and so I still remain open-minded about the whole god-actually-existing issue. Declaring a more positive form of atheism based on scientific evidence which – while disproving a lot of scriptures – has nothing to do with some all-powerful force that controls everything. Although I’m very skeptical and will ask for harder evidence than Jesus Toast to determine miraculous happenings, I’m still very open-minded about the idea of some supernatural being acting as a giant science puppetmaster. Ruling out the possibility of a deity just because another biological gap was scienced out of the equation would be going against something which, despite only being a part of my imagination, has still been enough to encourage me to better myself and reach for greater heights as a person.

We can call this my Mulder and Scully Node, in order to keep it simple.

The second, more important reason is that religion is a device people frequently use to find comfort and contentment if they’re doing it right. After I discovered Grace Commons, it didn’t take me very long to discover something odd about myself: I like my religious uncertainty. My inner peace comes from my right to ask big, mysterious questions about the nature of gods and religions and have them be taken seriously in lieu of the usual brush-off answers. I love to ask questions in Bible study groups and listen to their various interpretations of what one passage or character means to them. Questioning is my real religion, and I enjoy the uncertainty because it keeps me grounded and always in search of greater knowledge, both religious and scientific. Questioning is, ironically, how I manage to keep my peace and sanity in this odd little world. Some churchgoers pray or meditate or read through their favorite holy books. I ask difficult questions and demand answers beyond having a little faith, reading scriptures more, or the lord working those mysterious ways of his.

As you can imagine, churches that are able to provide me with such an outlet are rare and precious things. Most of them are exclusive worshipers of Cowboy Jesus who, when confronted with the big questions, will give out answers created to bring me closer into commune with the god they created themselves. I’ve never felt marginalized or pressured into conversion there. I was always free to be as critical as I thought was necessary. I felt a connection with the place that I had never had before at church or mosque because many of the others were damaged questioners themselves. Yet, they’ve always been able to challenge my perceptions of the scriptures, and the very idea of religion itself. I once asked Nanette what she saw in The Bible, since she accepted its logic imperfections, translation messes, and blatant plagiarism of other religions. She said, in a nutshell, that she saw a book about human beings and their imperfections and the consequences of their actions.

I once believed self-discipline and everyday prayer were the keys to getting on God’s good side. Now I’ve challenged and exploded everything I was ever taught about The Bible, which is okay since, you know, God doesn’t exist anyway. But there’s a wonderful irony in the fact that, during my misguided youthful attempts at being Mr. Altar Boy, it was only after going atheist and having everything I ever knew about my former religion wiped out by a wrecking ball that I started really thinking about and applying myself in a way reminiscent of the earliest followers of Christ.

If my old confirmation class had been like this, I might not have been scolded by constant parent/minister meetings. And I might have gotten something a lot more out of it than just resentment and contempt toward the Wine and Wafer Club and all those other brainless church traditions.

Christmas, Christianity, and Commercialism

Christmas, Christianity, and Commercialism

It’s the most maddening time of the year. Now, don’t get me wrong: I love Christmas. What I can’t stand is this whole Christmas season that leads up to it. It’s really fitting that the popular image of Santa Claus is what we use to symbolize this season. Santa is centuries old, but the jolly fat man dressed in red was popularized by the Coca-Cola corporation, and let’s face it: Christmas is a corporate holiday right down to the very core of its being.

As Jon Stewart said, Christmas has become so large now that it’s engulfing the other holidays, and yet a disturbingly large proportion of people in this country manage to trick themselves into thinking there’s some kind of phantom war on Christmas. Only in America could we possibly get away with this kind of chutzpah. Christmas season even has a kind of official kickstart day of its own now – Black Friday – which comes immediately right after the day we give thanks for the things that go right with our lives. Then we get a solid month and a half of Christmas themes which overrun into November as people physically beat up and trample over each other to grab the hottest new items which some corporations are undoubtedly holding shipments on in order to create a false sense of scarcity.

Then we manage to conjure up the idea that this feeding frenzy is somehow being done in the good name of a man who, if he were around today, never would have been an American. Even if he was born in this country, he probably would have cast off the misnomer of “American.” No matter what the circumstances, it’s extremely difficult for me to imagine Jesus Christ elbowing his way through a line of shoppers in order to grab a new TV and being the first in line of a corporate bait and switch scheme. I CAN, however, imagine Jesus – at least somewhat – buying out a stock of HD television sets and simply giving them away, no questions asked. That vision requires a certain bending of Jesus’s character too, although not nearly as much as Cowboy Jesus does.

Furthermore, Christmas the season has become a kind of go-to attack against the Americans in the country who aren’t Christians, and that’s around 20-25 percent of us at the most wildly liberal estimate. I tend to identify with any one of the various non-religious people in the United States on any given day. Mostly, I call myself either an agnostic or an atheist, depending on how I’m feeling toward religion in general. Those who know me, though, know that I’m incontestably irreligious. I gave up organized religion years ago in a long and bitter fight with my own sense of cognitive dissonance, with my ideals of individual liberty clashing against everything every religious authority in my life had ever told me.

You would think the irony of Christmas commercialism would be a lot more obvious to people claiming to be Christians, but it seems like the people who wear their Christianity on their chests are the ones most oblivious to it. They’ve somehow managed to completely hijack their own holiday while spreading the blame on everyone but them. Which I guess makes sense in its own little way. The current version of Christianity is a religion which is about shifting blame onto someone who didn’t deserve it. Jesus dying for the sins of everyone? Yeah, it’s a pretty idea, but there’s a very sinister undertone to it which liberates its followers of personal responsibility. Believe in Christ and you’re saved no matter what sort of sadistic shit you’re into.

Christianity as introduced was a very radical lifestyle change which had nothing to do with religion. It emphasized the strength of community and the idea that everyone in said community was on equal footing; not equal footing as everyone having a theoretically equal chance to improve their living circumstances, but equal footing as the idea that no one had more power or greater status than another. It’s easy to see why the personal savior version of Christianity caught on – it doesn’t require very much work. Just abstain from – or limit – a few vices and condemn everyone to Hell and you’ve punched your ticket to a heavenly afterlife. Loving your enemies and standing up for the oppressed and forgotten requires a lot of going against human tribalism and accepting the fact that you’ll be defending people polite society would rather forget.

Instead, religion has become a de facto excuse to leave things the way they are. The religion that started as a method of rebelling against the Roman Empire and offering its untouchable low-caste members a way of empowering themselves is now the champion faith of a country which shows a lot of parallels to ancient Rome. And with a growing number of other people also starting to wake up to that fact, Christmas and this alleged war on it have become the rallying cry. People are very literally camping outside of large department stores and beating each other up over artificially-priced stuff a month and a half before Christmas, and yet, there’s a big war against it that no one seems to be waging anywhere I’ve ever lived. The vast majority of the country still claims Christianity as its religion, and most of them don’t even know the Pagan roots of virtually every aspect of our Christmas celebrations, and yet, somehow there’s a war on Christmas. Both the commerce capitol and national capitol of the United States throw fucking tax money at large, prominent, and garish display decorations to Christmas, and there’s somehow a goddamn war!

If you think I’m annoyed, yes, I am, because as an atheist, people keep finding ways to blame me for this war, despite the fact that the 20 million Americans who don’t identify with a religion don’t have any lobbying power. (As opposed to Christians, the only religion-related group that does.)

Yeah, how perfect it is that Christmas is considered the primary holiday.

A Raving, Maniacal Tribute to Star Wars

A Raving, Maniacal Tribute to Star Wars

I’ve read the Jedi Prince series. It’s not something I’m proud of. It isn’t anything to do with the fact that it’s a series of Star Wars books. Star Wars is very popular. It resonated with so many people that it turned into its own industry, so why shame myself about loving Star Wars? It isn’t the fact that the Jedi Prince books are objectively awful, either. Reading them yields ridiculous shit like Luke Skywalker using The Force like an inept buffoon at some points while unleashing its absolute hell at others; a main villain more concerned about his image than anything in Trioculus; Han Solo and Princess Leia fretting over their wedding; Han Solo, scoundrel rogue smuggler, wistfully building his dream sky house; a Mount Yoda; Jabba the Hutt’s pop winning Cloud City in a card game against Lando; Lando running a holographic theme park (with 1138 THX Ultrasound speakers, dear fucking GOD I wish I was making that up); villains wishing each other “dark greetings;” Han Solo finishing his sky house in the third book, throwing a housewarming party, and teaching Leia a dance called the Space Pirate Boogie; and Chewbacca being relegated to a background character while new character Ken turns Luke into the annoyed pop. (You’re dying to read these books now, aren’t you?) Hell, back when these books came out, you couldn’t blame kid me for reading them because the expanded universe that’s gotten wider than the Star Wars universe itself basically didn’t exist. There was just the Jedi Prince series and Timothy Zahn’s acclaimed Thrawn Trilogy. And THAT is where my embarrassment is. I missed The Thrawn Trilogy because I was too busy reading the Jedi Prince books. All I have to stand by for my alibi is the fact that I was very young and didn’t know any better.

It was pretty disheartening to hear about the recent closure of LucasArts and the impending cancellation of Star Wars: The Clone Wars. I joke a little bit about the LucasArts closing: On the downside, it means less Star Wars and fewer video games. Of course, the practical upshot is that it means fewer Star Wars video games! In all seriousness, though, it’s sad mostly because it’s 150 people who are now out of work because Disney switched the business plan. I’m certain it has something to do with money.

As a game developer, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a diehard game fan mourning the track record of LucasArts. It relied heavily on the Star Wars license, and while Star Wars has a better track record than The Simpsons as far as licensed games go, there’s no simply stumbling into a Star Wars game in the local Gamestop and buying it there. As individual games, the galaxy-wide span of Star Wars games runs the gamut of quality. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is considered one of the greatest video games ever made. After that, the quality tends to drop to your Lego Star Wars (a title I always believed should have been granted the subtitle “Together at Last!”), your Rogue Squadrons, your Battlefronts, your Episode I Racers, your Bounty Hunters, your Obi-Wans, your Flight of the Falcons, your Rebel Assaults, your Yoda Stories, and, finally, (sigh) your Masters of Teras Kasi, one of the worst video games ever made. As a whole, though, Star Wars video games are well on the sucky side.

Then there was Star Wars: The Clone Wars. In the entirety of six live-action movies, George Lucas left the vast majority of the Clone Wars to our imaginations. Throughout the Original Trilogy, in fact, we knew three things about the Clone Wars: Number one, they were wars. Number two, they involved clones in some way. And number three, they were epic enough to snap Luke Skywalker to attention when Obi-Wan Kenobi said he fought in them alongside Luke’s father. Episode IV also gave us a vague description of Luke’s father: Best starfighter pilot in the galaxy, cunning warrior, and great friend of Obi-Wan. In Episode V, we got the added detail that Luke’s father was at the right hand of the Emperor wearing a new, evil identity known as Darth Vader, so we now knew something had gone wrong for him somewhere on the line. The Prequel Trilogy was a big letdown in large part because it deprived us of a lot of those descriptions, and we only saw the beginning and end of the Clone Wars. The Clone Wars was a great series because it was able to give us the parts left out, showcasing Anakin Skywalker at his Jedi best. It went into detail about the war itself and gave us Anakin’s friendship with Obi-Wan, as well as a few other things like Mace Windu in real combat and Anakin training an apprentice named Ahsoka Tano.

I’m a lifelong Star Wars fan. I got into Star Wars before I was even into video games, which means this passion goes back quite a ways. The first time I saw the Original Trilogy was probably about the time they were first being aired on TV, when my parents were recording them – Return of the Jedi had only been released one or two years previously at that point. Star Wars is the movie I’ve probably seen more often than any other now, with the possible exception of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but I still remember the first time I saw it. I hadn’t yet learned to read so I couldn’t read the opening monologue, but you can bet your ass I understood the swooping crescendos of John Williams’s magnificent score, telling me I was in for an adventure beyond anything my underdeveloped mind yet had the capacity to imagine. The opening theme ended, and then came the opening scene, with the biggest damn starship I’ve ever seen whizzing over my head. Finally, the Rebel Alliance soldiers made a heroic last stand in the halls of their doomed transport, were mowed down by the terrifyingly faceless Imperial Stormtroopers, Darth Vader appeared, and Princess Leia was captured as C-3PO and R2-D2 made a break for the planet below. Like every other kid who watched that spectacle, I was hooked on the spot. Hell, anyone who isn’t yanked right in by the time the droids reach Tatooine just hates movies. Period. It’s still probably the greatest, most effective movie opening I’ve ever seen.

Luke Skywalker became one of my childhood heroes, and Princess Leia my first dream girl. To this day, those two particular characters are extremely representative of the kind of man I want to be and the characteristics I like in women. (It’s no coincidence that my biggest celebrity crush as a teenager was on Sarah Michelle Gellar.) Upon the introduction of the Prequel Trilogy, in which we learned that the whole saga was the story of Luke’s father, Anakin Skywalker, it took on an even deeper resonance. In a spiritual sense, I was able to draw certain parallels between Anakin’s choices and my own life. I’m aware of the little plotholes and inconsistencies, and I frankly don’t care. I’m still waiting for the day lightsabres become a reality.

I’m not exactly what it is about Star Wars that it casts such a spell over myself and others like me. Perhaps one answer is because the Star Wars universe is so simplified and its views of good and evil are so direct. Did anyone, on seeing Darth Vader for the first time, have any doubt he was the bad guy? While the obvious retort to that idea is the end of Return of the Jedi – where Vader finally renounces the Dark Side and becomes Anakin Skywalker long enough to perform his final act as a Jedi Knight – every movie in the series, as well as a lot of the material in the expanded universe, emphasizes The Force as having a Dark Side which is always there, tempting the Jedi who know giving into it produces dire consequences. The Star Wars universe gives us something we don’t frequently have in real life: A clear-cut division between good and evil, where the bad guys are easily distinguished by their heavy english accents and dark, mysterious wardrobe choices. The good guys are archtypes: The young kid looking to learn, the wisecracking hero, and the seen-it-done-it old guardian whose pearls of wisdom offset the younglings’ ability to get the group into trouble. In the inversion category, Star Wars gives us three cute animal sidekicks: One is a tense ball of nervousness and primness; one is his adventurous best friend who excels at getting them into trouble; and one is a beacon of overwhelming physical strength with a heart of gold. The Princess is both an archtype and an inversion of it – she needs rescuing, but is more than capable of defending herself. Her immortal first line when the good guys bust into her cell is a masterwork of defiant snark: “Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?”

My mother explains my father’s love for Star Wars by saying it’s a classic fantasy story in a sci-fi cover. I don’t doubt that, but this angle has been run into the ground, so I feel very little need to expound on it.

In a way, Star Wars also tells two stories which are, at heart, quintessentially American. The first speaks to the country’s origins: A small band of struggling rebels rises up and overthrows an evil, oppressive empire. No matter how debatable the accuracy of that summary is, it’s still the commonly propagated story every American schoolkid hears to the point of such repetition that they all tune it out after awhile. The less obvious parallel is the story of Luke himself, rising from a humble, unassuming origin to become the most powerful Jedi Knight in the galaxy. I imagine that while Han Solo may steal much of the show, it’s Luke Skywalker that many of us dream of being in some way or another. By the end of the Original Trilogy, it’s Luke who has grown the most. After starting as a naive little farmboy with nothing to offer except an open mind, Episode IV ends with him being awarded as a hero of the Rebel Alliance, a result of his resourcefulness and maximization of the few abilities he has. By the end of Episode VI, he’s the greatest Jedi Knight in the galaxy. In the expanded universe, Luke has the responsibility of beginning the Jedi Academy after Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine nearly wiped out the Jedi. Like Luke, many of us dream of rising as high as we can using our smallest, most bare resources and abilities.

It seems a little too easy and convenient to play the Star Wars is Just Cool card because it comes so close to winning the sabacc hand that doing so feels like cheating. But it is true, and anyone who doesn’t think that is either a hipster or Alec Guiness. I can sit here and write out rehashed intellectual theories until the banthas come home, but I’m also part of a generation that was fortunate enough to see the magic of Star Wars when it was still a very recent thing. Did I know WHY I like Luke and Han? Nope. I knew I loved the Battle of Hoth scene, and that I wanted a lightsabre. Even the comparative suckitude of the Prequel Trilogy and the Jedi Prince books never spoiled it for me. Why couldn’t I have my own smuggling cargo spaceship to go to an interesting planet like Bespin? People falling in love with Star Wars for the first time at a young age aren’t saying “What kinds of different meanings and influences could the mysterious Force hold? What parallels can be drawn between the Battle of Endor and modern Islam?”

Disney owns Star Wars now, and they’ve handed it off to JJ Abrams for direction, and subsequent spinoffs will be written by Lawrence Kasdan, the screenwriter of The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark. George Lucas said there would be no more new Star Wars movies after the Prequel Trilogy, but hell, he also said that after the first Star Wars movie. (Which explains a few things in Empire and Jedi.)

I’ve had the fortune to be introduced to a lot of beautiful sci-fi/fantasy escapist paradises in my lifetime: The Lord of the Rings; Dune; Doctor Who; and Harry Potter. That last one there, Harry Potter, brought in the only weapon possibly cool enough to equal lightsabres with the way it used magic wands. While the magic wands don’t have the ominous whirling sound and hypnotic glow of a lightsabre, they do have the ability to produce many powerful spells. But, given the choice, I would probably still take the lightsabre. Actually, I take that back; I would take the magic wand, immediately use it to construct a lightsabre, then sit back and relax as “problems” and “irritants” became concepts relegated to the knaves.