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Guest Writer

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Martin Luther King Jr. – Church Critic and Religious Skeptic

The origin of morality is a popular topic among both religious believers and skeptics. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed a religious debate where this point has failed to come up. Many religious people, especially Christians, view the existence of a moral code as compelling evidence of their God’s existence, and will often reference the robust moral convictions of famous religious leaders to support that claim.

The most common contemporary example is Martin Luther King Jr., a revered Baptist minister and civil rights leader. King graduated high school at the age of 15 and, after earning two bachelor’s degrees, was awarded a PhD in systematic theology from Boston University in 1955. During that time he served as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, and became an outspoken proponent of the American civil rights movement.  In 1964, King became the youngest person to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 35. King was a Christian leader who undoubtedly possessed a strong moral compass. However, it isn’t at all clear that his moral convictions arose from his religion.

In fact, MLK often boldly condemned the actions of the Christian Church.  As Jeff Nall points out in his profile of King’s religious beliefs, MLK roundly criticized many forms of organized religion, not only for its failure to support racial and economic equality (calling it Christianity’s “everlasting shame”), but also for its explicit support of war and violence.  King noted:

In a world gone mad with arms buildups, chauvinistic passions, and imperialistic exploitation, the church has either endorsed these activities or remained appallingly silent. During the last two world wars, national churches even functioned as the ready lackeys of the state, sprinkling holy water upon the battleships and joining the mighty armies in singing, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.” A weary world, pleading desperately for peace, has often found the church morally sanctioning war.

Nall also points out that MLK was a strong supporter of church/state separation. Regarding the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that school-sponsored prayer is unconstitutional, King said:

I endorse it. I think it was correct. Contrary to what many have said, it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in God. In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken, and by whom? Legally, constitutionally, or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right. I am strongly opposed to the efforts that have been made to nullify the decision.

But King didn’t limit his criticism to the church; he was also openly skeptical of the very foundations of Christan doctrine. Despite being the son of a Baptist minister, MLK challenged traditional views of Christianity and the literal interpretation of scripture from a very young age.  As Robert James Scofield describes in his profile of Martin Luther King Jr.’s religious doubts:

His entrance into Christianity at the age of six came from neither a genuine religious conviction nor a crisis moment; rather, he saw his sister make the altar call during a local religious revival and quickly followed suit. He claimed that during his baptism he had no idea what was occurring. Perhaps most striking was his denial of the bodily resurrection of Jesus during Sunday school at the age of thirteen. From this point he stated […in his Biography], “doubts began to spring forth unrelentingly.”

Those doubts were reinforced as King continued to explore the foundations of Christianity.  In a paper he wrote in 1949, King examined the psychological and historical origins of three foundational concepts of Christianity: The divinity of Jesus, his virgin birth, and his resurrection. While his analysis is worth reading in full, I’ll give away the punchline by telling you that King begins by stating, “these doctrines are historically and philolophically [sic] untenable.” He goes on to strip these stories of their literal meaning, and explore what it was about both the historical Jesus and the sociopolitical environment in which early Christianity was spreading that might have led to the propagation of such obvious inconsistencies and falsehoods as those found in the Bible.

King went on to exhibit other forms of skepticism about mainstream Christian doctrine, and even warned that it may be harmful. In 1950, King wrote a paper titled “The Humanity and Divinity of Jesus,” where he states:

The orthodox attempt to explain the divinity of Jesus in terms of an inherent metaphysical substance within him seems to me quite inadequate. To say that the Christ, whose example of living we are bid to follow, is divine in an ontological sense is actually harmful and detrimental. To invest this Christ with such supernatural qualities makes the rejoinder: “Oh, well, he had a better chance for that kind of life than we can possibly have …” So that the orthodox view of the divinity of Christ is in my mind quite readily denied. The significance of the divinity of Christ lies in the fact that his achievement is prophetic and promissory for every other true son of man who is willing to submit his will to the will and spirit of God. Christ was to be only the prototype of one among many brothers.

The appearance of such a person, more divine and more human than any other, andstanding [sic] and standing in closest unity at once with God and man, is the most significant and hopeful event in human history. This divine quality or this unity with God was not something thrust upon Jesus from above, but it was a definite achievement through the process of moral struggle and self-abnegation. [Emphasis mine.]

In other words, King’s saw Christ’s “divinity” to have arisen through his good works, not because of his particular relationship to a deity. In this sense, it seems MLK is using an external definition of morality to evaluate Christ’s behaviors.

This is a reflection of what’s known as “The Euthyphro Dilemma,” which asks if something is good simply because it is God’s will, or if God wills something because it is good. Briefly, if the first statement is true, then morality is arbitrary, and anything a god does cannot, by definition, be immoral. Moral behavior therefore becomes a synonym for “God’s actions.”  However, if the second is true, then morality is independent of any gods, and therefore can’t be used as evidence of said gods.

As a secular humanist and an atheist, I believe that the foundations of morality are rooted in a concern for human welfare and are completely independent of religious belief. Martin Luther King Jr.’s opinions and writings suggest that he would agree with me.

 

Atheism, Mental Illness, and Coping

I want to preface this piece a little bit. I originally wrote it several months ago, when the storm of blogging about mental illness was just getting started among the popular atheist community bloggers, as an argument for why Skepticism should pick up mental illness as a talking point. We’ve seen Jen McCreight and Greta Christina come out and discuss mental illness, JT Eberhard give a tearjerker talk at Skepticon IV, and many others come out to our community (including your own Ellen Lundgren). So while I may have missed the boat a little bit, it is never too late to discuss something which afflicts a very significant portion of the population, claiming many of those lives as well.

I don’t suffer from mental illness, but I’ve become intimately acquainted with it in many folks whom I love and care for, and they deserve my help and support. So, color me an advocate.


Time and time again, when dealing with socially defined taboos – and the groups of people directly affected by them – we see that closets with closed doors leave the isolated in the dark. And in combating this, we’ve seen various movements towards yanking these closet doors wide open within the skeptic & atheist, LGBTQ, and mental health communities. As is often discussed (here by Greta Christina), the relationships between and, albeit partial, intertwinement of the LGBTQ and atheist movements have offered both groups new and effective coping mechanisms. Atheists have learned how to come out of their closets and into the streets in droves, and the LGBTQ community has been offered more prominent humanistic perspectives and secular reasoning to add to their, and everyone’s, arsenal for why people with non-heteronormative sexualities deserve to be treated as humans. Sufferers of mental illness deserve this same support network, and it’s time for secularism to help blow the doors off the closet of neurochemical imbalances.

Psychological studies have shown that, in later life, depression and psychological decline can be abated by the presence of religious influence1. In their review, “Religion and depression in later life,” Braam et al. found that late-life religiousness mostly negatively correlates with depressive symptoms, and the association is more pronounced in elderly Americans in poor health. Further, they outline four dimensions of religiousness which may affect psychological states, to varying degrees: cognitive – beliefs and convictions, affective – spirituality and religious trust, behavioural – church attendance and private practices, and motivational – personal importance. It is clear that cognitive and affective religiousness can directly influence psychological states related to depressive moods, and the social support networks present in religious communities are exactly why so many skeptical people within churches fear the dive away. And once depressed, it’s possible for affected individuals to positively influence remission through religious salience.1

So how does secularism even begin to touch that? It’s often argued that even if beliefs and hopes are false, they should be left alone if people find personal comfort in them; PZ Myers will be one of the first to say that false hopes are socially damaging and should be avoided (he noted this in a panel discussion at the University of Minnesota in 2011), but how can atheism work to replace the documented positive effects of religiousness in certain mental health patients? We start by talking about the origins of mental illness, delusions, and neurodegeneration in reality-based, scientific terms.

The mind/body duality, as well as allusions to divine intervention, promoted by various religions and philosophies over the centuries are intrinsically damaging to the acceptance and treatment of mental illness. Colloquially known as the “it’s all in your head” falsehood, the concept of mental illness as being separated or excluded from obvious physical illness is cemented by the very idea of separation between the psyche and the body. Depression, social anxiety, and the hosts of other neural misfires from which many of us suffer, are rooted in neurobiology and neurophysiology – but so are the emergent properties of the “mind”, e.g. consciousness and self-awareness. So, the sooner the secular movement stabs at this duality misconception within the context of recognizing mental illnesses as physical diseases, the sooner taboos are killed and closets are emptied.

For the social-network savvy younger generations, taking the plunge and admitting to suffering from mental health issues, without the motivational benefits of religiousness, is less difficult than for those of greater generations. And to address the issues of mental health, false hopes, and atheism at more advanced ages could prove exceedingly hairy due to familial and social implications. The existence of religious community and support networks justifies addressing these issues at such a pivotal time in the human condition, and yeah, we atheists have those too. So with such a plethora of safety nets at our backs, why not start addressing mental illness from a secular perspective – at any age? Especially considering that “atheistic belief-based coping can be as effective as religious belief-based coping in helping individuals adapt to various issues that accompany ageing and old age”.2 In their findings from a case study pairing 11 subjects with strong atheistic beliefs with 8 strongly religious subjects, Wilkinson and Coleman write the following:

“Considering Dawkins’s four traditional functions of religious belief [explanation, guidance, consolation, and inspiration], [-], this study provides some evidence that a strong atheistic belief system fulfils [sic] the same role in people’s lives as a strong religious belief system in terms of the explanations, moral guidance, consolation and inspiration that beliefs bring. While science has arguably long surpassed any religion’s explanation of life and the universe, and while man’s moral nature is beginning to be examined in terms of evolutionary psychology, Dawkins admits that religion may trump an atheist’s worldview when it comes to issues of consolation (Dawkins 2006). He no more than suggests that an atheistic outlook on life is just as inspiring as a religious one, if not more so (Dawkins 1998, 2006). Virtually all the interviewed atheists at some point mentioned how inspiring they find science and that their understanding of one’s infinitesimally small position in material reality helped them transcend their own problems.”

If religion truly trumps atheism in the consolation and comfort of mental illness patients, it is only through external consolation and the deportation of control and personal influence. In accepting our depressions, our anxieties, and our personality disorders as physical ailments of the brain, we’re rejecting the religiously-enforced idea that there is something metaphysical about our minds – that there is an impassible gap between our bodies and the roots of mental illness. In discussing mental illness and coping mechanisms within the secular movement, we’re creating a safe space for affected individuals outside of organized religions. And in offering up our communities and compassion to closeted sufferers of mental illness, atheists can protect and advocate for yet another bloc of misinterpreted, misunderstood, and mislabeled people.

Sources

  1. Braam, A. W., Beekman, A. T. F., and van Tilburg, W. Religion and depression in later life. Current Opinion in Psychiatry. Volume 12(4), July 1999, pp. 471-475.
  2. Wilkinson, P. J., and Coleman, P. G. Strong beliefs and coping in old age: a case-based comparison of atheism and religious faith. Ageing & Society, Cambridge University Press. Volume 30, 2010, pp. 337-361.

And now, if you will, a Metaphor….

Imagine a massive ship filled with many sailors…

At some time, a rumor began spreading amongst all the people that the boat was heading towards an island that was unbelievably amazing; an island where all the normal laws of reality were suspended and ultimate, endless bliss would enrapture them forever. Many of the sailors took so much joy from this thought that they began ignoring their duties on the ship, doing little more than staring out on the horizon and waiting for the island to appear. Many others did indeed continue their day-to-day tasks on the ship, helping to keep it clean and such, but they constantly talked about the island. It was their obsession, their passion, and their pride. Groups and sub-groups formed around different ideas of what the island would be like. Some thought it would be tropical, others temperate, and still others thought it would have every climate imaginable for all people to enjoy. Arguments sprang up over what sorts of foods would be present on the island!

At various times, different sailors would hold out their spyglasses and shout aloud “I see it! I see the island there!” and many would swell with enthusiasm…that is, until it was revealed that the crier had seen wrong (or, on occasion, even outright lied). Despite all these false alarms and misplaced swells of hope, the vast majority of the sailors kept believing, to the point of certainty, that the island was just over the next wave.

Eventually, almost all of the sailors took to ignoring the present duties of ship-board life and chose to stare out on the horizon with their own spyglasses, each on certain that they could see the island in the distance (despite some of them looking in utterly opposite directions). Indeed, there were many heated arguments, but one thing every one of them could agree on was this: regardless of exactly where it was or what it was like, that perfect island was definitely out there, somewhere. It just had to be.

One day, one of the sailors climbed up to the top of the mast and found two other sailors there, arguing.

“I think the island will be temperate!” said the first. “It will be temperate, I tell you!”

“Ah, but you’re mistaken, friend. It will be tropical!” said the second. “I guarantee you, for I can see it!” he continued, holding his spyglass aloft.

“Fool!” shouted the first. “I can see it, and it is, in fact, quite temperate!”

At that point, the third sailor (who had just climbed up) yanked the spyglasses from both others and told them this:

“Actually, friends, you’re both mistaken. If you’ll just look right here,” he said, gesturing to the ends of their spyglasses, “you’ll see that you each just drew what you wanted the island to be like on the glass. You were never actually seeing the island; you just painted what you wanted to see and thus saw it in your own imagination. Now if you’ll just look without these faulty spyglasses, you’ll quickly see that there is no island; in fact, there never was an island. However, what we do have is an amazing ship with everything you could ever really want already on it. There are lots of other people onboard, too. You can get to know them, make friends, find lovers, and have wonderful conversations. You can learn, eat, relax, work, and overall have a merry life aboard this ship if you’ll only just stop obsessing over this island you came up with.”

“But the island is supposed to be perfect!” cried the first sailor.

“Indeed! Perfect!” shouted the second, both of them clearly distraught at this news.

“Ah, but that is exactly why it doesn’t exist, friends,” said the third sailor. He reached out and put his hands on their shoulders: “Nothing perfect is out there. I’ll admit it, this ship is sometimes leaky and some of the other people aboard aren’t too terribly pleasant. But I think you’ll find that once you stop daydreaming about perfection and start happily working with what you do have, you’ll find yourselves much happier.”

Behold, our ship

Now, guess which sailor was the Atheist…

Skepticon and the True Believer

My trip to Skepticon was delightful. Good friends, great presentations, and lots of thought provoking discussions with the attendees. The only cloud on the whole experience, speaking for myself, was the brouhaha over a local restaurant refusing to serve the convention’s participants on the grounds of their non-religious status. While the owner of this “Christian Business” did eventually apologize, the episode left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.  But what struck me the most was my own reaction.

To paraphrase Greta Christina, many religious people, especially Christians, have a nasty habit when confronted with injustice enacted by members of their faith. This habit is to brush the incident aside with an, “Oh, that’s not the True Faith,” and leave the matter there. What this says to their conversational partner is that they’re far more concerned about their own reputation than the injustice innocent people have suffered.

I have to admit that I also have this habit. When I heard about this incident, my first internal reaction was: “That man calls himself a Christian?  Hardly, a real Christian wouldn’t do that.” A moment of reflection (and Ms. Christina’s timely words) suggested to me that I was being just as dismissive of this man as he was towards my friends. “True Faith” is a term that gets thrown around a lot, but it hasn’t been since this year that I’ve given any serious thought to what that means. Apart from the fact that there are thousands (upon thousands) of versions of my own religion, you can find plenty of discord and descent within almost any of those versions. What level of arrogance does it take to sate that my own interpretation is ‘the’ correct one? Or that my “True Faith” makes me more of a human being, entitled to greater privilege, than the rest of the population?

Additionally, using a term like “True Faith” usually only serves as a disavowal of responsibility. It’s very comforting to believe oneself an enlightened individual immune to prejudice or flawed reasoning. It’s also egotistical and apathetic towards the plight of others. The world we live in is a far cry from heaven on earth. What’s worse, many horrific acts are carried out every day in heaven’s name. The victims of these acts aren’t concerned with whether or not they’re representative of our own belief system, or the history of doctrinal divergence. We need to stop trying to absolve ourselves, god, and the Church of the charge of moral depravity through empty words and complacent behavior. We have a responsibility, not as the few, lucky, chosen of god, but as human beings, to fight discrimination and and injustice wherever we find it.  So many Christians ask themselves what they’ll say about their life when they stand before god, what can we say to our fellow human beings if we ignore their suffering? What can we possibly say in defense of ourselves for tolerating bigotry and ignorance? “It’s not the True Faith,” isn’t good enough.

__________

Jaime Wise is a devoted member of Center for Inquiry on Campus at Grand Valley State University where she is studying Writing and English and continues to be a model of rationality and tolerance from within the Christian faith. She has defined herself as a Christian Humanist and has started a theology sub-committee of CFI GVSU to discuss matters of Theology from outside the usual Christian context.

A Question Posed by an Increasingly Concerned Christian

Given the angry rants of “Brother Jed”, the extremist Christian who dropped in on GVSU campus for a friendly reminder that we all deserve hell, a silent protest seemed like a great idea. What better way to counteract a vicious hate-speech than showing up with positive messages; a simple reminder that there was an alternative on campus? I showed up to the protest hoping to support my friends and classmates, and I admit, poke fun the crazy guy with the weird staff. But the day didn’t go like I planned. After significantly less than an hour, I was so overwhelmed by the fascistic ramblings of this man and his cronies, that I excused myself and went home. I retreated to my nice, comfortable house, sat on my nice, comfortable couch, had a nice, comfortable afternoon, but I felt horrible. More than horrible. I was ashamed of myself.

Anyone who knows me can tell you I frequently and proudly declare that I’m not a religious extremist. They could also tell you that if asked what I am I get a lot more vague. In my entire life I have done next to nothing to provide any constructive contribution to a discussion of faith and its practice in the world we live in. What’s worse, I don’t think I’m the only one. I’ve begun to notice a disturbing trend among many of my peers in the religious world.

People practically trip over themselves to dissociate from thinkers like Rob Bell for broaching the idea that the traditionally accepted idea of Hell might not be as sound as previously thought. But we seem alarmingly nonchalant about extremists being our loudest voices. Why do we preach toleration towards angry fascists while rejecting anyone who challenges us to examine ourselves? Why are we content to let ignorance represent the church? What do we think will happen to the church if we sit on our hands and pretend nothing is wrong? What (if you pardon the expression) in hell is going on here?

__________

Jaime Wise is a devoted member of Center for Inquiry on Campus at Grand Valley State University where she is studying Writing and English and continues to be a model of rationality and tolerance from within the Christian faith. She has recently defined herself as a Christian Humanist and has started a theology sub-committee of CFI GVSU to discuss these matters among others.

 

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.

 

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.

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.

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.

Want to make your life as a campus group leader a whole lot easier? Read this.

You have a great event idea– you have the funds needed, picked the perfect date and have started writing a press release. Everything is just freaking awesome! Until your university finds out.

Suddenly you have miles beyond miles of red tape to work through. Those assholes! How dare they make your life infinitely more difficult with all their silly rules and regulations?!

We’ve all been there. While we all get that paperwork and the likes are in place for a reason, dealing with university authorities can be a hassle, to say the least. However, it’s important to maintain a good relationship with these people, no matter how stupid you think the hoops they make you jump through are.

It is inevitable that at some point during your school year, as a group leader, you will have to interact with these people, be it in person or over email. Below are a few tips to keep in mind while doing so, to make your life easier and to make the people who grant you permission, happier.

1. Know how your university works. For example, at my school, you need several forms filled out and signed by officers for fundraising, to spend money, to hold an event, to travel somewhere, or to breath (practically). While it can get annoying, I’ve made myself knowledgeable about each and every form so whenever I need to do something, I know where to start.

2. They’re busy too. While it can be incredibly annoying to have to run around getting a bazillion different forms signed in between classes and a job, keep in mind that whatever university officials you’re dealing with manage this process everyday- with hundreds of students orgs. It’s stressful for EVERYONE.

3. Kiss up. Hello! Being the teachers pet works. Each university handles things differently– maybe you’re lucky enough to only need a single signature, or maybe your every move is monitored. Either way, try to kiss a little you-know-what. Do they need to find a certain phone number, or get a form faxed over to your speaker? Offer to do it for them. By going above and beyond during the legwork of your event, or even just being willing to do so, your group will be remembered as incredibly helpful, which will benefit you at some point- I guarantee it.

4. Give everyone enough time. As soon as you know details, fill out whatever paperwork you need to. Don’t wait! Give any university office plenty of time to process things. Not only will this cut down on stress levels for everyone, but they’ll be grateful, meaning next time, when you DO wait until the last minute (on accident, of course) they’ll be more willing to cut you some slack.

Every school is different, which means only you know what works best for your group during the beginning processes of an event, but by being responsible and doing things the right way no matter what those things are, you’re likely to build bridges, and not burn them.