Category Archives: Opinion

News Opinion Religion

Religious Intolerance

guest post by Brian Schmied

Nobody is quite as good at intolerance toward religions as other religions. It makes sense when you think about it. Secular people aren’t worried about becoming the collateral damage in a violent fit of divine jealousy, and they don’t worry about their children turning away from the light and burning in eternal hellfire.

Religions don’t like to mix, and they do a great job of worming their way into public policy to either violently suppress diversity or keep it out entirely. The obvious modern day examples are traditionally Muslim nations, which either punish formerly Islamic apostates with the death penalty, or do a terrible job of preventing vigilantes from carrying it out, depending on how progressive their legal system is.

It’s deeply unfair to limit this discussion to Islam, however. If you’re looking to be persecuted for your religious convictions, you don’t need to board an airplane. Radical and genocidal American strains of Christianity are surprisingly comparable.

Imagine you are a Muslim American officer attending a military school and ending up in this class. American military officers have been taught to believe that nuclear genocide of Muslims is not only an option, but necessary for American security. That is not an exaggeration.

The U.S military headquarters, the Pentagon, hosts a Christian Embassy, to better help America’s top military personnel defer their decisions to deeply unqualified, glorified shamans. Given such evidence, Mickey Weinstein’s assertion, “…that a Christian Taliban is running the military.” doesn’t seem so absurd anymore.

As much as these big religions hate each other, nothing gives them the heebie-jeebies quite so much as new religions. Small and strange religions evoke an interesting reaction among the adherents to culturally mainstream superstitions.

In our Christian society, it is very interesting how black and white some things are to the culture. To them, David Miscavige could just as easily be a Wiccan or a Satanist. It’s all boils down to the same Satan worship to them. Never mind that the official Church of Satan is atheistic and doesn’t believe in the existence of Satan, or a god, or any other supernatural things, and certainly doesn’t worship anything.

It’s a very strong Sith versus Jedi mentality that completely shuts down thought and examination. Earlier this year, conservative writer gave voice to the general bafflement among Christians. Raymond Ibrahim wondered aloud about the world’s complete lack of reaction to some anti-Christian mobs in Egypt, which he interprets as an official declaration of war by 1.4 billion Muslims against all of Christendom.

Never mind the 120,000 corpses in Iraq. Never mind that Afghani death tolls are not reported. Of course the U.S military, which has long struggled with the inordinate influence of fundamentalist Christians, couldn’t possibly be motivated to commit war crimes by Christian anti-Islamic sentiment.

On the one hand we have an angry religious mob attacking “non-believers” in their community, and on the other we have a global military network full of religious zealots with a budget nearly the size of Russia’s GDP conquering and occupying entire nations with blatantly made up excuses about WMD’s.

It’s hard to tell if the religious people are using the government to kill their enemies or if the politicians are wielding religion to motivate people to kill in their political interest.

 

Brian Schmied studied political science. He enjoys learning and writing about religions, politics, and the mayhem that ensues wherever they intersect.

Current Events Opinion Science

Economics and What? A Response to Rob Johnson.

Many economist’s only job is to model reality. This means that they must make certain assumptions to make their models practical. A model airplane that can fly and carry passengers ceases to be a model. Apparently, the modeling nature of economics is lost on one of its most senior practitioners, and critics. Rob Johnson, currently president of the “Institute for New Economic Thinking” and former Chief Economist for the Senate’s Banking Committee. In an article posted on May 14 to Yahoo! Finance, Mr. Johnson claimed that economics had become inhuman. Criticizing economic’s  ideal of objectivity, he claimed that “Without admitting it, or even worse, at times without even knowing it, economists make powerful value judgments about what matters in our society.”

Of course that much is true. Economists often must measure, quantitatively, things that may not be easily measured. And, predictably, they offer up a model to do this. I fail to see how we could expect more of them, given what we have asked them to do. But economics is useful precisely to the extent that it is inhuman. Rather that equivocate on the emotional and philosophical definition of value, economists allow us to compare things in terms everyone understands: money. Estimates of how much people value their own lives prove extremely useful in determining the usefulness of government spending on safety. But that it is an estimate must be emphasized. Economists do not professionally speculate on the “true” value of human life, that’s what all the other humanities are for.

So you can imagine my chagrin when Mr. Johnson shamelessly advertised his own brilliant reformation of the field: the New Economic Thinking’s “Economics and Theology” series, which he saved for the third to last paragraph. What could be more sensible, than to induce collaboration among have those who spend their lives measuring out evidence as precisely as they can, and making some of the most qualified and precise claims of any intellectuals, with those who persuade through fear and blatant appeals to the aptly sheeplike congregation. What could the ancient sophists possibly add to the discussion of economies? Will they propose adding eternal damnation as an opportunity cost for condoms? This is barely jest, for Mr. Johnson claims that “leading theologians… are used to thinking about life’s ultimate concerns.” Nonsense is far too kind a word, pernicious opportunistic pandering is closer to the mark. I hope Mr. Johnson’s series goes off swimmingly, and people talk of it for ages to come. I hope the theocrats catch of whiff of the standard of evidence to which the Queen of the Humanities holds itself.

References

Johnson, Rob. “Creating an Economics for the 21st Century” Yahoo! Finance. Retrieved 5/14/2013 http://finance.yahoo.com/blogs/the-exchange/creating-economics-21st-century-223645471.html

 

Activism Current Events Opinion

PT Kizone’s New Bankruptcy Trial

I can only barely conceal my melancholy at the issues on which the illustrious students of Grand Valley State University seize. The United Students Against Sweatshops has recently been the most prominent litigator, yet it seems no one has had the wherewithal to ask what sweatshops in Indonesia have to do with contracts in the U.S. This is not a trick question. The USAS is protesting GVSU’s contract with Adidas, on the grounds of a particularly emotional case regarding PT Kizone, a clothing manufacturer in Indonesia. PT Kizone did supply Adidas. What’s conveniently unmentioned is that PT Kizone also sold “collegiate apparel” (dumbass sports jingoism) for Nike, and similarly useless products for the Dallas Cowboys. Adidas is only one customer, and no convincing argument has been made to link the PT Kizone debacle to the Adidas-GVSU contract. Forget the dwindling space program, the increasingly useless investments our government makes, and our crumbling infrastructure, GVSU students need to take to the streets to rectify the injustices of an Indonesian bankruptcy court!

Photo by Robert Matthews

I will not present any illusions that I am an expert in Indonesian business law, but since this is apparently the problems the liberal-arts students of Grand Valley concern themselves with, I found a report from 2006 that provided some clarity:

 

An employment relationship may be terminated by either the employer (the company) or the appointed receiver [the creditor], subject to the provisions of the prevailing labour laws, provided that at least a 45 days’ notice is sent before the termination… The new law also clearly provides that after the date of the declaration of bankruptcy, any unpaid salary prior to or after the declaration of the bankruptcy decision will be a part of the debt of the bankruptcy estate. (Mandala, S. 2006, pp. 4-5)

 

I’ll remind the dear reader that I am not arguing PT Kizone’s bankruptcy was handled ideally. But I doubt that it was handled illegally by Adidas. PT Kizone is not owned by Adidas, in fact, the owner fled the country after closing the plant (Brettman, A. 2013). As far as I’m aware, what debts get paid, and what don’t, is decided by that infamous Indonesian bankruptcy court. Not, say, twenty students and their solidarity outside Kirkhoff.

Which raises an impolite question for the the former employees of PT Kizone: why aren’t you handling this in Indonesia? The salient students bemoan the loss of “legally” mandated severance pay (Brettman, A. 2013), but if the issue is a legal one it has no business in American universities. Similarly, what about the legal obligations the universities have to Adidas? I could not find the GVSU-Adidas contract, but I very much doubt it requires Adidas to pay the severance fees of companies it buys clothing from. Not that that stopped anyone, because of this unwanted attention, Adidas is compensating 2,700 ex-employees of PT Kizone (“Victory,” 2013).

I suppose no one should be surprised that a private company bowed to unwanted political pressure, or that many universities did the same. Institutions aren’t known for sticking up for the unpopular. But I am surprised by what University students are bothered. Our congress can’t pass a bill to make gun control laws consistent for gun shows and gun shops. First New York flooded, then Grand Rapids did. We’re at war for who knows what, and terrorist’s internet magazines have Inspired lone-wolf attacks on U.S soil. It’s not the conversation I find problematic, but that this seems to be the only one.

References

Brettman, A. 2013. Adidas settles with Indonesian workers over PT Kizone. The Oregon. Retrieved from http://www.oregonlive.com/playbooks-profits/index.ssf/2013/04/adidas_settles_with_indonesian.html

Mandala, S. 2006. INDONESIAN BANKRUPTCY LAW: AN UPDATE. OECD. pp. 4-5. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/indonesia/38184160.pdf

VICTORY! “Badidas” Campaign Forces Adidas to Respect Indonesian Garment Worker Rights. 2013. Retrieved from http://usas.org/tag/pt-kizone/

 

Ethics Opinion

The Defense of Freedom of Speech: A Summary.

 

 

In general, we have as natural a right to make use of our pens as of our tongue, at our peril, risk, and hazard. I know many books which have bored their readers, but I know of none which has done real evil. Theologians, or pretended politicians, cry: “Religion is destroyed, the government is lost, if you print certain truths or certain paradoxes. Never dare to think , till you have asked permission from a monk or a clerk (Voltaire, 1977).

 

Though I risk comparing my wit to Voltaire’s, I must expand his point in this final essay. Those words which are not controversial, do not need to be defended. It is the extremists like us who need to defend our minority rights.

Have no doubt that we are extremists. We will be extremists until atheists aren’t considered a minority. I’ve heard frequently, of late, that change comes from the moderate. I find this to be a pernicious lie. The moderates among the abolitionists proposed a compromise on slavery; we’ll just send those english speaking, darker colored Americans back to Africa where we took them from. Would anyone like to defend their viewpoint? How much more to we agree with the extremists who argued that not only should slavery be abolished, but that blacks were are equals? Extremists like John Brown argued not only this, but acted on it as well. He sought to give black Americans arms, so that they might defend themselves like humans, rather than ineffectively petition their rights for them, as if they were children.

Another of the moderate’s brilliant ideas was to contains slavery, rather than end it outright. This includes the very first of many compromises on the subject: that 3/5ths bit of which you may have heard. To quote another master on the subject of indefinite compromise:

Until 1850, perhaps, the “peculiar institution” of slavery might have had a chance of perpetuating itself indefinitely by compromise. But the exorbitance and arrogance of “the slave power” forbade this accommodation. Not content with preserving their own domain in its southeastern redoubt, the future Confederates insisted on extending their chattel system into new territories, and on implicating the entire Union in their system (Hitchens, 2012).

 

Yet the profiteering racists were not the only extremists to prompt chance. John Brown was tired of the abolitionist’s snail-pace. He remarked that “[t]hese men are all talk. What we need is action—action” (Rhodes, 1892). His actions, though doomed, instilled a nervousness in the South that ended the fruitless moderation. There can be no doubt that the South sought to silence him.

No, The Innocence of Muslims is not an abolitionist masterpiece, but it is controversial, which makes it the front line fight -and the only fight- in the freedom of speech. We must always endeavor to separate in our minds the right to say something, and agreeing with what’s said. A work of fiction does only as much harm as our over-reactions to it allow. The work itself is quite tame.

Dissenters need their rights, and by their nature, they will be minority rights. That means, unpopular rights. I suspect all those who tell me change comes from the moderates, because that seems to be the easy way out. They may as well say: “We don’t have to be controversial, we can agree our way to justice.” Moderation is mediocrity for everyone but the politicians. Leave it to those who’ve already sold their souls, and speak your closest approximation of the truth regardless of what people will think of you. You can know, at least, that I will do my best to defend your right to say it.

 

References

Hitchens, Christopher (2013). Arguably: Essays (29). New York, NY: Twelve

Rhodes, James Fork (1892). History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 (385). Cambridge, MA: Harper & Brothers.

Voltaire, Francois (1977). The Philosophical Dictionary. (Peter Gay, Trans.) New York, NY: Penguin Group. (Original work published 1764)

 

Activism Opinion

On the Innocence of the Innocence of Muslims

The Innocence of Muslims is probably a contender for the worst possible art. If one is to challenge the establishment, one must at at the very least do it with a modicum more style than the establishment itself. Yet headless of my wise advice, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula soldiered on and, in his desperation to attract attention, thought he might provoke a response from the so far apathetic audience. Unfortunately, he got one. I’m not speaking of the typical response from sensitive Muslims everywhere, but the treatment this pathetic film got in the press. Its offensiveness is constantly invoked, implying a justification of the violence that killed ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in Benghazi.

I am not alone in my indignation. President Obama said that “we must declare that this violence and intolerance has no place among our United Nations.”* And in that same international tone I agree with him. The ignorance and immorality required to commit murder in the face of an insult is rivaled only by dick-measuring contests at the bar on Friday nights. Beliefs are the progenitor of actions, which is why I must ask how can someone believe in the sacredness of someone they’ve never met, never seen, and do not have reliable textual evidence regarding most of his life, so strongly that they are willing to kill unrelated civil servants?

Such arrogance can only be provided by faith, and that level of faith can only be seen within the intellectual confines of religion. The separation of good faith and bad faith cannot last. No meaningful difference between the faith that inspired Christopher Stevens’ murder, and the faith that merely makes Islam a religion of faith has ever been offered. And it cannot be offered. For faith to be used meaningfully, it must capable of advancing such misguided causes.

Dissenters have been defending the right to think aloud since at least Voltaire, and a reasonable counter-argument has not yet held water. Allowing the sensitive to control our media is no better than handing the great censor to the Queen.

Opinion Science

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

Opinion

‘The Faith Fallacy,’ and other fallacies

A few days ago one of my friends notified me of an op-ed publication in her university’s (Grand Valley State University’s) paper Lanthorn titled “The Faith Fallacy: Why belittling believers makes no sense.”  The piece of course attempts to defend faith, particularly religious faith, particularly by showing how everyone else has ‘faith’ in something else.  If everyone else has ‘faith,’ then religious people are at least safe in, maybe justified in, their faith.

Gee, haven’t heard the old “you do it too!” one before.  It’s a very difficult argument to construct well, and has to be premised on actions from non-believers that really do mirror religious faith in one critical aspect: lack of evidence for these beliefs.  In accordance with this argument’s tradition of throwing things at the wall until they stick, the action-flavor of the month is getting a college education:

“College, like religion, is an institution. […] In both cases believers in these institutions take a gamble, hoping their investment makes a return: most students believe they will leave college with a degree/career potential and most religious people believe when they leave this earth they will be rewarded for their faith.”

Before addressing this basic premise though, I would be amiss to not mention a following line that struck me as out of place (my emphasis):

“Believing in something, so long as it is not blind faith, should be commended– not chastised.”

That’s basically the whole point, the crux of one of the most important reasons why non-believers don’t believe in a god or in religion.  Right there is a written rejection of the ‘critical aspect’ of religious faith I mentioned earlier.  I would ask why this statement was put into an article that is trying to refute non-believer arguments against religious faith; it’s not clear from the rest of her article, however, that Christine Colleran has an understanding of what non-believers even mean by ‘blind faith.’  I think that a useful illustrative tool here would be contrast to something else we might believe in: college.

“Despite evidence proving that great success is attainable without college, we continue to have faith in the power of a degree.”

Christine’s cited evidence is a handful of (admittedly extremely) successful people: Mark Zuckerberg (who actually did attend college – Harvard no less! – but dropped out because he developed Facebook while in school), Richard Branson of Virginia Atlantic, and computer entrepreneurs Michael Dell and Steve Jobs.

oscar_reutersvard_impossible_13

I suppose that this technically is proof that success is possibly attainable without a college education.  I’m not really sure whoever said that you’re guaranteed to fail; I would bet money that Christine was told at one point that you’d be more likely to succeed with a college education.  Is there evidence that around 90% of Fortune 500 companies’ CEOs have college degrees?  Is there evidence that unemployment rates for college graduates is lower than people without college education; that Master’s degree holders have lower unemployment still; that PhD graduates have even lower unemployment?  Why, yes there is.  It’s not proof that you’ll get a job – these rates are progressively lower, but none of them zero.  It’s a belief without total certainty, but a very justified belief to hold.

Since we’re contrasting, we might ask the same questions of religious claims: is there evidence that being religious gets you into heaven?  Is there evidence that a particular religion is correct?  Is there evidence that there’s even a deity to worship in the first place?  Why, no there is not.

Encompassed in the questions for religion is also a distinction that warrants its own mention: you can make judgments throughout your college career about whether or not it will actually be beneficial to you in the long run.  If you notice that your major’s unemployment rate is almost up to 20%, you can factor that into your decision to pursue your education.  Demand for jobs in particular industries is reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and there is research you can do in general to find if jobs are available.

The potential outcomes for religious beliefs, however, are only realized after death.  There is no indication while you are living of whether you’ll be successful, whether there’s something you should perhaps do differently that will cost you in the end.  Adherence to a belief system that has no evidence and no means of validating itself along the way is definitionally blind faith.

If a belief makes you a better person, then more power to you.  Worthwhile to consider, however, is if you even have reasons for believing in what you do.  It’s a good way to get people off your back who think that uncritical belief was, is, and/or will be a detriment to society; think of all of the help it would be in writing op-eds too!

 

Guest post by Alexander Coulter from the University of Michigan. Cross-posted with permission from U of M SSA’s blog: http://michiganssa.blogspot.com/2013/02/the-faith-fallacy-and-other-fallacies.html

Opinion Religion

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.

General Opinion

The 6 Paths to Atheism: by Chad Becker

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

Or not.

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

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

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

The 6 Paths to Atheism:

1.  The Cliches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. The Bible: Content

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Staring at it for a while…

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

http://youtu.be/1VbMAwN0u7I

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

*Bonus 7: Evolution/Science

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

Closing Arguments: Ironically I’m About to get Preachy

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

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

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

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

 

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

Current Events Ethics Opinion

Controversial Opinions; or Free Speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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