Author Archives: Dave Muscato

Dave Muscato

Dave Muscato is the Kansas/Missouri-Area Volunteer Network Coordinator for the Secular Student Alliance. He is also a board member of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A non-traditional junior at Mizzou studying economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday and twice monthly for the Humanist Community at Harvard. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com. Opinions posted here do not necessarily reflect the views of MU SASHA, the Secular Student Alliance, nor the Humanist Community at Harvard. Follow me on Google+ Follow me on Twitter @davemuscato

Evolution is *not* a philosophy, and, a semantic proposal

Hello all, Dave Muscato here again!

I live in Missouri, the Show-Me State. You’d think that means we’re a rather skeptical bunch, desirous of evidence and good reasons before we take a claim to heart. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen at the level of policy-making.

Right now in Missouri, a GOP representative, Rick Brattin, has introduced House Bill 291. This bill includes some outlandish policy changes: It seeks to define, officially, evolution as a “philosophy.” It also says that this philosophy “denies the operation of any intelligence, supernatural event, God or theistic figure in the initial or subsequent development of life” and that “[the] origin of life on earth is inferred to be the result of intelligence directed design and construction. There are no plausible mechanisms or present-day experiments to prove the naturalistic origin of the first independent living organism.”

This is ridiculous. But wait: It gets worse!

If scientific theory concerning biological origin is taught in a textbook, the textbook shall give equal treatment to biological evolution and biological intelligent design.

What the what?! Didn’t we settle all of this already with the Dover case?

change-darwin

I have a proposal. Can we stop calling it the “theory of evolution”? Evolution is a fact. We have seen it happen under controlled conditions and entire fields of science depend on it. In the words of the evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky (who also happens to be a Russian Orthodox Christian), “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

I know that “the theory of evolution” is short for “the theory of evolution by means of natural selection,” and I understand why people shorten this to simply “evolution.” But this is incredibly misleading, and really does nothing but give ammunition to creationists, and confuse the scientifically ignorant.

What we really mean to say is, “the theory of natural selection”that is the theoretical part. There is no controversy (well, none among legitimate scientists) about whether or not evolution itself occurs. The “controversy” (which, again, is artificial) is about the mechanism responsible for these observed changes in the frequency of alleles within a population. The Catholic Church under Pope John Paul II acknowledged that evolution occurs, but the official stance was that this process was guided by God, rather than random mutations and non-random selection. This is of course unsubstantiated, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

I hope you will join me in taking care to watch ourselves in our language. When we must include the word “theory,” make sure you are talking about natural selection and not evolution. And if you live in Missouri (or even if you don’t), please write to, email, or call Rep. Brattin and tell him this bill has no place in our schools.

Until next time,

Dave

Why not live and let live?

Hello everyone! Dave Muscato here.

This is a difficult post for me to write. I’ve spent two days on this, actually. For most of my life, I’ve been natural inclined to be non-confrontational, and I think my friends and family would characterize me as a gentle person. It is not easy for me to say these things, but I feel like the time has come for me to take a stand.

I had lunch with a friend the other day and the subject of religion came up—I know, big surprise. My friend’s girlfriend had posed to him a question about the purpose of atheism activism:

“Why not live and let live?”

Aside from being intellectually wrong, what’s so bad about believing in a god? What’s the harm? Is it just academic?

Some background: His girlfriend is “not religious, but open-minded,” and teaches their 3 kids to be accepting of all different religions. He is an atheist and passionate about critical thinking and skepticism. He is concerned because he overheard one of their children praying before going to bed.

He asked me, “What can I tell her?”

Here’s my response:

Because they’re not letting us live and let live. Because, for no rational reason, gay people can’t get married in my state. Because they’re teaching the Genesis creation myth as fact in science classes. Because they’re teaching “abstinence-only” sex ed, which is demonstrably ineffective. Because, despite Roe v. Wade recently celebrating its 40th anniversary, we’re STILL fighting for abortion and birth-control access. Because priests are molesting children and nobody is getting in trouble for it. It’s been said before, but if an 80-member religious cult in Texas allowed some of their leaders to molest children, there would be a huge outcry. It would be front-page news. People would be up in arms! But when it’s the Catholic Church, we barely even notice. It’s gotten to the point where we’re not even surprised anymore—it’s barely even news anymore—when another molestation is uncovered. Like the saying goes, “The only difference between a cult and a religion is the number of followers.” Or worse, “One rape is a tragedy; a thousand is a statistic.”

I brought up Greta Christina’s wonderful book, “Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off The Godless,” and told him to read it, and to ask his girlfriend to read it. Nothing would make me happier than to live and let live. I dream of a world where humanity spends its time solving “real” problems, doing medical research, exploring space, fixing the climate, making art and music, studying philosophy. I would love for there to be no need for atheism activism. But I can’t do that, because I have a conscience.

He agreed with me on these points, but wanted to know about the problem with liberal churches. What’s the harm of religion so long as it supports gay marriage, comprehensive sex-ed, etc?

First off, it’s important to distinguish between believing in a deity, and believing in God. If we’re talking about a deistic creator, a god who allegedly sparked the Big Bang and hasn’t interfered since, I don’t really see any harm in this, other than that it’s unscientific and vastly improbable. I’d call this harmlessly irrational, on par with crossing your fingers for good luck. It’s magical thinking, which I think should be avoided, but it doesn’t really hurt anything.

sistine-chapel

But once we start talking about Yahweh, the Abrahamic god, the god of the Bible, we get into some sticky stuff.  I’m not the first to say so but the reason moderate religion is bad, even dangerous, is that it opens the door for religious bigotry and worse. If a religious moderate believes the proposition that the Bible is the inspired word of God, who is he to fault a religious extremist for actually doing what it says to do?

If you use faith as your justification for moral decision-making, you cannot reasonably point at someone more committed than you doing the exact same thing and make the charge that they’re wrong. A religious moderate cannot call a religious extremist crazy without being hypocritical.

There is this idea among moderates that religious tolerance is an ideal condition. The whole “COEXIST” campaign is a prime example. There is this idea that all religions are somehow valid, despite contradicting one another. That no matter how much we disagree with someone, if it falls under the umbrella of religious tolerance, we should make every effort to find a way not to be offended.

To paraphrase Sam Harris, the idea that all human beings should be free to believe whatever they want—the foundation of “religious tolerance”—is something we need to reconsider. Now.

I will not stand by and tolerate the belief that it is moral to mutilate a little girl’s genitals.

I will not stand by and tolerate the belief that it is moral to hinder the promotion of condom use in AIDS-ridden regions, because they believe wasting semen is a “sin.”

I will not stand by and tolerate the belief that it is moral to lie to children and tell them that they will see their dead relatives again, or give them nightmares about a made-up “Hell.”

I will not stand by and tolerate the absurd and unsubstantiated proposition that humans are somehow born bad or evil, that we need to be “saved.”

It is offensive to me that, in the year 2013, people still think intercessory prayer works. Every time I hear about some poor sick child who has died because her parents decided to pray instead of take her to a hospital, I am horribly offended. When religious moderates tell me—although they also believe in intercessory prayer—that they, too, are offended by this, I am appalled at the hypocrisy. We should know better by now than to believe in childish things like prayer.

I am so sick of this crap. There is a time and a place for being accommodating of differences of opinion. If you think tea is the best hot drink, and I think it’s coffee, fine. No one is harmed by this. Insofar as your beliefs don’t negatively affect others, I do not care if we agree or not. But, I contend, your right to believe whatever you want ends where my rights begin. Religious moderation is literally dangerous because it opens the gate wide for religious extremism. A moderate cannot point to a religious extremist and say, “You are wrong. You are dangerous. You must not be allowed to continue.” However, I can. To stand up to religious extremism, we must come from a place of rational thought, of freedom to criticize, of ethics that do not depend on revelation or arguments from authority.

I make no apology for asserting that secular humanism is the most reasonable, most ethical, and best way for us to live. It is more rational than superstitious faith. It is more productive and humane than any religion. It is the ethical choice. To quote Sam Harris, “There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.”

We must become more reasonable if we want to survive. Our planet is in trouble. There is no divine guarantee that the Earth will always be able to support us nor that we will always be here. There is no life after this. What matters is how we are remembered, and the contributions to society we make while we’re alive. I assert that there is nothing more important or more urgent than this: Atheists, I call upon you to stand up to absurdity. If you see something, say something. Start the conversation.

I know that it is difficult to make waves. I know that it can be intimidating, especially when you’re outnumbered. But the facts are on our side, and the stakes are high. We must not be afraid to call bullshit where we see it. We must not allow religions to dictate what is and is not moral. We must speak up in the face of wrongdoing. We must make ourselves known. It can be as simple as correcting someone for using the word “fag,” or mentioning that you are an atheist if the subject of religion comes up.

Ending the danger and oppression of religion will not be easy, but if we work toward it, we can make it happen.

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.

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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

Free Will and the gap between philosophy and neuroscience

Hello all,

Dave Muscato here again. Last night, a group of us from MU SASHA attended a public lecture at Mizzou from guest speaker Michael Gazzaniga, the renowned psychobiologist famous for his research on “split brain” patients: people who have had the two hemispheres of their brains surgically separated from one another, in order to treat epilepsy. It was a real treat to hear someone so well-known in his field speak in person, and I was privileged to be able to attend.

He spoke about free will: Do we have it? What does “free will” mean? What are some of the implications, specifically legal, if we do not?

In a sentence, he demonstrated that from a neuroscience (indeed, scientific) context, it is quite clear that we lack free will. In fact, he goes so far as to argue that the concept of “free will” is nonsensical and should be disposed of: Free from what? The laws of physics? No, each cell of our brain follows predictable patterns of behavior, i.e. is soul-less and automated, and our brains are “merely” highly parallel and complex conglomerations of cells. No where in this equation arises a homunculus, a “mind” within our brain that makes decisions separate from itself, no matter how much we might wish for this to be so, or how much it feels to us like this is the case.

Here’s where I think he lost us: Gazzaniga went on to argue that, while our brains do not have free will, persons (in a society) do. I don’t think he justified this leap. His argument, as best as I could understand it, was that individual responsibility arises on the level of a society, rather than on the level of the individual. He gave the analogy of a car, versus traffic. Regardless of one’s mechanical understanding of the operation or construction of a car, you cannot extrapolate or understand traffic patterns by observing a car in isolation. Similarly, humans in isolation lack responsibility—a single human just follows patterns of behavior and isn’t responsible “to” anyone—but in the context of living in a society, we can hold individuals responsible for their behavior.

This seems to me to call for the application of the is/ought problem. I think Gazzaniga was trying to say that, descriptively, societies hold individuals responsible for their behavior, and that this is permissible because individuals should be held accountable for their wrongdoings. What I don’t understand is, where did that “should” come in? Is he making an ethical argument here? Because up until that point, he’d been speaking descriptively. I understand why societies would do good to hold individuals accountable for wrongdoings, but that doesn’t mean “persons have free will” just because they live in societies. Persons may be responsible for their individual wrongdoings—it’s not like anyone ELSE is responsible for a person’s actions—but I don’t understand why he argues this means that they magically have free will.

It seems to me that there is a gap between what philosophers have to say about free will and what scientists have to say. From Sam Harris to Daniel Wegner to Michael Gazzaniga, those who study the brain tend to say that we lack free will, from what I have seen and read. So why aren’t philosophers agreed on this? I’m especially talking about thinkers who side toward religiosity (read: theologians). I understand that for the Judeo-Christian model to work, we are required to have free will, but that doesn’t mean that we do. Similarly, for the Judeo-Christian model to work, we must have souls, but—and I’ll put this gently—neuroscience has yet to discover them. I’m skeptical.

I’m considering writing a talk of my own about free will, based loosely on Sam Harris’s “Free Will,” the Free Will chapter in “The Big Questions” by Nils Rauhut, “The Illusion of Conscious Will” by Daniel Wegner, and some guided discussion questions of my own design. If I do, I’ll post a link to video of it here, or at least a summary, once I deliver it to SASHA and/or another group and can get film it for you.

Until next time,

Dave

Common Arguments, Refuted: the Cosmological Argument

Hello all,

This is the second 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 “cosmological argument.” The cosmological argument, also called the First Cause argument, goes way back. It was employed by both Plato (in Laws, book 10, his longest dialogue) & Aristotle, and by Thomas Aquinas. A version of this argument, the Kalam Cosmological Argument, is favored by theologian William Lane Craig.

The argument goes something like this:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The Universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the Universe had a cause.

Put another way,

  1. Every finite and contingent being has a cause.
  2. A causal loop cannot exist.
  3. A causal chain cannot be of infinite length.
  4. Therefore, a First Cause (or something that is not an effect) must exist.

The current understanding of science holds that spacetime began to exist when the universe began to exist. It is meaningless to ask what came “before” the Big Bang, in the same sense that it is meaningless to ask what’s “south” of the South Pole. The concept of “before” didn’t logically exist “before” the existence of time itself, so we needn’t concern ourselves with what came “before” our universe. As Stephen Hawking famously said, “Anything that happened before the Big Bang could not affect what happened after.”

There are several reasons the cosmological argument doesn’t hold water. I think the easiest comes from the particle physicist Victor Stenger, who wrote the wonderful books God: The Failed Hypothesis and The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe is Not Designed For Us. The error in reasoning can be summarized in five words 5 words: The first premise is false. According to Stenger, quantum physics tells us that something CAN come from nothing, so the entire idea that everything that begins to exist must have a cause is just plain wrong.

This premise is an example of a bare assertion, a statement unsupported by evidence. This is something for which, as skeptics, we need to watch out in general. If someone presents an assertion to you, especially as a basis for a set of premises, we need to take a moment to ask, “How do you know that?”

As with most of these arguments, this is really an argument for deism, or at best theism, not Christianity or any god or gods in particular. If you find yourself in a debate about Christianity or any particular religion or god, make sure to drive home this point: This is a (piss-poor) argument for deism—belief in a creator entity, whether still extant or not—not an argument for theism or any particular god. If someone tries to tell you that something can’t come from nothing, therefore Jesus, remind them that this is a non sequitur. It is no better than arguing “something can’t come from nothing, therefore Brahman,” or any other creator entity.

I’m reminded of the wonderful Sidney Harris cartoon, which I will not reproduce here for copyright reasons but which you can google if you’d like (try “Sidney Harris miracle math cartoon”): Two mathematicians are standing at a chalkboard with some complicated figures, and in the second of three deductive steps, it simply says, “Then a miracle occurs.” The one mathematician says to the other, “I think you should be more explicit here in Step Two.”

If someone cannot tell you how they know something, there’s a good bet that they’re bullshitting you. Sometimes the right answer is, “I don’t know, but very smart people are working on that.” For me, that sums up anything we could ever want to know about the “god question,” and it’s why I’m an agnostic atheist.

Until next time,

Dave

Vegetarian Ethics: It’s not black and white

What is an ethical amount of meat for a vegetarian to eat?

The answer seems obvious: Zero, right? I’ll argue this is incorrect. I’ll begin with the story of a chicken sandwich, the vegetarian atheist who ate it (me), and who almost felt badly enough about it to pray.

I’ve been a vegetarian for about 3 years now for ethical reasons. I want to cause as little suffering as reasonably possible. It’s the right thing to do.

Two weeks ago, Ellen Lundgren and I were on a 6-hour drive to the CFI Leadership Conference in Buffalo, NY. Around 8, we stopped for dinner. We were on a tight schedule and didn’t want to stop anywhere too time-consuming.

The only restaurant we could find that was open, nearby, and quick was Wendy’s. Wendy’s does have several non-meat items, but they are all sides or desserts. If you’re at Wendy’s, and you want the nutrition—and hunger satiation—that comes only from protein, you’re going to have to order something with meat. So I did, for the first time in several years.

I prefer chicken to beef because chickens are stupider than cows, and are physically less capable of suffering. (Similarly, I feel less bad about Caesar salads, which contain anchovies, than chicken sandwichs).

Despite my atheism, when I sat down, I had a very strong urge to pray for the chicken, though I knew it was superstitious. I think this was left over from the days when I prayed before eating—I became a vegetarian around the same time I became an atheist.

I believe it was a bit of déjà vu. Ellen thought it was funny; I decided to blog about it.

Many vegetarians, and especially vegans I think, tend to be more judgmental and dogmatic about their food. A friend once asked me if I think I’m better than she is because I’m a vegetarian. I told her yes, I do think vegetarianism is morally superior; if we’re defining “better” as “acting more ethically,” then it follows that I think I’m better. Integrity is one of the more useful measures of quality in a person. However, I don’t think this makes her a bad person, nor me a good person. My friend is great in other ways, and more ethical than me in many.

I don’t see vegetarianism as an inconvenience most of the time, not more than, for example, holding the door for someone. You learn to do it as part of living in a peaceful society. Not eating animals is the moral choice if reasonably possible—and it’s usually easy, for most people in 1st-world countries. It’s the environmentally-sound choice. Vegetables are delicious and nutritious. And you sleep better. What’s not to like?

Vegetarianism does not mean simply cutting meat from your diet. It means replacing animal sources of protein with vegetable sources of protein, like nuts & beans. In the words of Leo Tolstoy:

One can live and be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite. And to act so is immoral.

I’m not vegan—I eat eggs, dairy, etc if I know they came from ethical sources. By ethical I mean that as little unnecessary suffering was involved as reasonably possible. Although one can avoid any unnecessary suffering by never contributing to demand, I find this DOES cause unnecessary suffering—to me. It is very inconvenient, if not impossible, to forgo the use of all animal products.

Vegetarianism is not an all-or-nothing way of life. I wouldn’t ask someone to give up meat entirely, but you can certainly eat less and just replace it with other protein. On similar utilitarian grounds, I’ll eat meat when it maximizes happiness. It would’ve caused me more “suffering” to wait 4 more hours to eat something on this road-trip than it would have to eat part of a chicken that was dead long before I deliberated over whether or not to order it.

It’s also acceptable for vegetarians to eat meat on utilitarian grounds if otherwise-edible meat is going to waste, to be “enjoyed” only by bugs and microbes: I’ve no problem eating it instead. I will enjoy it much more than microbes will.

I desire to contribute to net demand for meat as little as possible. This is something we should all strive for. It’s not necessary to eat meat in order to live healthily, and it’s the most ethical choice.

Until next time,

Dave

Center for Inquiry: CFI Student Leadership Conference 2012!

Last weekend, I attended the 2012 CFI Student Leadership Conference in Buffalo, New York with my fellow Secular Student Alliance intern, Ellen Lundgren.

I want to tell you about the talks themselves, but even more so, I want you to understand why it’s so important for student leaders to attend these conferences.

It’s about a 6-hour drive from Columbus, so we left right after work last Wednesday, and listened to lots of Fiona Apple’s newest album along the way.

The two CFI summer interns (one of whom, Tony Lakey, is actually also the president of my student group back in Missouri) were kind enough to let us stay with them the first night, and we had a lot of fun playing chess and eating veggie chik’n nuggets.

Over the following three days, I reconnected with some great people I had not seen in person since the conference last year, and others that I saw at the SSA conference last summer as well. These are some of the brightest people I have ever known, and some of the best critical thinkers. The best part is, they are also creative rule-breakers when it comes to thinking. This is especially relevant for the workshops, when we do brainstorming activities.

Late-night chess with Tony Lakey

If you’ve never been to Niagara Falls, it’s astonishing. There is something about very large things that makes you feel—well, small. It changes your perspective to look at something like that. Part of me says, “It’s water & rocks… okay…” But when you realize how quickly those water & rocks could kill you—not to anthropomorphize, but without a pause or care, and that they have been going for about 11,000 years—it makes you feel very awed. A group of us went on Thursday afternoon while everyone was trickling in for the first talks on Thursday evening.

The first of us to Niagara Falls!
The view from the observation deck.

That night, there was a welcome toast, a presentation about what exactly CFI does by Lauren Becker, a talk about the past, present, and future of CFI by the wonderful Debbie Goddard, a panel about CFI’s history, and Jessica Ahlquist also gave her talk. You can see the full schedule here.

I’m actually not going to talk much more about the talks themselves. The videos will be online soon, as I understand it, and I’m going to leave that to other bloggers. I want you to understand what’s so important about actually attending these conferences in person.

The friends I have made by physically attending the CFI conferences last year (my first) and this year are some of the most important and close people in my life, even though for many of them, I have only seen them in person once or twice. If you have ever been on a retreat or to summer camp or anything like that, you know what I mean. Spending 84 hours straight without someone—sharing your meals, living with them, hanging out at night—is going to make you close. In fact, for the last night, many of us didn’t even bother sleeping, since our sleep schedules were so backwards by then. Half the fun of conferences is staying up half (or all) night, talking about your backgrounds, learning what other groups are doing, getting to know each other, but more just getting to that place of understanding that there are other atheists just like you. It may not feel like we’re the majority, and in many places, we’re not. But for our generation, roughly 1/3 of people say it is false that they never doubt the existence of a god. These figures are growing rapidly, and with a passion. It’s becoming harder and harder for young people to believe whatever their parents tell them, because young people are no longer being brought up in isolation from the rest of the world, thanks to things like Wikipedia, Reddit, Facebook, even blogs like this one.

I waited a year to come out of the closet as an atheist because I didn’t know anyone else who was openly an atheist. I was dumbstruck when I first met someone who had no problem saying the word. In her case, she was not an activist about it; she was more what I’d call an apatheist, or a pragmatic atheist. But that moment was life-changing for me: Knowing that it was possible to call oneself an atheist, without feeling ashamed, was inspiring.

And that is how I feel about attending conferences. An entire audience full of people who feel that way, learning how to run their student groups more efficiently and effectively, and getting to know each other. One of the people I’d consider among my best friends, Ellen (the founder of this blog), is someone whom I met at the CFI conference last year, for example. Her work with her group at Grand Valley State University has been inspiring to my group at Mizzou, as well. And now we are interning together for the Secular Student Alliance, which is a dream come true for both of us. The best part is, there are literally dozens of people I could have used as examples in this paragraph of great friends I have made, who are very dear to me. I felt so very lonely for so long as a closeted atheist, and it is a feeling I do not feel anymore. Maybe this is revealing of what a bad writer I am ;) but I can’t tell you in words how grateful of my circumstances I am to be freed of that. Life is better now!

If you are a student and an atheist, and you have never attended a student leadership conference, you simply MUST do so. Today (Sunday) is the last chance to register for the Secular Student Alliance annual leadership conference on July 6-8 in Columbus, OH. Please, please register! You will be so glad you attended, I can’t even tell you. And if that’s not enough for you, you can also attend Skepticon 5, the largest free conference ever, in Springfield, Missouri on November 9-11.

I’m just going to wrap this up with some more pictures from Buffalo, because I took a lot, and I think they can say it better than I can. I hope you all have a wonderful weekend!

Jessica Ahlquist's birthday cake!
Far right: SASHA president Tony Lakey one of the panel discussions
Heathen books!
Debbie Goddard serenades us in the evening
Atheist students learn how to be atheist student leaders
Your author with the founder of Skeptic Freethought, Ellen Lundgren
L-R: Aaron Underwood (SASHA Director of Events), Damon Fowler, Tony Lakey (SASHA President), Ellen Lundgren, and I (taking photo) stayed up all night to watch the sunrise.

And last but not least, one of my favorite photos from the weekend…

Light painting "CFI" with glow-sticks!

See you at the SSA conference next weekend, and at CFI next year!

 

“If there’s no God, what would stop me from raping & killing you?”

Hello all,

Dave here. Roughly every week while the weather is nice, SASHA does an Ask an Atheist table on the University of Missouri campus. We get asked a lot of questions, sometimes serious, sometimes not. This isn’t a terribly common one, but it comes up enough that it’s worth mentioning, and it’s terrifying enough that I feel compelled to discuss it.

SASHA members Seth & James answer Mizzou students' questions

The question generally goes something like this: “If there are no consequences, what’s stopping you from killing people?”

When I hear this question, it scares the shit out of me. The purpose of this post today is to convince you that it should scare the shit out of you, too.

When someone asks this question, it tells me something about the way their mind works. Specifically, it tells me that I am very likely talking to a sociopath. A sociopath, somewhat synonymously known as someone with antisocial personality disorder, is someone who, among other things, lacks a conscience or a sense of empathy. Sociopaths are often said to “use” people, in that they care about others only insofar as they can get something out of it, often in a calculating and “cold” manner. They can be friendly, charismatic even, and have mastered the ability to appear normal. There is a classic work in this field with a title that fits perfectly: The Mask of Sanity by Harvey Cleckley. If you’ve seen the movie “American Psycho” with Christian Bale, you are somewhat familiar with some of the classic signs. The lead character plays a Wall Street suit who lacks empathy.

Sociopaths do not feel guilt. That doesn’t mean they commit any act they desire, though. They are not mentally separated from reality. Rather, they are acutely aware of social consequences and legal consequences and game theoretical consequences; they are just not motivated to act morally by any other internal drive that the rest of us have. They understand that if they kill someone and are caught, they will go to jail. They understand that if they cheat on their taxes, or their partners, or their term papers—and they are caught—there are consequences. They just have no problem doing such things when they feel very confident that they will not be caught.

The National Institutes of Health estimates that 0.6% of people have antisocial personality disorder. Assuming my campus at the University of Missouri—Columbia contains a representative sample (it almost certainly doesn’t—a lot of sociopaths end up in jail), out of 36,000 students, that means about 215 people simply lack empathy. It’s not impossible that I’ve spoken to a few of them during my 2 years of doing Ask-an-Atheist tabling.

When I’m asked this question, I could try to explain something about the fact that there ARE consequences for our actions—that if you raped and killed me, you would almost certainly be caught, and go to prison. Your career would be ruined, your family crushed, your friendships over and your relationships gone. But that’s not the kind of thing you say to someone who has just said something like the title of this article to you.

In my experience, there is really only one good way to answer this question. I say to them the following:

“If your belief that you might be punished after you die is the only thing keeping you from raping and killing me or anyone else, then I have no interest in trying to convince you that your god is imaginary. Someone who only forgoes needless evil on the basis of possible consequences is called a sociopath, and I have no interest in dying today. Keep your beliefs, please just keep them away from me.”

I also want to point out that this really doesn’t have anything to do with whether God exists or not, but rather whether hell exists or not. There is an important distinction. A lot of Christians seem to have trouble separating their belief in God from their belief in an afterlife. You can believe in one and not the other, and an argument in favor of God is not an argument in favor of an afterlife necessarily, and vice versa.

Until next time!

– Dave

Smart Giving: Why You Should Donate To The Secular Student Alliance

Disclosure: I’m an intern at the Secular Student Alliance this summer. The opinions below are my own and do not necessarily represent those of the SSA.

Hello, Dave here.

I’m going to come straight out and say it. You should donate to the Secular Student Alliance. Right now. I’m serious. Get out your wallet and set it on the table beside you. Have a credit card? Get it out. Have a bill in your wallet? Get it out. We’re going to do something here with it in a second.

I want you to take your credit card out of your wallet and look at it (or, if you have cash, take it out and look at it).

I want you to think of all the things you’ve bought in the last week.

Gasoline? Coffee? Gum? Cigarettes? Soda? Beer? Went out to eat?

I just got back from the store. Here’s a list of things I’ve bought in the past two hours:

– Two bottles of wine: $30 (not on receipt because I got them at a different store)
– A bath sheet: $20
– A corkscrew: $10
– A fancy can opener: $18
– A box of trash bags: $8
– A big jar of peanut butter: $7
– Two jars of jam: $5
– A package of hangers:  $5
– Some mouthwash: $5
– A little candle with a holder: $4

All of this together is over $100. Now, if I were to ask myself, which is more important to me? Wine? A fancy can opener? or the Secular Student Alliance?

Every time, without fail, I would choose the SSA.

Except that I *didn’t* choose the SSA; I chose the fancy can opener. I guess that’s not “without fail.”

I want you to look at your credit card, or the cash you got out, and ask yourself: “What is the highest and best use of this money?”

The Secular Student Alliance is doing the most important work I have seen in the world. I am not just saying this. I’m studying economics & anthropology at Mizzou, and I’m interested in non-profit efficiency and smart giving. I care about a lot of causes. I care about feminism, and poverty alleviation, and reproductive rights, and LGBTQ rights, and vegetarianism & animal welfare. But I chose to work with the SSA because I think this is the most important cause, and the most urgent cause.

We are empowering students toward a secular future. A better future. A science-fiction future with flying cars and weekend trips to the moon and people living to their 200th birthday. Prosperous countries trading instead of fighting. When we focus our attention on being good critical thinkers, we solve problems. Like the bumper sticker says, “Two hands working accomplish more than 1,000 clasped in prayer.” The SSA works with students because students are our best hope for the future.

I want you to read this post by my boss, Lyz Liddell. It’s called “The Unstoppable Secular Students.” I mentioned “smart giving” above. That means using critical thinking when deciding where to donate. It means asking questions and making sure your money is being put not just to good use, but the best use.

The problem with this, from a non-profit’s perspective, is that when people think critically about donating, they tend to donate less. Emotions can take over people’s donation behavior and when people aren’t asking questions, it’s easy to get them to donate. I want you to do the opposite of what most people do. I want you to think critically, realize that the SSA is the doing the best work you could ask of a non-profit, and donate more. I want you to donate as much as you possibly can. I want you to do this because I have done my homework, and I know how important this is and how good of a job the SSA is doing. I know how understaffed the SSA is and how much its people care. And most importantly, I know that they are getting stuff DONE, I know how much they need every dollar you can spare to keep doing it.

Smart giving doesn’t mean giving less. It means choosing a great, efficient, and productive charity, and giving all that you can. If you care about secular issues, the SSA is what you’re looking for.

What are you going to buy tomorrow that you don’t really need? Don’t do it. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance today instead. We can make this happen with your help.

So, your wallet that is sitting out. Let’s do this. We can do it together. The $100 I spent today on crap I don’t need? I’m officially pledging another $100 to the SSA, right here, right now. And I want you to do the same. If $20 is all you can manage, donate $20. And because of Jeff Hawkins & Janet Strauss’s matching $250,000 donation offer, your $20 magically multiples into $40. Do it. Donate, because the SSA is important, and that’s worth caring about.

– Dave

Ellen says:

Remember, here are some ways to pledge:

1.  Pledge per word (.01¢ per word is suggested).

2.  Pledge per post (24 throughout the day).

3.  Pledge per thing you’ve learned.  If a post teaches you something new, you donate your pledge amount.

4.  Bid to torture. Have a crafty challenge for me? Something new to make into crochet? Some sick geometric origami? Whatever you do, don’t make me go outside and do… things… like… …exercise. I will hate you. But if you bid enough, I might do it.

5. And always bid for crochet Cthulhu’s and FSM’s! They will be available throughout the week, and any that are not auctioned will be for sale near the end.

So if you need any more reasons to donate, stick around. I’m here all day.

This is post 19/24 of Ellen’s Blogathon in support of the Secular Student Alliance. Donate here!

Student groups, keep strong during summer!

This post originally appeared on the Humanist Community Project at Harvard‘s blog.

Hello all!

Dave Muscato here again with more practical advice for running your humanist group.

Today’s article is intended mostly for student group leaders, but I hope that non-student humanist groups will also find useful advice here.

So your semester is over, and you’ve wrapped up all of your group’s official business for the year. Does that mean your group goes on hiatus until the fall? Most certainly not! Summer is an ideal time for your group members to get to know each other on a more personal level, and to do types of activities that you don’t have time for during the year. The best part is, these activities don’t necessarily require much expense nor planning.

It’s likely that, as a student group, your meeting attendance will contract over the summer. That’s fine; contract with it! Instead of reserving a lecture hall or classroom each week, try meeting in a coffee shop, or playing pool, or going on a group bike ride on a local trail, or seeing a movie together and then chatting about it over dinner afterwards. Have a game night at someone’s apartment. Go to the local zoo. Try that new vegan restaurant. GO TO CONFERENCES TOGETHER. Try some touristy activities in your town or on a field trip to nearby towns. Go to an art show, or the ballet, or a rock concert.

In our group, SASHA, one of our members & former officers, Jeremy Locke, has been doing an amazing job of this: If you, as a group leader, are planning to spend the afternoon at a coffeeshop reading, don’t do it alone! Make an event invitation via your Facebook group or web calendar, and invite group members to join you for conversation. Even if only 2 or 3 members show up, it helps keep your group on your members’ minds. Name these events something official-sounding, like “[Group Name] Summer Event #1: Coffee at Java Joe’s” so that your members know a series of these are forthcoming. And keep it up!

The key to summer success is consistency. Make sure you have lots of events going on throughout the week, every week. These need not be noteworthy affairs; in fact it can be preferable if they’re not. It’s more important to keep your group going by having something going every single week. In 3.5-year history of our group, we have yet to miss a weekly gathering, even if it was just a handful of us playing pool, or going out to a local bar, and this has worked very well for us. Of course, if you have 20 people RSVP to your Facebook event for hanging out at a coffee shop, it makes more sense to start planning larger get-togethers, but summer is a great time to play things by ear, feel out your group’s preferences for activities later in the semester, and really build genuine friendships with people you may not have had much opportunity to bond with during the semester.

Your group is a great resource for friendships, not just between officers and members, but between members, too. I have seen relationships spring from like-minded people meeting among our members, and it makes my heart happy. Make use of this opportunity. The people you meet with and bond with during your college years are going to be in your memory–if not your active correspondence–for a lifetime. Make sure your group has as many opportunities to socialize during this downtime as possible.

In my next article, I will talk about what you can be doing to help prepare for your fall semester during the summer months. Until next time!

– Dave Muscato

The contents and opinions of this article are my own and do not necessarily represent the position of the Secular Student Alliance.