Freethought Today · May 2017

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Anthropolo-gee, this is interesting! By Sue Kocher

Name: Sue Kocher.

Where I live: Raleigh, N.C.

Where and when I was born: Grand Rapids, Mich., in 1956.

Family: I am second oldest of five children — one of the smaller Catholic families in our neighborhood at the time. My father was a devoted Catholic and deacon, but he died of a heart attack at 48, when I was 8 years old. My mother returned to waitressing and raised us on her own, with the help of Social Security and veteran's benefits — my father having served as a radioman in WW2. It was a bit rough sometimes, but we had what we needed.
I have lost two siblings — my elder sister to illness, my baby sister to estrangement. She no longer speaks to me except to spew anger and hatred because of my atheism and liberal politics. Fortunately, I still have two siblings that I love and enjoy: my dear brother (who is also an atheist) and a younger sister (also atheist, though not very "out" or thoughtful about it).

Education: I had a wonderful mentor in my childhood who helped me navigate the mystical waters of college applications and financial aid. Thanks to her, I was accepted into a small liberal arts college, tuition-free, and graduated in 1979 with a major in anthropology. I became aware of the Peace Corps, and thought that would be a wonderful way to live and learn in a completely different culture before pursuing my studies in anthropology. I fancied being an ethnographer like Margaret Mead. Ha! So I went to Thailand as a volunteer for two years, working in family planning and village development in the poor provinces of the Northeast. I also worked in the Cambodian refugee camps that were hurriedly erected along the border after the end of the Vietnam war, during the genocidal campaign of the Khmer Rouge.

How I got to where I am today: Those two years in Thailand changed my life in so many ways. I gave up my plans for an academic career because, by then, I was hooked on travel and language learning. I realized no one was hiring ethnographers anymore, so I would more likely wind up teaching Anthropology 101 somewhere and being pressured to publish. The question was how to support myself and still be able to live in interesting places. The answer was to get a master's degree in teaching English as a Second Language.

Which I did, at the University of Hawaii — those were some wonderful years! After my graduate studies, I taught academic English reading and writing in Japan, Australia and Turkey over a period of 12 years. Along the way I married a Turk, and we moved from Istanbul to North Carolina in 1996 — both of us ready for a career change. I've been here ever since — he moved on after an amicable divorce.

Occupation: I work at a large corporation that produces complex analytics software for various industries around the world. I started as a technical editor, and eventually worked out a niche for myself as corporate terminologist. What I do is maintain a database of terms, definitions and usage standards that we use in our software and documentation. I get to interact with people in all areas and levels of the company and it keeps me on my toes.

My doubts about religion started: Looking back, I realize that I had doubts at a very young age. I don't remember ever really believing in Santa Claus; I remember pretending to believe. It was the same with religion. My mother had tried to continue our father's religious tradition, sending us to parochial school through the fifth grade. But her heart wasn't in it, and looking back, we kids were all pretty much pretending our way through Mass, confessions, and the rest of it. I remember making up sins in the confessional because I either felt I hadn't sinned enough to waste the priest's time, or I just couldn't remember them all. I remember thinking how silly it was to be assigned 20 Hail Marys and 10 Our Fathers by a man who was supposedly taking orders from God — but who was really just a man.

I kept a churchy journal when I was in third grade at Catholic School — someone had stolen it and ditched it in the boiler room, where it was found and returned to me 20 years later! I didn't write in it much — mostly about the reptiles and amphibians I caught and kept as pets, or how much I disliked the bully at school who tripped me so that he could see my underwear under my plaid uniform skirt. But I found one page that stated, "Oh, how I love Jesus!" and I chuckled to myself, remembering how I wrote those words on Pascal's wager — not believing it, but covering my bases just in case.

My first anthropology class was life-changing, because there I learned how vastly different human cultures are, how it's possible for people to hold completely different views of reality and spirituality, and to be entirely convinced that "ours is the one, only and best" way to see the world. Studying the cargo cults of Melanesia, which were so bizarre and irrational, I realized that my own childhood religion was equally bizarre. I began to see all religions as culture-bound artifacts, serving various social and political interests, and no divine purpose.

When I lived in Thailand, I dabbled a bit with Buddhism. But when I saw Buddhism in practice, and met revered monks who lazed around smoking and eating like kings, and who sold amulets of themselves for good luck — I was disillusioned.

It wasn't until I moved to North Carolina and became involved with skeptics groups, and later joined an atheist meetup, that I realized: That's what I am! I am an atheist! And the more I learn, the more proud I am with this identity.

Person in history I admire: Oh, there are so many. But Anne Nicole Gaylor, principal founder of the FFRF, feminist, activist, crusader for reason, is right up there. She was a pioneer, intelligent and fierce. Richard Feynman was a pretty awesome guy. He was brilliant, he was hilariously funny, and he genuinely cared about the human race and about all life on our beautiful planet. Most of all, he was filled with wonder and awe about the world around him, and knew how lucky he was to have experienced it for even a day, much less for a long lifetime.

Quotation I like: Anything by Dorothy Parker. Here's one: "The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity." Also, anything by Jack Handy. Here's one: "If a kid asks where rain comes from, I think a cute thing to tell him is 'God is crying.' And if he asks why God is crying, another cute thing to tell him is 'Probably because of something you did.'"

These are a few of my favorite things: Finding an interesting creature and knowing what it is — or finding out what it is. I love growing, eating and sharing edible plants. Zoos, especially if they're well designed and full of "enrichment" stuff. Walks in the woods with my dogs. My dogs, period. Calling my hens and seeing them all run at me with their stomping, swinging gait, like so many little fluffy dinosaurs.

These are not: Climate change and weirdly scary weather. The continuing pretense on the news and in conversations that there's time to do something about it later. Our reactionary Republican leaders in North Carolina. People getting away with negligent homicide or murder caused by religious fervor. People who run over turtles trying to cross the road, or who honk at me when I stop traffic to usher the critter to the shoulder.

Before I die: I want to see the Grand Canyon, Machu Picchu and the Galapagos.

Ways I promote freethought: My work with Triangle Freethought Society, of which I am a founding member, is my approach toward thinking globally while acting locally. I think it's imperative that we normalize atheism if we are to have any hope of replacing religion with reason. I've dabbled in activism through various groups and for various causes, but now I consider atheist activism the most economical way to spend my activist time.
Virtually every issue that I care about — social injustice, income inequality, homophobia, climate change, nukes, war, environmental degradation, erosion of abortion rights, you name it — is aided and abetted by religious belief, and/or by the rich and powerful who use religion to further their aims.

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