Category Archives: Secular morality

“Atheist Voices of Minnesota” contributor interview & giveaway!

Readers, you are in for a treat. I’ve secured an interview with one of the contributors to the just-released anthology Atheist Voices of Minnesota, and its publisher, Freethought House, has generously offered a copy for me to give to one of my lucky blog readers. Follow the directions on the Rafflecopter widget at the end of this post to find out how to enter (offer open to US residents only).

The contributor who chose to talk with me is the author of the essay that opens the collection, a piece that Doubt: A History author Jennifer Michael Hecht called “sensitive” and “compelling.”  A clue to her identity: her name appears on the cover….and it ain’t Stephanie or Greta.

THE RADICAL HOUSEWIFE: Have you always been an atheist?

SHANNON DRURY: My go-to joke is that I was baptized Catholic but it didn’t take. I was raised in a secular home by two products of the adage that the best way to raise an atheist adult is to send him or her to Catholic school–especially in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when nuns were still smacking naughty children with rulers.  My mother told me she was singled out for particular abuse because she had the bad luck to be born redheaded AND left-handed, both of which were considered early predictors of demonic possession.

I bought my mom this Nunzilla wind-up toy back in the ’90s.  It breathed fire as it stomped toward you.  She said it was eerily accurate.

RH: Wait a minute.  I know for a fact that you are a great fan of Pema Chödrön, the well-known Buddhist…..wait for it….NUN!  How can that be?

SD: Hey, just because I don’t think The Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything is a god or gods doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned the quest.

I read quite a lot of Buddhist philosophy.  Longtime readers of my Minnesota Women’s Press columns know how often I sprinkle in ideas from Thich Nhat Hanh.  Stephen Batchelor, a former Zen monk, has written a number of great books, including Buddhism Without Beliefs, Living with the Devil, and Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist.  And Pema Chödrön is one of my very favorite writers of any genre.  I love her to bits.

I suspect that if you asked Chödrön herself for The Answer, she might reply that it’s neither the Buddha nor the number 42–it’s love.  Which is what my essay in the book is all about.

RH: Your essay, “An Atheist Grieves,” made me cry.

SD: It made me cry, too.

RH: Was it hard to write?  You’re laying bare some pretty raw emotions: the death of your maternal grandfather, the death of your close friend, the deep anxiety felt by a parent who wants desperately to make sense of the world for her curious children.  

SD: It’s more difficult to read than it was to write, honestly.  It kinda just poured out of me in a few particularly wrenching sessions at the laptop–after years of puzzling and puzzling over why the death of my friend Liz has been so goddamn (pun intended) hard to get over.

When my grandfather died in 1979, it made some sort of sense to me.  He was old (though today 65 doesn’t seem as ancient as it did when I was a third-grader), he had seen his children through to adulthood, including marriages and the births of their own kids.  Though my parents weren’t Catholic anymore at that point, they still relied on its framework to sort the whole thing out.  Grandpa Cliff had a full funeral mass, and everyone said that he was “in a better place” and that kind of thing.

Liz and I were the same age.  We met at Carleton College and both graduated with the class of 1994.  She died just two months after her oldest daughter started kindergarten.  Her youngest daughter was not even a year old when Liz got her cancer diagnosis, and she won’t have any memories of her mom healthy–that is, if she remembers her mom at all.  What the fuck is THAT all about?  How do you sort THAT out?

RH: I have no idea.

SD: Most people have religious rituals to guide them through grief.  I didn’t.  The original title of the essay was actually called “What an Atheist Grieves When an Atheist Grieves,” because over time I realized that I wasn’t simply mourning her, I was mourning a lot of other stuff, too.

RH: Like what?

SD: My illusions of immortality, for one thing, though everyone confronting the death of a peer feels that.  I think I realized that my smartypants attitude about organized religion wasn’t exactly keeping me warm at night, if you know what I mean.  As I write in the piece, “my atheism requires maintaining a delicate and oftentimes painful balance  between intellectual superiority and emotional terror.”

RH: Intellectual superiority, eh?  No wonder you don’t talk about your atheism much.  You could get yourself punched in the face for saying something like that.

SD:  Oh c’mon.  Do I really think that I am smarter than my beloved neighbors, dedicated parishioners of St Joan of Arc?  Of course not!  But when you watch some dope on YouTube claiming that the Bible’s word refutes evolution, the dinosaurs, miscegenation, climate change, homosexuality, and “women’s lib,” it’s hard not to feel like unbelievers are awesome.  And then there’s the Taliban…..ugh.  I do feel sympathy for people of faith who have to contend with the lunatic fringe that makes them appear guilty by association.

I also tend to avoid embracing my atheism for fear of being stereotyped as yet another member of the secular white liberal elite.  Secular, white, and liberal, yes.  But elite?  I’m a garbageman’s daughter, for cryin’ out loud!

RH: Admit it–you almost said “for Christ’s sake” there.

SD: You know I did.

Anyway, the real reason I don’t talk about my atheism much is that faith, and its lack, seems like a pretty private thing to me.  It feels akin to discussing all the gory details of your sex life–though I suppose that’s the very excuse that Elton John made, once upon a time.

RH: Anything else your readers should know about the book?

SD: It features contributions from Pharyngula blogger PZ Myers, HuffPo regular Chris Steadman, science writer Greg Laden, an introduction from Greta Christina, and writings from many other interesting people from across my home state.  It’s available as en e-book on Kindle or Nook, too, though readers should know that the copy they could win is fully analog.

RH: I am aware of your love-hate relationship with technology.

SD: Tell me about it. Just take a look at this raffle widget it took me hours to enable:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

RH: It took me a little time to load because I have “The Inbetweeners” streaming on another tab.

SD: I may be an atheist, but I have seen hell–it’s a computer with sluggish wifi. Love that show, by the way.

RH: How often should people enter?

SD: Multiple times a day until 12:01 am on September 17.  The winner should also think of a witty inscription for me to inscribe on the title page, which will make the book a genuine collectible, suitable for keeping in the glass case with first edition Harry Potters or selling on eBay.

RH: How generous!  Good luck to all entrants!






Blog for Choice 2011: One Heart

An excerpt from The Radical Housewife, chapter one:

Our obstetrician explained that a first appointment focused more upon completing paperwork than much else; as proof, she handed my husband a stack of insurance forms and an official Fairview Hospitals publication entitled Your Pregnancy and You. On the cover, a hollow-cheeked supermodel pressed her lips to the downy head of a doughy-looking newborn. “But since someone left the mobile unit in here already,” she said, nodding towards a contraption in the corner of the room, “we could take a peek, if you like.” I assented eagerly. Dr. Farber switched on the machine, a combination of wheels, PCU, keyboard and monitor that resembled a plastic version of the robot Clonky from Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.

By the time Dr. Farber finished rattling off the list of things I could no longer enjoy (alcohol, blue cheese, ibuprofen, regular bowel movements), her hands had warmed up the tube of K-9 jelly to her liking. “Shirt up, now,” she ordered, and I obeyed. She squeezed a great dollop of lube on my stomach, then squashed down my innards with the sound wave wand as she watched snow undulate on the video monitor. “Ah,” she said, satisfied. “Here we are.”

Here, indeed: on the screen was the first picture of the baby I’d carry until the following February. It looked more like a salamander than a human child, with a fifth nub that was definitely a residual tail. The tiny creature writhed in its liquid home, thrashing about eagerly as the doctor pressed in firmly for a clearer picture. Somewhere below the bulbous, bean-shaped head we saw a soft flutter, like the quiet gray wings of a miniature moth. It was a heart. This thing was alive.

Not far from the Minneapolis office where we sat, on a grimy east-west throughway called Lake Street, are billboards featuring outsized photographs of babies. Some of these children open their mouths into gummy smiles; some gaze heavenward, their eyes round and damp with guileless gratitude. These billboards sell neither diapers nor formula; instead, they provide factual information. They announce that an embryo, from whence each of these babies came, has a beating heart 21 days from its conception.

It’s a fact. I can’t dispute it. Yet when my car rumbles down Lake Street, I shake my fist at those babies. I curse their sponsors, the Pro-Life Across America campaign, for reducing the explosive emotions behind a wrenching issue to the simplicity of a baby’s smile. On the far west end of Lake Street, closer to the gentility of Lake Calhoun than the chaotic halal markets of Little Mogadishu, stand clusters of bundled-up white women and men, their gloved hands clutching trifold pamphlets adorned with babies, but these babies do not smile; instead, they glower “j’accuse!” from faces streaked with blood, a dire warning to all who might enter the local Planned Parenthood.

In the United States of America, it is legal to terminate a pregnancy at nine weeks, to take action to stop the fluttering heart of this salamander-like creature I watched on the ultrasound screen. Medical terminology labels it embryo or a fetus. On the billboards, it’s a baby. There’s no room for that slithery, amoebic time in between that technology made visible to me, my husband, and our doctor .

In Exam Room 12, in a flickering series of black and white images, I too saw a baby—my baby. My husband squeezed my hand. Dr. Farber printed out a picture that I showed to my mother, my father, my in-laws. Still, the sight of this heart did nothing to change my lifelong support for safe, legal abortion, available on demand and without apology.

The abortion debate, like any other, pits chilly science against hotly contested theories, many so deeply felt as to attain near-factual status. Pro-Life Across America wishes us to understand the fact of a baby’s heartbeat proves the theory that nine-week-old wrigglers are conscious and sentient, however diminutive. Certain factions go back even farther, claiming that the fusion of two cells, spermatozoa and egg, require as much protection as a smiling baby.

I believe our fascination with where life begins has its source in our terror of how it ends. No person owns a memory of the dawning of her consciousness. To define the self, then, we must work backwards from life’s second great mystery: death. Our collective dread may have inspired the idea of an immutable soul that has the power to transcend that which we fear most. An unchanging soul at death, therefore, requires a unique soul at birth—or, as some believe, much earlier.

I will never forget the sight of this tiny heart’s flutter, yet I wonder: was there a consciousness swirling about that pinpoint-sized brain? Were there thoughts? Emotions? Scientists know that farm experience emotions, yet millions are slaughtered daily to satisfy our hunger for their meat. I could not rationally argue that a nine-week-old blob in my belly contained the mental powers of the average full-grown pig, so what makes the blob a more valuable object? But does it have a soul? This agnostic vegetarian dares not guess.

What I do know is when my infant son came home from Fairview Riverside Hospital, he did not smile. His wet mouth twisted as he screamed without regard for the poor, anxious heart of his mother. No billboards announced to me Hang in There, Mom, It’ll Get Better!, and nobody stood on the sand-crusted snow bank outside my house in Sorel boots, much less rosaries, handing me pamphlets of support. A heart can set things in motion, but cannot finish the job.

Lacking the framework of faith, I seek not perfection, but balance. When I looked my blob, I understood him as the culmination of countless events and choices, the sum total of my years on the earth. My years, and no one else’s. I also saw a creature that drew sustenance from me and me alone. He lived on my blood, my nutrients, my oxygen, my energy: all of it mine. If I died, so did he. His tail could not wiggle outside the safety of my womb.

I gave him life. I also gave him meaning.

When does life begin? I suspect it is a process requiring a complex engagement between both the being and its world, much like a story requires a reader. Otherwise, the words remain only a series of unintelligible scratches on a page. If we accept that a story has different meaning for a different reader, we may understand that no person will approach either their soul, or a zygote’s, identically.