Category Archives: Religion

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.

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.

Religion

How to convert me

Hello all!

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

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

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

Can you be certain that God doesn’t exist?

man-thinking

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

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

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

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

_ThumbsUp_

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

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

Dave

Ethics History Religion

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.

 

Opinion Religion Science

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.
Activism Religion

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.

 

Current Events Religion Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His Merriness will not be mocked!

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

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

Opinion Religion

Common arguments, refuted

Hello all,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time,

Dave

Activism Current Events Ethics History News Religion

9/11 Changed the Face of Atheism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion Religion

On the vilification of secular humanists

First, an introduction. I’m Matt Foss, a new contributor here at Skeptic Freethought. I’m an atheist, secular humanist, and skeptic, just starting to get involved in the secular movement.

Over the past few weeks I’ve noticed a handful of items appearing on my Google Alerts for “secular humanism” from Christian news sites and right-wing blogs. They all had a common theme: that secular humanism is the modern world’s greatest threat to the American Christian way of life. Take a look at these two articles in particular:

Secular Humanism is the Established State Religion” – an assertion that humanist values should be kept out of public schools per the Establishment Clause.

The Worldview War” – an absurd rant about how Muslims and secular humanists are working together to bring America to ruin.

You’ll notice that the second article references one Dr. David Noebel as a source of knowledge on the concept of “worldviews”. A quick Google search identifies him as the retiring president of Summit Ministries, an organization focused on apologetics for a world it believes has gotten over Christianity.

Paranoia over secular humanism is nothing new, of course; Christian fundamentalists have been trying for decades to block its “teachings” from public schools on the grounds that promoting skepticism, science, and human rights somehow amounts to religious indoctrination. The Religious Right has been getting more and more vocal as of late, however, and I’m concerned that this sort of anti-humanist diatribe will become a trend.

Why the fuss about humanists?

It might come as a shock to some that Christians would be so alarmed by a group of people who advocate respect and tolerance; wouldn’t they be more afraid of vitriolic, firebrand, capital-‘A’-Atheists than of someone who simply claims to be “good without God”? Aren’t so-called humanist doctrines really just the same ethical standards at the core of every free society?

Note: I in no way intend to take sides on the “tone wars” here, nor imply that “atheist” implies “firebrand” or that “humanist” implies “diplomat”. I’m referring to the connotation that the two words tend to have based on my personal experience in discussing them with religious believers.

After reading and thinking on this a while, I’ve realized why they are so afraid of humanists. It’s precisely because of the benign-sounding messages such as “Be good for goodness’ sake!” and “Millions are good without God.” It’s because, framed within a worldview in which a sly Devil seeks to trick gullible humans into abandoning faith for worldly concerns, a friendly and inviting godless philosophy is far more dangerous than an aggressive militant adversary.

As I understand it, these fundamentalists want atheism to be an empty, miserable state of mind for which they represent the ultimate cure. The idea of a worldview that emotionally, intellectually, and socially fulfills people without belief in their God negates the very purpose of their religion’s existence. In this respect, I don’t blame them for feeling threatened by humanism, and I won’t be so surprised in the future when fundamentalists react negatively to non-threatening billboards like the (vandalized) one pictured above.