abbie blog post

Why I Love Going to Church at Christmas

Disclaimer: I know it’s January, but I can’t help it when inspiration strikes.

The holiday season is largely about tradition. For me, that means a couple of things. I break out my ugly Christmas sweaters, drink a ton of eggnog, eat anything and everything peppermint, set up a Christmas tree, buy presents for my family, sing carols, and go the candlelight service on Christmas Eve. While most of these things are silly and really just a force of habit and the fact that I really like candy canes, some of the things really can be classified as tradition, and the holidays just wouldn’t feel right without them.

First things first, let’s define what exactly traditions are and how they may come to be. Tradition is a way of thinking, behaving, or doing something that has been used by the people in a particular group, family, society, for a long time (Merriam-Webster). Many traditions, especially surrounding the holidays, come from family. Maybe you always goes to Grandma’s house to eat ham on Christmas, or your family dresses up in new pajamas and reads Christmas stories together (as mine does). Whatever it may be, family customs are central to this time of year.

Then there are religious traditions (note: I really am only talking about Christianity). Of course, around Christmas this includes manger scenes, the story of the Virgin Mary, carols, and church services.

For me, going to Christmas Eve church is less of a religious experience and more of a community one. There is something about holding a candle in the dark and singing beautiful music that makes you feel connected to the people around you. Additionally, the church my family attends (a Methodist church in Rosemount, MN) is much more progressive than many. The service was full of humanist themes like service, acceptance, and love that I was more than comfortable accepting.

Now I’m not saying that all traditions are good or should be continued. I also don’t think following tradition is good for all people. I’m saying that, for me, the holiday season is all about connecting with family, friends, and community. Christmas just wouldn’t feel right without some traditions, including singing with a candle at church, and I have no intention of changing them anytime soon.


Humanist Harry Potter: Dumbledore is Gay (and Other Revelations)


This is part 2 in a series on Harry Potter and Humanism.  This post may contain spoilers.

As I was writing my first blog post on Harry Potter, I kept thinking of interesting bits of information that I felt really supported my concept of Harry Potter as humanist. However, for the first post, I decided to focus only on one aspect on which I felt I could conceivably write an entire blog post. For this post, I’m going to fall back into a list format in an effort to bring together several “revelations” that don’t really have much to do with each other but which I feel are all interesting and important. So, here goes!

1. Lycanthropy symbolizes HIV/AIDS.

J.K. Rowling has stated that Remus Lupin’s lycanthropy is “really a metaphor for people’s reactions to illness and disability” (Conversations with J.K. Rowling). Rowling uses the werewolf as an interesting parallel to how our society treats people who have HIV/AIDS. Lupin has trouble finding stable employment, takes expensive medication to combat the incurable disease, and faces discrimination and stigma from the rest of the wizarding world. While werewolves can be dangerous (e.g. Fenrir Greyback), most of them are like Lupin, simply struggling to exist in a society that ostracizes them. Much like those who contract HIV, people don’t get bitten by werewolves for any higher reason–it just happens. Lupin shows readers that people with illnesses or disabilities are just like everyone else.

2. Dumbledore is gay.

When Rowling outed Dumbledore as homosexual, there were mixed reactions from fans. Though the revelation did not seem to affect the popularity of the book or movie series, the Christian Right in particular felt this as a huge blow, refusing to let their children read the books (those who hadn’t already banned them for sorcery). Naturally, I find this as a big win for the rest of us. One common complaint is that it wasn’t obvious to fans that Dumbledore was gay; in my opinion, that’s part of what makes it brilliant. LGBT* individuals are regular people! What a surprise! Why would we be able to tell Dumbledore was gay? He certainly wasn’t in a romantic relationship in the series (besides Grindewald, but we don’t get that full story). My only disappointment is that Dumbledore is the only gay character (as far as we know), but I guess that’s what fanfiction is for!

3. The conflict between muggleborns and purebloods represents race relations.

Rowling consciously created racial tensions in the Harry Potter series. Though people tend to think that having a magic wand would solve all of our problems, Rowling deliberately shows that social tensions take a lot more than magic to fix. One of the first people Harry meets when he joins the wizarding world is Draco Malfoy, who establishes himself as racist almost immediately. Racism used here doesn’t necessarily mean skin color or ethnicity (a fairly common use for the term), but rather the drastically different cultural backgrounds of purebloods and muggleborns. Once again, Rowling uses the series to demonstrate that these two types of wizards aren’t that different after all. Hermione Granger and Harry’s mother Lily were both muggleborn witches who turned out to be exceedingly smart and magically talented. Malfoy’s cronies, Crabbe and Goyle, both came from pureblood households yet were exceedingly untalented.

So, while some may call for Harry Potter to be banned (my teacher had to stop reading it aloud to my 3rd grade class), I say let’s make it required!


One Nation, Under Whom?

The United States, down to its foundation, has existed as a nation with every intention of religious neutrality. What many people do not understand is that the US is not a Christian nation- it was originally founded on primarily secular beliefs with the intent of a secular state with no one set of religious rules that the US and its population must succumb to. However, since then, a religious gray area exists, regarding its place in American democracy. These days, politicians eagerly claim religious affiliation while campaigning, many speeches with “God Bless America“, and too often our leaders allow their emotionally charged and sometimes irrational beliefs influence the choices they make.

It is evident that the Constitution is a secular document, one free from the binds of religion. The framers intentionally left out God to allow for religious freedom. Many founding fathers were non-Christian deists, and even more were strong advocates of secularism in government (I know, hold your gasps until the end of this post). They made an especially strong effort to omit any mention of a God from the document, writing “We the People” in order to give the power to the people instead of assigning the power to a sole ruler or a God.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
The first amendment elaborates on this framework by stating that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This is broken up into two clauses: the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. The Establishment Clause prevents the government from instituting a state religion and from adopting any policy that favors one religion over another. The Free Exercise Clause ensures that  individuals are provided the opportunity to practice whichever religion they choose or no religion. Freedom from religious oppression and tolerance for religious diversity are utopian ideals of an effective democracy.

Unfortunately, utopias do not exist, and the First Amendment is somewhat subjective. This can be seen through the various interpretations with the different Supreme Court eras. The distinct opinions are especially apparent when looking at the Hobby Lobby case from this summer. The case set the precedent that closely-held corporations can have religious free exercise, in this case refusing to provide healthcare in the form of certain contraceptives. It illustrates the Courts’ attempt even to extend these freedoms to corporations. Quite the controversial case, it stirred discussions of what it means when one’s rights could infringe upon another’s. Despite the justifications, many see the ruling as favoring Christianity. In other words, there is quite a fine line between the two clauses.

Despite the foundation of religious tolerance, the claim that the United States was intended to be a Christian nation is increasingly prevalent. While it is entirely possible that some of the founding father identified as Christian,  there was recognition that religious tolerance was best. Individual faith is different from government sanctioned religion; the founding fathers recognized this separation of church and state. Personal faith refers to beliefs and doctrines held by a person, and these individual beliefs are more often than not thought to influence morals and virtues. Based on this, people often make the mistake that religion equates to morals.

Morals do not inherently transpire from religion, nor does religion equate to morals. There are natural laws outside of religion that help govern people and guide them morally. Most people agree that lying and killing are inherently wrong, even without the Ten Commandments. Altruism and other “positive morals” can be observed in other species, where religion does not exist and there is no capacity for religion or politics.

Rats have been shown to exhibit signs of empathy towards other rats, studies conclude.

Rats have been shown to exhibit signs of empathy towards other rats, studies conclude.

Yet here in good ol’ America, people equate religion with morals, thus religion with good.




The belief that morals and religion go hand in hand leads to an understanding of why politicians often jump on the bandwagon and “me-tooism” when it comes to identifying with a religion. Especially during campaign season, politicians tend to end their political speeches with “God bless” or other phrases associated with a religion. Referring back to the Constitution, the founding fathers wrote that “…no religious test [should] ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or Public Trust under the United States.” Yet, despite the absence of any religious requirement, there still exists an expectation of religious affiliation. Most politicians see the association with a religion as a way to earn votes – it is an easy way to share a common belief with a group of people.

Too often, those in the majority sway politics one way or another, and in the case of the United States, the majority are Christians.  Their influence appears throughout our government and day-to-day activities, whether it is in the aforementioned speeches or engraved in official government buildings. One can see this in the evolution of the pledge of allegiance where the phrase  “one nation, indivisible,” was changed to “one nation, under God.” The flaw with this religious hegemony is that it goes against everything that the founding fathers had intended in the formation of this nation. Instead of politicians operating outside of religion, they are entangled in it and expected to be religious. Thus, the personal option of enjoying one’s religion becomes a professional mandate, without which they would likely be dubbed immoral.


Ernst and King vs Rural Iowans and the Environment

Last semester, I was given an assignment to email a state representative with an environmental concern. Below is my letter to Representative Steven King of Iowa’s 4th Congressional District on the subject of Climate Change:

Dear Representative King,

I am writing to you to express my concerns regarding previous comments you had made on the subject of climate change. Environmental policy is complex and climate science is more complicated still, but I strongly contend that continued inaction will only lead to disaster. Our global mishandling of the environment will not only have horrific consequences for the biodiversity of the planet, but will also affect the quality of life for future generations of Americans and the rest of the global population.

In particular, I want to address one such comment you had made which was the following:

“If [the temperature of the earth] went up, there’d be more evaporation of the 70 percent of the earth that’s covered by water,” King said. “And so I know by Newton’s first law of physics, if it evaporates up, what goes up must come down, has got to come down in the form of rain. So if the earth is warm, it’ll rain more and more places.”

Unfortunately, I think the impact of climate change on rainfall patterns is more complex than a ubiquitous increase in rainfall over the globe. Some areas may indeed experience increased precipitation, but it has also been projected that dryer regions will receive less annual rainfall. Increased precipitation in states such as Iowa may not be desirable if this is accompanied by extreme rainfall events that reduce annual crop yields. Furthermore, alterations in global rainfall patterns have the potential to threaten the food security of other nations located in regions that are projected to become drier.

While these projections are indeed concerning, it is important to recognize we are already seeing negative consequences from anthropogenic climate change. Although the rate of warming has slowed down, the planet has continued to warm and the past decade was the hottest on record. Oceans are becoming acidified from higher CO2 concentrations, and sea levels are rising. More troubling yet is the pressure that climate change has exerted on our planet’s ecosystems and on its wildlife.

As troubling as this is, there may be hope if congress can agree with the overwhelming majority of climate scientists on this issue. It is clear that we need more republican leadership advocating for action on climate change if we are to mitigate future ecological and human disaster. Therefore, I must ask, what will you do in congress to protect our environmental future?

Ryan Lode

Several months passed, but eventually I received this in my inbox:

Dear Mr. Lode,

Thank you for contacting me with your thoughts regarding global warming. I always appreciate hearing from my constituents.

As you may know, liberals like former Vice President Al Gore are always claiming that the “debate is over” when it comes to global warming. However, there is still considerable debate within the scientific community over how much (if any) the Earth’s temperature has risen. There is also considerable debate over how much any change in the Earth’s climate is anthropogenic (i.e. is caused by humans) or is caused by other factors, such as changes on the sun or simply the Earth’s natural climate cycle. Furthermore, predictions made by many climate scientists have proven over the years to be wildly inaccurate, so it is clear that we still have very little grasp on what the future holds for our climate. Finally, there is significant dispute over what global warming, were it to occur, would have on our environment and how much it would affect severe weather instances like hurricanes, floods, and droughts, and other climate-related issues.

It is worth noting that in the 1970’s, when global temperatures were dropping, there was significant scientific concern about “global cooling.” Radical action was encouraged, such as melting the Arctic ice caps and diverting arctic rivers. With the science behind global warming and climate change largely unsettled, it hardly seems wise or prudent to enact legislation, like “Cap and Tax,” which would impact our entire economy and impose crushing taxes on all Americans in an attempt to combat something that very well may be entirely outside of our control. As Congress considers various measures pertaining to climate change, I will keep your thoughts in mind.

Thank you once again for contacting me.  Please do not hesitate to do so again in the future.

Steve King
Member of Congress

I find an anti-environmental stance to be inherently toxic to three of the things rural Iowans tend to value quite highly: Christianity, capitalism, and agriculture.
So Steve King denies climate change. In other news, the sky is blue, and the Earth goes around the sun.  King is far from the only republican denying the necessity for action on climate change. Senator-elect Joni Ernst stated that she is unclear on whether or not climate change is man-made. Perhaps more concerning, she also wants to completely abolish the Environmental Protection Agency. A major commonality between these two republicans is that they represent the rural Iowan vote. King is the rural voice of western Iowa by virtue of being the representative of Iowa’s fourth congressional district, and Ernst annihilated Bruce Braley in the competition for the rural vote in the Senate race. While environmental policy is just one stance among many in the republican platform, I find it curious that such an anti-environmental stance has taken root among rural voters. In particular, I find such a stance to be inherently toxic to three of the things rural Iowans tend to value quite highly: Christianity, capitalism, and agriculture.

Beginning with Christianity, it is quite clear that the God of the bible asks mankind to take care of the Earth:

Jeremiah 2:7 – I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce. But you came and defiled my land and made my inheritance detestable. (NIV)

Lev. 25:23-24. The land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants. Throughout the country that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land

Lev. 25:23-24. The land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants. Throughout the country that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land

Revelation 11:18 – The nations were angry; and your wrath has come. The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your saints and those who reverence your name, both small and great — and for destroying those who destroy the earth. (NIV)

Religious opposition to climate action tends to stem from the belief that the destiny of humanity is ultimately under God’s control, and thus by taking action to reduce our impact on climate, we are tacitly admitting that humans are the arbiters of our future-not God. I find the position that climate science and climate action are anti-biblical to be quite dubious for several reasons. First, no climate scientist that I know of is suggesting that our impact on climate will make the earth completely uninhabitable for humans, at least not for quite some time anyway. What is clear, however, is that the vast majority of climate and ecological scientists agree that our biosphere is becoming increasingly less conducive to human life. Secondly, if we concede that humanity isn’t likely to meet its end soon from climate change, we can re-examine the bible verses listed above. Both refer to God’s anger towards those who have defiled and destroyed the Earth. It thereby is consistent with scripture that humans are capable of harming the planet while still being ultimately under the direction of God. Finally, if dire predictions of climate scientists are true, which include the displacement of millions people due to rising sea-levels, heavy financial loss and loss of life due to extreme weather events, and the increased malnourishment of people due to reduced agricultural yields, then we are slowly becoming the indirect cause of the impoverishment, starvation, and death of large numbers of people in the coming century. I think that both liberal and conservative Christians can agree that such action is in direct opposition to the teachings of the bible.

The second typical objection against climate action from rural conservatives follows the business angle. In other words, tighter regulations hurt business by raising cost of operation, and therefore regulation is bad for the economy. Is it really though? Let me counter with the basic environmental argument posited by Dr. Fritz Schumacher in his essay “The Problem of Production”. The argument is as follows:

Let’s say that there exists a business that converts a natural resource into a product. One day you discover that your company has been extracting too much of said natural resource at a rate that depletes its natural replenishment. Which of these options is the better business model?

Option 1: Maximize initial profits by continuing to harvest the resource at the current rate?

Option 2: Extract the resource at a more balanced rate, but at an initial cost to revenue.

Now, I know it’s tempting to jump to Option 2 right away, but not all would agree. Some would argue that the uncertainty of the economy demands that one maximize his or her profits as much as possible and that one should worry about adjusting the business model only when it becomes absolutely critical. I would disagree with this argument, but I have to concede that as someone with little training in economics, I’m unqualified to give such a rebuttal. What I can say, however, is that option 2 is clearly represents a better long term business model for the private sector. That is, if the private sector collectively extracts resources at rate with long term profits in mind, the economy is healthier. Now let me adjust Options 1 and 2 slightly to fit the climate crisis. The private sector as a whole is extracting and using natural resources in a way that depletes the stability of the climate beyond its ability to repair itself. Which of these options represents the better long term business model for the private sector?

Option 1: Maximize initial profits by continuing to extract and use resources in a way that slowly depletes the stability of the climate.

Option 2: Use Earth’s natural resources in a manner that doesn’t deplete the stability of the climate at an initial cost to revenue.

This may seem like an invalid comparison as the stability of the climate may not seem directly related to the economy, but this is clearly false thinking when one considers the potential costs associated with climate change. A recent report from leading climate scientists and economists highlighted several highly probable negative economic impacts related to climate change. Chief among them are rising costs associated with threats to coastal infrastructure, increased cooling costs, reduced labor productivity from increases in the frequency of days of extreme heat, and unfortunately for rural Iowans, decreased crop yields.

Being green doesn't necessarily mean being anti-economic.

Being green doesn’t necessarily mean being anti-economic.

Contrary to King’s frequent claim, changes in climate do not always bode well for agricultural production. Before I begin, a balanced argument demands that I mention some of the potential benefits to crop production associated with climate change before I get into its adverse effects. Because plants sequester CO2 from the atmosphere, higher concentrations of CO2 have the potential to increase yields of certain crops such as corn and soybeans. Furthermore, the number of frost free days in Iowa has risen by about 8-9 days which has in turn, provided a longer growing season. These are a few of the possible benefits to crop yields, but the aforementioned advantages are likely to be offset by a number of other factors. Higher CO2 concentrations may boost yield, but crops grown in artificially higher CO2 conditions have been shown to have less nitrogen and protein content, and are therefore less nutritious. Increases in the severity and frequency of droughts, downpours of increasing intensity, and other extreme weather is likely to offset, and possibly reverse, gains in crop yields from changing climate. All of this, of course, says nothing of the potentially devastating impacts of climate change on agriculture in other countries.

The Iowa flood of 2008 caused nearly $3 billion in crop damages.

The Iowa flood of 2008 caused nearly $3 billion in crop damages.

Ernst and King have the rural Iowan vote for now, but it is clear that their environmental platforms do not represent the core values of most Iowans. Given their propensity to undermine and ignore the science of climate change, I assert that they do not represent another core value of Iowa: education. Disagreements on the action needed to mitigate climate disaster are understandable, but denial and inaction ultimately hurts everyone, especially Iowans.


On Being an Atheist in Church

This year, I was fortunate enough to receive a position as a section leader at one of our local churches. With other UNI students as well as community members, I sing twice a week – Wednesday night and Sunday morning – for a Presbyterian congregation in Waterloo. Some UNIFI members have asked why I am dressed up at Sunday brunch, or why I cannot attend Wednesday night events. Almost everyone has had a confused response when I tell them about church, and this does not surprise me. After all, I have spent the last three years promoting UNIFI and serving as a contributing member or officer. It has been one of the largest parts of my college career.

Yes, I still identify as an atheist and yes, I am not fully comfortable with the notion that many children (myself included) were expected to participate in weekly church services and events while growing up. I was somewhat firebrand-y after I started questioning my religious upbringing, and I certainly would not have welcomed a job at a church at that time. So much of what I have encouraged or feel as though we encourage as a group of skeptics revolves around the idea of always being sure of our convictions, having thought-out responses to issues, and questioning everything. I’m glad I do view issues and beliefs with skepticism most of the time. Other times, I find it exhausting.

There is a simplicity in the way that church-goers in my congregation interact and support one another. These are the people that we can count on to attend our concerts and recitals. We know that we are missed when we are gone from a service. They genuinely care for one another and express concern as well as happiness toward the events going on in everyone’s personal lives. I have never felt like an outcast in this community, even when I first substituted for a singer a couple years ago. I love bringing up the group feel of UNIFI to potential members, but we have a long way to go before we can boast that we provide the fundamental community that many of us lose when we leave the church.

An aspect of church services that I have always enjoyed is the focus on music. I connect liturgy and the structure of the service with happy memories from my summers at a Lutheran music academy and festival. I tend to have some trouble getting emotionally invested while singing, but this is another sense of simplicity that stems from the art as well as in the church. Remembering that everyone is encouraging and loves to see someone ‘share their gifts’ puts the study of voice into a new perspective. It should be happy and heartfelt, never strained. This is something churches seem to embrace.

I have surprised myself with my ability to sit through an entire service without feelings of cynicism and a desire to critique rising like they used to. More often than not, I enjoy the sermon and can take some sort of lesson or topic to consider away from the scripture readings. Sure, some of the stories still seem ridiculous when considered as fact, like Noah and the flood, but somehow I have turned back to appreciating the sweetness of belief. Attending a church service in this congregation almost always puts me in a good mood, despite its relatively early hour. For some, going to church is an obligation or a celebration of their faith. For me, it is an hour of consideration and simplicity. With UNIFI brunch immediately following the service, it can be hard to switch gears.

I have never once felt ostracized in church when I forgo communion, but  I have felt uncomfortable when UNIFI members poke fun at what the churchgoers believe. Something that many people in our group seem to forget or ignore is that the convictions preached from the pulpit are true and central in many people’s lives. There will always be parts of the church to criticize, but we should remember that congregations are made up of real people.

Links for the Sabbath

Tentative research suggests half of all stars exist in the space between galaxies. If it’s lonely in the Milky Way, try evolving ten thousand light years away from the nearest star!

Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne is interviewed on the new science behind the blockbuster film, Interstellar. What the animators thought was a visual artifact might actually be just what a black hole would look like. (And not to be a cynic, but the film’s public relations team has been doing an outstanding job of getting things like this published. Try searching for “physics of interstellar” to see what I mean.)

And speaking of the cosmos, today is Carl Sagan Day, on the anniversary of the birthday of Carl Sagan, astronomer and storyteller! We should all thank him for his contributions. He is one of the very best of the billions and billions of humans to have been on this pale blue dot. Here is his impassioned plea to make of that dot the very best that we can:

Have a great week, everyone!

UNIFI Alumni: Dave Whitsett


  • UNIFI (Advisor) Alum Dave Whitsett
  • Hometown: Pittsburgh, PA
  • Current Location: Kerrville, TX
  • Years at UNI: 1974-2001, Department of Psychology
  • Degrees: B.A. Psychology, Penn State; M.A. & Ph.D Psychology, Case-Western Reserve University (Cleveland, OH)
  • UNIFI Position: Faculty Advisor
Dave in Big Bend National Park on the border of Mexico

What are you up to now? I am now retired and living in a town called Kerrville, TX.  I moved here in June of 2014 to avoid the Iowa winters and to ride the twisty Texas Hill Country roads on my BMW motorcycles.  (I have three of them.)

How did you end up coming to UNI? I came to UNI in 1974, when I moved to Cedar Falls from New York City where I had been part-owner of a management consulting firm.

Were you involved with secular organizations before (or after) UNIFI? I became a confirmed atheist at age 12 when I decided that religion just did not make any sense.  However, I had not been involved in any secular organizations before UNIFI.  Since moving to Texas, I have joined the Hill Country Freethinkers group.  I am also a member of the National Center for Science Education and the Skeptics Society.

What was your favorite part about UNIFI (or favorite memory)? I have many, many good memories about UNIFI and about our signature event, Darwin Week, but my favorite would be when one of the faculty members in the UNI biology department told me that he thought that Darwin Week was “the most intellectually stimulating event to ever take place on the UNI campus.”

So, tell me about the ‘Mike Huckabee story’. I had spent the winters in Texas for several years before moving here and, in one of those years I heard that Mike Huckabee (then the governor of Arkansas) had just won the republican presidential primary in Iowa.  I knew that Huckabee was (and is) a young-earth creationist and so I knew my home state was in trouble.  I decided I needed to come home to Iowa and do something to counter what was obviously some delusional thinking.  I contacted some people at the University of Texas and learned about CFI and that there was a CFI affiliated student group at UNI.  I immediately emailed Cody Hashman and volunteered to come back and offer him and the new UNIFI organization any help I could.  He agreed and we then met and decided to launch Darwin Week to celebrate his 200th birthday with a week-long event.

Any advice for current members? My advice to current UNIFI members is to always keep in mind that you are performing a very valuable service to UNI and the surrounding community.  There are a great many doubters and/or nonbelievers out there who need to know they are not alone.



Humanist Harry Potter: The Battle Between the Red and Green Lights (or Good vs. Evil)

Warning: This post DOES contain spoilers. So if you haven’t read/watched Harry Potter and are planning to, proceed with caution. However, if you haven’t read Harry Potter by now, you probably never will and also you are probably just a horrible person. (I kid. Mostly.)

If you know me at all, you know that I love Harry Potter. No joke — this summer I got to go to the Harry Potter Studio Tour in London where all the films were filmed, and my friend and I took several hundred pictures. I’ve been thinking about writing a Harry Potter themed post for a long time, and now that I’ve actually started doing some work on it, I may have to post another part later to cover everything I’ve found (so here’s your warning).

When it comes to religion and Harry Potter, there are a surprisingly wide variety of opinions:

  • Harry Potter promotes devil worshiping, cults, and anti-Christian behavior.
  • Harry Potter promotes Christianity and provides a modern re-working of the story of Jesus.
  • Harry Potter is atheistic literature which promotes no religion at all or is anti-religion.

And these are just the very generalized extremes. Clearly Harry Potter is more complex than it first appears. Though J.K. Rowling has admitted to being Christian, she hasn’t confessed to any kind of purposeful religious themes in her work — or lack there of. Nonetheless (at least in my interpretation) the Harry Potter universe exists without a God and without a religion. In my internet digging, one of the worst articles I found was a Prisoner of Azkaban movie review written by an anti-humanist who clearly hadn’t done much research on the series. He says, “Some years ago, I read a Harry Potter book to see what all the fuss was about. One of the most noticeable things about it was that J. K. Rowling had to tell you who was good and who was bad: otherwise, you wouldn’t have known.” He goes on to say that in the movies, all of the bad guys were ugly and that’s the only way for sure you knew they were bad guys. Wait, what? This article was so completely wrong, that I knew instantly what I should write about: good and evil as portrayed in Harry Potter.

Good vs. Evil is one of the most brilliant themes in Harry Potter. It’s brilliance isn’t in that good and evil are super obvious, but rather, that they aren’t. As Sirius Black says, “the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters” (Order of the Phoenix).  Harry Potter, champion of light magic and ultimate good guy, uses an Unforgivable curse as part of a scheme where he breaks into Gringotts, the wizarding bank. The Golden Boy using dark magic and breaking and entering? That seems a tad on the evil side, to me. And it goes both ways. If Death Eaters are inherently evil, how do we explain Snape? Although many fans will say they knew all along that Snape was a good guy, most of us will admit to being a bit surprised when we finally learned his back story in book seven. In Harry Potter, characters are shaped by their circumstances–much as people are in real life. Had Tom Riddle not been abandoned in a muggle orphanage as a child, his entire life could have turned out differently.

Moral values can rarely be sorted into black and white but tend to instead exist as a field of greys, and that’s beautifully represented in the series. Even better, these greys exist without a religion and without a God. What Harry Potter really teaches are humanist values. The idea that humans have the potential to make morally good decisions and can think about the world rationally and critically. And I think that’s pretty neat.



Why Sexual Education Matters for Straight Men

Note: This post is written by Neill Goltz, UNIFI Activism Coordinator

When I was in High School I had a lot of complaints about how and what we were taught. As a Civil War enthusiast I was once given a detention when I told my sophomore history teach that he had confused the dates of the Battles of Antietam and Gettysburg. The principal let me off when I demonstrated I was correct. I clashed with English teachers on interpretations of literature and complained that my math teachers didn’t teach in way that made sense to me. However my time in college has shown me the topic my public education really failed to teach: sex.

I never had “the talk” with my parents. The closest we came was me discovering some condoms in my father’s sock drawer in middle school. I followed the directions on the wrapper and thought to myself, “what the hell do I do now?”. I also recall a special day in fifth grade when the boys and girls split up and went to different rooms. I don’t know what happened in the girls room, but I remember a man who we had never met throwing some confusing words at us. He explained circumcision insofar as letting us know whether it had happened to us. Then he drew some things on the chalkboard that reminded me of the time my parents took me to the Art Institute of Chicago. After a few hours of this I was told I was about to go through something called “puberty”, that men made sperm, women made eggs, and together those made a baby. We were all handed a paper bag with a stick of deodorant, face wash, and soap, and went to recess.

Sometime around 7th grade, our Home Economics class devoted a bit of time to explain that pregnancy occurred when a penis was inserted into a vagina. Unless you were eighteen or older, it was very bad to do this. After that we went back to making terrible baked goods and shoddy sewing projects. That was the last time I had any formal sex education in my school years. High School health focused on eating well and discouraging drug use. Gym class was an endless cycle of basketball, pickleball, badminton, and pacer tests. This, coupled with my social ineptness around women meant that I never really learned anything about sex.

While I can lament the implications of that on a personal level, there is a darker side. No one ever taught me about consent. Until I came to college, I had no idea what the hell it was. I’d seen movies and modern television. I knew that rape was a thing. I might even have been able to stammer something about it being when a woman (of course men couldn’t be raped) was forced to have sex.

Of course, to me at the time, “forced” meant physically. Things like psychological manipulation, coercion, or abusing mind altering substances didn’t really factor into my thinking. I didn’t drink in highschool, but I had this idea that alcohol was essentially a tool to get people together. In 2007 the movie Superbad rocked my friend group. It showed what we imagined high school was going to be like (and maybe to a degree was for other people). It told us that even if you were a socially awkward geek all you needed was a kickin’ party and some alcohol, and even you could get with that girl you’ve been crushing on. At one point in Superbad Michael Cera’s character asks the friend of the girl he wants to date whether it’s unethical to have sex with a girl if she is drunk. She replies “Not if you’re drunk too.” (I couldn’t find the actual clip but it occurs somewhere around here.)

To a horndog fifteen year old that made perfect sense. If you’re both on the same level it isn’t “cheating”! While I still find Superbad and similar films entertaining, I’ve come to believe that too much of my sexual education came from movies and television shows that paid little attention to the matter of consent.

Fortunately for me, I had intelligent people to set me straight when I came to college. I learned that consent means getting an emphatic and clear “yes”. I learned that men can be raped, not only by men, but by women. I learned that sexuality isn’t a simple binary, that gender comes in all shapes, and that all these things are perfectly natural and normal. I’m certainly not an expert, but I’d like to think that, thanks to people who were knowledgeable and passionate about these topics, I turned out okay.

What really worries me are the kids who never met the sorts of people I did in college. I doubt my sexual education prior to college was unique. Until I came to UNI, I was ignorant, and while ignorance of the facts doesn’t excuse actions, I don’t think we should put all the blame on someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing is wrong, much less why.

We ought to ask how an otherwise decent individual could think it is acceptable to take a drunk person home to have sex. Especially because if you asked the same person if they would ever rape somebody, it’s likely they would emphatically say “no”.

The Big Picture: Are We too Critical of Progressive Celebrities?

Last year, when I began college, I was introduced to the secular and feminist movements. I learned quickly about skepticism, social justice, secularism, patriarchy, and other aspects of activism in these movements. Initially, I had a wonderful time getting angry about representation of women’s bodies in the media and climate change denial. I had interesting conversations with some really smart people and read about the goings-on of these movements online. I learned about the importance of “speaking out” and felt that my opinion and voice matters.

Unfortunately, throughout the last year, I have begun to sense a problem: I am not convinced that we, as members of a movement, are being skeptical enough about the criticisms we make. Sometimes, when we criticize, we fail to look at the big picture. All too often, I find feminists who are used to functioning in the unique feminist community criticizing trivial flaws in public figures who are at the forefront of making tangible change for our movement. People like Emma Watson, Richard Dawkins, and Sheryl Sandberg are smart, hardworking public figures with the power and motivation to change our society for the better. We, as members of a movement, must recognize three important things. First, powerful figures like Watson, Dawkins, and Sandberg inspire and engage the general public. Second, we (members of the feminist and secular movements) constitute a relatively small portion of the public. Third, we need the general public on our side if we plan to create significant change in our society. The aforementioned public figures and others like them bridge the gap between “social justice warriors” and the mainstream.

Here’s the problem: these figures face relentless criticism from members of a movement who very much need the general public on their side. As the young, active, liberal feminists that many of us are, it is easy to jump on the complain-train and harp on details that are only marginally problematic. After all, we surround ourselves with other rare, like-minded, left-wing progressives who understand that “they” can be a singular pronoun and regularly use the word intersectionality. This tendency to pounce on any slightly problematic publication, public figure, etc. is unproductive for our movements. Sure, Emma Watson’s speech at the UN didn’t cover the ways patriarchy benefits men, and sure, Richard Dawkins is kind of stuck up, and sure, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In will mostly resonate with upper-middle class married white women, but do we need to be so harsh? Does the good work and do the good intentions of these influential public figures lose all merit just because of some flaws? I certainly hope not. As we all work towards a secular, non-discriminating society, we should spend our time and energy evaluating the intentions and examining the actual effects of generally well-meaning people’s work and actions, not fighting back against flaws unworthy of our attention.

Let’s look specifically at the example of Sheryl Sandberg and her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Sandberg is one of the most successful American businesswomen alive today. She is currently the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook; before that, she worked for Google. Sandberg is married to Dave Goldberg, CEO of SurveryMonkey. They have two young children. Sandberg has a background of privilege. To begin with, she is white, cisgender, and straight. Additionally, she comes from a privileged family, is extremely well-educated (she graduated at the top of her program in her Bachelor’s and Master’s programs at Harvard), and is very wealthy.

Sandberg’s book and the associated movement are about encouraging women to step forward or “lean in” at work. Most of her argument is nicely summarized in this TED talk. She focuses on women who work in high-level corporate jobs and addresses areas of concern for women in these positions and women who aspire to them. She talks about balancing personal life with work, having children, encouraging young women to be strong, and the statistical differences between men and women in society and everyday life. This book definitely has flaws. It focuses on action women can take to improve their own social status, but does not call out patriarchy for its inherent problems. It addresses problems faced by successful white women who, while becoming more successful, still want to have a marriage and children to love. Sandberg does not address race or class issues in any helpful way. But, this was not her goal.

Right from the get-go, Sandberg owns up to her privileged status and recognizes that many women face barriers about which Sandberg has never had to worry. “I am also acutely aware that the vast majority of women are struggling to make ends meet and take care of their families. Parts of this book will be most relevant to women fortunate enough to have choices about how much and when and where to work…I am writing [Lean In] for any woman who wants to increase her chances of making it to the top of her field or pursue any goal vigorously.” Her book is primarily for and about “women at the top.” She sincerely believes that having equal numbers of men and women at the top (as well as in the home) will create a better society overall. What feminist disputes this idea?

Many reasonable and well-supported criticisms of the book exist online. “Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In” by bell hooks is exceptional. In Lean In, Sandberg does not explain the history of the feminist movement or any feminist theory at all. Lean In perpetuates heteronormativity, and it fails to call for radical change in the treatment of women of color and other minority groups. Lean in doesn’t call for anything radical at all, and this is part of why she is successful. Radical messages like “take down the patriarchy,” do not resonate with the working women Sandberg reaches. Many women live happily in our patriarchal society, and while they would like to see some changes, they do not want to overturn the society we have going. Is there a platform for more radical messages and ideas? Absolutely. But we must also reach out to the greater general public. We can garner support from these members of the public, but proposing agendas of radical change and overturning power structures can seem reckless and brash in the eyes of someone who simply wants to move up at work. Someday, will the women who became empowered by Lean In take more action in as feminists lives and slowly join the greater feminist movement? They very well might. And even if they don’t eventually join the feminist movement, at least they received inspiring messages that made them feel strong and empowered.

A simple look at Lean In’s reviews on demonstrate the positive effects Sandberg’s book is having. Of the 2,815 reviews Lean In has on Amazon, a total of 2,411 give the book five or four stars (as of October 2014). Only 185 reviews give Lean In two or fewer stars. The two and one-star reviews tend to criticize Lean In for being generally problematic and only catering to the privileged few. The one and two-star reviewers tend to demonstrate at least some knowledge of the feminist movement and the myriad of ways ways women are socialized to be less successful than men. It’s great that there are people who understand the complexity of feminist issues and who are willing to fight from deep within the feminist movement, but looking at the four and five-star reviews paints a different picture of women’s understanding of feminism. The reviewers who give Lean In four and five stars praise the book for being inspirational and helping them understand problems women face in the workplace. They claim that Lean In has helped them be more confident, involved, and successful. They have used what they learned in Lean In to change their lives. Readers who enjoyed Lean In found the book so inspirational because the empowering message they received and the information they learned from Lean In was new to them. Additionally, women who were inspired and empowered by Lean In comprised the vast majority of reviewers. This means more and more women are coming to understand that it’s okay to be powerful and that the words ambition and selfishness are not synonymous. More women are being empowered, and in the end, that is wonderful for the feminist movement.

Criticism of Sandberg and her book is just one of many examples of members of a movement being overly critical of people, publications, ideas, etc. that are actually advancing the cause. We, as members of progressive movements, must think more carefully about the criticisms we make. Instead of jumping at everything problematic, we must first examine the impact these supposedly damaging concerns have on the real world. If, after examining the effects and responses from the general public, we still believe that a person, publication, or idea is problematic, then we may criticize. But before we rampantly rail on every single flaw, we must employ skepticism.