Wednesday, March 7, 2012

There Goes the Neighborhood

The Jehovah's Witnesses have found me! They stopped by my apartment this morning while I was getting ready for work. I had just finished cleaning out the cat boxes, so I was carrying a bag full of poop when I answered the door. Somehow that felt appropriate.

Anyway, they showed up at my door wanting to know if I had heard of the Watchtower and if I was interested in learning more about the gospel of Jesus Christ.

'I am familiar with it, yes, but it isn't something I'm interested in.'

'May I ask why?'

I hesitated to bust out the 'A' word. I had to leave for work soon, after all. It would be best to get rid of them quickly. I decided on 'I'm non-religious'. That's fairly diplomatic, right? Big mistake. The guy perked right up. Now I was a challenge.

'When faced with all of the difficulties in the world today, don't you feel the need for God in your life?'

'No, they make me want to do something about it instead of relying on some God to fix everything for me.'  Probably not the best time for bluntness, but I was getting annoyed and I already said I wasn't interested.

'You really need to read the message in this book. It is my gift to you.'

'I'm honestly already pretty familiar with this message. I've experienced several religions first-hand, and I'm not interested.'

'Ah, but that's what your problem is. You need to read about this. Take it and promise me you'll read it.'

'Look, I'm trying to get ready for work and I've been standing here holding a bag of cat poop for several minutes now. This is not really an ideal time.'

'All right, but take this book and read it. And don't use it on the cat poop!'

Darn, he saw right through me. I tossed my newest acquisition in the recycling bin instead and went on about my morning. I was of course plagued by ways I could have handled the situation better... 'eprit d'escalier', the wit of the staircase, as they say. I honestly don't know if I want them to return or not. I wouldn't mind the chance to represent myself better and actually have a real discussion about belief. If I can get them to agree that all religions are ideas about how the world works, then we could move on to some interesting stuff from there. But I have no reason to think these guys will listen or change their minds, which is super annoying. Guess I'll see what happens.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Gator Freethought a Bust?

My ideas haven't been going over well at Gator Freethought. In the past I have messaged the group with ideas for getting involved with the community, such as the Volunteers Beyond Belief program or joining the International Foundation Beyond Belief Team for the LLS Light the Night Walk. These ideas were met with silence. And that's ok, not everyone is interested in doing community service and the existing group doesn't really seem to be set up to support that kind of thing. It's just not what this group is interested in. Once I'm done with grad school I can find a more service-oriented group, or start one myself. I would love to be a part of a secular humanist group that hosted both formal and informal talks and discussions at local bars and restaurants, as well as regular community service events and social gatherings.

But for now, Gator Freethought is what I've got to work with. The group describes itself on Facebook as:
"...a student organization at UF that provides freethinkers of any religious background the opportunity to meet and discuss religion and nonreligion alike."
"We meet every 2-3 weeks during the school year to hear a guest speaker on some topic of interest, after which we have a lively and interesting discussion, and typically go out for food and drinks afterwards. In addition, our members usually offer to host get-togethers every few weeks for the group."
So I don't think my expectations of social interaction were unfounded. After attending two meetings without learning anyone's name, I posted on their Facebook page about the lack of any socializing opportunities. I was told that the group had, in fact, held an informal introduction at the last meeting which I must have just missed somehow even though I was present the entire time. When I expressed interest in less formal discussions, I was told:
"You're thinking about a completely different kind of group than what Gator FreeThought currently is. Therefore I encourage you to take the lead and sponsor/organize new events."
So it looks like if I want to interact socially with this new group I've just joined, I have to organize it myself. A bit challenging, given that I don't know anyone's name or what they're interested in, but perhaps do-able in the future. Not the most helpful answer, since it did not indicate how to go about setting up an event. But I've organized student groups before, I have a pretty good idea how to manage it. Most people just joining a student group probably wouldn't have that experience. These guys just don't seem to know how to respond to new people or new ideas.

My biggest complaint by far is that the current discussions aren't really moderated well. Yes, you can raise your hand if you want to say something. But the people sitting in the front can't see your raised hand, and will just launch into whatever they want to say as soon as there is a pause in the conversation. People talk over each other a lot. Whoever says something first, even if they've been talking all night, gets the floor. No one ever says 'Hey, you've had plenty of time to share your thoughts. Let's hear from someone else.' If someone goes off on a tangent, no one interrupts them and says 'I get that Japanese foot-binding is an interesting subject that you know a lot about, but we should stay on track and make sure there's time for everyone to speak about tonight's topic.' If the moderator isn't doing this, should I step in? Like I said, I don't even know their names. That makes it a bit awkward, but this too can be overcome. But I don't think most people, especially new people, would feel comfortable doing so.

When I mentioned this on Facebook, I was basically told it wasn't really a problem because lots of people were speaking at meetings and it was inevitable that certain people would talk more than others. Obviously I think it is a problem. Decent moderation goes a long way, and without it less aggressive voices are never heard. Again, these guys seem pretty set in their ways. I'm definitely getting the impression that if I want to actually enjoy participating in this group, I'm going to have to make the changes I want to see myself. Those responses aren't totally unreasonable, but they do make me feel like I'm not being taken very seriously and they definitely don't make me feel welcome. I feel like I'm being told 'These aren't real problems, and if you don't like our club go start your own.'

I'm gonna try one more meeting to see if my comments actually made a difference, but I'm not all that interested in just having a conversation with one or two guys who dominate the group without even learning their names. And I am not going to have time to do a lot of organizing in the next few months, especially not for a group where I don't feel welcome.

It's a vicious cycle:
New person joins
New person complains about not being able to participate
New person is told things are fine the way they are
New person doesn't feel welcome and doesn't bother participating more
Things stay exactly the same

Guess we'll see what happens at the meeting next week.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Gator Freethought

The University of Florida has a student secular group called Gator Freethought. I follow them on Facebook, but until recently had not attended any meetings. The reason being that they meet on Wednesdays, and I have a pre-existing engagement with some friends and a bag of polyhedral dice. Nothing gets in the way of my dnd game.

Luckily, recent scheduling shifts have permitted me to check it out. The meeting format seems to be entirely discussion-based. They pick a general topic (the meetings I attended were titled 'LGBT Equality' and 'Politics and Religion') and start a conversation, with the president acting as a sort of moderator and providing talking points if the conversation slows. It was fairly engaging, and it was definitely fun to be able to talk to people about secular issues without getting hung up on the basics. No one in the room was advocating against LGBT equality, for example, or that the influence of religion on politics was appropriate. That was never a concern.

The whole thing did strike me as a bit pointless, though. Yeah, it's nice to be able to socialize and experience community with your fellow atheists...except there wasn't any opportunity to socialize, or even introduce myself, during the meetings. Talking about important issues is good, but three or four people (myself included, to be fair) basically monopolized the conversation. Most of the people there didn't contribute anything. Several times it felt like these guys just liked listening to themselves talk, and would ignore or cut off others trying to make a point. The moderator tried to keep everyone from talking over each other, but he was only partially successful.

It was predominantly a group of white guys, but I was prepared for that. There were a couple minorities and women present, but again the conversation was dominated by a few individuals in the majority. One in particular was at both meetings I attended, and most of the time it felt like the conversation was between him and everyone else. He always had to comment, expand on someone else's idea, or go off on a tangent about what something you said reminded him of, or provide unnecessary detail about what you said since he knows so much more about it than you do. I was severely tempted to politely ask him to stop talking and listen to what everyone else had to say for a few minutes, but as a n00b who didn't even know his name it felt kind of inappropriate.

I've posted a few comments on the Facebook page, suggesting service events the group could do and asking them to be a bit more friendly to new people or create some socializing opportunities. I have also suggested that if certain people would talk a little less it would encourage new or typically silent people to contribute more. No one has responded to anything, though. I dunno, engaging conversation is great but if it doesn't help develop social bonds or lead to making an actual difference, is there any reason to go to a discussion with people that all mostly agree with each other already?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Internal Consistency - Part 4: Tarot

For most of high school and early college, I considered myself Pagan. There were a lot of fuzzy, vaguely supernatural ideas and practices that were a part of my life. Even after becoming an atheist and a skeptic, these ideas still had some influence over how I thought and behaved. This created cognitive dissonance, which I have been trying to explore and resolve through writing (see Meditation, Herbal Medicine and Astrology for the rest).

I saved the most complicated one for last. I have been reading tarot cards for at least 12 years. When I moved to Gainesville for college, some of the first friends I made were through the Hoggetowne Tarot Guild. I am still a member of the guild, and I'm hosting next months meeting. I like doing tarot readings. I like talking about the symbolism and the psychology of it and using it as an opportunity to help people with their problems. My friends enjoy it too and often request readings from me.

I am not psychic. I treat the tarot as a psychological tool that contains universal symbols that people relate to their problems. I have often given a reading and overheard a discussion of its contents a few minutes later. Generally, it sounds nothing like what I actually said. People hear what they need or want to hear, but the fact that it is coming from a neutral source helps give things a different perspective. A lot of the time it's just an opportunity for them to talk to someone.

But! The more involved I get with the skeptical community, the more aware I am that there are people out there who lie. Who pretend to be psychic or to be able to communicate with the dead or to know the future. Who take advantage of people who are confused or grieving to make money. That is wrong, and I don't want to be a part of it.

There are also people that have very real and serious problems who believe in the supernatural. Instead of seeing a professional or getting medical assistance, they are consulting with a psychic. Not only are they not getting the help they need because of this, they feel as if they are doing something about their problem when in fact they are not. That is wrong, and I do not want to perpetuate it.

How is what I am doing any different? How am I not part of the problem as long as I'm doing tarot readings? You'd think the easy answer would be to simply stop doing them, but our group doesn't make money from doing readings. We use a lot of it to buy Christmas presents for children through the Guardian ad Litem program. It is also hard to let go of the idea that I am helping people. Helping people is good, right?

These problems have been bothering me for a while, and I wasn't sure how to resolve them. They really crystallized for me at this year's Medieval Fair. I avoided doing readings as much as I could because of my uncertainty, but the other readers need to take breaks occasionally. I had two very troubling customers that really helped me to speak.

The first was an older lady who sat down and right away began complaining about how she had wanted to set up at the fair as a reader, but the fair organizers had denied her request. She interrupted me repeatedly, and as soon as I finished her reading insisted on performing one for me. She wanted to demonstrate how to 'get more details' from a reading. She then proceeded to tell me about my alcoholic father whom I was taking care of and how he was preventing me from having a real relationship with anyone else (hint - this is not true). As rude and annoying as this lady was, she was also the perfect example of someone who was eager to take someone's money in exchange for her bullshit. Interacting with her really solidified the fact that I am no longer comfortable charging people for a tarot reading. I don't want to even tacitly approve of what she is doing.

The second was a middle-aged man who explained that he hadn't been able to sleep normally for weeks because there were spirits in his house. He had already gotten a reading from another booth at the fair, but felt like he needed more advice on how to deal with the situation. I told him he should go see a doctor and maybe think about taking sleep aids. It was clear he was looking for something specific from me, and I simply could not give it to him. The fact that he was coming to me...not a doctor or sleep specialist or a psychiatrist...for help with this problem made me sick to my stomach. I do not want to encourage that in any way. Putting myself in a position where I can be used as a surrogate by someone who genuinely needs help is not acceptable. From now on, I will only give readings to people I know, who I can trust to act responsibly.

Just a few years ago the tarot was a much bigger part of my life. I don't think that I would have been able to be this objective about it then. Now, aside from the Medieval Fair, it's mostly something I pull out for fun at parties. It gives people an outlet and a different perspective on things, and in that sense I think it is still a useful tool. But as long as there are charlatans and gullible people who are more comfortable with the supernatural than facing their problems, it is irresponsible of me to encourage or tacitly endorse their behavior in this way.