Thursday, January 7, 2010

With the "best of intentions"...

U.S. Evangelicals’ Role Seen in Uganda Anti-Gay Push

This article shows that it's not enough to have good intentions, we need to have a very clear notion of the consequences of a our actions. Naively these americans spread their erroneous and prejudiced opinions about homosexuality based on their religious belief, and now they have started a fire they can't put out.

They may become responsible, even if inidrectly, for the deaths of homosexuals in Uganda, simply because they weren't able to evaluate what influence their "information" would have on the backwarded and superstitious mentality of those people.

As they say, "of good intentions...

... hell is full."

An Atheist in a Good Mood - 5 thousand views

A video that I made about 9 months ago, already counts 5 thousand views. That's something I would never have imagined when I made it. Much of the initial success I owe to my friend Vides Junior, who promoted it in several communities on Orkut.

[The video below is a recent version with subtitles in English. Link to the original video:]

Actually, I decided to make the video because of  him. He had made a series of videos by the name "An atheist in a bad mood". He's really just playing a role, he's a very fun and pleasant person judging from our many conversations through MSN and in the communities we both take part in. Unfortunately we don't know each other personally, but I intend to correct this as soon as I have an opportunity.

So, one day I thought that I would like to show that the stereotype of the -young-male-rebellious-atheist, always at war with the world, wasn't quite accurate, that there are many kinds of atheists, including older women who are very calm and peaceful atheists. Before you get it wrong, Vides was the first person I showed the video to, and I asked what he thought about my idea of calling myself "an atheist in a good mood". It's a kind of counterpoint to his videos, but not to criticize or put them down. Well, he loved the idea and approved, and only then did I publish it.

The video is amateuristic and unpretentious, I didn't care that much about quality. People tend to be very hard on themselves, thinking they have to be perfect, but that's something I have been able to overcame to a great extent. In fact, people many times like what's not so perfect, because that allows them not to be, too.

I don't know if I'm going to make any more videos, I feel nervous just at the thought of it. But I want to blog more, I think I'm better at that.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Thou shalt respect one another

Realistically speaking, it's not possible to love all mankind. It's not even possible to love the population of a city. Human beings are able to love, in a broad sense, a group of 150 to 200 people with whom they have affective bonds in some way, from friendship and family, to a romantic envolvement. Love is a feeling, and therefore we don't have much control over it. Love is also something very difficult to define, people use the term to justify quite strange behavior sometimes. Some can even kill in the name of "love".

On the other hand I have never seen anybody kill or behave in an irrational way in the name of respect. Respect is an attitude that we can decide to assume in a controlled and conscious way.
I concluded a long time ago that, concerning life in society, respect is infinitely superior to love. Love exhausts us, love demands a lot from us, we can only truly love a quite small number of people.
Respect is something we can have for any person, even if it is only with respect to his physical integrity.

Had somebody said "Thou shalt respect one another" at the right time and in the right place, many tragedies could have been avoided.

The Argument of Fear

[Also known as "Pascal's Wager"]
One of these days I had an experience that I have been through before. On request of an atheist guy, I entered a discussion through MSN with another person, who's that kind of fundamentalist religious type. I don't get into that kind of discussion any more, because I know it's for nothing, but since he asked me I obliged. As I already have some experience to detect what the other person really thinks, I went straight to the point. asking: "Do you think I deserve to go to hell simply for not believing in the Christian god?" She answered yes. I then asked, "And if it depended on you, if it were your decision, would you send me to hell?" Again she answered yes. (I must say that at this point she surprised me, people usually try to appease, saying that it isn't up to them, etc, etc.)

I'd like to make a clear point that I have nothing against anybody's beliefs. And I also know very well that there are many ways of believing, I know many people who believe in "something", but who don't condemn anybody else for not thinking like themselves, and they lead their lives without complying to absurd rules out of fear of not deserving "salvation". I have great respect for people like these and I would never think of trying to make such a person change their mind. I just explain what I think if somebody asks, and they usually don't feel threathened by that. So, we get along well.

But the kind of person who can point his finger at me and say that I'm a bad person just because I don't share his belief, puzzles me.The argument is so childish that it surprises me that the person doesn't feel ashamed to use it. I have concluded that these people lack empathy and compassion, they give more importance to a book than to the person beside them. The kind of god that this person believes in I can only describe as 'vain, resentful and revengeful'. Like a judge who will throw me in prison because I didn't suck up to him. This really reminds me of the Greek gods who punished severly those who didn't pay due homage to them. Sounds familiar?

A person should only be judged by his actions, and actions should be judged by their concrete consequences. It shouldn't matter what you believe or think, only what you do. I don't do bad things simply because I care about people and their feelings. Empathy is the key to it all.

I celebrate Christmas!

Many atheists think that they shouldn't celebrate Christmas out of "principle", as if it were wrong somehow. I think that's a mistake.

My parents were atheists, but they celebrated Christmas. Christmas in Scandinavia derives from the ancient Yule celebration (Jul, in Swedish), which was the winter Solstice celebration. They celebrated the return of the Sun, it's a fesival of Light. That's why we have candles and blaze. In the beginning it didn't have a Christian meaning, and you can also say that today most people don't celebrate Christmas in that sense. It's a tradition that is part of our culture, it's a time when families gather together and have fun.

I like it, from decorating the house, putting up the Christmas tree, creating a cozy environment with soft light, candles and appropriate music. All this bring me a feeling of well-being, of serenity, and I would never give that up.

I found out that Richard Dawkins himself celebrates Christmas and defends the habit. Not that I would behave any differently if he didn't, but I was pleased to know about it.

Of course there are many people who don't bring this tradition from their homes, and don't like Christmas. That's ok, nobody has to. I just think that nowadays we can attribute whatever meaning we want to these fesivities, each one shold do what brings him/her pleasure.

GOD JUL to everybody!

"Atheism brings a lot of peace"

The final "push" that made me give up astrology in particular, and my search in general, was to a great extent because I got to know RES. When I reached this point, the peace I felt was amazing! It was a such a huge sense of relief, like "whew! I don't have to worry about this any more."

There's a community on Orkut that's called "Atheism brings a lot of peace". And the guy who founded it, did it because he saw this sentence that I had posted in another community.
I'm not saying that everybody will, or should, feel that way. To get to this point, first you need to face the negative side of disbelief, the fact that there is no power to protect us. If we can overcome the fear of "cosmic solitude", what comes as a bonus is a fantastic freedom. And this freedom brings an extremely important counterpoint: responsibility. We can't hold anyboby liable except ourselves, we have to assume full responibility for everything we do. And people become even more important, because there won't be a second chance. After somebody dies, what haven't been said or done will never be said or done, so we have to treat people well while they are here with us.

The first RES meeting

In November 2000 I was in Porto Alegre for a few days and I talked through ICQ with some other editors of RES who also lived there. We arranged to meet in a wellknown bar just to get to know each other, everybody was very curious. One of them asked me how tall I was, he thought that since I was Scandinavian, I had to be quite tall. I answered that I wouldn't tell him how tall I was, that he would see by himself, but that I could guarantee he would be surprised.
When we finally met, it was very funny because he had deduced that I had to be exceptionally tall. When he saw me he got even more surprised than he had imagined. It so happens that I am 1,50 meters "short". (*)

The meeting was great and we had several others after that. Time passed and some moved away and we didn't meet any more, but I am still in contact with some of them, and we're still friends.

(*) This was another issue I had to come to terms with intimately as a teenager. At the age of 14 I understood that I wouldn't grow taller that that. I remember exactly where I was standing, thinking to myself, "what now? what do I do? do I accept this gracefully or do I start wearing high heels to try to look taller than I am?". And the answer came so quickly, and it was very practical. I thought, "you know what? I don't like high heels!". Frome then on I have always lived very well with my height (or lack of it). Like, you need to accept what you cannot change.

A window to the world

For those who are under 20, it might be hard to picture a world without the internet. When it appeared it was still pretty out of reach to most people, even more so in the countryside, 500 km from civilization. I felt very isolated, very lonely, because there weren't many people I could exchange ideas with.

The internet changed that. It must have been in 1999 that we started using it. In the beginning there weren't many resources, the connection was dialled, expensive, and there wasn't so much material to research. But that was how I discovered the RES - Round Earth Society (STR in Portuguese - Sociedade da Terra Redonda), in 2000. An atheist site, that was uncommon! I used to save the pages to read later, so I wouldn't stay connected too long. I found out that they needed editors, including English. I sent an e-mail offering to help. They accepted my offer (we all worked for free) and I started translating texts for the site and I also participated in some discussions. This helped me a lot to define what I thought, the whole reasoning process that I hadn't gone through as a teenager for lack of opportunity, I went through after the age of 40. Several of the editors lived in Porto Alegre, so we got to meet personally several times. It was really an enriching exeprience.

The RES lasted about 4 years, and then it simply got stuck, because the President didn't have time to dedicate to it, and he didn't delegate to anybody else the task to take care of the site. It was a pity, but anyway it was a precursor to several other movements, and it fulfilled its role. And there was an article in a magazine, Veja, in which I appeared.

Even nowadays the only way for many atheists to find others is through the internet. And many virtual orgnizations became possible only because of this, in such a huge country as Brazil.
So Saint Google is our "patron saint" and Bill Gates is our prophet. ;-)

My mother, the major rebel.

My mother taught me that we don't have to accept conventions, we should always ask why, If there isn't a good reason to keep them we can very well discard them. I remember her always telling us that homossexuals, for instance, should be accepted as they are. And I remember her saying to somebody that there was nothing wrong with unmarried couples sleeping together, that wasn't a "sin". The only thing that was wrong was doing harm to other people.
When she read stories to us at bedtime, it was fascinating, because she was into amateur theater, so she made different voices for different characters and enacted the story in such a way that you felt you were seeing it all happening.
Even now when I'm reading I "dive" into the book in such a way that I sometimes wonder if I read the book or saw the film.
One thing is for sure, 99% of the time the book is infinitely better than the film.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Sofia, a woman of courage

My greatgrandmother lived in the times when Finland belonged to Russia. The Finns never accepted that and resisted it as much as they could. Sofia used to travel to Sweden and bring subversive pamphlets in pockets hidden in her underskirt. She also used to hide plates for printing subversive propaganda at the bottom of her cookie tin. Sometimes there came people escaping from the Russian side and they found shelter in my grandparents' house.

It's very interesting to know these things, and I'm proud of belonging to a family with so many stories of courage to tell.

Even older stories - Inherited rebellion?

My grandmother compiled a book from my greatgrandmother's diaries and letters. Because of that I know things about my ancestors since about 1750. One of them, he must have been a "great-something" five or six generations before me, was a general in the Swedish king's army (Finland was Swedish territory until 1809, when it was conquered by Russia).

So, the story goes that the king was a very young boy, impulsive and spoiled, who only wanted to go to war. This ancestor of mine would have lost his patience and slapped the king in the face. For that he got death penalty.

His wife put on her best dress, the one she had worn for her wedding, and went to beg for mercy, but it was no good. He was decapitated shortly after.

The family legend tells that the fabric of this dress was used to cover a chair, and my greatgrandmother wrote that when she was a little girl she once made a hole on the backside of this chair and saw, through several overlapped layers, a finely embroidered fabric.

Could it be that rebellion is genetic?

The importance of reading

I grew up im house full of books. My parents had the habit of reading stories to us at bedtime, and this certainly had a fundamental role in the fascinationa I've always had for books.

When I started school I learned to read in record time. I got my library card at the City Library. At that (in the 60's) the libraries in Finland were already very good, with a great variety of books. I went to the children's sector, of course, borrowed 5 books, which I read in two days, and went back for more. I must have been about 10 or 11 when there were no options there for me anymore, so I started to ask for books in the adult sector.

When I came to Brazil I already spoke a reasonable English (my native language is Swedish), but I didn't speak any Portuguese at all. A neighbor of ours, who was a teacher, used to lend books to me, and that helped me a lot to learn the language. In a matter of less than two years I was practically fluent and was studying without difficulties in regular school.

Reading provides the opportunity to learn from the experience of others, and gives us a variety of concepts to compare and decide for ourselves what seems valid. That's why it's important to read a little of everything, including opinions we don't agree with.

Decisive influence of my father

My father was very adamant about things when he was younger, and I ended up rebelling against him, because I needed an emotional support that he was unable to give me. But he softened a lot with time, and understood that confrontation, especially with people who are close to you, only push them away. When he knew I was involved with astrology, he didn't reproach me or anything, just made clear that he didn't believe it.
I was quite surprised when asked me to make his horoscope. He told me that, although he didn't believe in astrology, he thought I could be a good astrologer. He said: "I'd like to hear what would come through a "filter" like you".
That was one of the factors that led me to understand that it was ME who did everything, my intuition, empathy and knowledge about human nature enabled me to say things to people that were useful to them.
And it also made me understand that I could do all that, and probably much better, WITHOUT astrology.

More about my experience in church

We lived in a small town, 500 km from Porto Alegre (the capital city of the state of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil). The church also has a social function because we are gregarious beings, and we need a group to support us. So I tried very hard do "fit", after all we had children and needed these relationships that a group provides. There weren't many options, actually.

But I was always different, I had different ideas, and worse, I talked about them. The result: I was "strange", "weird", and I never felt fully accepted in that town. It's the kind of place where everybody knows about everybody else's life, and if you are "marked", it will have a widespread effect, everybody joins. It wasn't so evident to me at the time, but nowadays I know that my kids were discriminated because of that.

Our kids went through Confirmation for my husband insisted on it. He always thought that it should be done as a formality, in spite of intimately being an atheist since very young. I know it wasn't a very pleasant experience for them, and I'm sorry for that. But the good thing about this is that nobody can say we kept them away from contact with religion and now they are all atheists in spite of that. Actually, our youngest son rebelled and refused to do it.

Eventually, the time came when I decided to withdraw from church, and I even suggested to my husband that we turn it official. He didn't agree, because he was afraid of people's reaction. Although he had always been more of an atheist than me, he had learned in childhood to disguise it so he wouldn't be a target. Considering the great prejudice people have, it's quite understandable. Only when we moved away, about 9 years ago, we finally got to withdraw completely.

Why astrolgy seems to work

Yes, it really does seem to work. That confused me for a long time, and I thought it was valid. Many people make horoscopes believing that they're doing something serious. This illusion makes astrology one of the most popular pseudosciences you can find.

Where does it come from? What is it that works?
The answer is that intuition plays a fundamental role. What "works" is the astrologer. Someone very intuitive and empathic can "catch" things from the person in his/her presence and can give quite an accurate answer to this person.
Besides, the basic wishes of people are few and pretty predictable. Almost everybody wants money, health and love, or some variation of it. So it is very easy to perform "cold reading" and in a short time discover what worries the person.
The Fohrer Effect also plays a role, people tend to remember the anaysis that was correct and forget the rest. And there is also the danger that people might make a prediction come true, behaving in such a way that they make it happen.

Well, then, what made me stop? It took me a long time, but I realized that I wouldn't be able to sustain a coherent argumentation with a skeptic. That made me think and conclude that it really had no validity.
People in general are in desperate need of answers, of someone who listens to them, some kind of security. The illusion that we can somehow predict the future, or know ourselves better, discovering "hidden" aspects of our personality, gives us a false sense of control over our lives.

We don't need this. The fact that we can talk openly to someone and speak out is already very conforting. And somebody who isn't involved in the problem can many times give us a more objective view about the problems we are facing.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

How I got to belong to church

Yeah, folks, I did that.
(I know I owe you an explanation about astrology, but I want to explain this part first.)
Before, some clarifying. I have already said that Finland has an official church, which is the Evangelic Lutheran Church, one of the so-called "historic" ones, derived directly from Martin Luther's Reform. I consider it one of the "lightest", and it was to this same church that my husband's family belonged to.
We lived at the time in a small town. Our neighbors, and owners of the house we rented, belonged to this same church. As the rural area was big, going to church on Sunday used to be a kind of social event for many people. I was in this deist phase which I already mentioned, my husband was a member, our children had been baptized, all part of the tradition. I also thought that through such an organization I could help doing some social work, so I decided to get baptized and "enter the club". A decisive factor was also that there was, at the time, a very progressive pastor, with a very advanced mentality, who stimulated interesting and up-to-date discussions.
But the pastor got transferred and there came another one with a mentality more alike the local one. And I soon realized that the women's gatherings weren't really very practical, mostly just tea and conversation. I was disappointed.

The search that took me 20 years

As I grew up in an atheist family I always considered atheism as something very natural, I never studied or thought much about the matter. You could say I didn't really have a solid basis in terms of knowledge and opinions.
That's why, at the age of 21, I started to question whether there wasn't really something. It's funny to think that I walked the oppostite path of most atheists, and I don't dismiss the possibility that I did this as an act of rebellion against my father.

Eveidently the anthropomorphic cristian god was out of question, I gave up on this one when I was 8, but I started to study Rosicrucianism with my husband, which presented the concept god=energy. That was an idea I could accept, and I started a long search because of that. In a short time we abandoned Rosicrucianism because we noticed that the teachings came so slowly and it was a considerably commercial organization, trying to sell necklaces and incense, etc. After that we had one of those "Mental Power" courses, and then I took a look at Gnosis and that kind of stuff.

But what really caught me was astrology. I studied it a lot, I bought a lot of books, I learned how to make horoscopes and I really believed in what I did; this is important ot understand, not all astrologers are charlatans. It is also very important to analyze why astrolgy seems to work. But that's a matter for the next entry.

Radical change

When I was 13, that was in 1970, my whole family moved to Brazil. That was also a kind of "time travel", because the mentality here corresponded to the metality in the 50's in Finland. For example, the taboo of virginity until marriage was still present.
Maybe for being a foreigner the matter of atheism basically was never a problem, but I didn't really talk about it either. To me it was so natural to be an atheist that I didn't see any reason to raise the subject.
I met my husband-to-be just two years later. It had been a short time since we started dating when, by influence of a friend, I went to a fortuneteller. This woman told me that there was no future with the boyfriend I currently had, and that I would meet my actual husband at the age of 19 (I was 15 ). Now, imagine if I had believed that! It ended up with us marrying 3 years later, and we have been married ever since. In December 2009 we had our 35th wedding anniversary.
Ou wedding gave rise to some discussion. I wasn't baptized and I made a clear point that I wouldn't do that to get married in church, so our wedding would only be civil.
Anyway, my father-in-law had a relative who was a pastor, and he agreed to marry us in spite of that. To tell the truth, my husband's family wasn't particularly religious; like many others they belonged to church just formally.
And I remained an atheist still for a long time after that.

Learning to face life

Nothing to do with atheism, but I think it has to do with the capability to face unpleasant situations.
When I was 9 years old, I went to the dentist for the first time. I was very nervous and afraid because of all the stories I had heard about how horrible it was to go to the dentist. When they were giving me the anestethic, it hurt so much that I pushed away the assistant's hand, and didn' let her. I started to cry, but both the assistant and the dentist were very kind and told me that I could come back another day.
Even today I don't really understand how, at that age, I was capable of that kind of reasoning, but I thought: "If I leave now, I won't be able to com back". I gathered all my courage and allowed them to inject the anestethic and fix my tooth. I understood that if I didn't do that at that moment, I would spend my whole life running away.
There is a precedent for this. When I was 7 I didn't allow a nurse to vaccinate me at school, and I was very ashamed afterwards for not having been able to face that. Having been able to face fear two years later made me feel much better, and certainly had reflexes on my future attitudes.

An atheist family

My parents also had only a civil marriage, and they never mentioned the matter of religion with their children. But as soon as I started going to Kindergarten the subject appeared. I, being only 4 years old, became evidently enchanted with all those nice stories that Auntie told about that man who was so kind and liked children so much (Jesus). I remember being very disappointed when they explained to me that there was no way for me to get to know him, because he had already died.

I went to Sunday School sometimes with a friend, and my parents never opposed. I only remember my father telling me that there were many "gods" and that this one was only one of the many mythologies tha existed. I was a theist for 4 years during my childhood, but when I was 8 a great anguish came over me, and I felt I couldn't believe any more. That's something quite serious for a child's mind, and I prayed as if I had to give an explanation to the god I had been taught to believe in. I even decided mentally that I would think about the matter again when I was 16. I ended up doing it only when I was 21.

The other atheist in a good mood

My grandmother, Greta, left church to marry my grandfather (Svante). As most people, she only belonged to church because of tradition, habit, something very common still today. She was a very quiet and shy person, and had a very humorous way to express herself. Once some Jehova Witnesses knocked on her door to try to convince her to join their sect with the argument that the places in heaven were limited (they actually think so) and that she should grant hers. She calmly answered that she'd rather leave her place for someone more "eager".

They say I resemble her. Well, at least I'm sure I inherited her good mood.

The first civil wedding in Finland

(here, my grandfather, Svante Dahlström)
So, I promised to tell an interesting story about a friend of my grandfather's. As I said in the previous entry, until 1921 there was no Civil Register in Finland, the only option was to marry in the church and baptize your children. That counted as official and still does; either you marry in church or before a judge. And the children are either baptized or registered in the Civil Register.
The story happens in 1914, before they established the Civil Register. The friend's name was Rolf Lagerborg and they belonged to a freethinker organization, the Student Association Prometheus (, which was founded in 1905-1906 and fought for the right to religious freedom. He had a fiancée, but wouldn't yield to marrying in church. So they both arranged a scheme that was considered a big scandal at the time, but it worked.
His fiancée sued him for having "cohabitated" with her, but then refusing to "take her before the pastor". He told the judge that in fact he refused to do that, but that if the judge so decided and "condemned" him to be married to her, that he could accept. And it really happened that way.

A long tradition

I'm a third or fourth generation atheist. I'm sure about being third genteration, because my grandparents were openly atheists. However, I'm almost sure that my great- grandparents also were atheists (on the right, my greatgrandmother). I was born in Finland where I lived until I was 13 years old.The origin of atheism there is mainly the French Illuminism. That has to be said because many people think, wrongly, that atheism derives from communism.

My grandfather took part in a freethinker organization in the beginning of the last century. This group fought for the right to not having to get married in the church or baptize their children, which were the only options in Finland until 1921. To this date, there is an official church there; amazing as it may seem, Finland is not a laic country. Nevertheless, religion there doesn't interfere in state affairs as it does in Brazil. That' s a bit of a paradox. I guess it is more a matter of mentality than of what the Constitution says.

Regarding my grandfather, there is an interesting story about a friend of his, member of this same group. But I will leave that for the next post.