Monthly Archives: September 2011

Current Events Religion Science

Don’t take freedom of speech for granted – Blasphemy Rights Day

Today is International Blasphemy Rights day, as designated by the Center for Inquiry (see Astrid’s previous post for some of the history behind it). It used to be called Blasphemy Day; the word “Rights” was inserted to more accurately represent the purpose behind it.

It’s not about infidels and apostates having a day to antagonize people who still hold religious beliefs. It’s not about members of a mainstream religion ritualistically taunting and harassing people of a minority faith. It’s not about goading religious extremists into a murderous rage.

It’s about people who value freedom of speech raising awareness of how easily that freedom can be trampled upon. It’s about recognizing that as another set of claims in the marketplace of ideas, religion should not be immune from the same scrutiny, criticism, and satire that we freely apply to other forms of speech. It’s about believing that offending someone’s religious sensibilities is not a crime.

Chances are that right now as you read this, you are committing blasphemy against someone’s religion. It might be the clothes or jewelry you’re wearing. It might be a symbol or phrase you have tattooed on your skin. It might be the person you are in a relationship with or are attracted to. It might be the “unclean” food digesting in your stomach right now.

Forbidden food AND irreverence to a revered tale! It's sacrilicious!

It might be the lighthearted joke you made about a traditional practice. It might be the way you celebrate a certain holiday. It might be the particular translation of your religion’s holy book that you read. It might be a recent (or centuries old) scientific discovery that you now know as fact.

It might be the fact that you find a particular supernatural claim so absurd that you snicker at the very idea of it.

His Merriness will not be mocked!

The bottom line is that someone somewhere believes that their god hates what you’re doing right now, and that person would be deeply offended to know that you’re doing it so brazenly. In some parts of the world, that makes you a criminal who deserves fines, imprisonment, torture, or the death penalty.

If you live in a country where treating religion with anything short of veneration is legal, consider yourself lucky. Don’t take freedom of speech for granted.

Opinion

News release basics: distributing a press release

So now that you’ve learned how to write a press release, you need to know how to properly distribute it so your release gets noticed by media outlets. This is easier said than done. While a well written press release will undoubtedly garner more attention than a poorly written one, there are also a few things that you can keep in mind to help yourself out.

1) Think about when you send your release. Too early in the morning (5 am) and it’s likely to be so far down in people’s inboxes that they’ll never get to it. Send it too late in the day (noon) and it gets lost in the shuffle. While this isn’t an exact science, I personally get the best response from releases sent out in the 7-9 am time frame.

2) Regardless of when you send your release, follow up. I mentioned this in my last post, but it bears repeating. Give your contact a call around mid-day to make sure they don’t have any lingering questions, or need further information. Don’t be pushy, be helpful.

3) Establish a personal media list, not a generic one. This takes time, but is incredibly beneficial. Instead of just compiling a list of media contacts based on what info is on their website, reach out and network. As you meet journalists and make personal contacts, add them to their list. Send a few emails to a media group and determine who is really interested in helping your group get the word out. Then add them to your list instead of a generic email. While building a contact list is hard work, it’s also one of the most prized possessions of a PR professional, or anyone looking to get media attention.

4) Make sure you allow enough time. Don’t send your press release out weeks before an event, but don’t send it out days before, either. Make sure you give a journalist enough time to pick up the story, and contact you if needed.

Basically, getting your press release out there is a matter of using common sense and thinking realistically. Journalism is fast paced, so make sure your release has an edge, is current, and includes quotes and pictures.

As always, if you have questions, comments or suggestions, I’d love to hear them! Email me at jessicaswider35@gmail.com.

 

Opinion Religion

Common arguments, refuted

Hello all,

This is the first in a series of posts deconstructing and refuting some common arguments in favor of theism, religion, faith, etc. This article will feature the so-called “TAG,” or Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God. This is the argument employed by Prussian philosopher & anthropologist Immanuel Kant in his 1763 book, Der einzig mögliche Beweisgrund zu einer Demonstration des Daseins Gottes (The Only Possible Argument in Support of a Demonstration of God’s Existence). Put simply, it goes like this:

(1) If reason exists then God exists.
(2) Reason exists.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

It is sometimes called the presuppositionalist argument as well. Additionally, you can replace “reason” with “knowledge,” “objective morality,” “logic,” “the universe,” or pretty much anything else you want.

There are several common criticisms against this one. The first is that it doesn’t demonstrate any specific god or gods. You could just as easily replace “God” with any other deity and “prove” that one is real, instead. It should be noted that parsimony requires the postulation of one god rather than more than one god, unless you have evidence to the contrary (and really, if we had evidence at all, we wouldn’t need to play these logic games to try to prove a god in the first place). It’s simply more likely that there’s only one god for which there is no evidence that they there are multiple gods for which there are no evidence, in the same way that (even though both are false), Judaism is more likely to be true than Christianity, since Judaism requires that you believe the Old Testament, whereas Christianity requires that you believe both the Old and New Testaments. The more layers of unsubstantiated crap you pile on, the less likely something is to be true.

Another criticism is the assertion that reason exists. If we’re going to use logic, we kind-of have to agree that reason exists. When theists try to use “objective morality” or “knowledge” in place of “reason,” it gets a little easier to refute. There’s no good evidence that objective morality exists, and if you’re skilled at arguing as a global skeptic, demonstrating that the existence knowledge is unprovable isn’t too difficult – this just gets down to an epistemological discussion, which is beyond the scope of this article.

(1) is more or less a bare assertion fallacy. There’s no good evidential or logical reason to justify the statement that if reason/morality/logic/the universe/whatever exists, then [a] god exists. Someone making this argument would have to explain why the existence of reason is dependent on the existent of god. The two aren’t logically linked and we have no reason to believe they are, any more than we have reason to believe, for example, that if people with the ability to type exist, computer exist. There are other explanations for how people with the ability to type came into existence – for example, the existence of typewriters would explain this, as well.

I tend not to argue too much about (2) unless someone claims that objective morality exists. Then I would ask, what’s your evidence for this? What is objective morality? How do you know that? It seems to be another bare assertion.

(3) is, again, a non sequitur relating to (1). There is no logical link between the existence of reason etc and the existence of (any) god. Reason could be explained just as well (more parsimoniously, in fact) by arguing that it evolved as an emergent property of sufficiently complex brains, the same as consciousness. You can also argue this with morality, using the evolution of cooperation & game theory (for more info about this, I highly recommend Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation and Ridley’s The Origins of Virtue).

Ultimately, this argument boils down to a quite simple refutation: It’s an “ipse-dixitism” fallacy that “If (x) exists, God must exist.” That’s just an a priori, unsubstantiated assertion. You could just as easily assert that “If (x) exists, Santa Claus exists.” The two aren’t causally or logically linked. Since (1) contains a fallacy, the argument is invalid, and cannot serve as a sound proof of the existence of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God (or any other god or gods).

Until next time,

Dave

Opinion

News release basics: how to get your event noticed

Unless you have a member of your group who’s well versed in public relations practices, most campus organizations are fairly clueless when it comes to publicizing an event. Building a media list, properly distributing a news release and handling press are all skills that have to be learned. However, before any of those things happen, you have to know HOW to write a press release. Perhaps the most basic, yet one of the most important skills, a PR practitioner needs is the ability to write an efficient news release. While everyone has their own method for writing a release, there are a few basics that can be helpful when you’re just starting out.

-Include contact info, the words ‘FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE’ and what organization you’re from. This info should all appear at the top of the release. It’s important to not forget these basics so journalists know what they’re dealing with.

-Headline, subhead, boiler plate, date line. Not sure what these terms mean? Google them. You’ll need to include each in your news release, and put them in the proper place. The headline comes first, then subhead. The dateline comes immediately before the text begins and the boiler plate appears at the bottom of the news release, as they very last section.

-Lead, text, recap. Your lead needs to be catchy and unique. Journalists get hundreds of news releases each day, so make sure yours stands out! The text includes all the details, and further information about your event. The recap comes last, and is fairly self explanatory.

-Timing is, as always, everything. Don’t put out your release late in the day, right before a weekend, or right before you go out of town. Keep in mind when you release is most likely to get seen in a journalist’s inbox.

-Follow up! Just because you sent your press release over email doesn’t mean that’s the only contact medium you can use. Call people! Later in the day, after you’ve sent your release, give your contact a call to see if they have any further questions, or needs interview information. Don’t be pushy, be helpful.

-EDIT, EDIT, EDIT. Make sure you double and triple check your release, and have someone else look it over before you send it out. If you have even one error, it not only reduces your credibility but can leave journalists with potentially incorrect information. Edit until you’re blue in the face!

News releases take practice, but being able to write a good one is an invaluable skill that you’ll need if you want anyone to know about, or attend, your event or speaker.

Activism Current Events Ethics History News Religion

9/11 Changed the Face of Atheism

It has become almost cliché to say that the attacks on September 11, 2001 were the Pearl Harbor or Kennedy assassination of our generation.  Ten years later, nearly all of us remember what we were doing the moment we heard the news.  The day is seared into our collective memory not simply due to the emotional impact of the moment, but because of the startling realization that our lives would never again be the same.

The events of that day profoundly affected our way of life. Not just foreign policy or airline safety standards, but also our sense of security and our relationship to fellow human beings. For many people, it even changed their relationship with their god and religion.

The American Humanist Association’s most recent newsletter features one woman’s story of how 9/11 influenced her journey from Catholicism to Atheism. Diqui LaPenta, a biology professor in northern California, tells of losing her boyfriend, Rich Guadagno, on Flight 93, the flight that crashed in Stonycreek Township, Pennsylvania.

…My parents arrived two days later, having driven all the way from San Antonio, Texas, and we flew to New Jersey for a memorial service for Rich. Some very religious relatives planned to meet us in New Jersey. I asked my parents to ensure that those relatives refrain from religious platitudes. I didn’t want to hear that Rich was in a better place or with God or that it was all part of some plan that God had for us. From the moment I heard that Rich and thousands of others had been killed, I knew that the all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God of childhood stories absolutely could not exist. Rich was not in a better place. There was no place he would rather be than with his dog Raven, me, his family, and his friends. I would never see Rich again, as there is no afterlife. Pretending that I would see him again would make it impossible to heal.

Before 9/11, I’d never considered myself an atheist. After that day I was, and I let people know it. When asked what church I attend, I reply that I don’t. If prompted to explain why, I say that I’m an atheist. Some people say, “But you have to believe in something!” I do. I believe in the power of rational thought and critical thinking. I believe that we should live thoughtful, peaceful, moral lives because it’s the right thing to do and not because we’re afraid of punishment or hopeful for a reward beyond the grave. We have this one life, and we should make the best of it for the short time we are here.

Diqui isn’t the only one that felt compelled to be more forthright about her atheism after 9/11. As the CNN Belief Blog points out, the religious nature of the attacks provided the impetus for many atheists to come out of the closet and openly criticize previously unassailable religious beliefs.

Atheists were driven to become more vocal because of the 9/11 attacks and America’s reaction, says David Silverman, president of American Atheists. He says many atheists were disgusted when President George W. Bush and leaders in the religious right reacted to the attack by invoking “God is on our side” rhetoric while launching a “war on terror.”

They adopted one form of religious extremism while condemning another, he says.

“It really showed atheists why religion should not be in power. Religion is dangerous, even our own religion,” Silverman says.

Atheists are still the most disparaged group in America, but there’s less stigma attached to being one, he says.

“The more noise that we make, the easier it us to accept us,” Silverman says. “Most people know atheists now. They knew them before, but didn’t know they were atheists.”

In fact, atheists have gained so much public acceptance that David Silverman gave a public address this morning on the main steps of the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, in an event hosted by the PA Nonbelievers.

While some atheists began speaking out, others began writing. As Newsweek reports, Sam Harris began writing his bestselling The End of Faith on September 12th, 2001 – directly in response to the attacks.  Harris’s recent blog post on the 10 year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks succinctly summarizes his perspective on the distance we have left to travel:

Ten years have now passed since many of us first felt the jolt of history—when the second plane crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. We knew from that moment that things can go terribly wrong in our world—not because life is unfair, or moral progress impossible, but because we have failed, generation after generation, to abolish the delusions of our ignorant ancestors. The worst of these ideas continue to thrive—and are still imparted, in their purest form, to children.

On the other hand, while some atheists began speaking out in public and openly critiquing religious ideas, others saw the attacks as a call for greater unity and love.  Chris Stedman, a Fellow for the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy, will be honoring those lost by spending today packaging 9,110 meals to be distributed to hungry children in Massachusetts.  As he stated recently in Washingtion Post’s On Faith:

9/11 will live on forever in our nation’s memory. We suffered an incomprehensible loss at the hands of extremists who believed that religious diversity must end in violence. But as people of diverse religious and secular identities, we can counter them with our unity. By building bridges of understanding, we can act on our shared values and learn-from and with one another-how to be our best selves.

No matter the reaction, the attacks on September 11th caused the public face of atheism to drastically change.  The 10 years since that day has seen many changes in way the world community approaches religion, but no one can say that religious beliefs are as protected from criticism as they were a decade ago.

Many non-believers have very strong opinions about the best way to prevent similar attacks in the future. Despite the ongoing debates, it seems clear to me that the courage to work with religious community groups in areas where our interests overlap, paired with the freedom to directly and openly criticize bad ideas wherever they occur in the public sphere, will be the tools that we must use to build a safer, healthier, and happier future.

General Opinion

Disingenuous fearmongering about the “gay agenda”

I was recently alerted to this video’s existence via a Facebook post by a conservative Christian associate of mine.  It was created by CitizenLink, a Focus on the Family affiliate.

CitizenLink Report: Tools for Parents

It’s more of the same message we often see from “pro-family” organizations: that “parents” (read: heterosexual Christian parents) should be “concerned” (read: alarmed) about “homosexual indoctrination” (read: teaching kids that they shouldn’t regard gay people as horrible, immoral monsters) in schools.

For what it’s worth, I know that there are at least a handful of gay activists out there who do have a disdain for heterosexuals and do want special treatment for their sexual orientation (I know this because I met one).  With a little bit of dressing up, this fringe element serves as a handy strawman for anti-gay activists to reference in videos like this.  Don’t be fooled.  The vast majority of homosexuals just want to be who they are without being treated like freaks.  That’s your real “gay agenda”.

If you don’t want to sit through the whole thing, skip to 6:48 for the part that really made my blood boil.

“. . . it is clear that these kids are struggling.”

Around the 7-minute mark the show’s host plays a clip from a “tolerance” video promoted by a gay advocacy group.  In the clip we see teenagers giving their candid perceptions of their own gender identities, followed by the host and her guest reacting with thinly veiled disgust.  They no doubt picked this clip thinking that it represents the worst of the gay indoctrination that students face, and I personally saw nothing wrong with what that clip depicted.  What exactly is wrong with boys not acting masculine?  Girls admitting that they’re not 100% feminine?  More importantly, what evidence is there that these kids are “struggling” any more than any other teenager struggles with life?

Of course, that’s a rhetorical question.  I know that the people who are alarmed by the blurring of boundaries between gendered behaviors feel that way because it demolishes two immutable categories that they’ve constructed in their minds.  “Men and women are fundamentally different, even without counting the genitals and physiological differences, and should always behave as such, and you’ll never convince me otherwise!” says my social conservative strawman.

What’s really damaging is the idea that there can’t be middle ground in gender issues, that you’re either a manly man, a womanly woman, a girly gay boy, or a butch lesbian.  No room for bisexuals, or even heterosexuals who exhibit personality traits of both genders, exists in this mindset (let alone trans- or intersexuals!).

An admonition for conservatives who aren’t anti-gay

I understand that there are plenty of economic conservatives out there who don’t have a problem with anyone’s sexual orientation or gender identity so long as they’re productive citizens.  I understand your sentiment that gay advocacy is intruding on public school curriculum with programs like those described in the video, and likewise that lawsuits for the same cause are frivolous and that government intervention on it is excessive.  I don’t completely agree with that sentiment, but I understand where it comes from.

What secular conservatives should understand is that much of the left-wing sentiment backing this type of aggressive advocacy was forged by the backlash from social conservatives against those homosexuals who have “come out” over the past few decades.  Gay rights activists built up this momentum while fighting a culture war for their right to exist in society.  Tell the religious zealots who have hijacked the Republican Party to stop fighting culture wars and focus on the economy, and you won’t have to listen to this senseless debate any longer.

Science

Why some people don’t accept evolution: a layperson’s perspective

I’ll come right out and say that I am not especially well-educated in science.  I studied the liberal arts in college and never took a course beyond Intro to Biology.  I do think that I gained a fundamental literacy of the science through my minimal classroom study (and copious independent reading as a child), to the point that I can understand what science journalists and bloggers are talking about even without being able to make sense of the raw data myself.

Image credit: Ethan Hein

I do understand, at the most basic level, how evolution works and why it works, even if I can’t wrap my head around the intricate processes that drive it.  I’d be out of my league attempting to teach it to someone or to debate a creationist on it (a position in which we atheists too often find ourselves, as if we’re all PhD biologists in the minds of creationists).

Even as a layperson (especially as a layperson?) I feel that scientific literacy is a vital part of being an informed citizen.  I’m troubled by the widening knowledge gap I see between scientists and everybody else, and particularly by the anti-intellectual sentiment that is rising alongside populism.

Denial in favor of design

To many atheists (and even theists who are skeptics about most everything but gods), it may seem shocking and frustrating that so many people in the United States dismiss evolution as wild conjecture.

When we see the notion of “intelligent design” being taught alongside actual science in biology class as if the two had equal weight, our first reaction may leave a palm-shaped depression in our foreheads (or a forehead-shaped indentation in our desks).

Sure, there are a number of people so hopelessly dedicated to ancient origin stories that they don’t want evolution to be true. It would turn their entire world upside down were they to accept that they are part of a 3 billion year old solar-powered chemical reaction rather than a unique, purposeful creation apart from nature.  It would mean to them that they are no better than their animal kin and take away all incentive for civilized behavior in their minds.

The threat of such a crisis of conscience has been used as an argument against evolution since Darwin first proposed it.  It was used by the prosecution in the infamous John Scopes trial, and even today is rehashed and regurgitated by creationist groups like Answers in Genesis.

I’m not so sure that there’s a way around this roadblock. How does one persuade a person to step over a ledge if said person is utterly convinced that they’ll tread onto a slippery slope?

Framing it like a religion instead of science

There are others still who are taken in by deceitful rhetoric like “evolution is just a theory”, people who don’t believe the science because they don’t understand it.

I suspect that a major reason why people don’t “get” evolution is that they try to understand the theory as something that it’s not: an infallible history that’s conveniently spelled out for them.  Unfortunately, science doesn’t offer the romance or clarity of religious mythology, no matter how badly our human minds want it to (not to say it can’t be exciting in its own right if you embrace your inner nerd, but most don’t).

The narrative of Darwin on his epic odyssey through the harsh environment of the Galapagos, suddenly experiencing a “eureka!” moment as the idea of natural selection dawns on him, is false.  It is nevertheless taught that way to schoolchildren to make the subject more fun (the same goes for the myth of Newton and the falling apple revealing to him the concept of gravity).

On the Origin of Species was a breakthrough 150 years ago, but it isn’t a sacred text.  A century and a half of new discoveries have rendered it obsolete, and the biologists of the 2160s will likely say the same about our most cutting-edge scientific literature today.

Unfortunately, people don’t seem to want an amendable explanation that says “We can’t know for sure, but this is what most probably happened based on what we’ve found so far.”  It doesn’t satisfy that desire for certainty that nags at all of us.  It leaves room for doubt, and makes many people uncomfortable.  No, people want an ironclad explanation that says “We know that this is what happened, for these irrefutable reasons.”

Science can’t offer that.  It’s driven by uncertainty – that’s what leads to new discoveries and new questions to be answered.  Until the American public learns to accept that, how can we expect them to accept evolution?

Opinion

The Path to Non-Belief

The freethought community is full of extremely diverse opinions on a wide range of subjects. Some members of my local student group are socialists, feminists, anarchists, libertarians, and yes, even a few conservatives. Collectively, this diversity is one of our major strengths.

Having such widely varied opinions, we tend to find common ground most readily in our skepticism of religious claims.  In fact, my student group emphasizes that while the Kent State Freethinkers is not expressly an “atheist group,” it is a group that contains many atheists, agnostics, religious skeptics and secularists. Simply put, we don’t exempt religious claims from our bologna detection kit.

But being in a group of skeptics, it is easy to forget that many of us come to our non-belief from very different backgrounds. Some of us have never been religious, while some of us consciously decided to leave religion. While non-theists of all stripes are of course welcome at meetings, it is important to remember that we all took very different paths to get there…and sometimes picked up very different types of emotional and philosophical baggage along the way.

For example, many atheists who have never been religious tend to view religious ideas with the same sense of anthropological bewilderment usually applied to the exotic customs of foreign tribes. It is sometimes difficult for them to comprehend how otherwise intelligent adults can so fervently believe such blatant hogwash. These never-believers tend to have trouble debating religious people because some religious concepts are so cloaked in a veil of transcendental mumbo-jumbo that it requires real effort to even begin talking. Starting conversations with the devout sometimes requires a suspension of critical faculties that these non-believers have never experienced. Their thought process might look something like, “Okay, so Jesus died for our sins, but then rose from the dead? So basically, he is alive. How exactly is this a sacrifice again?”

Conversely, non-theists who have made the difficult decision to leave the comfort and familiarity of their religion are usually better able to put themselves in the shoes of believers. People leave religion for many different reasons, but I’ve found that the circumstances of their departure can have a huge impact on how they continue to view religion, especially their former faith.

Many people leave religion after a nasty falling out, such as institutionalized abuse or conflict with religious leaders. I know of at least one student who left the Catholic Church after her grandfather was denied last rites (the last blessings before death), because he neglected to include the church in his will. Other, more serious examples abound, such as instances of rape, corruption, and violence. While most religious members are not direct victims, many leave after seeing such deplorable behavior from a group they had thought was a paragon of morality. Being so burned by faith often ignites a deep seated hatred of all things religious, and while this allows them to be extremely passionate proponents of freethought and secularist ideals, these anti-theists often become extremely emotionally entangled in arguments.  They may be prone to making hyperbolic statements about the evils of the church, which may end up hurting their credibility. Other anti-theists may still have very raw feelings about religious groups, and may prefer avoiding the discussion altogether.

In contrast, many non-believers left the church simply because religion has faded away into the realm of irrelevance, often times due to apathy or in response to a better understanding of how science explains the natural world. They find the claims and promises of religion to be lacking when examined in the harsh light of day – a light that shines from scientific literacy. They may begin calling themselves an atheist or agnostic after many years of being a non-practicing (or rarely practicing) religious member. In many ways, this type of non-believer is more similar to the never-theist than the anti-theist.

Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive, and many non-believers have had a very arduous ascent into freethought, and retain very complex emotions and opinions about religious faith. Many people that attend meetings may still be making that climb toward enlightenment. They may still be overcoming obstacles to unbelief that most of us have already cleared, or they may be dealing with obstacles that many of us have never had to clear. Then again, there are some atheists are so anti-religious that they see freethought groups as an underhanded attempt to create a secular church.

My point is, as current and future freethought leaders, it is important to recognize and appreciate the various perspectives, talents, and biases that your members bring to the discussion table. If a diplomat and a firebrand are arguing over the tone of your group’s advertisements, or debating which speaker you want to bring to campus, it is often helpful to recognize that those differences stem not just from the side of the table they are sitting on, but also the path they took to get there.  I’ve found that some of the most helpful and enjoyable meetings have been where we take turns describing where we stand philosophically in relation to religion, and talk about the often convoluted paths that led us there. I highly recommend dedicating some time to this discussion at one of your early meetings this upcoming semester. It will definitely help you understand the perspective of someone that you may disagree with.