Total Pageviews

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Great Lakes Atheist Conference, Tornado Survivor Rebecca Vitsmun, and the Wonderful Barbara Williams

The Reverend Singleton at Work
On the weekend of August 15-18, I participated in the first Great Lakes Atheist Convention in Toledo, Ohio, put on by the organization of that name, which is run by its founder Barbara Williams.  Speakers flew in from all across the country and their presentations, one after the other, were all very impressive and important to hear.  I’d suspected that I’d be uninterested in most of the talks, and I was happily wrong.  They were terrific, and I learned much.  They included Rachel Johnson explaining how atheists should view sex, J.T. Eberhard with a slide show explaining how to respond to believers in debates, Edwin Kagin (the attorney for American Atheists) describing legal battles to keep religion out of the government, horrifying personal journeys from Darrell Smith (who at one point was a member of Islam), and Bria Crutchfield (who started life as a Jehovah’s Witness), and Jerry DeWitt who has published a book (“Hope After Faith”) about his escape to atheism after a career as a devout fundamentalist minister.  Following the convention’s supper on Saturday, we were treated to a sermon from Brother Sam Singleton, Atheist Evangelist, called “Cats, Goats, and Sheep,” during which the hat was duly passed.  A dance followed that.

Mayor Bell
The convention began on Friday with a welcome from the President of the Toledo City Council, Paula Hicks Hudson, and we were pleased by this recognition from the City of Toledo.  I was the first speaker on the program, and I gave a talk on what the atheist movement can learn from the LGBT movement.  I was about ten minutes into my presentation when Barbara Williams appeared at my side and tugged at my sleeve.  “The mayor has arrived,” she whispered, and I gladly yielded the lectern to Michael Bell, Toledo’s Mayor, who also welcomed us to his city.  I then concluded my remarks, and other speakers followed.

On Sunday morning I had two other functions.  One was introducing Dennis Penaluna, an atheist from Nottingham, England, who spoke to us via Skype.  I’d met Dennis when his group had me do a book reading of my novel, “Imaginary Friend,” via Skype earlier this year (see “Related Posts below).  Dennis spoke movingly about combating false views about atheism, particularly that it led Stalin to murder millions of people (Dennis noted that Stalin was also a poet, but that wouldn’t make poets equally complicit in Stalin’s murders), and dismissing the idea that Hitler was an atheist (noting that Hitler lived and died a Catholic—he praised God in Mein Kampf— and that at the end of the war many Nazis escaped capture and fled to other countries via a pipeline organized out of the Vatican—Google that up if you don’t believe it’s true).
The conference ended with me interviewing Oklahoma tornado survivor Rebecca Vitsmun, who’d become instantly famous earlier this year when she, holding her one-year old son, was interviewed by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.  He asked her if she thanked God for saving her and her baby and she replied that she was an atheist.  For the video on that see  This video went viral and generated millions of hits, instantly making Rebecca a hero to the atheist community.  In my interview with her, she told her story in detail.  It included her move from New York City to Oklahoma, meeting her husband who she convinced to shift from agnostic to atheist, and learning how Oklahomans handle tornados.  She’d been through one before, but it didn’t come all that close and she’d followed their advice to “stay in your home!”  For the category F5 tornado that destroyed much of her town, Rebecca originally heeded that advice.  Her husband was not home, so she and her baby went into their bathroom, wearing helmets, covered with a mattress, and followed the weather forecasts on a computer.  As it became clear that this enormous tornado was going to hit her home directly, she suddenly decided to flee.  She grabbed her car keys, jumped in the car (holding her baby on her lap because there was no time to buckle him into his car seat), and drove out of the path of the storm to safety.  When I asked her how she decided what direction to drive she replied that she had been a math major in college and that the vectors pointed for going in the direction she went if she wanted to survive.  Some of her neighbors were killed by going the wrong direction.  Her husband returned to their home immediately after the tornado passed and found that it had been leveled and that nothing remained of the bathroom except a shredded mattress.  He despaired until Rebecca and their son arrived some minutes later.  I commented that it was math and not God who’d saved her, and she laughingly agreed.

Rebecca told us that she’d begun life as a Catholic, but abandoned that faith as its flaws (and those is the argument for God) became clear to her.  When Wolf Blitzer interviewed her and directly asked her if she thanked God for making the right decisions, she didn’t hesitate to tell him she was an atheist but could understand how believers might thank their God in such a dire situation.  Blitzer is clearly embarrassed on the video (which was shown at the conference), and it’s my guess that on his deathbed he’ll still regret asking that question.  When the video made her famous it took her days to appreciate that fact.  Contacted by the media and others, Rebecca put them all off.  “I was trying to find diapers, food, a place to live,” she explained.

As a result of this experience much has happened to her.  The atheist community raised over $160,000 to help her family rebuild their life (“We’re leaving Oklahoma,” Rebecca said firmly)!  She’s become interested in and joined nontheist organizations that help survivors of disasters and respond quickly in such situations.  When someone in the audience observed that she’s a wonderful role model for the face of atheism, she beamed.  I know that’s right: she’s young, intelligent, articulate, attractive, and a great mother (bringing her son Anders with her to the convention).  Madonna and Child—not the malicious devil that the word “atheist” usually conjures up in public imagination.
Asked if she’s heard much negative feedback from her TV interview, she says she’s paid no attention to the hatred that apparently is out there directed at her.  One of her friends told her that one blogger suggested that she needs to have her child die in a tornado before she can appreciate the power of God, but Rebecca has no time for nonsense like that.  At the end of her appearance, the audience rose to its feet applauding her, and the conference was over.

This highly successful conference is largely the work of Barbara Williams, who founded Great Lakes Atheists a little over a year ago.  Emerson once said that “every organization is the shadow of one man.”  In this case that shadow—a large one—was cast by a woman who knows what she wants and goes after it with talent, enthusiasm, and vigor.  I first met her when she came to one of my bookreadings in Mansfield, and she promptly became what she calls my “#1 fan,” tirelessly setting up bookreadings for me in many states: Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, Kentucky, Florida, and (as mentioned above) Nottingham, England.  I asked Rebecca Vitsmun how it was that Barbara persuaded her to come to this convention when so many others had to have also asked, and she replied that in the beginning of her national fame she was too busy to talk to those who called or emailed her, and so she told them to contact her later.  When they did so Rebecca was still involved in trying to normalize her life and asked them to try yet again in the future.  Barbara Williams, Rebecca said, was the only one persistent enough to wait her out, and then pay her way to Toledo to tell her amazing story.
Barbara Williams
Speaker after speaker said similar things about Barbara, and there was an overwhelming agreement that the Great Lakes Atheist Convention was one of the best any of them had ever seen.  A number of those attending commented that they would certainly come back for next year’s convention.

But there’s a problem with that.  Although Barbara will be furious that I’m mentioning this, I know that she largely financed the convention herself and that it came up thousands of dollars short of paying for itself.  She’s not a woman of means, and she’ll be suffering as a result.  I gave her some aid, but the chances are that the Great Lakes Atheist Convention is a one-off event.  If anyone out there reading this wants to help her pay off the convention’s considerable debts, the website for the convention is  Or just contact me [] and I’ll be glad to introduce you to the wonderful Barbara Williams.  I’m her #1 fan.

Related Posts:
“Imaginary Friend,” June 22, 2010
"When Atheists Die," October 17, 2010
"An Atheist Interviews God," May 20, 2011
"My Atheist Thriller: Another Book Reading," May 17, 2012
“Atheists Visit the Creation Museum,” October 4, 2012
"What Atheists Can Learn From the Gay Movement," February 4, 2013
“‘Imaginary Friend’ Goes International: A Bookreading of My Atheist Thriller in Nottingham, England, Via Skype,” March 19, 2013
“Speaking at Atheist Conventions, Directing a Play, and that Move to Florida,” July 5, 2013
"A Guide to the Best of My Blog," April 29, 2013

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Is It Okay Not To Use Proper English?

Is it okay not to use proper English?  Of course it is if you’re in a situation where you’re just clowning around with your friends, say on Facebook or Twitter.  Even the deliberate use of bad English is fine where it’s clear you’re joking and know better.  But in any communication where the other person might judge you based on how well you communicate, the misuse of the English language will get you branded as someone who doesn’t understand basic rules of communication.

For an example, take the following Garfield comic strip panel.  Read it and tell me what’s wrong with it.

The answer is that it contains a grammatical error.  In the final panel the TV voice should have said, “But there’s one fewer cat on the planet!”  The rule is to use “fewer” for objects that can be counted (number of cats on the planet) and “less” when an exact count is not possible.  So if you want to comment on the amount of salt in a pot of soup you’d say, “We need less salt.”  But if you’re talking about the number of carrot slices floating in the soup you’d say, “We need fewer carrot slices.”  

Now I’m a fan of “Garfield” and its creator Jim Davis, and don’t mean to come down too hard on a talented man and the very funny cat he’s made a daily feature of my life.  You might argue against what I’ve said above by responding like this: Garfield is just a comic strip, the cat is not supposed to an expert on the English language, most people don’t even know this silly rule, so what’s the harm? 

Here’s my response:  Davis’s readers who do understand this rule of grammar (and there must be thousands of them) will have the same reaction I did: a misuse of the English language occurs, annoyance follows, and the joke is thus interrupted at the punch line.  Since Mr. Davis is very interested in making his readers laugh, interrupting their concentration so that they lose the flow of his humorous message cannot be what he intends even if huge numbers of readers won’t notice the error. 


Recently a link was set up online asking for signatures to the following petition:


we petition the obama administration to:

Peacefully grant the State of Texas to withdraw from the United States of America and create its own NEW government. 

The US continues to suffer economic difficulties stemming from the federal government's neglect to reform domestic and foreign spending. The citizens of the US suffer from blatant abuses of their rights such as the NDAA, the TSA, etc. Given that the state of Texas maintains a balanced budget and is the 15th largest economy in the world, it is practically feasible for Texas to withdraw from the union, and to do so would protect it's citizens' standard of living and re-secure their rights and liberties in accordance with the original ideas and beliefs of our founding fathers which are no longer being reflected by the federal government. 

Created: Nov 09, 2012

According to the last count I saw, 125,746 people signed this petition and it was sent to the president, who responded quickly through a spokesperson that the petition was denied.  The petition’s sponsors might have had a great many more signatures if the petition didn’t have a number of indications that its drafters misunderstood the basic rules of English.  How many problems can you spot in it? 

 (1) The first is that the word “grant’ needs a noun: “grant the State of Texas the right to withdraw” or  “grant the State of Texas permission to withdraw,” for example.  (2) Having properly said “State of Texas” at first, the drafters then violated a rule of consistency by not capitalizing “state” when Texas was referred to three sentences later.  (3) The petition misuses the word “practically.”  In this context it means “almost” as in “the job is practically done,” “I have memorized practically all of my lines,” etc.  When the drafters say “practically feasible” they surely didn’t mean “almost feasible.” They likely meant “practical and feasible,” but, alas, that isn’t what they said.  (4) Finally they don’t know the difference between “it’s” and “its.”  The first is a contraction of “it is” and the second is a possessive pronoun.  They said “it’s citizens” when they meant “its citizens.” 
All of these errors probably scared off some possible signatories to the petition who didn’t want to add their names to a document containing such embarrassments.

Like it or not, you’ll be judged by how well you communicate, and there are rules telling your listeners something about the quality of your message just by how it’s (not “its”) phrased and presented.  You should know that “alright” isn’t a word that most dictionaries approve (it should always be spelled “all right”), that “data” is a plural word (so that “data are wrong,” not “data is wrong”), that “could care less” means you do care some (you really mean “I couldn’t care less”), and so on, and so on, and so on.
Now I’ve depressed you.  How do you learn these endless rules?  Well, you should’ve been taught them in school.  Having missed them there, it’s time to play catch-up.  What to do?

Here’s where the 21st century does things right.  Just type “how to learn the rules of grammar” into Google and begin to explore the wealth of material designed to bring you to enlightenment.  These include everything from blogs to YouTube videos, from famous books to tutors.  This won’t be easy, but who said you only get to do easy things in life?  If you want to impress people with your command of the English language, start now to get rid of bad habits that are holding you back every time you write an important email.  Certainly you should have a proofreader vet all critical correspondence that you send out into the world, and that's true for everybody.
Related Posts:
"Benjamin Franklin Riding Shotgun," May 29, 2010
“The Deathbed Test,” July 27, 2010
"How To Impress People In a Conversation," October 1, 2010
“How To Make Ethical Decisions,” December 12, 2010
"Rock Around the Sun," December 31, 2010
“Fear of Public Speaking and How To Overcome It,” January 4, 2011
"The Left-Brain/Right-Brain Life," January 17, 2011
“Electricity and Cave Man Living,” February 4, 2011
“Life's Little (But Important) Rules,” April 23, 2011
“Picking Your Battles: The Meaning of Words,” July 3, 2011
“I Hate Meetings,” October 31, 2011
“Pronouncing ‘2012’,” December 31, 2011
“How To Be Perfect,” March 17, 2012
“How To Stop Saying ‘You Know’,” April 28, 2012
“Naming Your Baby?  Some Mistakes to Avoid,” May 30, 2012
“How To Win Arguments and Change Someone’s Mind,” August 5, 2012
“Advice on Starting a New Job,” September 25, 2012
“Life’s Unexpected Pleasures: “¡Más Bueno Que El Pan!” November 5, 2012 "
"A Guide to the Best of My Blog," April 29, 2013

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

"Who Am I To Judge?" Pope Francis and the Future of Gay Catholicism

The new Pope made major headlines in the past week when he stated that “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”  He also seemed to bless the possibility of gay priests as long as they remain chaste, and dismissed the idea of a gay lobby within the Vatican.  These are major changes from the Church’s attitude towards homosexuality (and the first use ever by a Pope of the word “gay,” which he said in English). 

Chaste Priest, Drinking Lots of Alcohol

Under Pope John Paul II the Church produced a pastoral letter on the treatment of homosexual persons in the Church.  It was written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, eventually to be the next Pope, and because it was released on October 31, 1986 (though dated October 1), it has ever since been called the  “Halloween Letter”:

Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder. Therefore special concern and pastoral attention should be directed to those who have this condition, lest they be led to believe that the living out of this orientation in homosexual activity is a morally acceptable option. It is not.

This does not mean that homosexual persons are not often generous and giving of themselves; but when they engage in homosexual activity they confirm within themselves a disordered sexual inclination which is essentially self-indulgent.

In another passage Ratizinger, while giving lip-service to disgust at gay-bashing, went on to explain that it was understandable that it happens given how shocking homosexuality is.  His actual words: “It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church's pastors wherever it occurs. . . . But . . . when homosexual activity is consequently condoned . . . neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase.”  In other words, give up homosexuality or expect to be beaten senseless.

When Ratzinger became Benedict XVI, he wrote in 2005 that homosexuality has “a strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil,” and is an “objective disorder.” The church document continued that men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” should not become priests.

What has Pope Francis’s comment on the airplane done to all this history?  The answer is that it’s all called into question.  This was so shocking that the Vatican itself was quick to point out that the original doctrinal stances on homosexuality (see above) still stand, and that all the Pope was doing was saying that this mortal sin might be forgiven by God.  If that’s all, it doesn’t help a bit.  It means that every gay person who is also a Catholic is condemned to hell forever by each sexual act he/she engages in unless he/she goes to confession and repents (sincerely) this sin and promises to commit it no more.

This is no small matter.  It weighs eternal damnation against the natural sex urges millions of people feel each day.  My mother, a devout Catholic, died with the certain knowledge that her beloved Douglas was not going to join her in heaven, but that he would instead suffer horrible torments forever in hell simply because he’s an unrepentant homosexual.  She didn’t doubt this.  Not for a moment.  She was a firm believer in whatever the Church told her was true.  Imagine the agony the Catholic Church caused this lovely woman whenever she thought of her son and what she imagined to be her failings as a mother for not putting him on a firmer theological path.

And, oh yes, Catholic gays commit suicide because of this.  Over and over.  Over and over.  Through the years, thousands and thousands of them.  Or at some point they throw over the whole game, abandon Catholicism, and look for a more realistic approach to life.

But perhaps Pope Francis will change things.  He appears to be a very decent man, who deeply cares about suffering. aiding the poor, calling the Church into a realignment with the suffering of those in distress.  His remarks on the airplane demonstrates that this caring attitude extends to gay people, gay priests. 

Pope Francis asked “Who am I to judge?”  That’s an astounding question with an obvious answer.  He’s the Pope!  The Vicar of Christ!  He’s not just another Joe on the street.  Francis gets to say what the rules are for the Catholic Church, and he should not duck this responsibility with a smile and a shrug of his shoulders.  This question is but a baby step, and one hopes he has the courage to take more, but until Pope Francis replaces the Church’s awful language quoted above with a major change in Catholic doctrine for the treatment of homosexual persons in his flock, this agony, this wound, this injustice will continue to torture devout Catholics, most particularly gays and those who love them.


Related Posts:
"The Aging Gay Rights Activist," March 24, 2010
"Frightening the Horses," April 4, 2010
“Homosexuality: The Iceberg Theory,” April 25, 2010
“How I Lost a Gay Marriage Debate,” April 29, 2010
“Straight Talk,” May 10, 2010
“Marijuana and Me,” July 11, 2010
“How To Tell if You’re Gay,” August 31, 2010
“The Thunderbolt,” September 3, 2010
“How To Change Gay People Into Straight People,” September 20, 2010
"How Many Homosexuals Are There in the World?" November 8, 2010
"Choose To Be Gay, Choose To Be Straight," January 25, 2011
"The Homosexual Agenda To Conquer the World," February 8, 2011
"Seducing Straight Men," March 3, 2011
"Coming Out: How To Tell People You're Gay," March 27, 2011
"Jumping the Broom: How 'Married' are Married Gay Couples?" July 17, 2011
"The Legacy of Homophobia," August 2, 2011
"Going Undercover at an Ex-Gay Meeting," September 19, 2011
"The Presumption of Heterosexuality and the Invisible Homosexual," October 2, 2011
"Gay Bashers, Homophobes, and Me," January 27, 2012
"On Being a Gay Sports Fan," March 9, 2012
"Sexual Labels: Straight, Gay, Bi," April 15, 2012
"The History of Gay Rights in Columbus, Ohio," June 4, 2012
“I Support the Right of the Boy Scouts To Ban Gays,” July 24, 2012
“Straight People: Thanks From the LGBT Community,” November 20, 2012
Fifty Shades of Leather: Corbin Milk in the BDSM World,” December 26, 2012
“Gay Marriage, DOMA, Proposition 8 and the Mysterious Supreme Court,” January 15, 2013
“The Words ‘Queer’ and ‘Gay” in the 21st Century,” May 5, 2013
“A Homophobic Organization Throws in the Towel: Goodbye to Exodus International,” June 21, 2013
“Gay Marriage, the Supreme Court, and the Future,” June 26, 2013
“So, the Pope Doesn’t Like Gay Marriage? ” January 20, 2015;

“A Gay Hoosier Lawyer Looks at Indiana’s RFRA: The Religious Bigot Protection Act,” March 30, 2015;
“The Pope In America:  Women, Sexual Minorities, and Kim Davis”, September 28, 2015; 
A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013: