There’s No Crying—or God—in Baseball

There’s No Crying—or God—in Baseball
By William Cooney

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One of my favorite scenes in all of movies occurs in the 1992 film, A League of Their Own, directed by Penny Marshall. When one of the players on the all-women’s baseball team starts to cry after being excoriated for a misplay on the field, Jimmy Dugan, the gruff and disheveled manager charmingly portrayed by Tom Hanks, looks at her and incredulously exhorts, “You’re crying? Are you crying? There’s no crying in baseball!”

The Hanks character’s derision at the sight of tears on a baseball field is probably something most of us would also feel if we tried to imagine a dejected Derek Jeter sobbing uncontrollably after hitting into a double play costing his team a run at a critical moment. Manger Joe Torre would no doubt be as perplexed as the fictional Jimmy Dugan if he were to witness such an abomination. We understand baseball, and we understand crying, but we also understand that little voice inside our head that tells us the two don’t mix.

Which brings to mind the idea that maybe something else should be left out of baseball as well. In September of 2001—right after the infamous date of 9/11 to be more precise—the New York Yankees, in a proud display of patriotism, began having the song God Bless America sung during the seventh-inning stretch of all its home games at The Stadium. Its unifying and healing effect on a hurting city was plainly evident. The Irish tenor Ronan Tynan delivered on repeated occasions his masterful rendition of this anthem Kate Smith made so popular in her glory days.

But seven years later I’m left to wonder if this new tradition has already outlived its usefulness? The appeal of God Bless America is one of nostalgia. It hearkens us to a time when the country was more a country of Christians than not, when God was right up there with baseball, motherhood and apple pie as signatures of that which we held dear, and many people don’t want to see those days go away. The reality, however, is that our doctrine of religious freedom has evolved and matured. It now respects not only the multiplicity of religions practiced in America, but also respects—or at least should—the ranks of us not inclined toward religion at all.

Truthfully, my aim is in no way to see God removed from public life altogether, but rather to see the influence of organized religion removed from institutions of government. But the Yankees are not an institution of government, so why my trepidation?

This is a valid question. If the Steinbrenners (owners of the Yankees) want to have God Bless America sung during the seventh-inning stretch, my hunch is they have every right to do so. One leg I might have to stand on in favor of returning to Take Me Out To The Ball Game may lie in the fact that baseball does enjoy a special social status in America (to say nothing of a special legal status owing to its exemption from antitrust laws). Given baseball is that unique institution in America whose appeal is so broad it permeates virtually every segment of society, in the course of its business it should refrain from identifying with any constituent that does not share its broad and inclusive philosophy.

Being a Yankees fan, I watch a lot of their games on television, and whenever the seventh-inning stretch of a home game comes around these days, I find myself suddenly in need of a comfort break. This is the same person, mind you, who couldn’t tear himself away from this spectacle in the weeks immediately following 9/11. It was strange. I was comforted, not by the singing of God Bless America, but by witnessing the comfort it gave others. I was struck at just how uplifting and healing this song was to so many people, especially when the inspiring sight of a bald eagle flying through the stadium air was employed to even further incite the patriotism already swelling amidst the crowd.

It concerns me that those of us who do not believe in God might be considered less patriotic than those who do, which is, of course, a myth. We’re only asking whether or not this one swatch from the fabric of our culture is best left outside such a universally appealing phenomenon as baseball.

It would be foolhardy to dismiss the enormous impact God, faith and religion have had on our culture. But for the sake of their very own survival, it is probably better that ostentatious displays of God, faith and religion be restricted in certain cultural arenas.

In the meantime, we don’t need to repeat the spectacle of Yankees manager Billy Martin going to pieces after being fired for the fourth time. It was not a pretty sight.

Some things are best left out of baseball. ▪

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From Living Without God—A Life of Reason; self-published, 2010

 

A Birthday Message From Within

A Birthday Message From Within
By William Cooney

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Two days ago I turned 60. In some ways I have never felt so young, in others—never so old. But thanks to my Atheist and Humanist friends, I now know enough to live a small part of each day as if it could be my last, and another small part as if I may have a million more to go.

“Make now the most precious moment of your life,” Captain Picard implores of his ‘daughter’ in the Star Trek TNG episode The Inner Light, one of my favorites. (The others being Where None Have Gone Before and All Good Things.) Why is it that we have so much trouble with the here and now? We readily look back to learn from the past, and we always have a sense of hope for the future. Why do we resist basking in the present? Whatever the reason, I am determined to find it, seize that moment, and make the most of it.

In all honesty, the arc of life points much more steadily toward the light these days. Rather than staring into the abyss, I find myself gazing into a pasture of green delights. Yes, the demons persist, but I am much more confident of my ability to smite them—with the help, that is, of caring and compassionate friends and family.

What does turning 60 really mean? Literally, it means I have existed long enough for our planet to make 60 revolutions around the sun. In one sense, this is little more than a blip on the cosmic radar; in another it is even less important considering the earth has been in existence for over four and a half billion years. The paradox of our purpose lies in the fact that our uniqueness is to be found amidst our insignificance.

So Happy Birthday, Billy. May you have 60 more! And, may you keep and find as many wonderful friends in the future as you have in the past five years. Here’s to a long and fulfilling life.

Letter to the Editor, Cromwell Chronicle, May 13, 2016

Letter to the Editor, Cromwell Chronicle, May 13, 2016

Dear Editor:

On April 15, 2010, Senior U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb issued her brave and thoughtful ruling that the federal law calling for a National Day of Prayer was unconstitutional. But, as was not totally unforeseen, the ruling was reversed on appeal on technical grounds saying the plaintiffs “lacked standing” to sue. And now the unholy alliance between church and state continues even to this day.

Why would anyone have something against praying you might ask? It is important to note that while atheists, humanists and other free-thinking secularists in this country have serious doubts as to its efficacy, we in fact vigorously defend anyone’s right to pray—anywhere, anytime. What we oppose is a law, passed by Congress in 1952, that instructs the President of the United States to set aside one day a year and calls on citizens to pray in observance of a National Day of Prayer. As Judge Crabb rightly pointed out in her ruling, this was a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment establishment clause, which prohibits the creation of any “law respecting an establishment of religion.”

So why wasn’t Judge Crabb’s ruling upheld? This is a fair question, and the answer no doubt relates to how and why religion enjoys such vast privileging in our culture. One might also ask why religious people—and religious organizations—even bother to seek the endorsement of government when carrying out an activity that is plainly religious in nature. And again the explanation seems clear: to continue currying political favor with the governing class thereby rendering those who do not pray second-class citizens.

In last month’s Facing Your Faith column in the Chronicle, Rev. Scott B. Jones of Hilltop Covenant Church wrote, “if you are not a person who prays, why not remember our nation, military, leaders, etc., in your thoughts Thursday, May 5?” That’s a great idea, Reverend Jones. Why don’t those of you who do pray do so without seeking the imprimatur of local, state or federal government officials? For the same reasons a nativity scene doesn’t belong on the lawn of the local town hall, public prayer should be practiced without the endorsement of government. The message it sends is not unifying; it is divisive.

William Cooney

Embracing Your Humanity: Finding Purpose without a God

Embracing Your Humanity: Finding Purpose without a God

By William Cooney

 

What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? Does it matter? These are questions mankind has asked of itself for a long time, and the answers are by no means trivial.

Where we look for these answers says much about who and what we are. The secular perspective values humanity itself and its capacity to reason, learn, love, and evolve. The religious perspective assumes the existence of a “supreme” being, one who commands its subjects to live according to its dictates. For whatever reasons the religious meme has proved dominant in most cultures for a very long time. But perhaps times are changing.

There are many myths perpetuated by religious people about Atheists. Among them the idea that without a god and faith there is no purpose to life and no hope for the future. This is a shallow criticism devoid of any meaningful consideration. The truth is the secular worldview is a decidedly hopeful worldview, one brimming with purpose. While Christian doctrine proclaims man’s failures, brokenness, and sinfulness to be his most defining characteristics, the atheist/humanist vision is founded in man’s reason, potential, and thoughtful self-examination.

We Atheists are often asked, “Where do you turn to—or whom do you turn to—in times of trouble or need?” Our answer is straight forward: We turn to ourselves and to one another. We find strength in each other’s personal character, material skills, emotional experiences, and capacity for love. Put simply, we find strength in each other’s humanity. We are fully aware that navigating this wonderful yet challenging world cannot be done alone, but we see no need to conjure a being whose very existence is a matter of serious debate.

This does not mean, however, that we see no reason to engage our religious brothers and sisters. Somewhere between our common need for food, clothing, and shelter and our profoundly differing perspectives about life and its meaning, there no doubt lies much more common ground. And the most readily accessible terrain for this lies in our shared experiences. We may disagree about whether or not a god exists, but surely we can agree that feeding someone who is hungry, clothing someone who is naked, and giving comfort to someone who is troubled or otherwise suffering are all things we can—and should—aspire to. To be sure, there is nothing uniquely Christian about tending to our fellow man. It is incumbent upon each of us, regardless of our religious or non-religious views, to look out for each other’s physical, emotional, and psychological well-being.

As far as our purpose in life is concerned, the most meaningful is simply that which we assign to it. And it is more than sufficient to serve as a motivating force in our quest to be the best human beings we can possibly be. Beyond that, it is common scientific knowledge that we were born of decaying stars, i.e., the elements that make up all of the matter in the universe came into being when great stars spent their fuel and ended their life cycles. And whether we choose to accept it or not, returning to the stars is our fate. Not a single atom of our bodies is lost when we die; they merely change form and become less organized. We leave it to others to contemplate the notion of an everlasting soul that survives us. That it may provide comfort is understandable, but the fear of death should not be so disquieting as this.

Embracing our humanity is precisely what gives our lives meaning. Making “now” the most precious moment satisfies our need for finding purpose without a god.

“Mystic Shoreline” — A Short Poem by a Visitor

My daughter Alycia wrote this poem while tending to her senior-year high school English assignment to compose a memoir. This was one of my favorite entries:


Mystic Shoreline
by Alycia Cooney
Written May 15, 2008

The shoreline
The sea air
On the beach
With no cares

No worries, no stress
All my troubles laid to rest
Everything drifts away
Leaving me feeling safe

Watch the boat in the harbor
See the people in the shop
Life just seems to stop

The shoreline
The sea air
Just sitting here

A place of peace
To spend the day
Away from the city
Oh how I want to stay

No tall buildings to block
A perfect view
Of the ocean
So beautiful and blue

Clear day, clear mind
Relaxation is easy to find
Here on the Mystic shoreline

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Review: David Silverman Ignites at the Mark Twain House

Review: David Silverman Ignites at the Mark Twain House

By William Cooney

American Atheists President and self-described “firebrand” for the cause David Silverman spoke at the Mark Twain House and Museum (MTH) in Hartford Thursday night (January 21, 2016). The evening’s presentation was nothing less than transformational. Mr. Silverman is the real deal for a real cause. Just like the organization he represents, he is forward, assertive, and unapologetic about his views on atheism and religion and why the latter needs to go away. His first book, Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World, appears destined to be widely read and seriously critiqued.

Silverman was introduced to the audience by American Atheists Connecticut State Director Dennis Paul Himes. The discussion was hosted by MTH Director of Communications and Special Programs Jacques Lamarre. Lamarre had his work cut out for him being point man for the interview as Silverman’s excitability became something of a challenge, albeit one that at nearly every turn was jocular—often to the point of hilarity.

Son of a very traditional Jewish mother and a closeted atheist father, Mr. Silverman emerged from his early childhood experiences more disenchanted than wounded. He rather ingeniously managed to keep his mother happy while at the same time surreptitiously forging his own skeptical views about God and religion. Silverman regaled the audience with engaging tales of duplicity as he kept his early atheism a secret while at the same time pretending to commit to and prepare for both his Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation.

At several points throughout the conversation, Silverman adamantly made the argument that “religion is the greatest scam ever conceived,” swindling people of their hard-earned money and taking advantage of a decidedly undeserved tax-exempt status. He also warned against thinking of religious people as stupid or delusional, suggesting instead that they are victims—victims of the great scam of religion. “This,” says Silverman, “makes them deserving of our help and support.”

Silverman gives his audience a preview of his book, indicating it is chock full of graphs and statistics, something he admits having a mild addiction to. A most interesting aspect of his data is that they reveal an America much more secular than one would think if one takes into account all manner of skeptics, doubters, posers, pretenders, and those otherwise closeted. By this measure the United States population is more than 25% “atheist,” and comprises a segment of society larger than even a number of religious groups. Silverman’s argument is that many Americans—if they could only get past their aversion to the term—are indeed atheists but for many reasons refuse to acknowledge it. Silverman says that atheists are winning the war to de-stigmatize the term, and that most notably people under the age of 30 are particularly skeptical and proudly embrace their atheism.

Silverman weighed in on topics such as presidential election politics, Islamic extremism, LGBTQ rights, the Overton Window of  political viability, the national motto (In God We Trust, and why it is a big “lie”), and many others. The evening ended with a spirited Q&A session followed by his lobby book signing which, judging by the long line, was a big success. In the end, Silverman provided precisely what was advertised: a no nonsense, firebrand presentation for the cause of atheism propelled by an enthusiasm like no other.

First Meeting!

First Meeting!

By Tim Thomsen

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“Hon?  I’m going to an atheist meeting tonight,” I told my wife as I got home from work.

“Really?  Sure you aren’t going to Hooters?”

I sighed.  My wife had a hard time believing that I would actually want to spend time with a bunch of middle aged white guys talking about how they don’t believe in god.  And no, I told her, the meeting of the Connecticut Valley Atheists wasn’t going to be at Hooters, it was going to be at a church.  Something that religion provides to many people is a large meeting place, a place for people to congregate and worship.  We wouldn’t be worshiping anything tonight, however.  In fact, I didn’t know what we would be doing.  Would we be talking?  Arguing?  Would there be a secret atheist handshake?  What if I couldn’t get in?  What if I had to recite a sassy Christopher Hitchens quote to gain entry?  I grew nervous.  I started looking up my atheist facts to prove I was an atheist.  My wife helped me pick out my outfit.  Long sleeve shirt, jeans, Converse.  Good paunchy guy clothing.

“All right, I’m off.  I’ll bring you some wings,”  I said.

“Ha ha.”

And off I was, headed to my first meeting of non-belief!  Into the night I drove, determined to prove my wife wrong, that I wasn’t headed into the arms of hundreds of buxom atheist waitresses.  Those thoughts kept me warm on my cold drive, but as I pulled into the church, those thoughts quickly evaporated.  Definitely a church.  And as I went inside, I was greeted with that church basement smell, a combination of construction paper, old carpet, and possibly myrrh.  I noticed a small group of people, and I quietly said hello.  Surprisingly, they all did not resemble me (a white male, if I haven’t made that clear).  There was an African American woman, the rarest of all atheists.  There was a former Muslim gentleman, both eloquent and intelligent.  There were other men and women there, both young and old, and all of us were gathered there for one thing: Pizza.

Yes!  This group had its priorities!  Four different pizzas, two heavily covered in meats.  Jackpot!  And it was free!  These atheists were my kind of people!  A true atheist will see the needs of his or her community, and give out all sorts of free stuff!  And then the meeting began proper, and, uh-oh.  What’s this?  They started passing the jar.  The kitty.  They expected me to “pay my dues” for some reason.  As I wiped the free pizza grease from my face, I thought about how this was another example of Big Atheism and the billionaire fat cats that wanted all of my money.  Typical.

But then another thing happened:  a lively discussion.  I thought I would naturally agree with what I heard that night.  But to my surprise, there were different opinions!  Different views.  Varying degrees of non-belief.  The conversation was getting heated, back and forth.  “Is prayer wrong?” “Does religion have its place in today’s society?”  “Has mankind evolved beyond organized religion?”  And I finally got to ask the burning question that has been tearing me apart: “Why the hell do I keep saying ‘God bless you’ after someone sneezes?”  The room lit up, everyone had their support for me, and reassured me that I was still an atheist if that happened.

And then, sadly, the meeting came to a close.  If I wanted more, I would have to attend the next meeting.  A member announced “We are having brunch at a local restaurant this Sunday.”  “Hooters?” I thought to myself.  He continued “We are meeting at the Cosmic Omelet.”  The Cosmic Omelet?  That place rocks!  Best eggs in town!  Place is always packed too.  Hard to get a seat.  If these atheist guys could get me in for brunch there, I suppose I could work out some type of membership fee arrangement.  Of course the reason I want to attend these meetings is further my ties to with the local atheist community, and to learn what atheists as a group can to for that community.  But if I could do this while eating pancakes, that really is a win/win, right?  I mean, I care deeply about being an atheist, I swear to God.

Is Prayer Harmful?

Is Prayer Harmful?

By William Cooney

When the business portion of our last CVA monthly meeting concluded, former president Dennis Himes led a discussion on what turned out to be quite the provocative topic: “Is Prayer Harmful?” At first blush, one might think that, of course, most Atheists believe prayer is indeed very harmful. It turns out, however, there were many who cautioned against being too “dismissive” or “strident” when it comes to criticizing prayer or people who pray. Not because they believed in its potential for healing or otherwise procuring favorable advantages, but rather because in the service of spreading our secular vision, we should take care not to offend the sensibilities of others. Precisely because there is no more efficient way to drive religious people deeper into their own self-serving world view than to criticize or mock something very important to them, we should refrain from expressing anything that can possibly be characterized as an insult. The fine art of persuasion, it seems, demands a more nuanced approach.

As Richard Dawkins pointed out in his 2006 book The God Delusion, ridicule and mockery can be important tools in the arsenal of criticism, writing indeed, that no one has the right not to be offended by criticism, not the least of all, religious people. The onus is on the one being criticized to grow a thicker skin, and not on the critic to be more accommodating or less offensive—especially in the arena of religious polemics. It was long thought in polite society that one simply did not criticize religion. Why? Well, for no good reason, as it turns out. Religion simply enjoyed a privileged status in social circles—and conversation—if only because it was “the way of things” for so long.

And so it goes with prayer. Where’s the harm in praying for something or someone, so long as it is private and hurts no one? About all that can be said of prayer is that it benefits no one, with the possible exception of the one doing the praying, because they will often say it makes them feel better, as if they had contributed something meaningful in a difficult situation. In this sense prayer becomes a pitiable act of self-congratulatory gibberish. And even that benefit is meager at best. Praying can delude one into thinking, and believing, that one has done something real and positive for the cause of the day. It relieves one of the burden to actually do something substantial, kinetic, quantifiable, and life-changing. Doing right by each other is not always easy; in fact we know it to be difficult. And praying often gives people a reason not to have to do any of the heavy lifting.

To be fair, we must form a consensus around a definition of prayer that lends sensible parameters to this debate. If we can agree—in principle—that active prayer involves the summoning of a deity for the purpose of attaining some favor or outcome, then prayer quickly reveals itself an enemy of reason. And this is where much of the real danger of prayer lies: in teaching our children not to use their intellectual, problem-solving, critical-thinking skills to respond to not only everyday situations, but also to more challenging things like human suffering. To us firebrands of atheism, prayer holds the potential to dehumanize people in their time of need. Pain and hunger, homelessness and despair, grief and loneliness—these things remain abstractions so long as prayer is held up as a viable action plan to mitigate their effects. Praying keeps too many of our hands too clean; keeps too many of us out of the trenches of misery, and just far enough away from the blood, sweat, and tears of the sufferers so as not to soil our blouses. And while we’re at it, perhaps the politicians could stop shamelessly pandering to religious people by telling us how much they all pray and “consult God” about his divine plans for them and their campaigns or offices.

In the long run, prayer is very harmful to humanity because in practice it puts someone other than ourselves at the helm of our predicament. Praying also lends credence to the notion that we are broken beings in need of an overseer to provide us moral tutelage. And finally, prayer is a fictitious conduit to an even more fictitious being who wants us to believe that we are not good enough or smart enough to find meaning and purpose for our own lives.

2016 Will Be Even Better

Judging by the continued expansion of secularism here in the United States, it’s safe to say that 2015 was a good year and that 2016 will be an even better one. It may be hard to believe because the religious zealots—especially in the Republican Party—seem to be soaking up all the oxygen in the popular media atmosphere. Let’s face it, controversy sells. Let’s not forget, however, that what’s popular isn’t always what’s best.

Though secular ideas are gaining traction throughout much of the world, it often comes at a high price: atheist bloggers have been hacked to death for criticizing religion and promoting secularism in Bangladesh; Islamic extremists continue to terrorize Western standards of free thought and expression in Europe; and recent attacks in the US suggest that home-grown sympathy for radical Islam may be taking hold here. Despite these troublesome trends, the arc of this moral universe is indeed bending toward justice—to steal a phrase from Martin Luther King Jr. Enlightened principals, including even entrenched adversaries such as Russia and the US, agree that however complex the causes of this uprising may be, terrorism is not justified.

This doesn’t mean that Russia and the US should be let off the hook for instigating strife in the Middle East. George W. Bush and his neoconservative allies have much to answer for when it comes to the caustic cult of exporting democracy by force of arms; President Obama has much explaining to do for his profligate, and sometimes extra judicial, use of drones; and Vladimir Putin needs to decide whether Syria’s Bashar al Assad is a leader truly worth defending in this fight.

What has all this to do with the struggles of atheists you ask? Much, to be sure. Religious sectarianism is at the center of so much of the world’s unrest. But isn’t it also political? It may be, but throughout much of the world, politics and religion are inextricably linked. Israel is not just a secular state in the modern meaning; it is also a religious state. Many of the Middle Eastern states’ constitutions place God—or Allah—at the zenith of both social and governing order. This is precisely why separating church and state is so important. Keeping each free from the influence of the other is the best way to protect the integrity and viability of both. The late Christopher Hitchens offered some poignant analysis when he noted the irony of some of today’s Americans longing for the very thing they were fleeing when our country was founded: religious persecution.

The battle over whether our government’s founding was religious or secular is a battle worth having. It’s funny, but for a supposedly free country it’s amazing just how little freedom some of those who are not Christian enjoy. The Religious Right in America does not want freedom for everyone; they want the continued cultural dominance of their own Christian heritage. It is up to us atheists to lead the assault on this dangerous and tyrannical vision. Ironically, it is the secular perspective that is more conducive to true religious freedom. 2016 will no doubt be even better than 2015 for the cause of atheism.

Religion and Mental Illness: The Perfect Poison

For some time I have come to believe that religiosity itself is a special brand of poison, one that not only nullifies the ability to reason but also eviscerates one’s capacity to both give and receive love. So many of those possessed of the grand delusion of God lose the potential for empathy. Mired in their own sense of self-righteousness, they become oblivious to the stations and challenges of others as they furiously fan the fires of the malignant monster of narcissism.

Could this all be the result of simply believing in something called God? Is religious faith that insidious an idea at its core? Or is there another ingredient lurking, fouling our recipe for good living?

Perhaps an opportunistic illness lies in wait for those not whole or healthy enough to ward off the effects of serious betrayal and sexual abuse. In which case obsession and delusion—two cornerstones of disease—are free to infect the already struggling mind. Thus, in a cruel and callous conspiracy, religion and mental illness each exacerbate the effects of the other, combining their baleful essence to create the perfect poison: a sickness that stands up to nearly everything.

But all is not lost. Even against this most intractable of maladies, change is possible. And those who say it isn’t are merely affirming a self-fulfilling prophecy, their own words, deeds, and omissions serving to undermine any chance for improvement. Unconditional love and support from family and friends, combined with the competent and selfless care of medical professionals offer the best hope for securing a happier and more healthy existence. Giving up on one another, especially by enabling them, is not only disloyal, it invites distrust and self-loathing.

Hopefully, this is not a bad time for such a sobering assessment. The holidays are, after all, meant to be joyful. But joy is precisely what I seek as I begin to traverse the latter stages of middle age. Let us all re-commit to kindness as we search for the answers to life’s most challenging questions.

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