Upon entertaining atheists

Saturday’s atheist group was the first that I unreservedly enjoyed, partly because we have finally gone from having one existing member to every four new members, to having four existing members to every one new member; and partly because I have stopped trying to be the perfect host. When you host up to three events a month, you just have to give up on having your dust bunnies symmetrically arranged. Here’s my report on last night’s meeting, and on the people who attended.

Steering Committee: We met an hour before the scheduled meeting, and discussed ways to handle our growing membership. We also decided to sponsor a support group for people who have been emotionally harmed by religion. This group was my idea, and I had done a lot of planning for it, so I assumed I would be in charge, but Mary volunteered, so I turned it over to her. This was hard for me, but since I’m forever ragging on everyone to take more responsibility, I felt that it was necessary. If we don’t attract enough support group members from our total membership of 73, we will reach out to the community at large.

The snacks. They were excellent except for some stale nuts. I tasted them in advance, and knew they were stale, but didn’t have the guts to say so to the man who brought them. I won’t do that again.

The drinks: Wine, juice, pop, and gin. I initially thought the gin was wine because it came in a corked bottle that was shaped like a wine bottle, so I poured myself a large glass, and ended up drinking it all. Since I’m well past the age when it seems cool to act loaded, I faced somewhat of a challenge.

The topics. Intuition—what is it; does it exist; how can it be explained; and are women more intuitive than men? Morality—if you’ve always been told that religion is the sole source of morality, what happens when you give up your religion? Dialogue with believers—how should atheists address issues of faith, prayer, purpose, and so forth, and does the abrasive approach of many of the so-called New Atheists alienate more religious people than it awakens?

The members:

Marian. She’s autistic and, at twenty, is our youngest member, yet soon after she joined, she had the guts to challenge a loud, large, and arrogant sixty-year-old man when he said something that didn’t make sense to her. I wish I had had such courage when I was her age.

Bella. At 88, she’s our oldest member and a treasure chest of experience if not of wisdom. If someone hasn’t spoken much, Bella will start trying to draw him or her out. We’re going to devote a major part of our next meeting to hearing Bella talk about anything she wants to talk about.

Steve. He has a gift for taking unpopular positions and calmly using his encyclopedic knowledge to turn them into teaching opportunities. I think his IQ is probably off the chart, but I would say the same about a few others. I rather doubt that I’m the smartest person in the group, but I have some good excuses for it.

Lee and Robin. They were Jehovah’s Witnesses until a few years ago, and this puts them in an excellent position to teach the rest of us about cultish behavior. I also enjoy the fact that Lee plays the role of the intellectual male and Robin the emotional female, yet they give every appearance of using these differences to complement their marriage—I know they use them to complement our group.

Bob and Mary. They both strike me as intensely emotional, although they wear a patina of calm. They’ve been together for a long time, and seem to have a happy marriage. If I had to use one word to describe them, it would be steady. Bob hosts our movie night, and Mary is going to host our support group. If the group ever needs a bouncer, I’ll appoint Bob because he’s the kind of guy who don’t take no shit from nobody.

Ruth. She gives the word ebullient a whole new meaning because she’s so childlike in her excitement despite her nearly six decades. She hosts our group’s game night, but her political activism often competes with her participation in other group activities.

Larry. He nearly always comes to meetings, but he seldom speaks unless someone asks him something. When he does speak, he expresses himself well and makes good points.

Victoria. She reminds me of a bird that seems ever poised to fly away, yet when she’s present, she brings good energy and interesting perspectives. Last October, she loaned me five extra chairs for the group’s use, and she hasn’t asked to have them back, so we’re still using them.

Richard. Although tonight was his first meeting, he acted like an old timer whose opinions were valued. I wish I could feel that wanted when I’m among strangers.

Kurt. He’s a man of depth, but he seldom speaks unless someone asks him something.

Edwin. He’s relatively new; he said little; and he left early, so I have nothing to say about him.

Rachel (a child). Brewsky (a cat). Bonnie (a dog). Every meeting should contain these three because they emit a sweet, casual and homey ambiance.

Blank and Blank. They were no shows. I hate it when people stand the group up because I have limited space, and this means that they might knock someone else out of coming.

Four hours and twenty minutes passed between the arrival of the first person and the departure of the last, yet I was sorry that they didn’t stay longer. That was a first for me.

Better no title than an obscene title

I am going to share the following experience to make a point.

On February 8, I went for my appointment with a neurosurgeon whom I hadn’t seen before. The receptionist handed me a form that asked for, among other things, my SS#* and Peggy’s SS#. When I refused to give these due to concerns about identity theft, the receptionist said that she needed them in order to bill insurance. I knew that this wasn’t true, so I refused to give them a second time. She then said I would have to pay for the entire doctor’s visit before I left, and that she would then bill insurance and reimburse me when payment was received. This contradicted what she had just said, but I saw no point in arguing with someone who wasn’t in a position of power, so I agreed to make the payment, and sat back down.

When a half hour passed, and I still hadn’t been called by the nurse, I went back to the receptionist and asked to speak to the practice manager about the SS# requirement. As I was making this request, my name was called, so Peggy and I left the front desk and were shown into an examining room.

After several minutes, a woman who introduced herself as Heidi came in. Heidi was the kind of person who just naturally inspired trust, and this made her well qualified for the lies she was about to tell. She said that both my insurance administrator (HMA) and the federal government required that I provide mine and Peggy’s SS#s. I told Heidi that I had a number of doctors and none of them had these numbers. She said that her office’s contract with HMA stipulated that it obtain them for payment purposes.

Heidi also said that I could still see the doctor if I paid for the visit in full, and that she would bill HMA, and reimburse me when she received payment, although she doubted that HMA would make payment unless I provided our SS#s. When I said that I had already agreed to pay after I saw the doctor, Heidi said that the doctor wouldn’t see me unless I paid first, so Peggy went back to the front desk and did so. When the doctor came in, I took the matter up with her, and she said that patients who decline to provide all requested information always leave without paying.

When I got home, I checked with both the federal government and HMA to verify that neither of them required that I provide a SS#. The HMA representative said that the doctor’s office probably just wanted the information in order to track us more quickly if there was a billing dispute. In other words, the doctor wasn’t content with my photo, my birthdate, my phone number, my driver’s license number, a copy of my insurance card, and contact information for Peggy’s employer; they also wanted the very last piece of information that an identity thief would need.

Now for my point. The most common means by which identity thieves operate is through insiders in medical offices, yet every form I fill out when I see a new doctor asks for information that the doctor doesn’t need but which gives identity thieves every last piece of information that they do need. I never provide SS#s, and no other doctor has insisted upon them. The fact that I was the only complainer in that large waiting room suggests how foolishly compliant most people are. In my case, I live with pain; I had waited two months to see this doctor; and I had spent $650 on a test she had ordered, so this would have made me more vulnerable to her unreasonable requirement had I not hardened myself against such things.

Just over the past ten years, I have seen businesses of all sorts rush pell-mell into invading their customers’ privacy and stripping them of their legal rights. For example, more and more stores are requiring the customer to provide his or her name, address, and phone number in return for an I.D. card that allows him to buy products on sale. These cards allow the stores to track his every purchase so that they—and the companies they sell the information to—can better target their advertising.

Where I live, at least, you can no longer buy a car without first agreeing to binding arbitration if a problem develops, and the dealer even reserves the right to pick the arbitrator! When I protested this, I was told that it was a government requirement, and that I was the first customer who ever had a problem with it. I later verified that these were lies to get me to fall into line, yet dealers couldn’t get away with such outrages if most customers didn’t fall into line, and it is this very mentality that disturbs me far more than the requirements themselves. Everyday, we give up more pieces of our privacy and even our basic legal rights, and I see no end to it as long as most people don’t have the guts to say no to unreasonable demands.

I have filed complaints about Heidi’s lies with the SS Inspector General, the Oregon Dept of Justice, and the Better Business Bureau. I have also asked my credit card company to wipe the charge from my bill. When I think of something else to do, I’ll do that too.

*A Social Security number is an individualized nine-digit number that is used for various government related purposes. If someone has your name, your SS#, and your birthday, he can steal your identity.

March 30 update: After demanding that I pay the FULL COST of the visit upfront, Heidi turned around and billed insurance for twice that amount. I went ballistic, and today she refunded ALL of the money I paid in the apparent hope of getting me off her back. My insurance company will still pay through the nose, but that’s by their choice not mine.