Monday, December 7, 2009

What Should Atheists Evangelize?

Something I've noticed about myself since getting involved with atheist social groups is that I have an insistent desire to "spread the word." The dilemma I find myself facing is simple on its face, but leads to much bigger questions: what word should I be spreading?

Maybe it's something hanging over from when I evangelized the Christian gospel. I feel like I want to grab someone by the shoulders, shake them, and say, "Listen, have you heard this? Isn't this amazing? Don't you feel like you should do something?" The problem is that there's just so much to address; our world is in dangerously short supply of rational thinkers, especially in positions of authority, and credulity is practically being bred into us. Unreasoning, unskeptical thinking is encouraged, even promoted as a value under the guise of faith – and thus expected to receive some inherent level of respect from all and sundry.

The major problem with the idea of "atheist evangelism" is that atheism really isn't something that can be promoted, per se. It's not a product; it doesn't offer any benefits; it's not a quick and dirty solution to difficult problems. These are the sorts of things people tend to be looking for. Atheism is typically defined as either a lack of belief in gods or rejection of claims made about gods. That's basically it; it's a conclusion drawn about a single subject. Pure atheism doesn't really give us much to work with. There's also the problem that the fact that someone is an atheist doesn't necessarily mean that they've got their head on straight. Atheists aren't always rational, any more than religious people are. Rational thought goes well with atheism, but atheism certainly doesn't require it. (Just look at the Raelians, for example...)

So what should atheists evangelize, if anything? I'd put my money on critical thinking, skepticism, reason, the scientific method, and open-mindedness. From what I've seen, these things tend to lead people to become atheists more than anything else, especially when they're applied to concepts that believers take for granted. Properly applied, these tools can help us find the best solutions for just about any problems we face. If, in the process of using them, a believer becomes an atheist, so be it; in my mind, it's more important just to get them using the tools in the first place. Better to be religious and a critical thinker than an atheist and gullible.

I don't think atheists should evangelize simple doubt or disbelief in claims made by religion. Any fool can doubt religious beliefs; it takes reasoning and critical thinking to figure out why something should be doubted. Simply going around telling people that religious claims probably aren't true isn't good enough. For one thing, it's very difficult to reason people out of positions that they didn't arrive at through reason; for another, it doesn't really address the core of the problem, which is a lack of critical thinking. Let's say you manage to dissuade a devout believer of all their supernatural beliefs. Does this really accomplish anything? Instilling disbelief isn't the same as planting the seeds of analytical thinking and skepticism about faith-based claims. You can believe a lot of true things for the wrong reasons; you can also disbelieve a lot of false things for the wrong reasons as well.

The ability to critically analyze claims based on their evidential merits is one of the central strengths of freethought. By employing the contents of a basic skeptical toolbox – a better knowledge of logic and fallacies, an understanding of the scientific method, and other parts of Carl Sagan's "baloney detection kit" – we're able to figure out whether or not something is true, typically with a better likelihood of being right than if we had just gone with our gut or accepted what we were told. I believe that, if we help people build their own toolboxes, we'll stand a better chance of turning the tide in reason's favor.

Now that we've got an idea of what to promote, the big question is how we promote it. Faith and unscientific credulity are strong forces to contend with, and it's easy for a believer to block out any skepticism about their sacred cows if the skeptics come about the discussion in the wrong way. Popular culture also has a tendency to promote bad science, through TV shows that promote pseudoscience, news reports that give an undue amount of respect to fringe claims (in the name of "balance"), celebrity endorsements of new-age mysticism, and so on. The "woo" has a long head start in this race, but there are a few ways we can fight back.

First, get vocal. If you see something you think is fishy (in the news, on a TV show, etc.), do a little investigation. If you can, find out what the scientific consensus on the subject is. Write a letter to the editor in response to sketchy journalism, or pen an opinion piece critiquing the scientific or logical flaws in the rhetoric of pseudoscientists. If you think someone is using good science to promote bad ideas or bad politics, make your voice heard. If you feel it's necessary, contact your congressional representatives and speak your mind.

Second, get excited. Part of what's so fantastic about science is that there's so much awe-inspiring mystery in the natural world alone that we don't really need all the mystical supernatural stuff. Share your love of science and your fascination with science news with your friends and family. Let them know why it's important to you and why you're so hyped up about it. Promote the idea that science is open to everybody. Unlike what we see on some TV shows and in movies, science isn't some arcane, mystical process that is inaccessible to anyone who doesn't have an inborn special talent for it. Anyone can be a scientist, as long as they keep asking questions. If you've got kids, encourage their curiosity; if they keep asking "why, why, why," don't just give up when you don't know the answer – look for the answers with them, and help them learn how to find things out for themselves (rather than just accept it "because we said so"). Lighting the spark of investigative curiosity and critical thinking is essential for helping make the next generation more freethinking than the current one.

Third, get invested in the future. When it comes to science and critical thinking, much of the American educational system is in dire need of an overhaul. Kids are taught to memorize formulas and to try to get predetermined results for their science experiments. Find out what can be done locally to influence the science curriculum. Demand that kids get the education they deserve. For example, you could suggest that, rather than follow a strict plan for doing an experiment, the kids are told to design their own experiments and justify their methods by explaining why the science supports their ideas. Anything we can do to promote "teaching to understand" rather than "teaching to memorize" is worth pursuing.

Fourth, get suggestive (rather than combative). There's no better way to push away a believer in any irrational claim than to just tell them that they're wrong. Instead, get them to question their presuppositions in a way that makes it seem like it was their idea in the first place. If you hear someone talking about a pseudoscientific belief, ask loaded questions that are intended to guide them into critically examining their ideas. For example, if you're talking to someone who suddenly brings up astrology and how their horoscope said that such-and-such a thing would happen today, ask them if it doesn't sound like a pretty safe guess, or if it makes sense to think that it would happen to everyone born during the same period of time (and nobody else). In other words, rather than throwing a brick wall up in front of them, quietly slip in a roadblock that makes them pause and reflect upon what it is they've accepted as true. Passively planting seeds of doubt this way is a sort of kinder, gentler skepticism that usually doesn't come of as dismissive or disrespectful.

Finally, get skeptical! Skeptics are a major part of our front line in the battle against nonsense, no matter where it comes from. The more positive we are as skeptics, the more likely other people will be to pick it up as well. Get familiar with logical fallacies, the scientific method, and the flaws in human judgment (faulty memories, sensory misinterpretation, cognitive biases, etc). Familiarize yourself with common rhetorical techniques that the woo crowd will use to trick people into credulity, and try to figure out their potential ulterior motives. Most importantly, don't jump to conclusions. Just because you're a skeptic and a claim sounds unbelievable doesn't mean you're necessarily right; you've still got some hard work to do to find out what's most likely to be true. After all, skepticism of a claim is just the beginning of the investigation, not the conclusion. Besides, human beings are often self-deceived about their abilities or the depth and validity of their understanding of a subject (something called the Dunning-Kruger effect).

I'm sure some people will disagree with my analysis. They're welcome to do so; after all, what kind of freethinker would I be if I demanded that everyone agree with me? Regardless, I hope that at least something I've said here will inspire all freethinkers to evangelize what really matters: science, reason, critical thinking, and skepticism. Given time, I'm sure that these will do more to fight against the old dogmas than anything else.
Science may be hard to understand. It may challenge cherished beliefs. When its products are placed at the disposal of politicians or industrialists, it may lead to weapons of mass destruction and grave threats to the environment. But one thing you have to say about it: It delivers the goods.

-- Carl Sagan, from The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Daily Dose of Reason

The more I look around, the more I see pseudoscience and anti-science attitudes flooding our popular culture. Whether it's a new fad diet (just drink this mega-fruit juice and the pounds will melt away!), a TV show that uncritically swallows supernatural claims (ghosts make the room get cold, so that's how we know they're around!), or a news report that encourages people to make up their own minds on an issue that isn't a matter of opinion (some say that the mercury in the MMR vaccine causes autism, while doctors say the MMR vaccine doesn't contain mercury at all - you decide!), there's always some new bit of woo-woo cropping up that can set your teeth on edge.

As a skeptic, it's easy to become discouraged and cynical when you see that most people don't seem to care. Critical thinking is time-consuming, and most people tend to only give it a brief pass before following their intuition or their wishful thinking to accept whatever sounds best to them. Sloppy thinking is easy and comfortable, and doesn't make people reassess their worldview all that often.

So what can we do to combat this? Clearly, taking people aside and going step-by-step with them through every claim they've heard to point out the problems isn't a very time-effective method. Something I've been trying lately is just planting the seeds of skepticism - dropping little hints into the conversation that might make people reconsider their preconceptions. The idea is that when these seeds germinate, it'll be because the person decided to think things through themselves, rather than having a lecture forced on them. I'd wager that they would be more receptive to their own logic than to mine.

When I last received a haircut, my haircutter (stylist? hairdresser? what's the right word for that, when it's not a barber?) was talking to her coworker about a 'psychic' who was coming to give a performance in town. I wasn't familiar with the person she named, so I couldn't say anything specific about what she should expect, but I did manage to come up with some generic ideas. For example, I asked if, in anything the haircutter had heard about her, the psychic had ever told somebody something they didn't want to hear, and she said no. I said, "That's a little weird, isn't it? Why doesn't she ever hear any bad news?" My haircutter thought about it some more, then mentioned that the psychic had, in fact, told some people that job, money, or health trouble was in their future. I responded by asking "Well, who doesn't have that? Especially with the economy the way it is, and all these flu bugs floating around. That sounds like a pretty safe bet to me." She agreed. And maybe it wasn't enough to convince her completely that the psychic wasn't legitimate, but at the very least it got her thinking about why the only bad news people get from the psychic is about generic things that happen to almost everyone.

She also got into a discussion about astrology. She made some offhand comment about there being too many Capricorns in the room (after asking a few people when they were born). Being a Christmas eve kid, I mentioned that I was a Capricorn, too. She perked up, and listed off a few personality traits that she seemed sure I'd have. One of them was that I like to keep to a strict schedule. She was a little dismayed by my response that I only really have a schedule when I'm at work, but she brushed it aside by saying it's not accurate for everyone. I mentioned that I'd be surprised if those attributes only applied to people born during my zodiac sign, and that I'd be even more surprised if one in every twelve people I met really did have pretty much the same personality I did. I said that it was almost like saying that anyone from New York would behave the same way, or anyone with brown eyes would behave the same way. She seemed to agree with that. So, another seed planted.

These are just two examples. What's most important about these is that I absolutely didn't have to adjust my life at all to inject a little reason into an otherwise woo-filled conversation! Almost every day, I run into a situation where I have an opportunity to correct someone's misconceptions, or at least point them in a more productive (and accurate) direction on some subject of skeptical interest. It's a sort of "death by a thousand cuts" approach at leading people away from nonsense and toward reason, and it comes with the side benefit that it helps people begin to critically analyze their own views rather than just being told they're wrong.

I'm sure that most skeptics encounter stuff like this in their everyday lives. It's important not to let these opportunities pass us by. Growing ever more cynical isn't a method for fighting superstition and pseudoscience; it's just a tacit sign of permission. We need to be more assertive, and take a proactive approach in the promotion of logic, critical thinking, and good science. It might be slow; it might not garner the sort of quick, obvious results that we really want; but it will insert a wedge of reason into the growing wall of nonsense.

This is, of course, a necessarily small-scale approach. There's much more we can do to further the cause of critical thinking and skeptical inquiry, but I believe this is an important bit of groundwork to lay before we can make the larger societal changes - improvements to our school system, higher standards of scientific evidence for medicine, and so on. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and a revolutionary change in the way people think can begin with the smallest seeds of skepticism.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Dealing with Loss as a Nonbeliever

I've never really been good at dealing with loss. It's bad enough when it's my own loss, but I never know how to handle helping people I know through their own loss. Basically every coping mechanism I had for dealing with death is based on my theistic upbringing.

Now, as a nonbeliever, I'm left without those options. I could say "they're in a better place," but it would be an empty sentiment since I don't really believe that. I could say "their pain is over now," but again, if they don't exist anymore, I don't think that's really much consolation.

This all comes up now because a friend of mine recently lost her husband of many, many years, who I'd never actually met. When I lose someone myself, I know that I can take solace in the memories I have of them. I can remember the time we spent together, the laughter and tears we shared, the good times and the bad. But when it's someone I only have a vicarious relationship with, I can't really relate to anything but the raw emotion of loss, and I don't handle that very well. I react awkwardly and tend to feel uncomfortable.

How do we deal with loss, ours and that of others?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Invention of Lying

Last night I went out with some friends to see this movie. In case you haven't heard of it, it's essentially a vastly amusing thought experiment put together by Ricky Gervais. The premise: Imagine a world where humanity never evolved the ability to deceive. Not only are people incapable of telling a lie, but they can't even lie by omission - they basically say whatever's on their mind. There aren't even white lies, told to save someone's feelings. The truth is just brutal and honest. And everyone believes everything everyone else says, since they can't even conceive of the idea of "false."

Now, introduce Gervais' character, Mark Bellison, a screenwriter for Lecture Films, a hit movie company that makes... lectures about history, since fiction doesn't exist. Bellison is basically a loser on his way down to the bottom, when in a moment of desperation he suddenly develops the ability to lie. Astonished at his ability to say "things that aren't..." - never finishing this phrase, since "true" is meaningless in this world - he attempts to demonstrate his ability to his friends, but they simply accept all the lies he says as true, no matter how ridiculous, because they can't even begin to detect that they aren't true.

Eventually, Bellison uses his newfound talent to get rich and famous, after making the first fictional screenplay in the history of mankind (which everyone believes without hesitation). But when his ailing mother is close to death, he rushes to the hospital, and out of the anguish of hearing his mother speak of the eternity of nothingness to come, he invents heaven. He forgets that he's not alone with his mother, and the hospital staff overhears.

Soon, the word spreads of this amazing news that there is something more after you die, and the entire world is literally waiting for Mark to reveal more of what he knows. In due course he invents God (the "man in the sky who controls everything"), religious doctrines about morality, and the ideas of prayer and hell.

That's all I'll give away. I strongly encourage you to watch this film.

Though it's clearly fictional, this movie gives an interesting glimpse into some of the more biting criticisms of religion.

When Mark tells everyone that everything that happens, good and bad, are all because of the man in the sky, the crowd becomes enraged that he could be so callous, calling the man in the sky a prick and shouting that they should find him and stop him before it's too late. But Mark quickly pacifies them by reminding them that there's an eternity of good stuff waiting after a short life of bad stuff. I see this justification all the time from evangelical Christians; that we shouldn't question why bad things happen in this life, because there's an eternal reward afterward. Ignore the fact that any other being that did the things their god does would be considered a monster; since heaven is there waiting, God could be as much of a prick as he wants to be, and it would be inconsequential; the ends justify the means.

Two of Mark's friends also decide that they're going to spend the rest of their lives being self-destructive, since that would get them to their eternal happy place even faster. I've always thought this was odd: if Christians think that an eternity of bliss waits for them after death, why are they so eager to live as long as they possibly can? Could it be that there's a kernel of doubt hidden away inside? Like comedian Doug Stanhope said, "If you really believe that death leads to eternal bliss, then why are you wearing a seatbelt?" Eternal life makes this temporary life nothing but a speed bump.

All in all, I really liked this movie. It's equal parts sweet, funny, and thought-provoking. Needless to say, it's raised a bit of a furor among religious circles. I've seen Christian movie reviewing sites who call it "anti-Christian" regardless of the fact that it's about a generic deity (though to be fair, some of the sight gags are specifically related to aspects of Christian mythology). Many people are showing their aggravatingly typical fatwa envy: "Just imagine - if he did the same type of film regarding Islamist religion - he'd be marked for death!" (What is it about these people that makes them wish that their religion allowed for the murder of anyone who made something they find offensive?) I can understand the hurt feelings; I don't think I would've liked this movie as a believer, and I'm sure I'd have been angry if not at least uncomfortable. But as an ex-believer, I found this movie intriguing. It's not exactly Sartre or Nietzsche, but it's a nice bit of pop philosophy nonetheless, and it made me think more than most movies do nowadays.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Should the Boy Scouts be allowed to recruit in public schools?

It's always interesting to me when I run into a situation that I have to reconsider for the first time since becoming an atheist.

A mother in King, North Carolina recently wrote a letter to the editor in the Winston-Salem Journal:
On the second day of school, a representative from the Boy Scouts of America came to my son's school to recruit new members. My son came home so excited, and cried when I had to tell him no. I feel he is too young to understand BSA's homophobic and discriminatory policies, so I told him we already had too much on our plate. The BSA is prejudicial (it doesn't accept atheists or agnostics) and homophobic (no gays allowed). My son will never be a Boy Scout and I wish that I had been notified that valuable learning time was going to be spent promoting a homophobic hate group.

Recently President Obama made a 15-minute speech to children about working hard and staying in school. I got a verbal message from the teacher, a note and two calls letting me know about the speech.

Is the president's message that scary? Why does a positive message from the president require so much parental warning, while a discriminatory organization gets free rein to recruit during the school day with zero parental notification?

From now on, I expect notifications of future speakers at my son's school and the topic of discussion. I expect a verbal message from his teacher, a letter from the principal and two auto calls. I would also like the opportunity to send in a signed note to excuse him from said speaker.
The BSA, in case you didn't know, has official anti-LGBT and anti-nontheist policies, which have led to Eagle scouts being stripped of their awards and scout leaders being removed from their positions.

I'm an Eagle scout. I received my award from a scout troop where religion and sexuality were never discussed. Maybe there was an undercurrent of religion in some of the things we said (like the Scout Oath, which mentions doing duty to god and my country), but apart from the routine recitations it was never really raised as an issue. (Come to think of it, that's kind of surprising, considering that I grew up in a pretty conservative area of Michigan...)

But I know that troops do exist where just believing in the wrong god (e.g. being a Hindu) is enough to keep you out. And I've seen dozens of cases of scouts and scoutmasters having their awards and positions stripped away after publicly coming out of the closet.

So it's clearly not enough for me to apply my own personal experiences to this issue. If I say that it's okay to allow some scout troops into schools since not every scout troop discriminates on the basis of sexuality or religion, it would be equivalent to saying that since not all Christians are like Fred Phelps we should allow the more accepting groups to recruit in schools.

I can see the mother coming at this question with two different approaches:
  1. She doesn't want her kids to be potentially indoctrinated into anti-LGBT, anti-nontheist beliefs.
  2. She doesn't want to support an organization that discriminates the way the BSA does.
From the first viewpoint, it would seem a bit hasty to prejudge the practices of a local troop based on the policies of the national troop. The second viewpoint recognizes that things like membership dues and subscriptions to the Boy's Life magazine would be giving financial backing to a group with an official policy of hate, and I absolutely agree that such discriminatory groups shouldn't be given the platform of the classroom to seek new sources of income and new members.

Now I'm torn between turning in my Eagle badge to officially renounce the BSA and keeping it to pad my résumé...

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Ultimate Post

No, not ultimate as in "last." Ultimate as in "this post is about the idea of an ultimate [insert concept here]."

So often in my discussions/arguments online with theists of various stripes I run into one of the following statements:

"If there's no God, then there's no ultimate source of morality. Everything would be subjective."
"If there's no God, then there's no ultimate meaning to life."

I find these arguments more than a bit bizarre. For one thing, they seem to assert that we absolutely, 100% know that there is an ultimate source of morality, or an ultimate meaning to life. For another, they seem to be a strange use of "ultimate." When did "ultimate" come to mean "given to us by a supernatural creator?"

Yes, if there's no God, then there's no ultimate source of morality. But this does absolutely nothing to support either the existence of God or the existence of an ultimate source of morality! It's essentially an argument based on the idea that there is some self-evident objective moral standard. But if were objective and self-evident, there wouldn't be any argument. People who disagreed with it would be viewed with the same uneasy suspicion as people who disagreed with gravity. Instead, we live on a planet where people are constantly arguing over morality, and while we often find common ground, it's rarely beyond the bare minimum standards we need to maintain social cohesion.

As for an ultimate meaning to life: Why would the meaning have to be ultimate? Why isn't it enough for life to have current meaning? And what sort of value would the "meaning" have if it were dictated to us? If life's meaning came only from some sort of ever-present quasi-benevolent universal dictator, then it would no longer be meaning - it would be purpose. And when you have a purpose, you're not free - you're a tool to be used for the desired ends of some other being. (Cue Rick Warren.)

I have absolutely no problem with the idea that ultimate morality and ultimate meaning don't actually exist. To argue that God must exist because these things are self-evidently real is to do nothing but beg the question. I'm not a nihilist; I just think it's silly to assume that something exists because its existence would support your preconceived beliefs.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Charlie Crist, Defender of Florida

Apparently Florida governor Charlie Crist stuck a written prayer into the Western Wall in Jersualem asking God to protect Florida from hurricanes.

Crist said he isn't trying to take credit, but he told a group of real estate agents Friday that he's had prayer notes placed in the Western Wall in Jerusalem each year and no major storms have hit Florida.

Crist noted that just before his election in 2006, Florida had been affected by a total of eight hurricanes in 2004 and 2005.

"Do you know the last time it was we had a hurricane in Florida? It's been awhile. In 2007, I took my first trade mission. Do you know where I went?" said Crist, a Methodist, referring to a trip to Israel.

He then told of going to the Western Wall and inserting a note with a prayer. He said it read, "Dear God, please protect our Florida from storms and other difficulties. Charlie."

"Time goes on — May, June, July, August, September, October, November, December — no hurricanes," Crist said. "Thank God."

Maybe Charlie could expand a bit and ask God to keep hurricanes away from the entire country. Wouldn't that be nice?

Wonder what he's going to say when Florida is inevitably hit by a hurricane, considering that the years 2000 to 2008 have had more recorded tropical or subtropical cyclones than any decade on record. I'm sure he'll come up with some sort of rationalization...

The Friendly Atheist Under Attack

Hemant Mehta, one of the most tolerant, genial, and patient atheists I've ever seen, is currently under attack from a thinly-veiled far-right Christian hate group calling itself the Illinois Family Institute, which has a history of saying some pretty nutty stuff. And I'm not just calling them a hate group, either; for a while, the Southern Poverty Law Center had them listed as one, specifically for their strident anti-gay stance, comments, and leadership. Here's a sample:

The conference boiled down to a veritable jihad against gay rights. No fewer than 18 presenters railed against homosexuals and the "gay agenda." It seemed that the speakers, many of whom were ostensibly there to talk about the virtues of a Christian nation, just couldn't help but take repeated swipes at gays and lesbians.


Peter LaBarbera, head of the Illinois Family Institute and a discredited "researcher" whose work has been denounced by the American Psychological Association for producing bogus data "proving" homosexual behavior is deleterious to health and welfare, called homosexuality "disgusting." LaBarbera, who "investigates" this lifestyle by hanging out in gay chat rooms, insisted that good Christians must "stand up to homosexual aggression" and stop using "that hoary euphemism" -- "sexual orientation." He called for the repeal of all "sexual orientation laws" -- laws that ban discrimination against gays -- because they violate religious freedom. He demanded the closing down of all "homosexual establishments." And he spoke of the "need to find ways to bring back shame to those practicing homosexual behavior."

(Researching homosexual behavior by hanging out in gay chat rooms? Wow. Yeah. Not that there's anything wrong with that...)

Back to the main story. Primarily at issue is a sarcastic remark from Hemant regarding comments made by Laurie Higgins, director of the Division of School Advocacy (read: anti-church/state separation) for IFI.

The story really begins with the arrest of two gay men (for trespassing, apparently) who - GASP! - kissed each other in front of a Mormon temple in Salt Lake City, and the subsequent nationwide kiss-in protests. One of the protests took place in Chicago, and the IFI certainly wasn't happy about that. Higgins said:
An adult kissing a pre-pubescent child or a high school-age adolescent in a sexual or romantic manner is both obscene and inappropriate despite the protestations of the North American Man Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) to the contrary.

Romantic or sexual kissing between two consenting adults who are in love and who are closely related by blood is both obscene and inappropriate despite the protestations of defenders of incest to the contrary.

Romantic or sexual kissing among “multi-partner” unions, like those profiled in a recent Newsweek article, are both obscene and inappropriate despite the protests of polyamorists to the contrary.

Romantic or sexual kissing between two people of the same biological sex is both obscene and inappropriate despite the voluble, vigorous, and often vitriolic protests of homosexuals to the contrary.
To which Hemant said:
The only thing that could make this kiss-in even better is if it took place just outside Higgins’ house.
So terrible, I know! Of course, to everyone but Higgins, this is obvious sarcasm. He was not seriously endorsing the idea of holding a kiss-in protest in front of her house. Regardless, it's time to cue the Christian persecution complex:

... Mr. Mehta doesn't merely expatiate philosophically, he gets personal too.

Last week, Mr. Mehta made an unfriendly comment on his Friendly Atheist blog that I found troubling enough that I shared it with some of the District 204's administrators and the members of the school board--something I have not done on the other occasions he has written about me.

He wrote the following in response to my IFI article about the homosexual kiss-in: "The only thing that could make this kiss-in even better is if it took place just outside Higgins' house."

In my email, I expressed my disappointment that a role model for students would make such a vindictive, irresponsible, and unprofessional public statement. My hope was that someone in the administration would have a conversation with Mr. Mehta regarding his influential role in students' lives and his inappropriate comment.
That's right; she e-mailed the people who sign his paycheck. She's applying a little pressure. Heaven forbid that anyone should think she's trying to get him fired! Just because she sent the e-mail to everyone but him and specifically to the folks who could decide whether or not his employment should be terminated, that doesn't mean she wants him gone. His higher-ups have his back, anyways:
Not surprisingly, everything is fine at work. My superiors respect my right to free speech and their concern is with my professional work, not my private life. For what it’s worth, my teaching evaluations over the past couple years have been excellent, thank you very much.

Anyway, school officially begins tomorrow. And I still have my job.
But that's not enough for Ms. Higgins. She has since posted at least two other articles on the IFI's home page attacking Hemant:
District 204 parents really should spend some time perusing Neuqua Valley math teacher, Hemant Mehta's website to determine whether he is the kind of man with whom they want their children to spend a school year. He absolutely has a First Amendment right to promote any feckless, destructive, and offensive ideas he wants via his blog, but, as I mentioned in my earlier article, parents have the right not to have him as a teacher and a role model for their children.
Okay, it's time to cut the sarcasm. Combine this with another of her spewings:
... Parents have every right not to have their children in the classroom under the tutelage of someone whose publicly articulated views they find fallacious and deeply troubling.
What Higgins is really saying is that anyone with a lifestyle or viewpoint that any parent considers factually or morally wrong shouldn’t have the right to teach. Her e-mail to Hemant’s administrators proved that much. Were she simply worried about parents’ choices, she would have e-mailed the parents and left it at that. Instead, she attempted to pressure Hemant's bosses into reprimanding or firing him. She doesn’t think he should be allowed to teach.

Since there has been such a response to her comments (with several hundred comments on Hemant's blog, calls coming in from the local media, and numerous e-mails to the IFI), she attempted to clarify her "true" intentions:
I want to be very clear about what I’m suggesting: I am suggesting that parents who have serious concerns about Mr. Mehta’s potential influence on their children’s beliefs politely insist that their children be placed in another teacher’s class.
It bears repeating that this is a transparent lie. If this were all she was concerned about, she would have left the school administration out of this entirely. Her goal is to get Hemant fired, because she thinks anyone with views she disagrees with is dangerous and shouldn’t have the right to teach children. She did not contact the parents to "warn" them about Hemant. She contacted his superiors and her mailing list. The choices of the parents did not enter into it.
You fail to acknowledge a central point that I addressed in my articles, which is many teens are unduly influenced by emotion or the cult of personality and are therefore predisposed to look favorably on the ideas of teachers whom they find cool or charismatic or funny or kind or iconoclastic.

If students have you as their teacher, like you, and develop a relationship with you—as happens often in high school—they will be more likely to look favorably on and be influenced by your ideas than those students who have no connection with you. This is the reason that many parents care deeply about role models.
Yes, Ms. Higgins, let’s warn those parents about the terribly dangerous and potentially harmful different ideas that people have. Different ideas are inherently bad and should be quashed as subversive. Parents should be terrified that such things are allowed in schools. Through all this bluster all I can see is her continued assertion that since Hemant is an atheist, he must be actively promoting atheism in his classroom. Care to give us some proof? Something we can sink our teeth into? Something more than just scare tactics?

Of course not. Ms. Higgins isn't about reality here. She's about dogma and rhetoric. We're talking about a woman who endorsed the bullying of gay students on the basis that homosexuality is wrong and immoral and shouldn't be coddled, so no insult is too strong.

Ms. Higgins is so terrified of the idea that children might learn about different lifestyles and beliefs that normal standards of morality and decency have no bearing on what she's willing to do to stop Hemant's oh-so-dangerous actions and speech. She's not pro-censorship, oh no! She just wants parents to know what teachers do in their private lives:
Those parents are entitled to sufficient information to make informed choices about the very public activities of their children’s teachers–something that for some odd reason seems to offend you.

No, Miss Higgins, they are not entitled to know what goes on in teachers' personal time, no matter how public it is. Parents are entitled to know what teachers do in school. Outside of school is none of their damn business.

This sort of behavior is the double-edged sword to the phrase "If God be with us, who can be against us?". On the one hand, it is saying that nobody can oppress you if God is on your side. On the other hand, it is also saying that if God is on your side, nobody can possibly have any real or valid objections to anything you do, since you've got divine endorsement. Higgins thinks that anything she does, no matter how venomous or slimy, is justified in the promotion of her beliefs.

What's absolutely insane about this is that she was removed from her job at a high school because of anti-gay comments she made on her personal time on talk radio:
If students have you as their teacher, like you, and develop a relationship with you--as happens often in high school--they will be more likely to look favorably on and be influenced by your ideas than those students who have little or no personal connection to you. This is the reason that many parents care deeply about role models.
It's probably the same reason that three years ago a well-known homosexual blogger informed my former superintendent that I had been interviewed on Moody Radio on the topic of homosexuality. During my last three years at Deerfield High School, there were more than a few supporters of the normalization of homosexuality who wrote publicly and contacted my administration about what they believed was my unfitness as a role model for students--and I worked in the writing center where I had no classes.
So, clearly, she's an utter hypocrite. She's out for revenge. Two wrongs make a right, in her mind. She's turning the tables, rather than turning the other cheek. What a Christlike thing to do.

I'm sure the story isn't over yet. To get the full perspective straight from the source, keep up with Hemant's blog: Friendly Atheist by Hemant Mehta

His previous posts on this subject:
His excellent book: I Sold My Soul on eBay: Viewing Faith through an Atheist's Eyes

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Church Visit: Trinity Baptist Church

Today I managed to wrangle a couple of co-heathens from my atheist/agnostic meetup group into going to church with me. We went to Trinity Baptist, which is affiliated with (among other groups) the extremely conservative Southern Baptist Convention. It was quite an experience.

Though the congregants had a wide range of ages and ethnicities, the church was also very, very conservative, and it appeared that they took the Bible literally. What I find fascinating about this is that, despite that fact that I took it literally at one point, the conclusions they reached about a lot of things were entirely different. I suppose this isn't really all that surprising; Christians have been debating the finer points of doctrinal differences for centuries. But the differences weren't entirely minor. For example, in the church I attended in college, we were taught that this was a fallen world that God had turned his back on, and that our only chance of salvation was to turn toward Jesus and away from worldly needs. "Mission work" had nothing to do with going to impoverished countries and helping people; it was entirely focused on spreading the gospel and 'winning souls for Christ'. In this church, however, they felt it was important to nourish both body and soul. And though they do emphasize the idea that spiritual needs trump material needs, they recognize that material needs can be important as well. Their approach is to say that God will provide for any material needs, going so far as to say that they don't need to worry about the recession because God will get us through. (Remind me not to hire one of them as a financial consultant.)

They seemed to be a congregation of global warming deniers. The minister made a joke about how this was "the year without summer," and asked where Al Gore was this year. It was nice not to be the only one rolling my eyes at that; bringing friends along has its benefits.

The minister said a lot about what people should be praying about. He said that "God is not a go-fer", and that our "external, felt needs" aren't the sort of things we should be praying for - rather, that we should pray for increased faith and spiritual knowledge. That's pretty convenient, really; if we don't pray for tangible things, there's no way anyone can say our prayers weren't answered.

Honestly, the service itself didn't intrigue me all that much. Their theology was your basic evangelical Christianity: Jesus is the only way to escape punishment in hell for your sins, all other faiths (they specifically mentioned Buddhism and Islam) are false and futile, and anyone who doesn't know Jesus is 'lost'. There were a couple of high points. For example, someone must've seen my 'Atheist' bumper sticker, and reported it to the higher-ups. They spent about five minutes praying for "anyone out there who doesn't know the Lord", asking them (me) to recite a Sinner's Prayer (i.e. the whole "I admit I'm a sinner and I accept Jesus Christ as my lord and savior" bit), to give up my religion for a relationship with Jesus, and to empty the anger out of my hateful heart. He asked that the whole congregation pray for this, which was an interesting test of scripture, since Matthew 18:19-20 says:
Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.
Apparently the combined prayers of the entire congregation don't count as either two or three gathered together in Jesus' name, or as "anything that they ask," because... lo and behold... still an atheist.

The minister, in this little bit of targeted prayer, made mention of the idea that "[I] never knew anything about a relationship like [one with Jesus]." I couldn't help but shake my head; the assumptions that they make in this sort of statement are mind-boggling. Behind the friendly, inviting faces we saw in the church was the idea that anyone who isn't a Christian is still somehow afraid of their hell, knows absolutely nothing about Christianity, is angry and hateful, and believes in their God and his authority over things. What a weird mindset to work from.

Another high point was when a girl came up and told a story about how her parents, who had separated, got together again because of events in their lives that brought them back to Jesus. Her parents weren't present; they apparently go to another church. Most interestingly, she mentioned that her mother was an alcoholic who was attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and that that's where she had her moment of 'revelation'. (AA, of course, is a strongly evangelical Christian - or, at least, evangelically theistic - organization, promoting the idea that the only way to overcome alcoholism is through submission to a higher power.) I was shocked that this girl was willing to say something so personal and embarrassing in front of this group of people, including (obviously) some people she didn't know. It reminded me of the way the Church of Scientology keeps records on all the confessions people make during their 'auditing' sessions, so they can use them to coerce anyone who wants to leave. I was also unsurprised to hear the girl say that God had been behind the whole chain of events that led to her parents' reunion; is she saying that she thinks it's what God planned all along, or that God intervened and controlled people in a way such that things would work out? Neither sounds very appealing to me; it's predestination versus the suspension of free will. One thing that gave me a chuckle was that she talked about how her dad was worrying for a long time about a lot of things, and then he heard a sermon about worry, and saw it as a sign. What a surprise! A sermon about one of the most prevalent elements of the common human experience. Must be divinely inspired.

After the service, my friends and I did a little "post-mortem" discussion of our experiences. Of the three of us, I was the only one who'd ever been deeply religious, so it was interesting to hear their perspectives on things. I'd spent much of the service thinking about their interpretations of scripture, and constantly coming up with other parts of the Bible that went almost directly opposite of what they were saying. For example, they talked about how you should love your life, but John 12:25 says that if you love your life in this world, you'll lose it - you have to hate your life here to gain eternal life. My accomplices, on the other hand, were considering much broader concepts. One brought up that the friendly exterior they put up reminded them of grizzlies - they may seem cuddly and playful, but if you step out of line even the slightest bit they'll disembowel you. She found it odd that in one breath they were condemning people for having a judgmental spirit and not being loving of their fellow man, and then in the next they were talking about how anyone who isn't a Christian has a futile faith and will spend eternity roasting in hell. Our discussion turned to the subject of our various religious backgrounds, the influence of supernatural thinking on rational inquiry, ways we can work to promote reason and logic in society, why we think science is losing ground in America, and dozens of other things.

Then I went home, and I opened the 'goodie bag' the church had given us as visitors. It's really pretty bizarre stuff. There's a booklet about Awana, which I'd never heard of before, but from the sounds of it it seems to be a hardcore evangelical fundamentalist "camp" for kids. From the back of the booklet:
"[Awana] is built on rock-solid ministry principles: clearly presenting the gospel, focusing on Scripture memory, and applying the unchanging truth of the Bible to the changes and challenges of life."
Some of the things the booklet mentions make me very uneasy; mostly the fact that it targets kids as young as two years old, but also that they play on a child's need for positive reinforcement by rewarding different levels of indoctrination with trophies and awards. It talks about teaching kids about "God's love," which isn't surprising. If you teach a kid that God's love is really a sacrifice aimed at saving them from eternal torture, you're going to lose them, but if you just give them the candy-coated, feel-good theology, you've got them in the palm of your hand. Hit them with the soft, nice, warm and fuzzy stuff when they're young, then gradually dial up the crazy-nasty, and they'll never notice. It'll all seem like a natural progression.

The goodie bag also included a directory of local Christian businesses (the Shepherd's Guide). It contains some absolutely hilarious ads, such as one for "Biblical Hygine [sic] for Health & Protection," a Christian chiropractor ("Gentle Chiropractic Using Activator Technique"), some company selling "Earth-frindly [sic] cleaning products" (which is apparently a multi-level marketing scheme), and a "Christ-Centered Internet Network Data Center (Guaranteed pornography-free web hosting!):"
Nehemiah had a burden to rebuild the walls and post watchmen at the gates of Jerusalem to control invaders, prevent attacks on God's people and provide security. The Christian Interactive Network has followed that vision to secure God's data and ministry networks. Protecting God's people and the Gospel from the digital warfare that we face today.
They also included a couple of daily devotional books, a list of church service opportunities, a bookmark listing (some) of the names used for God and Jesus in the Bible, a pen with their church's name and address on it, a notepad and pen with a Bible verse on them, a booklet describing the plan of salvation ("How to Live Forever," which I can't seem to find anywhere online), and a votive candle.

All in all, the whole visit went really well, and our discussion afterward was easily as long as the service. I'll have to plan this earlier next time, so more than just three of us can go.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Francis Collins, Evangelical Christianity, and the NIH

So President Obama nominated Francis Collins as Director of the National Institutes of Health. I've been debating whether or not to blog about this, because I'm ambivalent about the decision and because it's been so heavily covered already by other atheist bloggers and writers. But I read this story in Newsweek and felt that I should speak my peace about the subject.

On the one hand, we have a man who, through his passionate dedication to the study of evolution, puts the lie to the claim that 'Darwinism' draws a direct line to atheism. His attitude could give some creationists (ID supporters and otherwise) pause; in fact, it was partly through reading his book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief that I was forced to (re-)recognize the validity of evolution and give up being a young-earth creationist. And his views on certain key issues are promising; for example, he supports the use of discarded embryonic tissue from fertility clinics for stem cell research, a practice which many Christians view as tantamount to murder (regardless of the fact that the tissue was already on its way to an incinerator).

On the other hand, he adopts a distinctly anti-scientific approach to investigation of the universe. He has declared that certain realms of inquiry, such as those involving human emotion and morality, are definitionally inaccessible to naturalistic science - that they can only be made sense of by referring to God. Because Collins' worldview is based on the supernatural, it will color any discoveries or decisions he makes. If we allow for the existence of an omnipotent being as an explanation for phenomena, we put unnecessary and damaging limitations on scientific inquiry. In fact, by asserting that the supernatural could be an explanation, we run into a situation where we can never prove that something supernatural wasn't involved, at which point we can't ever truly claim to have explained a phenomenon. After all, angels might be involved somewhere, perhaps holding our feet fast to the ground or pushing the planets about in their orbits. We'd never be able to show that they weren't. Science has to work within a purely naturalistic framework, or it can't get anything done.

The Newsweek story claims that "there is no evidence that Collins has ever shied from the pursuit of scientific truth" as a result of his religious beliefs. This doesn't seem entirely accurate. In a debate with Richard Dawkins, he said that God is the explanation of those features of the universe that science finds difficult to explain (such as the values of certain physical constants favoring life), and that God himself does not need an explanation since he is beyond the universe. (This is just a cop-out, of course; Collins simply defines God as 'a being beyond the universe' and never bothers to explain why we should ever assume such a being exists since we have no evidence that there is anything 'beyond the universe'. But I digress.) Essentially, Collins is claiming that we will never be able to find a purely natural explanation for the origin of the universe. Whether or not this means that he thinks investigation into the origin is worthwhile or not is unclear; it's always possible that he'll say that whatever explanation we discover is just "how God did it."

I'm not sure how I feel about Francis Collins as director of the NIH. He's certainly qualified for the position, and he's made important contributions to the progress of the study of genetics and genomics, but he's approaching science as a means of coming to understand the mind of God rather than simply learning about how the world naturally works.

A comment on the Newsweek article makes an interesting point:
[The] premise, that Collins should be judged by his work and not his faith, is a good one. But [the] conclusion is simply wrong: If we judge Collins' work, INCLUDING his book about religion, "The Language of God," then his credentials as a scientist are not so impressive. Collins reputation as a scientist is only impressive if you divide his works into scientific / non-scientific and judge him only on his scientific achievements. But that is hardly fair, because his book uses his scientific credentials to bolster his religious agenda. In "Language of God," Collins makes so many logical errors and rationalizations masquerading as rational arguments, it's an embarrassment to scientists everywhere.

Replace Collins' Christianity with Wicca, or Voodoo, Greek Mythology, or any other non-mainstream religion, and imagine the peals of laughter that would follow his book everywhere, or the howls of outrage if he were appointed to head the NIH! Imagine the ridicule Collins would suffer at the hands of his fellow scientists, and of Christians! Yet, by espousing one particular brand of mythology, the Christian religion, Collins remains untouchable, and opinions from the likes of respected journalists ... gloss over the glaring flaws in Collins' philosophy. (Comments continued on Craig A. James' blog.)
The second paragraph seems true enough. In a nation where the majority of the population embraces some flavor of Christianity, being a Christian counts in your favor, regardless of what position you're nominated for. The public would view a person of any other faith (or no faith) askance and would pay much more attention to how their superstitions affect their behavior and their choices. Only Christianity (and perhaps Judaism) gets this free pass.

I think it's this that really bothers me. Collins' faith gives him an undue extra bit of respect and consideration that his atheist colleagues don't get. Sure, he's a decent scientist, but it's hard to imagine that President Obama's nomination of a man of sincere faith to an influential science-related post isn't a mostly political move. It smells to me like the decision was made mostly to assuage the fears of the religious right. I'm willing to withhold judgment until we see what sort of decisions Collins makes, but I'm not too optimistic that he's not going to use his scientific bona fides to promote Christianity.

(For an interesting review/dissection of Collins' book The Language of God, check out this review from evolutionary biologist/philosopher Gert Korthof. There's another rather scathing review from Sam Harris as well.)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Why Science Will Always Beat Religion (an extended metaphor)

I thought of this while listening to The Atheist Experience at work today.

Many religious people love to promote the idea that religion and science are just two different ways of gaining knowledge about the world. They say that since science can't give us all the answers we want right away, the only way we can find answers to the unanswered questions is to seek some sort of spiritual enlightenment.

Honestly, I think this is just silly. Imagine that there are two subsistence farmers - let's call them Rick and Steve - plowing the same field, who agree to split the field between the two of them (so each can farm as he wishes) but they will then share whatever they grow. The field is rocky and has poor soil, so at first, growing anything in it is difficult.

The first growing season, Rick and Steve both plant exactly the same way. They sow seeds into the rocks and just hope that nature will take its course and give them a bounty. The first year is rough; not a lot grows. But Rick doesn't lose faith; he figures that if he sticks to his guns, he'll get rewarded for his patience eventually. Meanwhile, Steve has decided to go through and dig up some of the rocks. Rick chides Steve for trying something different. He thinks Steve is doing a lot of hard work for nothing; after all, the ground will give up whatever it'll give up.

Not surprisingly, in the second season, Rick's crop is just about the same size. Steve's crop, grown in soil that had more room for strong roots, is a little bigger than Rick's. Steve gladly shares his crop with Rick per their agreement, and sits quietly while Rick talks about how Steve just got lucky and how Rick really knows all the best ways to get a good crop.

This goes on for a long time. Rick keeps using the same methods, year after year, and turns up the same crop each year. Steve, meanwhile, keeps refining his technique - he tills the soil, fertilizes his plants, and applies pesticides to keep the insects at bay. Compared to Rick's paltry offering, Steve's crop is huge!

Nevertheless, Rick mocks Steve for breaking from tradition. He says that everything Steve is doing is just going to doom his part of the field eventually, and that Rick's half will go on producing long after he is gone. Rick congratulates himself over how fantastically trustworthy and consistent his techniques are, and pokes fun at how since Steve is always changing things around all the time, he must not know what he's doing at all.

Throughout the years, Steve's half of the field constantly improves, and Rick constantly warns him that he's just destroying any chance he has of the field lasting. Meanwhile, Rick enjoys the bounty of Steve's crop, which is not only larger, but more hearty, nutritious, and delicious.

Without Rick, Steve would be just fine. Without Steve, Rick would be dead.

Rick - Religion - sticks to the same ideas over and over again, without learning. Steve - Science - gets a more and more robust understanding of how things work, improves its own conditions, and shares its benefits even with those who would mock its methods.

How, exactly, does rigid, unchanging dogma allow for an increase in knowledge? How does it give us the goods, in the same way science does? The answer is simple, of course: It doesn't. Science learns. Religion stunts learning.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Good Ol' Family Values

I can't say that I take pleasure in seeing a prominent religious public figure crash and burn under the weight of their own hypocrisy.

Wait a minute... yes I can!

Poor Sarah Palin. Everything seemed to be going so well for her. She was living a truly Christian life - getting pregnant out of wedlock and (likely) rushing into marriage to try to cover it up, promoting abstinence while living with proof that it doesn't work (and teaching her kids to do the same), inspiring fear and hatred in the 'Other' who was running for president, attacking liberal comedians as pedophiles who shouldn't be trusted around children because she couldn't figure out a joke, firing public safety commissioners out of personal vendettas, and sparking rumors of federal indictments for embezzlement.

You know... the sort of pious moral superiority that can only come with a proper religious background. Oh, well; at least she'll soon be mostly out of the limelight and won't have to face that darn liberal media for a while.

This isn't anything new. Religious leaders and religious politicians who tout their values as a sign of just how gosh-darn genuinely religious they are have a bad habit of violating their values in a very, very public way. Larry Craig, anti-homosexuality polemicist; Ted Haggard, megachurch preacher and moral role model; John Ensign, who said Bill Clinton had "no integrity left" after the whole Lewinsky deal; Mark Sanford, who loves to hike the Appalachian trail; Mark Foley, outspoken opponent of child pornography and the exploitation of children and part-time pen pal of underage Congressional pages; Jimmy Swaggart, who made a habit of exposing the indiscretions of his fellow evangelical leaders; and many other religious and political leaders.

Must be very convenient that you can go out and sin all throughout the week, then come back to church on Sunday and get saved all over again!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Glad I'm not in Oklahoma.

Oklahoma state representative Sally Kern has proposed what she calls the "Oklahoma Citizen's Proclamation for Morality." The proposition, which can be read in its entirety here, is truly comedy gold. She claims that "our economic woes are consequences of our greater national moral crisis," which (of course) can be blamed entirely on abortion, same-sex marriage, pornography, divorce, illegitimate births, and other favorite canards of the fanatically-religious right.

She whines and moans about how President Obama didn't officially recognize the National Day of Prayer, but he did recognize a month of tolerance for the LGBT community.

But the real juicy idiocy is at the very end:
NOW THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that we the undersigned elected officials of the people of Oklahoma, religious leaders and citizens of the State of Oklahoma, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world, solemnly declare that the HOPE of the great State of Oklahoma and of these United States, rests upon the Principles of Religion and Morality as put forth in the HOLY BIBLE; and

that we, the undersigned, believers in the One True God and His only Son, call upon all to join with us in recognizing that “Blessed is the Nation whose God is the Lord,” and humbly implore all who love Truth and Virtue to live above reproach in the sight of God and man with a firm reliance on the leadership and protection of Almighty God; and

that we, the undersigned, humbly call upon Holy God, our Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer, to have mercy on this nation, to stay His hand of judgment, and grant a national awakening of righteousness and Christian renewal as we repent of our great sin.

Signed on the second day of July in the year of our Lord Christ Two Thousand and Nine.
Yowza. This from a woman who says she understands separation of church and state... and who has, in the past, said that homosexuals were a worse threat to America than terrorists. Does anything really need to be said here? She needs to be gone. Fast.

This kind of stuff needs to be shoved forcibly into the light of day. Thanks to the folks at Right Wing Watch for this one.

Friday, June 26, 2009

So I had my first face-to-face theist/atheist discussion...

A few days ago at Starbucks I had a friendly discussion about atheism and skepticism with a barrista. She noticed that I was reading Dan Barker's Godless, which tells the story about how Barker, a former fundamentalist/evangelical Christian preacher, gradually lost his faith and became an atheist (and is now co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation). The book's subject prompted her to ask if I was an atheist, and when I told her that I was, her reaction was reassuringly nonchalant.

She seemed genuinely interested; I'm not sure if she had ever met someone who 'admitted' their atheism before. She asked whether I'd been raised in a religious home, what lead to me becoming an atheist, and so on. She told me that she had been raised Catholic herself, but had grown into a generic kind of theism where she was happy to let people believe what they wanted to so long as it made them happy and didn't hurt anyone else. I gave her a quick two-minute summary of my story, and interestingly, she had literally never heard of fundamentalism or evangelicalism before. She thought they were some sort of Eastern religion... that's a new one!

At one point, she asked me if I thought that billions of people could really be wrong. I said yes, and went on to mention one of my favorite facts about religion - that they can't all be right, but they could all be wrong. If there really were only one religion that was actually true, then yes, billions of people could be wrong. I just no longer see any particularly good reasons for believing in any one over the alternatives and I even see really good reasons to disbelieve some.

She asked me what I thought about people having spiritual experiences, or just generic personal experiences that they couldn't explain. I told her that I don't doubt that they have unexplained experiences; it's part of being human and not knowing everything about everything, after all. I stressed that the fact that something can't be explained right now or hasn't been explained to us doesn't mean that something supernatural has happened. I briefly touched on how our perceptions can be flawed, and how our memories of an event can get blown out of proportion over time if the event stuck out in our minds shortly after it happened.

From here, she mentioned some experiences she'd had as a kid that she was sure were the result of some kind of ghost activity. We got into a discussion about how our concepts of what ghosts are and how they would manifest come largely from our understanding of science and the cultures we grow up in; I mentioned that in some Asian cultures, ghosts manifest as physical beings that look similar to how Westerners might imagine demons to appear. She mentioned that she was once in a "haunted" cemetery, and that she took photographs that she was sure were ghosts - clouds of what appeared to be specks of light. When she told me that they had appeared in one photograph but not in another taken a few seconds later, I felt a kind of surge of skeptical excitement; I pointed out that, if she was using a flash, specks of dust hanging in the air could show up in the first photo because of the flash, but if the second photo were taken quickly enough after, the flash wouldn't have charged yet, which would result in the dust being mostly invisible. She seemed skeptical of my skepticism :) From there we talked about ghost hunter TV shows, and about how goofy they were walking around with their electronic gadgets that they were SO SURE were capable of magically detecting ghosts. She dared me to spend the night in a local cemetery that she was sure was haunted, but unfortunately they don't allow you to be in there at night... Oh well. I would've enjoyed that.

By this time the other barrista had joined us; it was kind of a slow night for Starbucks, and they didn't have anything better to do. We shifted gears into the subject of aliens and UFOs. Barrista #1 asked me if I thought that aliens exist. I said that it'd be pretty disappointing if there weren't life anywhere else in the universe, but so far as the evidence is concerned, it hasn't made any contact with us yet. Barrista #2 (who seems to be a skeptic herself, from other discussions we've had) pointed out that it was a bit silly to think that a species capable of achieving interstellar travel, surviving decades in transit, and overcoming the problems of deadly levels of ambient radiation could make it all the way to Earth - only to crash disastrously into the planet.

All in all, I really enjoyed discussing these things - finally - with someone who didn't completely agree with me. I'd like to think that I planted some seeds for critical and skeptical thinking. I was surprised to learn that there are Christians who are unaware of fundamentalism or the evangelical movement. I suppose this reflects the worldview I've developed through my experiences. Because those two flavors of Christianity featured so largely in my history, I just assume that Christians are familiar with them. Her unfamiliarity with them also makes me wonder if most mainstream Christians don't see what the fringes are doing, simply because they don't know the fringes even exist. This could help to explain why Christians respond so negatively to so-called "militant" atheism: If all they see is moderation and a quiet, peaceful religious tradition, they're oblivious to what the more outspoken, pernicious members of their community are up to. From this I think we can draw two important points to consider: First, that we should tailor our message in such a way that we're not painting the target of our complaints with a broad brush, and second, that we should make sure that people are aware of just what is going on that they might not even be aware of.

Most Christians I've met are good, decent, hard-working people who just want to provide their families with comfort, safety, and a secure future. The dialogue I had with the barrista gives me hope that the more moderate/liberal believers out there are willing to engage us politely and to allow their misconceptions to be corrected.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Video: Religious indoctrination is a poison.

Just recorded myself with a few thoughts on religious indoctrination, and the persistent effects it can have on you later in life.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Lying for Jesus, Catholic style

I just briefly skimmed over an article called Atheism: a threat to civilization from Father Alphonse de Valk of Catholic Insight. It's your typical anti-Atheist scare piece, calling up the specters of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and ...

Wait a minute, they mentioned Hitler? As an atheist? Wow, that's a surprise. I'm sure it would surprise him, too, seeing how he was a devout Catholic. Not that his religious beliefs are even relevant. Most of the atrocities carried out in the Holocaust were done by thousands of other good old-fashioned, God-fearing German citizens. Unless, of course, de Valk is insinuating that each and every person in Germany at the time was an atheist, I think he would do well to avoid mention of Hitler.

(On another note, what's up with this obsession over comparing body counts? You'd think that, if a religious belief lead to a blameless moral standard, there would not be any kills under the Catholic church's column in the ledger.)

The author of this article would do well to attend to the results of a study performed by his fellow Catholics at Creighton: the one called Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies: A First Look. The study examined the varieties of religious belief in much of the first world, as well as the degree of devotion of the religious people, and compared them to various quantifiable variables - infant mortality, abortion, murder rates, et cetera.

Contrary to the thesis of Father de Valk's article, the conclusion of the study was comprised of two major points:
  1. Increased levels of religious belief and increased religious fervor correlate to increases in the negative measures of societal health. To wit:
    In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies. The most theistic prosperous democracy, the U.S., is exceptional ... The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so, and almost always scores poorly. The view of the U.S. as a “shining city on the hill” to the rest of the world is falsified when it comes to basic measures of societal health. Youth suicide is an exception to the general trend because there is not a significant relationship between it and religious or secular factors. No democracy is known to have combined strong religiosity and popular denial of evolution with high rates of societal health. Higher rates of non-theism and acceptance of human evolution usually correlate with lower rates of dysfunction, and the least theistic nations are usually the least dysfunctional. None of the strongly secularized, pro-evolution democracies is experiencing high levels of measurable dysfunction. In some cases the highly religious U.S. is an outlier in terms of societal dysfunction from less theistic but otherwise socially comparable secular developed democracies. In other cases, the correlations are strongly graded, sometimes outstandingly so.

    If the data showed that the U.S. enjoyed higher rates of societal health than the more secular, pro-evolution democracies, then the opinion that popular belief in a creator is strongly beneficial to national cultures would be supported. Although they are by no means utopias, the populations of secular democracies are clearly able to govern themselves and maintain societal cohesion. Indeed, the data examined in this study demonstrates that only the more secular, pro-evolution democracies have, for the first time in history, come closest to achieving practical “cultures of life” that feature low rates of lethal crime, juvenile-adult mortality, sex related dysfunction, and even abortion. The least theistic secular developed democracies such as Japan, France, and Scandinavia have been most successful in these regards. The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator. The widely held fear that a Godless citizenry must experience societal disaster is therefore refuted. Contradicting these conclusions requires demonstrating a positive link between theism and societal conditions in the first world with a similarly large body of data - a doubtful possibility in view of the observable trends.

    Ouch. So much for atheism being dangerous, eh? Oh, and also...
  2. There is evidence that within the U.S. strong disparities in religious belief versus acceptance of evolution are correlated with similarly varying rates of societal dysfunction, the strongly theistic, anti-evolution south and mid-west having markedly worse homicide, mortality, STD, youth pregnancy, marital and related problems than the northeast where societal conditions, secularization, and acceptance of evolution approach European norms.
I think this nicely refutes the entire article from Father de Valk, papal quotes, scriptural references, and all.

But don't expect a retraction from someone like this. He's not interested in facts, only in the promotion of fearmongering.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Ray Comfort pisses me right the hell off.

This is from an excerpt (PDF) from a book written by Crocoduck enthusiast and creationist troll Ray Comfort, entitled Evolution: A Fairy Tale for Grownups.

This book will no doubt be seen by some as “quote mining.” This is the practice of taking a quote (often out of its context), and using it in a way that was never intended by the author. However, every gold nugget is legitimately mined out of its context. No one seriously values the earth that encases the gold. So, when I uncover an evolutionary expert quietly admitting that he has no evidence to back up his theory, I don’t see any value in the soil of his surrounding words. I merely extract what I believe is of value for those who want to discover the truth about the theory of evolution.

That's right, Ray, rationalize your deceptive behavior. After all, it's okay to lie for Jesus, like when you introduce Charles Darwin as "a man who became disillusioned about God [and] formed a theory that all this amazing order and complexity came from nothing and randomly evolved over time."

For a quick overview of the kind of idiocy Ray Comfort considers 'evidence' that evolution is a fairy tale, check out his blog post about the book. Skip right over mass of the nonsense and look for some comments by a user named 'Carl' where he shows precisely why Ray is such a fan of quote mining (or just making quotes up from whole cloth).

I almost wish there were a hell so that there could be special places reserved in it for people like Ray who fill other people's heads with misinformation and who promote the "values" of gullibility and credulity.

Video: Open-mindedness - what it is and what it isn't

I ran into this video a while ago and I really liked it. I bumped into it again while browsing Skeptoid and decided to share it. It gives a fantastic overview of the difference between the uncritical 'believer' definition of open-mindedness and what open-mindedness really should mean to skeptics and freethinkers.

I've been a bit lax on posting here lately. I hope to have something more substantive later tonight or tomorrow; I'm working on a video that gives a layman's explanation of evolution and transitional forms, which rebuffs some common complaints made by creationists.

Friday, May 22, 2009

How do we approach the debate?

Maybe it's just me, but it seems like most atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, etc. approach theological debate as a hobby, while theists approach it as the driving force behind their entire worldview. It's strange; when I was a believer, everything I did was influenced by what I believed. The debate was the most important thing in my life. Now that I'm not a believer, I approach the discussion as entertainment and an intellectual exercise. I could take it or leave it; it's just something to pass the time.

Am I alone in this view?

That's not to minimize the larger issues behind the influence of religion on our society; I'm talking about just the debating here.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Church Visit: Schenectady Church of Christ

On March 15, I visited Schenectady Church of Christ. I've been in a Church of Christ before; my longtime ex-girlfriend was born and raised in one, and we went together several times. For those of you not familiar with their theology: Read the Bible. Take it literally. That's all there is to it. From their own web site:
The original autographs of the sixty six books which make up the Bible are considered to have been divinely inspired, by which it is meant that they are infallible and authoritative. Reference to the scriptures is made in settling every religious question. A pronouncement from the scripture is considered the final word. The basic textbook of the church and the basis for all preaching is the Bible.
Even having been prepped by my previous experience, this was something entirely new for me. At my ex's church, despite the fact that they were insanely conservative and literalist, it still had the feeling of a bunch of old folks who were using the church as a social meeting place. At SCoC, there wasn't anyone there who wasn't there for worship.

Before the service even began, I was approached by two people who talked about how the church stuck strictly to the Bible - one in the parking lot and one in the pews. This was out of a congregation of maybe 25 to 30 people, mostly middle aged and older but no younger than maybe 15 or 16. The church itself looked like it could probably hold around 150, and the congregation mostly clustered up at the front, while I sat in the back. Most people wore dress casual outfits; only a couple of people wore suits.

As opposed to Niskayuna Wesleyan, the music here was entirely unaccompanied, not even going so far as to use a piano or organ. The minister (worship leader? whatever he was) shouted the lyrics out in a forceful baritone, eyes screwed shut, and the congregation droned along. Everything was very mechanical; the beat was either hard and plodding or tumbling and almost panicky, with no inflection.

There was little structure to the service (hence the lack of a bulletin). Mostly, they just sang song after song with brief interruptions. There was no sense of the "holy spirit" here; the service was entirely unemotional, almost cold, and thoroughly uninspiring. It was almost gloomy. (I have this in my notes: "There is an utter lack of the feeling of 'spiritual satisfaction.' most seem to be going through the motions.")

The minister offered up a prayer of thanks and supplication, mentioning that we were in the end times. I've never been in a church that brought that up in the service before. He also prayed for an end to "the slaughter of innocents". Wonder what that was about...

More songs, followed by a reading of the story of the first communion. Communion with unleavened, nasty little crackers and grape juice. (So much for taking the scripture literally...) Collection of the offering, more songs.

(In my notes: "I get the feeling that the minister has no formal training and instead relies on singing constantly to make up for his ignorance of church service tradition..." Now, I'm not so sure. I think he might find the traditional services to be heretical.)

The sermon, given by the church's token black guy, began with a recap of last week's subject, "The Family Under Attack." He talked about how the family was under attack by the devil, who wants to destroy the church and keep them from worshipping; that there was a time people sinned in the closet, but nobody hides their sin anymore; that society is degenerating because of foul language and unmodest dress; that the people are becoming like the world, and forgetting how god designed the family.

He went on a long rant about how we should thank god for women, since they're leading people to the church, but that this isn't how it should be; that women are supposed to be subservient, and the men are supposed to be leading the spiritual life of the family; that Adam was in charge, not Eve; and that if god had meant for women to take the lead in the church, he wouldn't have cursed them.

He said that snakes were literally the descendents of the devil, and actually used the "Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" line like he thought he was being witty and clever.

He promoted the idea that women and children should submit to authoritarian thought control on punishment of being kicked out of the house.

He talked about how people had "gotten away from the Biblical things of the Bible," just to be repetitively redundant. He talked about how "sex was never intended for single folk; it was designed for married folk," and quoted Hebrews 13:4 :
Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.
He said that every family problem results from the failure of men to lead the family Biblically; that "the world is tearing our family apart," and that we should worry more about our family than the economy, because "our Lord is bigger than the economy."

At this point, he was literally shouting at us.

He talked about the roles the Bible gives for men and women, in 1 Timothy 5:14 :
I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully.
and in 1 Timothy 5:8 (which is irrelevant) :
But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.
He said that we should consider a working wife a double blessing, but we should chastise her for taking on a man's role and encourage her to return home to clean and teach girls to be ladies. He said that if the men can't work, we should do everything we can to keep our wives from working, up to and including taking social services like welfare. (Thanks a ton.) He said that a man should be more eager to work two jobs than to let his wife even have one.

He made a remark about a mother making sure to hit her children hard enough that they mind, and people laughed.

He said that there was never any excuse not to come to a worship service, no matter where you are, even if you're traveling abroad, and that you have to go to a church that worships based on the New Testament, where the focus was on worship, prayer, singing, communion, and scriptural teaching.

(In my notes: "Job's endless faith is what we should have. So if there's nothing that can shake it, how is that not delusional? ... THIS SERMON IS BORDERING ON INSANELY LONG. 45 minutes so far...")

After that was all wrapped up (about 20 minutes later), one of the church elders came up to discuss the church's attempts to reach out to the community. He mentioned that they were working on a commercial for the church, they were looking for a free advertising outlet, and they were making business cards for the church. He and the others seemed to be desperate for new members. He called on the entire church to give a second offering just for that.

The Lord's Prayer was never read, oddly enough. When we were finally dismissed, the minister's benediction included (in a deep monotone) "and oh, Lord, it's been uplifting." I begged to differ. It had been terribly disconcerting and alienating. I'd never felt more like I was in hostile territory, and I got out of there as quickly as I could before having to talk to anyone.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Insanity of the "Angry Atheist" Stereotype

[time to play theist's advocate, briefly.]

Boy, those atheists sure are angry. They're always mocking religious people, degrading their deeply-held beliefs and sniping at them with pompous, elitist remarks.

Who are they to tell us what to believe? Our beliefs give our lives hope and meaning. They help guide us to behave in the ways we should behave and stand up for what's right.

Not to mention how many smart people there are who believe what we do, and how many contributions have been made to the arts, culture, and society by the teachings of our various faiths. Where would we be without religion?

[OK, that's enough.]

When a child who believes in Santa Claus is in the company of other children who know he doesn't exist, mockery is acceptable. Expected, even. Yet somehow, when a theist's myth of choice is the subject under discussion, you'd better not dare mock it; in fact, somehow it is deserving of your respectful silence, if anything.

When we do get the courage to speak out about things we consider to be patently ridiculous, we're labeled as angry, intolerant, bigoted, and hateful. How does this make sense to people? If I think you believe in something silly, why on earth should I respect what it is that you believe? If, for example, you believed that the universe was powered by a hamster spinning in his wheel, and you called this a deeply-held and personal religious belief, should I treat this in the same fashion as I'd treat someone whose worldview was based on reason and evidence?

What is it that makes faith some unassailable target that demands respect? It's as though we're expected to consider virtuous those among us who are more willing than others to simply believe for the sake of believing. Worse still, we're supposed to give their opinions on any subject a good deal of respect if they manage to bring the subject of their faith up as part of the discussions on that subject, as though the mere fact of their having faith makes their viewpoint more respectable.

Whenever I find myself pointing out the silliness of what some people believe, they take my criticisms personally. They see an attack on their beliefs as an attack on them, and I can't help but wonder if this is because they've made their belief such a major part of their lives that they can no longer determine who they are without it.

Worse still are the people who believe in belief - those who don't hold to any particular religion themselves, but who will quickly rush to the defense of the religious whenever a religious belief is under attack, seeing the act of irrational belief as a positive aspect of character without really giving much consideration to what it is they're defending.

I would hope that responding to insipid blather with scorn and mockery would be embraced by reasonable people. When someone believes in UFOs, conspiracy theories, or anything else most people consider "kooky", we as a people tend to be quick to joke about their foolishness. But when someone believes in a mostly undefined/indescribable being who does things in ways that can't be explained or demonstrated, whoa now - step back! This is sacred territory, and if you talk badly about that belief, you're angry, bitter, a crashing bore, a whiner, and a wide litany of other such juvenile insults.

Clearly we don't disbelieve the nonsense because it's irrational and unsupported by evidence. Deep down, we must really still believe it, but because of some bad experience we had involving the church or an authority figure; or we just want to play the victim; or we justify the venomous stereotypes people have about us.

This is madness. I'm sitting here thinking of how to best phrase this, and I just can't. Basically, we're being told that we should shut up and just let people continue to believe nonsense, regardless of the fact that it is demonstrably nonsensical, and if we should dare to speak up and tell the emperor that he has no clothes, we should be ashamed of ourselves.

Let me put it bluntly: If you believe something not because it's true, but because it makes you feel better, I do think you're irrational and a bit foolish. Reality doesn't care what makes you feel better; reality works with what's real, and is more than happy to steamroll right over you while you lock yourself into your delusions.

I'm not an angry atheist. I'm frustrated that people think it's normal and right to believe things about the world that aren't justified and that lead to real harm, or at the very least detract from the capacity for real help.

This whole Daniel Hauser issue is just another example. Daniel Hauser, a young teenage boy with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, is now most likely going die despite the fact that medical treatment would've given him a 90% or higher chance of recovery in the early stages of the disease.


Because Daniel's parents are members of a sect of the Native American Church called the Nemenha Band, which advocates for "natural" and "alternative" medicine. (For those of you who are unaware, the Native American Church is one of the few groups in America legally allowed to use the hallucinogenic drug peyote, chiefly because they claim that it allows them to commune with god.)

Without actual medical treatment, Daniel's chances of survival drop to about 10%. Upon refusal to provide the treatment, a judge determined that Daniel's parents were being medically neglectful to him and ordered him to receive chemotherapy. That was within the last couple of days.

Yesterday, Daniel's mother disappeared. With him. Thus practically guaranteeing that he will die.

This is hardly the first time this has happened and it certainly won't be the last. And it's all because of religion. It's a piece of the Hausers' superstitious nonsense beliefs that are killing their son. (To his credit, Mr. Hauser now wants to seek actual medical attention.)

So when this story hit the mainstream news outlets, what did we hear? Well, Headline News had an 'audience interaction' segment where they took phone calls and e-mails about the story. Nearly all of them spoke out in support of Daniel's parents, saying that the government had no right to tell people how to treat their kids if it was against their religion.

Let me stress this one more time. People are willing to support medically neglectful parents whose decision almost certainly will kill their children as long as those decisions are based on some sort of religious belief. The type of belief and the details of the belief aren't even relevant. It's enough that they have beliefs, and that makes them special.

Am I angry? No. I'm sickened and disappointed. I'm tired of running into this kind of constant nonsense time and time again. And I'm disgusted by people who will call me an angry, vitriolic bigot for crying foul when I see this sort of insanity being perpetrated in the name of fairy tales or magic.