Monthly Archives: January 2013

Religion

How to convert me

Hello all!

Dave Muscato here again! I hope you’re having a good day.

Right now, I’m in the middle of an ongoing internet back-and-forth with someone who is seemingly trying to convince me that a god exists. He (she?) posed this question:

First you say, “I don’t believe gods exist”; then you say, “I don’t think humans can be certain about whether gods exist or not.”

Can you be certain that God doesn’t exist?

man-thinking

These aren’t mutually exclusive. The first statement addresses the question of what I believe. The second statement address the question of whether the existence of god is within the epistemological grasp of humans.

The answer to his question, of course, is no. But I don’t need to be certain there is no god in order not to believe in one. Just like I don’t need to be certain there is no such thing as a unicorn in order not to believe in unicorns. I’m reasonably sure that all the stories, books, movies, legends, etc about unicorns are either intentionally or unintentionally fictional, and that’s the same way I feel about (all) gods.

Evangelical readers, if you want to convert me, you’re going to have to try harder than this. I know some of you really have taken the time to study the arguments for atheism, but honestly, most of the evangelicals who want to talk to me have not. It helps to understand the definitions of, for example, “atheist” and “agnostic.” I don’t mind going over the same arguments repeatedly if it helps someone to understand my point of view, but if you want to be more effective as an evangelist, here is some advice:

  1. Understand that as an atheist, I have a lot more experience debating my beliefs than you do. This is not just because I’m an atheist activist, but because I live in a country where atheists are the minority. I am accustomed to defending why I am an atheist and explaining the holes in the arguments for god(s) to people who have taken it upon themselves to try to convert me. I do this every day, and only sometimes because I want to. I try to keep my head up and not take it personally when an evangelist goes on the verbal offensive. I’m used to it, and I’ve heard it before. That’s not to say you could never change my mind; just understand that it’s extremely unlikely that you’re going to present something I haven’t heard (and dismantled)—multiple times—before. I don’t say this to be arrogant; it’s just a fact of being an atheist where I live. People regularly try to convert me, and I encourage that. I will be the first to admit I’m wrong if you can convince me to believe in a god. But please, try to empathize. It will help you build rapport with me.
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  2. If you’ve never read the Bible (or whatever your holy book is) cover-to-cover, do so. A great number of atheists, including me, have done so. It’s the least you can do. I am constantly amazed at the number of evangelists I talk to who tell me that they believe the Bible is the most important book ever written—or even more laughably, their favorite book—and simultaneously, they’ve never even read it! If you know how to read and you’ve been a Christian for more than 6 months, I consider you without excuse for having not read your own book. You don’t have to have gone to seminary to engage me in a conversation about your religion, but make some effort to meet me halfway here, folks.
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  3. Understand that your personal experience is not going to convince me. There is no amount of insistence that you saw or experienced a miracle that is going to convince me that the laws of physics were suspended in your favor, rather than that you were simply mistaken. Even if I saw a miracle myself, I would be skeptical, as you should be, too. Human senses are quite fallible and the much-more likely explanation is that, lo and behold, there is a scientific/naturalistic explanation for the occurrence. See whywontgodhealamputees.com for more on this.
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  4. Don’t tell me what I believe. Ask me what I believe. I am not angry at your god. I did not have a bad experience with a church. I do not worship Satan, nor do I believe he exists (nor demons, nor angels, et al). I am not “refusing” your god. I don’t “know in my heart” that your god exists. I have no desire to go around raping and killing just because I don’t believe in hell. Further, you are not going to have any success scaring me into belief in your god by warning me about hell. That only works on people who believe hell is real. I don’t believe in your god because I have carefully examined the logical arguments and the historical evidence and find both unconvincing. That’s really all there is to it.
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  5. Don’t give up. If you think you have a good argument, and I offer you a reason I think it’s wrong, go research it and come back and talk to me some more. You are not going to convince me in a single conversation, and you shouldn’t go in with that expectation. That’s totally okay! Let’s build up a mutually-respectful friendship where we can have discussions like this whenever we want. If nothing else, it will help you have a better understanding of the reasons you believe.

_ThumbsUp_

If you want to convert me, all you have to do is be honest and talk to me. You may be surprised to find that your reasons for belief are not as solid as you thought—be prepared for that and take it into account. Conversely, If I find what you have to say convincing, I will change my mind. But please understand that I’ve done this a lot, and to be frank, nobody before you has succeeded. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try—I am always interested in respectful discussions about religion.

I hope this has been helpful. Have a great one!

Dave

General Opinion

The 6 Paths to Atheism: by Chad Becker

Three months in to the job I currently hold, my fairly religious bossman finally asked me a direct question regarding religion. With a bit more internal anguish than I expected, I answered honestly like I decided I always would a number of years ago. After telling him I was an atheist, and establishing that I did go to a Methodist Church growing up, his first and almost only question was, “What happened to you at the church that turned you away?” I couldn’t handle that question ‘in the moment.’ It speaks volumes about how he interprets my being an atheist.  He doesn’t see it as my stance on the validity of religion. He see’s it as my bias due to someone else’s failing or my own lack of “faith.”

Or not.

But that’s certainly how it seems considering he never really changed his question after my first response of, “It’s not a matter of what happened, it’s just what I decided after I was old enough to really look at the validity of Christianity.” However, I know I didn’t say it so eloquently since, like I said, I was feeling quite a bit more uncomfortable than I ever expected I would.

To attempt to answer his basically repeated question I went on a tiny, yet calm, rant, flailing in all sorts of different directions that probably made me seem like a bit of a loon and/or lost on the subject. But really it was quite the opposite. I so earnestly and honestly stared at the question of “God” for so many years that I just wanted to get all of it out and since I was in the rare position of a religious person actually asking me directly how I got to such a conclusion, I may have gone a little overboard and everywhere. Because… the nerves I guess… the work environment… alright I’ll stop making excuses now. It just wasn’t pretty.

Here’s the actual thoughts I was trying to convey while in my panic rant.

The 6 Paths to Atheism:

1.  The Cliches

I hate that these thoughts are seen as cliche. I’m talking about questions like “Where did we all come from” and then the requisite follow up of “Well then, where did God come from?” You know why I hate it? Because those are very fair questions to ask. The first one being the question that drives many people into philosophical and religious thought.

But the answer you’ll get from the religious is, “God always was.” That’s really just a veiled way out of the question. It doesn’t address the intellectual core of the question. You’re assuming things that exist must have come from something; you’re told we came from god; so where did god come from? Instead of saying ‘nowhere’ the answer distracts with ‘always was.’ Using that logic you might as well assume we, as humans or a planet or just plain mass, always were. There’s nothing more philosophically or scientifically profound about saying God ‘just is’ than saying we “simply are.” It’s just an escape route. To understand that the answer of God isn’t an answer to the question of ‘Where did we come from?’ at all, makes it a lot easier to question his very existence.

2.  The Rest of the World Really Does Exist – Part 1

I think this is where my doubt truly started. The first argument I remember bringing up time and again when I first found people to talk to honestly about the existence of god was ‘If I had been born on the other side of the planet, I would simply be whatever religion their culture is.” Since there is no more material background for Christianity over Islam or, heck, even Mormonism, my thought was in all likelihood true. All of the big faiths have a book that is full of stories that morally instruct and people that believe it to be true. Nothing distinguishes one religion’s claims as more valid than another on an evidence based level.

This was a big thing to me because like it or not, a lot of religious people do claim that you have to praise the right God to go to heaven. It’s definitely a pretty big theme in the Bible. Heck, the old testament instructs you to kill people of other faiths. (We’ll get to the bible later). To understand that entire cultures and countries of people hold opposing religious beliefs to yours is one thing. To realize that just being born in a certain region is the main precursor to a religious affiliation is another.

3.  The Rest of the World Really Does Exist – Part 2 

This part isn’t going to be as hard hitting as it is ego crushing. I’ve been told, “There’s nothing more narcissistic than believing there is no god.” They get to that conclusion with something to the affect of, “You think you’re the biggest thing in the universe.  You believe in nothing but yourself.” To this, I’d say there’s nothing more narcissistic than saying, “My Dad came to see me today. YAY! God is so great!” Obviously that is simply an example from a subset of a vast array of examples; thanking god for an award, pointing to the sky when you score a touchdown. All of these things suggest that God played a meticulous role in your mundane, or trivial, or even acceptably exciting life, while allowing entire regions of the world to be subjected to war-lords, hunger, AIDS pandemics, oppression or just plain greed. And not just for moments, but for lifetimes and generations. This is the most narcissistic thing I can think of. And accepting those truths makes it pretty hard to believe in a God that interferes with day-to-day life.

4. The Bible: Content

“God clearly expects us to keep slaves. That right there clearly demonstrates that we shouldn’t get our morality from religion.” – Sam Harris 

Need I say more? I really feel like I don’t, but I know how debates go below articles dealing with religion so I better lay it on thick. To put it slightly less simply, there is a long history of religious texts being used to oppress people. Without going on a rampage of quotes I can give you a quick synopsis. If you’re a woman, the bible tells you to do what your man tells you to do and don’t even think about talking at church (Ephesians 5:22-24 and all over Corinthians). These texts were used by countless “religious” folk to suppress women’s rights using the Bible as the word of God. If we’re talking about slavery, then you know that slaves should respect and serve their masters as if they were god on earth no matter how horribly they treat their slaves (Peter, Psalm, Ephesians, Colossians, Titus). But don’t worry, god tells the slave owners to take it easy on them (Ephesians 6:9). These texts were used by the “religious” to argue for slavery in this country using the Bible as the word of God. The exact same could be said for interracial marriage, with the Bible literally invoking the concept of “mud races” numerous times (Acts, Genesis, Leviticus, Jeremiah, Deuteronomy).  I mean, come on.

So, with that, the exact debate being had in the religious sector over homosexuality is almost identical to one that was had over slavery, race relations, and women’s rights just decades ago. Luckily, this will play out like all the others. Once the “religious” people, quoting their religious text, eventually lose, the mainstream accepts that those portions of the Bible were “a product of the times” and/or were “never meant to be taken literally.”

But does that really make the foundation of religion any stronger? Or is that just the unceremonious and intellectually dishonest way to admit that your religion is wrong and instructed people immorally for hundreds of years? Once you recognize that the Bible actually has a fair amount of immoral instruction, and people are just regurgitating answers to excuse it, can you really accept it as the word of God?

5. The Bible: Origins (Alternate title: The Rest of the World Really Did Exist) 

Most of it is just plagiarism from paganism. From the birth of Christ being celebrated in December to the most iconic stories in the Bible, it was all stolen from previous cultures and beliefs of their time. Egyptian theology from 3000 BC has a character Horus (loosely considered a “Sun God”). He was born of a virgin, three wise men followed a star in the east to find him upon his birth, he had 12 disciples, was crucified and resurrected three days later. All of this sounds familiar I trust?

This is but one example from one previous religion. Countless pagan religions had tales along these exact lines. And stories of a “Great Flood.” And stories of dark vs. light/good vs. evil. Once you recognize that the Bible has lifted much of it’s religious lore can you really accept it as the word of God? And once you recognize the Bible is merely a compilation album, what does that say for religion as a whole?

6. Staring at it for a while…

This one can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I’ll use the concept of “heaven” as an example. To put it simply, existing forever in bliss sounds great but what does that even mean? If you assume that you are forever happy in heaven does that mean you even have thoughts? Is something magically making me never have a sad thought? If so, is that even me anymore? Is heaven just a drugged up version of yourself then? If not, what if someone I really enjoyed, went to hell? Would they not let me think about that? Because that would be an eternity of sadness for me. Not bliss. And if “heaven” just lied to me and gave me a carbon copy of that person, what the heck is that? That’s not reasonable.

http://youtu.be/1VbMAwN0u7I

Yes, the basic concept of heaven sounds great and I really do wish something to that affect exists. But deciding to intellectually dissect the parts of religion that are meant to make you feel warm and fuzzy can make it anything but. It makes it seem hollow and meaningless. And once you recognize that many claims religions make are either hollow threats or hollow promises, what’s left to believe in?

*Bonus 7: Evolution/Science

I didn’t include this as an actual subset because I don’t see this as something that has to be at odds with a God. That’s simply the dynamic many religious people draw. And Richard Dawkins. But, of course, it conflicts with both (yup, there’s two) of the origin stories of the Bible. As much as I’ve always loved Genetics, and love Richard Dawkins’ work in demonstrating how “not perfectly made” our organs and animal structures really are, I’ve just never really found this to be a way into Atheism. I’ve experienced a tad, and seen plenty, to understand the kind of mental gymnastics people put themselves through to preserve “faith” and this never seemed direct enough for me to think it would change hearts and minds on its own. Definitely worth noting none the less.

Closing Arguments: Ironically I’m About to get Preachy

Personally, religion’s most disgusting attribute is when it makes people feel shame and guilt for the wrong things. You haven’t been going to church? You’re a bad person. Think homosexuality is ok? You’re a bad person. You have lustful thoughts? You’re a bad person. When the mind is worried about these quaint (or non-) downfalls in their personal morality it makes it easier to lose sight of what’s really important. Just being a nice person — not hurting people. When we label things that are of no consequence as immoral it can not help people make sense of the world. It just confuses and creates internal anguish. And there’s nothing much worse than teaching someone to hate themselves.

So, personally, once I realized all this guilt was completely unnecessary and just in place to help other people hold onto these beliefs, no matter how it affected those different than themselves, it all just seemed so…gross. So gross that calling myself an atheist felt almost like a badge of honor I had created and given to myself. And I believe this is what atheists are referring to if you ever hear one of them say that losing their religion was “freeing.”

With that, I hope this piece didn’t only preach to the choir. Likewise, I hope this piece didn’t only fall on deaf ears. If religion is your thing, I’m not trying to stop you and I’m not going to call you any names. I’m just pointing out that these are the holes in your foundation and it seems the only way religion ever plugs them is by increasing the portions of the Bible that were “a product of it’s time” and/or “were never meant to be taken literal” while ever increasing the acceptance of secularist views with every passing year, generation and Pope.

And that’s what I meant to say to my bossman. May peace be with you.  And also with you, you and you.

 

Chad Becker had to become a free thinking atheist before there was Reddit. That’s right. He also walked uphill both ways to school. He has been pondering, worrying and writing about religion, atheism and just being for about 10 years now and is a news junkie in the great city of Grand Rapids.

Current Events Ethics Opinion

Controversial Opinions; or Free Speech

Taken from the Westboro Baptist Church's website with permission on January 6, 2013.
Only the people who really hate Philistines can ride on top.

Panem et circenses, or bread and circuses, is Juvenal’s now common idiom for the means to appease the people. Full bellies and something obnoxiously loud -yet meaningless- will keep the vulgar masses quiet, and in this glorious 21st century, neither are in short supply. But a populace distracted by loud but tolerable circuses is not concerned with true free speech, they are concerned with those trolls that defy the majority. Recent examples abound. The Westboro Baptist Church, the film the Innocence of Muslims, and atheists and antitheists in general, who so annoyingly scrutinize our religious opinions. It takes sober thought to realize the importance of defending these aggravating examples of free speech. In the next few days I’ll argue for the defense of the right to be heard for each of these groups, beginning with the least redeemable; Westboro.

People do not have the right to prevent others from offending them. If someone insults you in public, no moral person would defend your right to use violence in any fashion to . Yet this is exactly what we would have our government do. If we restrict the marketplace of ideas we enforce the majorities’ views with force, rather than reason. Any proposition that denies the right to speak to the Westboro is something that must be opposed as a matter of principle.

Westboro attracts attention by saying outrageous things. They are, in the intertubes lingua franca, trolling. They certainly believe the things they say, as they can be backed up by scripture, but that doesn’t detract from the only reason they make the news; they are hitting America’s soft spots. It is tempting to silence these fools with the weight of the law, as that is the easiest solution. A simple majority shows up for an election and then our police force recovers our peace of mind. But in doing so we have extended our government’s reach, albeit slightly, on the only area of free speech that matters, that is, the controversial part.

The ease of a legal solution to this problem does not make in the best solution; and there are alternatives. The Patriot Guard Riders will counter-protest quietly and respectfully anywhere the Westboro dares to show up, and without any legal ramifications. There was a similar result at the funeral of a fellow former resident of Holland, a Navy Seal named Daniel Price, thousands lined the streets with flags in a touching, if slightly jingoistic, display of solidarity.*  The turnout was helped in part by the foreknowledge of Westboro’s presence, and any harmful effect they could have had on the family of the deceased was negated.

I hope I have made a case against legally doing away with unscrupulous opinions. Everyone entertains unpopular opinions. People on this blog are likely to have one of the most hated of them: that of the nontheist. But this kind of independent persuasion makes discussions and life more interesting. Allowing dissent will create, by the process of argument, new opinions that are a closer approximation of observable evidence. And anyone who questions the popular theistic conceptions of the godhead appreciates closer approximations of reality. But unfortunately,  the government is not the only entity capable of suppressing unpopular opinions, and I will come back to that in the next essay.

 * The local report on Daniel Price’s funeral can be found here.

General News

Young Skeptic Networks Hangout

The audio will also be available for download soon as a special edition of YAS podcast The Pseudoscientists.

Thanks to  Jack Scanlan and Belinda Nicholson, from The Young Australian Skeptics and Ellen Lundgren and Astrid Lydia Johannsen, from Skeptic Freethought.

Please let us know what you think, or ask questions we might answer another time!

Hopefully The Heresy Club can join us next time!

General News

Live Broadcast Starting Now!

YoungBloggerNetworks

Our International Student Network hangout is beginning shortly! Our live broadcast will begin here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9tM6AqVO_w

News

I love this city

Columbus, Ohio is not only home to the wonderful people who head the Secular Student Alliance, it’s also probably the most tolerant city in the Midwest when it comes to the LGBT population.

latenightsliceOf course, we have our share of not-so-tolerant individuals as well. A guy standing in line at Mikey’s Late Night Slice this past weekend didn’t take kindly to the sight of two men holding hands in line, and he decided it was his place to harass them whilst waiting for street pizza:

It was really cold so Ethan and I were holding hands and standing close together to keep warm, we were laughing and joking about all the fun we’d had that night, when all of the sudden the guy in front of us turns around and tells us to cut our “gay shit” out.

He might have got his way in another time or another place, but this sort of thing doesn’t fly here, particularly in the Short North.

I was a bit startled by his words but I didn’t expect what happened next. Almost every single person in that line made it known to him it was not OK for him to speak to us like that.

He wasn’t discouraged, and continued to rant about how disgusting it was for two men to hold hands in public.  This attracted the attention of the pizza truck’s proprietors:

The best part though was as he grew more irate and vocal the guys who work the truck stopped what they were doing and leaned towards the window and told him they would not serve him because he was spewing hate. They said they support everyone in our community and that he should get out of line because they would not be serving him.

I don’t doubt that this guy feels like he was being discriminated against for his beliefs, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing comments to that effect from the religious right (though I have resolved to stop reading the comments section on news articles). That’s bollocks. He was refused service for harassing other customers who were minding their own business. Any shopkeeper has the right to do what Late Night Slice did, and I applaud them for doing so.

General News

International Meeting of the Networks

YoungBloggerNetworks

Stephanie Zvan of Almost Diamonds at Freethought Blogs has caused an inadvertent hurricane with her recent post featuring student blog networks including your very own Skeptic Freethought, The Heresy Club based in the UK, and The Young Australian Skeptics. This got us talking on twitter (@SkepticThought, @HeresyClub, @youngausskeptic) and eventually to each other on facebook since I have previously been acquainted with Alex from HC and he introduced me to Jack of YAS.

This brings us to the main event, the perfect storm, if you will. This Sunday, 4pm EST we will be live streaming a broadcast on our YouTube Channel to chat on a myriad of topics regarding young skeptics today. The participants are below:

Sundas Hoorain and Alex Gabriel, from HC;
Jack Scanlan and Belinda Nicholson, from YAS, and
Ellen Lundgren and Astrid Lydia Johannsen, from SF.

The time and specific topics are yet to be announced, but be sure to tune in and see what young skeptics are concerned with today! I’m very excited to be a part of this, and I definitely hope this this will start a great relationship for future collaboration among our generation.

If you can’t make it, the audio will also go out as a special edition of YAS podcast The Pseudoscientists. The video and podcast will be linked as another announcement after the weekend.

UPDATE: The live broadcast is scheduled for Sunday 4pm EST. See you there!