“Shut up and Pray”

This week on Facebook, someone I care about told me to shut up and pray.

It started with a post.

A relative (whose posts almost always brighten my day and bring a smile to my face) shared what appears to be a chain message on his wall. I assume that it came from an email. The story was about God. Or rather, GOD. (If you are reading aloud I think you’re supposed to shout the all-caps bits). But who cares, right? I see religious stuff from family members and friends all the time, and I shrug and move on with my day.

But this post was different. It was titled “If you don’t know GOD, don’t say stupid things”. And it was about atheists.

The story is about a Canadian soldier whose atheist professor stands up in front of the classroom and demands divine intervention as proof that God exists.

Here’s the story, in full:

If you don’t know GOD, don’t make stupid remarks!
A young Canadian paratrooper was taking some college courses between
assignments. He had completed 3 tours of duty in Afghanistan. One of the
courses had a professor who was an avowed atheist and a member of the
Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA).
One day the professor shocked the class when he came in.
He looked to the ceiling and flatly stated, “GOD, if you are real, then I want
you to knock me off this platform… I’ll give you exactly 15 min.”
The lecture room fell silent. You could hear a pin drop. Ten minutes
went by and
the professor proclaimed, “Here I am GOD, I’m still waiting.”
It got down to the last couple of minutes when the soldier got out
of his chair, went
up to the professor, and cold-cocked him; knocking him clean off the platform.
The professor was out cold.
The young soldier went back to his seat and sat there, silently.
The other students were shocked and stunned, and sat there looking
on in silence.
The professor eventually came to, noticeably shaken, looked at the
soldier and asked,
“What in the world is the matter with you? Why did you do that?”
The young soldier stood up and calmly replied,
“GOD was too busy today protecting soldiers, who are protecting
your right to say stupid shit and act like an idiot. So He sent me.”
The classroom erupted in cheers!

Okay, you might say, so it’s just an entertaining little story where someone who acts inappropriately gets their come-uppance. So what?

I’ll admit, the atheist in this story acts inappropriately. Unless he’s trying to teach evolutionary biology to a group of creationists (his frustration would be understandable and his actions quite excusable), or to give a dramatic example of a redundant argument in a philosophy class, his demand that God strike him down as proof that God exists is made in an inappropriate setting and is ineffectual as an argument. Inappropriate because there doesn’t seem to be any reason for him to be up there demanding proof of God instead of teaching; and ineffectual because theists don’t claim that God will come down and intervene to prove his own existence. A better test of divine intervention might be, say, to study the effects of intercessory prayer in a double-blind study using a control group. But I digress.

The atheist in this story serves as a straw-man who is easily refuted. The whole thing is built on false assumptions about atheists. It’s assumed that the atheist will ask his questions in an inappropriate setting. It’s assumed that his membership with the CCLA is important.* It’s assumed that he is unpatriotic. It’s assumed that he’s always combative and never understanding of someone’s belief in God.

Anyways, I commented. I pointed out that the story seemed to be based on

“a completely false dichotomy. It assumes a) that it’s okay to beat up atheists when they ask for proof, even though the burden of proof is on theists, and b) that if you are an atheist you are automatically unpatriotic and disrespectful (effectively a straw-man argument).
I find stories like this insulting because they deliberately misrepresent atheism and present touchy-feely “arguments” that only serve to make believers feel superior.”

I then stated that “I just see these kind of stories a lot and it sort of hurts that so many people share them with good intentions, not realizing that the stories insult a good chunk of the population.”

Perhaps I could have worded these comments more clearly, but they do, in general, get my point across.

My intention was to point out that although the story might initially seem fun and heartwarming and like an affirmation of faith, it is also hurtful and does not represent atheists fairly.

I felt the need to point this out because I think it’s important to cut through this kind of stereotype of atheists if we want to live in a society where people can co-exist, regardless of their faith.

In my comments, I said nothing about whether God exists or not (I don’t claim to know—I just have strong suspicions he doesn’t) and I did not say anything negative about belief in God. Just that the representation of atheists in the story was a stereotype based on false premises, and that the story is formulated not to affirm belief but to make believers feel superior to non-believers.

The response I got was extraordinarily hurtful for me to hear from someone I care about. Here it is in full:

“Everyone is entitled to their opinion and beliefs ,this story represents a single example of my opinion and belief in a God, and that that God watches over all . To try and rationalize God’s action’s is futile and a sign of a need to pray to God for faith in him .God does many things or allows us to do many things to each other ,to test our faith. I happen to believe that there is a God and the foundation of my faith , is to have faith and believe what cannot be explained ,for it is God’s will . Amen +++ . I have replied ,” reluctantly ” to your comments, and respect your right to your own opinion I hope that as a Christian you will respect my opinion ,and not further this argument .Thank you and God Bless !!!”

On the surface, that seems nice. But try reading it from a non-Christian perspective and you might feel differently.

First off, it’s not a response to my comments. It’s a response to what the author read into my comments, and clearly he felt threatened. I’m sorry for that, but I can’t take responsibility for how someone responds to the news that their faith is not the only game in town.

I’m not sure if “this story represents a single example of my opinion and belief in God” is supposed to include the “opinion and belief” that atheists deserve to be physically hurt and then ridiculed, but if it does, that’s not a belief to which a person is entitled without criticism: it’s bigotry, and framing it under the guise of a “religious belief” does not give a person a get-out-of-jail-free card. This view is not above criticism or questioning.

But I can’t be certain that that is what is being said. So why so hurt? Well, there’s the “I hope that as a Christian you will respect my opinion, and not further this argument.” In other words, shut up. And then there’s the “to try and rationalize God’s action’s [sic] is futile and a sign of a need to pray to God for faith in him,” in other words, don’t question, don’t tell me you have a different opinion, just pray. That, it seems to me, is the exact opposite of respecting my right to my own opinion. That, it seems to me, is telling me that my opinion is okay as long as I don’t state it.**

Nonetheless, I apologized, “…if I inadvertently offended you. You are, of course, entitled to your beliefs and my comments are not meant to dissuade you from those beliefs but merely to point out that atheists are people too, and we have feelings.”

That’s more than what was deserved. I have not yet received an acknowledgement of that apology, nor have I received any indication that this person wants to associate with me.

That really hurts.

It really hurts that someone I know and care about thinks that it’s totally fine to post a story in which violence against atheists is okay (because you know, we’re totally inhuman and have had our emotional and physical feelings surgically removed). That this person thinks there’s no need to apologize once the offense and hurt have been pointed out. That this person thinks it’s okay not to acknowledge my apology, and perhaps (jury’s still out on this one and I hope I’m wrong) even to shun me because I do not believe in God.

It’s not okay.

It’s not okay to perpetuate stereotypes. I could do the same thing to Christians or Muslims or Buddhists and that would be wrong. You would probably tell me it’s wrong. So suggesting it might be wrong to perpetuate stereotypes about atheists…that’s not something I should have to apologize for.

So…sorry, but I will not shut up, I will not cease to pursue this argument, and I will not respect your opinions or your beliefs if those opinions and beliefs include silencing non-believers, advocating violent acts against non-believers, or ridiculing non-believers.

I could have responded to the story with something incendiary and disrespectful…it was tempting. But you know what? That’s not productive. It does nothing to engage with the real issue here, which is respect for fellow human beings. Instead, I chose to point out that the story was offensive because it contained straw-man stereotypes, advocated violence against a person because of his beliefs, and was based on a false dichotomy. I stated that I found it both offensive and hurtful.

And for saying that, I feel like I’ve been cold-cocked.

And that is not okay.


*By the way, if you’re wondering, the CCLA is an organization dedicated to human rights and social justice. As far as I can tell it is mentioned in this story because it was a key player in the decision to take prayer out of the public school system. If that automatically makes it a bad, evil, or stupid organization in your books, please try to consider that you are making that judgement based on one issue only, and understand that the CCLA has likely also advocated for human rights and social justice issues that you may agree with.

**Greta Christina has a brilliant post dissecting these kind of arguments, which she has termed “shut up, that’s why” arguments.

Alphabestiary: C is for Cocodrille

Guillaume le Clerc describes the Cocodrille as “a fierce beast that lives always beside the river Nile. In shape it is somewhat like an ox; it is full twenty ells long, and as big around as the trunk of a tree. It has four feet, large claws, and very sharp teeth; by means of these it is well armed. So hard and tough is its skin that it minds not in the least hard blows made by sharp stones. Never was seen another such a beast, for it lives on land and in water” (Guillaume le Clerc, Bestiare).

A Cocodrille devouring a hydra. British Library Royal MS 12 Cxix f.12 v.

A cocodrille devouring a hydra; the hydra is eating its way out of the cocodrille's stomach.

A Cocodrille is, of course, a crocodile. But its size and thick skin are the least of its wonders. The Cocodrille lives in both land and water (thus inhabiting two regions at the same time). Its upper jaw is movable, while the lower jaw stays in one place when it eats.

Perhaps it is not surprising if most of the wonders of the Cocodrille surround its mouth.

Herodotus notes in the 5th century BCE that since the Cocodrille “lives chiefly in the river, it has the inside of its mouth constantly covered with leeches; hence it happens that, while all the other birds and beasts avoid it, with the trochilus it lives at peace, since it owes much to that bird: for the crocodile, when he leaves the water and comes out upon the land, is in the habit of lying with his mouth wide open, facing the western breeze: at such times the trochilus goes into his mouth and devours the leeches. This benefits the crocodile, who is pleased, and takes care not to hurt the trochilus” (Herodotus, History Book 2). The original game of Crocodile Dentist!

For Pliny the Elder in the 1st century, this odd relationship takes on a dangerous character: “It allows a small bird to enter its mouth to clean its teeth; if it falls asleep with its jaws open while this is happening, the ichneumon jumps down its throat and gnaws its way out through the belly. Dolphins also attack crocodiles, using the sharp fin on their backs to cut open the crocodile’s soft belly” (Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book 8).

In subsequent accounts, the Cocodrille is almost always being attacked from below, or swallows an animal which eats its way through the Cocodrille’s stomach. Guillaume le Clerc tells how “[the water-serpent, or hydrus], which always lives in the water, hates the crocodile with a mortal hatred. When it sees the crocodile sleeping on the ground with its mouth wide open, it rolls itself in the slime and mud in order to become more slippery. Then it leaps into the throat of the crocodile and is swallowed down into its stomach. Here it bites and tears its way out again, but the crocodile dies on account of its wounds” (Guillaume le Clerc, Bestiare).

Isidore of Seville notes that “The crocodile is named from its golden [crocus] color.” (Etymologies)

For European writers and illuminators in the Middle Ages, Cocodrilles were simply another wondrous creature from a far-off land. How would you draw a crocodile if you had never seen one before? Further confusion was generated by the ambiguity of the creature’s features: it lives in land and in water; does this make it like a newt, a snake, or a fish-cum-lion? Its ferocity is often likened to that of a boar; does it then have similar features? It has four legs, and its habit of allowing birds to enter its mouth could be easily confused with the fox’s trick (the fox plays dead to lure birds close to its corpse…then it snaps them up itself!). Should the Cocodrille look like a fox? Should it appear with the beasts, the snakes, or the water-dwelling creatures in a bestiary? The Cocodrille escapes traditional systems of classification.

A dog-like cocodrille devours a hydrus, who is eating its way out of the cocodrille's stomach. Note the upside-down head: the cocodrille's upper jaw is moveable while its lower jaw is fixed.

The morals which accompany the bestiary Cocodrille assert that the Cocodrille is like a hypocrite, who appears to live virtuously (on land) by day, but returns to foul and muddy waters by night. The upper jaw appears to move in accordance with Holy teaching, but the lower jaw remains unmoved by the Holy Word (T.H. White, Book of Beasts 50-51).
This very moral demonstrates the confusion the Cocodrille generated; since it inhabits both land and water, it must be contradictory or hypocritical.

A fish-like cocodrille in water. Again, the head is upside down to make sense of the "moveable upper jaw" described in the text.

Writers like Bartholomew Anglicus said that if the Cocodrille “findeth a man by the brim of the water, or by the cliff, he slayeth him if he may, and then he weepeth upon him, and swalloweth him at the last” (Bartholowmew Anglicus, De proprietatibus rerum, book 18).

A ferocius fox-like cocodrille of golden (crocus) colour devours a poor little man. Later, the cocodrille will weep.

There is some element of truth to the cocodrille’s weeping: crocodiles do appear to “cry” when their eyes dry out after a prolonged period on land, and alligators appear to weep while eating on land. (University of Florida. “No Faking It, Crocodile Tears Are Real.” ScienceDaily, 3 Oct. 2007. Web. 12 Jan. 2012.)

As for the cocodrille eating a water snake (hydrus) who later chews through its stomach, there is at least one documented case of the reverse occurring when a python ate an alligator.

Alphabestiary: B is for Barnacle Goose

Money doesn’t grow on trees, but the barnacle goose does.

This strange bird is mentioned only scantily in bestiaries, but Sir John Mandeville proudly boasted of it as a British wonder to compare to the incredible creatures he met on his travels:

“I told them of as great a marvel to them, that is amongst us, and that was of the Bernakes. For I told them that in our country were trees that bear a fruit that become birds flying, and those that fell in the water live, and they that fall on the earth die anon, and they be right good to man’s meat. And hereof had they as great marvel, that some of them trowed it were an impossible thing to be.” (Travels Ch.29)

Barnacle Geese, from British Library Harley MS 4751 f. 36 r.

Giraldus Cambrensis wrote of birds in Ireland “called barnacles, which nature produces in a wonderful manner, out of her ordinary course. They resemble the marsh-geese, but are smaller. Being at first gummy excrescences from pine-beams floating on the waters, and then enclosed in shells to secure their free growth, they hang by their beaks, like seaweeds attached to timber. Being in process of time well covered with feathers, they either fall into the water or take their flight in the free air, their nourishment and growth being supplied, while they are bred in this very unaccountable and curious manner, from the juices of the wood in the sea-water.” Incase you’re skeptical, Giraldus assures his readers that “I have often seen with my own eyes more than a thousand minute embryos of birds of this species on the seashore, hanging from one piece of timber, covered with shells, and already formed.”
The barnacle geese are quite handy, as “Irish bishops and men of religion make no scruple of eating these birds on fasting days, as not being flesh, because they are not born of flesh”.
Giraldus disapproves of this practice: “if anyone had eaten part of the thigh of our first parent [Adam], which was really flesh, although not born of flesh, I should think him not guiltless of having eaten flesh”. This assertion draws a parallel between the curious fleshless birth of these birds and that of Adam. For Giraldus, eating flesh on fast days is close to cannibalism!

Minatures of Barnacle Geese often depict the geese forming on a log, looking like…well, barncacles. As T.H. White notes, the goose was probably “invented to account for the facts that (a) some geese, being migratory, were not seen to breed in the south and (b) shellfish like mussels do have the general tulip shape and some of the coloration of wild geese with their wings folded. There was also an etymological muddle about wings, for translators had been liable to render the two shells of an oyster as ‘wings'” (White, Book of Beasts 267).

If you’re about to go off chuckling at the ignorance of the Middle Ages, have a look at the  image below to see what folks were on about. Use your imagination!

For the record, Mandeville did also encounter lambs growing on trees in his travels; the tree branches were flexible, so that they would bend down and let the lambs graze on the grass below, thus giving them nourishment until they were ready to drop off.

No idea where the notion of vegetable lambs came from… But that’s a matter for another post.

The tree-climbing goats of Morocco

And since we’ve got onto the topic of sheep in trees:

Falling Through the Cracks

“I need to see Doctor K— today.”

The man is pretty ordinary looking. Maybe a smoker, and probably low income, but appearance isn’t always an accurate indicator. He’s not a bum off the street, but he’s not making the Sunshine List, either.

There are only two indicators that something is wrong.

  1.  He’s jittery, standing off to the side instead of right in front of the receptionist’s desk and pacing a bit. Nerves. I sort of get how he feels, since this place makes me feel nervous, too.
  2. We’re in the Mental Health unit.

It’s July, 2010. This is my first time in the mental health unit. I’m waiting my turn to speak to the receptionist, to tell her that I’m here for my appointment.

I’ve been referred here by a schoolmarmish  (read: brisk but very capable) urgent care doctor back in April. It’s taken until July to get the appointment with a psychiatrist. The urgent care clinic was in Oshawa. Now, I’m in Barrie. My boyfriend and I moved here last September. It’s still a new, strange city to me, and I haven’t made my peace with being here. Actually, I’m still living between two cities, since I’m back in Oshawa frequently.

Before Oshawa it was Kingston, for university. I went to the campus health centre several times then, but was never given any medication. I spoke to a therapist, twice. Good advice, but it’s not constant treatment.

My depression moves in cycles, from mild to moderate. Sometimes it’s debilitating enough for it to become a major concern, but most of the time it’s just there, in the background, stalking me. It’s been there since I was 16.

I’m finally seeking proper, consistent treatment.

The man looks around, tries to see into one of the offices along the hall, where the doctors hide.

“Doctor K— is on ward duty right now. When is your next appointment with him?” says the receptionist.

“I don’t know. I need to see him today though, and it will only take two minutes. I’m out of my meds and need to get the prescription from him.”

“Doctor K— is very busy. I don’t think there are any appointments… I can book you in for two weeks from now…how does August 3rd sound?”

“I need to see him today”

“Does it have to be today?”

The man is getting upset, now. I can hear fear in his voice, and he’s clearly agitated, swinging his arms around.

“Yes, it has to be today. My meds are out. I’m a schizophrenic, for f—‘s sake. I need my meds.”

The receptionist’s voice is something between clipped and bored. “Well, you must have known you were running out. You should have made an appointment earlier.”

“Christ, it’ll only take two minutes of his time, you know what happens when I don’t have my meds? I told you I’m a skitzo!”

It’s around this point that my recollection gets fuzzy because I was overwhelmed with my own anxiety. I remember being worried—the man was escalating, and the receptionist wasn’t budging. I know that nothing happened; I’m pretty sure that the man left. I never found out what happened to him.

I waited two hours in a windowless, crowded waiting room full of anxious people who couldn’t look at each other. The psychiatrist was abrupt, offered no sympathy, did not want to hear my story, and did nothing other than renew the prozac that the urgent care doctor had prescribed. “You can come to the day hospital here,” he said, “it is three days a week and you’ll find it helpful.” I came out feeling guilty, awkward, in the wrong, and like a burden on the world. My jaw hurt from clenching my teeth, and I had that burning, tense feeling in my sinuses. It was all I could do to hold my tears back until I got home.

In hindsight, the psychiatrist was entirely right and perfectly reasonable. Sure, he could have shown more patience with me as a first-time patient, or explained to me that a psychiatrist is not a therapist, and that I could speak to a therapist about all the things that were troubling me, and to him about medications and  mood levels. Since that first meeting he has helped me find a treatment plan: a medication that works, and therapy that is consistent and helpful.

But what sticks with me about this first trip to the Mental Health unit is the holes in the system. It’s real people with real lives and real feelings that fall through the cracks. That man with schizophrenia had a life to hold together. The receptionist could have said “Wait in the waiting area and if any of the doctors has a cancellation we’ll get you in,” or, “You will have to be patient but we’ll get it sorted.” Or “This time we are making an exception for you, but next time you must book your appointment ahead and stick to it.” Or “I am going to book you in the first appointment slot we have open for Doctor K—. You can call your pharmacy and have them fax the doctor to okay an advance on your medication until that date.” These solutions would have ensured that the schizophrenic man did not fall through the cracks, and that he could remain stable until the doctor was available. A break in the treatment schedule can be a major setback. And telling a patient that he “should have made the appointment earlier” isn’t helpful. Sure, caution him about next time, but help him solve the immediate problem.

And why is this on my mind today? Well, I’m waiting for a call from my pharmacy.* My psychiatrist wrote “two months’ supply to last until January 12th” on my last prescription. He was going away for a month, then it was the holidays. My pharmacy gave me exactly two months’ supply of my medication, and did not give me the renewal that would last until January 12th. If they don’t have a note of this, I’m looking at two days minimum without my medication while they fax my doctor and wait for his reply. Missing two days of meds is enough to keep me non-functional for a week. And that’s if he’s not still on vacation. I’m not abusing the system, but it seems that because I’m mentally ill, I’m more likely to do so, or to be lying.

*note: The pharmacy called. “The note to extend it to the 12th looks like it was written in later,” they tell me, “but we will extend it.”

Our health care system is confusing to navigate, and may be broken. It needs a lot of changes. Though I’m not the one who should dictate what those changes are, I’ve got an opinion as someone who suffers from a mental illness. Consistency of treatment is paramount. Yes, patient safety has always got to be the number one priority, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of consistent treatment. Safety (i.e. ensuring that a patient is taking the proper medications as they are prescribed, under the supervision of a psychiatrist or doctor) and consistent treatment (regular access to the proper medications as they are prescribed, and to therapy and other treatment tools) should complement each other, rather than conflict. When these key features of patient care conflict, people fall through the cracks.

Marginalia (i can’t believe it’s not butter)


he best thoughts are the ones that skitter about in the margins of our consciousness. The margins are where you’ll find the fantastical, the weird, the bemusing, and the monsters.

Medieval manuscripts often contain marginal illuminations of dragons, and colourful vegetation, and grotesques. Unlikely creatures do strange things; an ape wears the hat of the pope; a bird-legged man shoots an hare; a spotted serpent gnaws its own tail. The margins are the place where imagination is free from the contraints of daily, ordered life.

The margins are also where you’ll find notations, arguments, and minutae from daily life. For historians, marginalia are a goldmine of passing thoughts and ideas.

So, this blog is my own marginalia, monsters and all. I’ll post about all sorts of things: mental illness, writing, fun ideas, and odd things I come across.

There will also be “Alphabestiary” posts in which I’ll examine in brief numerous creatures from medieval bestiaries.

My only aim is to stick some words on paper (or, well, out in cyberspace) and perhaps spark your imagination with my musings.

Alphabestiary: A is for Asp

In the 12th century Latin Bestiary translated by T.H. White (Cambridge Lib. MS II.4.26), the Asp appears as follows:
“The Asp gets its name because it injects and spreads poison with its bite. For the Greeks call venom ‘Ios’, and hence comes “Aspis”, since it destroys with a venomous sting. Indeed, it always runs about with its mouth wide open and steaming, the effect of which is to injure other sorts and kinds and species of animals.
…When an Asp realizes it is being enchanted by a musical snake-charmer, who summons it with his own particular incantations to get it out of its hole,…the Asp, being unwilling to come out, presses one ear to the ground and closes the other ear by sticking its tail in it, to shut it up. Thus, not hearing the magical noises, it does not go forth to the charming.” (The Book of Beasts, ed. T.H. White).

Don't try this at home.

Asps are hard to charm.

The Christian moral typically offered by bestiaries is that the Asp represents worldly men who pay attention only to desires of the world, and ignore the voice and summonses of God. The assertion that “apart from men, asps are the only other creatures which do such a thing, namely, refuse to listen” (The Book of Beasts) draws a fascinating parallel between men and snakes, recalling perhaps the Biblical story of Adam and Eve and the snake: indeed, the main transgression here is intentionally dismissing God’s command not to eat the fruit.

Asps, Indie! Very dangerous. You go first.

An asp plugs its ears; personally I can't blame the little guy.

Medieval Bestiaries generally distinguish 4 species of asp: The Dipsas, which causes anyone whom it bites to die of thirst; the Hypnale, which makes you sleepy; the Emorroris, which causes haemorrhaging; and the Prester, which causes its victim to swell up with putrefaction (The Book of Beasts).
Although Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies is not a bestiary, many bestiaries refer to it in drawing their information. It to Isidore that we owe the idea of “asp” coming from “Ios”.
Isidore also tells us that when an asp fights an ichneumon (or suillus; a small animal with spikes) the suillus tricks the asp into attacking the wrong end, by raising its tail to make it seem as though its tail is its most threatening part.
Isidore of Seville describes another kind of Asp, the Seps, which is corrosive, and “when it has bitten a person, [it] immediately consumes him, so that the victim is entirely liquefied in the snake’s mouth” (Etymologies XII.iv.17).
In Medieval English, the adjective “aspre” or “aspere” means “fierce” or “bitter” but is comes from the Latin “asper—rough, harsh” via Old French (Oxford English Dictionary).