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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.

Ethics Humor Lifestyle

How Not to be a Bad Atheist

In this great skeptical movement of ours we have had the opportunity to grow complacent. Of course, being the enlightened intellectuals that we are, we have not squandered this opportunity. Here are some problems I have with public skeptics I’ve watched.

1. Regarding Logical Fallacies

So you took a Logic class and you are now entitled to win arguments, I understand. But the point of those informal fallacies you learned was not to be able to relate them in the middle of a conversation and expect your opponent to understand your jargon. Explain to them in the midst of your argument with a counterexample, do not simply accuse them. The ultimate fallacy is strange idea that the first one to mention fallacy wins the argument. For example, if someone calls you an asshole, which if you’re like me is not at all a rare occurrence, do not say “Hah! That, my mere plebeian opponent, is an Ad Hominem informal fallacy. Had you been considerate enough to memorize that section of our textbook, you would be qualified to continue this conversation, but seeing as you are unfit, I will have to claim this verbal challenge for myself!” Instead, agree with them as you are, in fact, an asshole! But then go on to say “but I don’t know what that has to do with the efficacy of duct tape in improving survival rates of patients with gunshot wounds in the neck!” In doing so you explain to the commoner what an Ad Hominem is, without risking associating yourself with those amateurish logicians who apply their informal fallacy education as if it was a weapon.

2. Regarding Gender

So you’ve come out of the metaphorical closet of atheism and stepped into the literal light of day. Suddenly a new creature appears, a female who dares speak her mind in public! Worse yet, you’re attracted to her! Now, before you criticise feminism with your newfound skeptic methods in order to impress her, consider the facts for yourself, on your own time. Otherwise you risk making unintentionally controversial statements. How can you explain your problems with the theory of Patriarchy if your audience is busy criticizing your use of pronouns?! But there is another audience I’d like to address on this matter. Atheist feminists. Take it easy on us. Many of us are trying not to be sexist, and agree with many of the sentiments of feminism. Being a part of a disenfranchised group does not put you above criticism. The most common manifestation of this silly glorification of disenfranchisement occurs with the phrase “as a…”. For example: “as a woman, I think I better understand the irreparable damage an immature atheist can cause to my gender, and thus conclude that anyone who makes such blunders must be burned on a suitably phallic stake.” Though I would applaud your sense of irony, I would remind you that your argument from authority is everyone’s least favorite valid form. Because I said so.

3. Regarding Defining Atheism

Atheists are people who do not believe in God. That’s it. Don’t try to ascribe additional progressive goals to them. It is possible to be a sexist atheist. Don’t go around arguing what atheists should or shouldn’t do, by arrogantly titling your blog posts things like “How to be a Good Atheist” or presumptuously assuming your atheist audience will be interested in your advice about relating to the minority of public atheists. Even though atheism can and should serve as a platform for additional progressive discussion, we should not try to insist anything but disbelief should be a part of “real atheism.” Thanks for your time.

-Luke Smithems

Activism Current Events Ethics

On Forgiving the Homophobia from Christianity

These signs were displayed at Motor City Pride 2012, in June.
Apologetics?

Everyone has been glad to see these photos. It seems we are meant to be touched by this meager penance. Their new tolerant god lends flexibility to the charlatans’ bigotry. A flexibility, I must add, that has been employed before; with the geocentric theory, creationism, and nationalism. Each time, the policies logically derived from their sacred text are rescinded by a retreat from that same text.

But forgive them, they ask. Very well, let us consider what reasonable terms we can accept this forgiveness. Most Christians, for most of their history, persecuted people because of a private sexual preference. I am particularly reminded of the case of Alan Turning, who, upon being given a choice between a hormone therapy that would have caused him to grow breasts, and suicide, chose death. But how can we assure this type of thing never happens again? By first understanding why they did this in the first place, and this is because their sacred text, the Bible, very clearly lists Homosexuality as an abominable sin.

I can already hear the objections.

“God is love!”

Irrelevant, the scriptures damn sin as all but unforgivable. Anyone who thinks otherwise should read the story of Korah, or Jesus’ remarks on lukewarm water. (A phrase I particularly resent.)

“That was just the Old Testament!”

What other great moral guideline of the Old Testament was forgotten when Jesus returned? True, some minor laws that the Pharisees had extrapolated were forgotten by Jesus, for example when he allegedly worked on the Sabbath by healing someone. But the definitions of appropriate sexuality were never challenged, and why should we simply assume they have been abandoned because of Jesus’ return? Why keep the Old Testament at all if we can assume such things? If I am wrong, and there is a specific annulment of the laws against homosexuality in the Bible, I am ignorant of it. The reality is, again, proof of the corruption of the system of belief that is Christianity, and we are again incapable of seeing it for what it is. These people’s religious beliefs are immoral. They could not leave other people’s sexual habits alone, because their book plainly told them not to. Now, they abandon the book with all the usual casuistry. They’ve pulled this card before, with evolution, and with heliocentric theory, and with women’s suffrage, and with the abolitionists. But, if we convinced people to abandon the book, rather than just the unfashionable parts, how could they criticize the gay pride movement?

“I don’t think it’s a good idea for gays to be able to get married.”
“Why?”
“It will weaken marriage by weakening the definition of marriage. Without such strict terms for marriage, it loses its poignance.”
“So the sanctity of an individual’s marriage is determined by that marriage’s peers? Further, the simple admission of a possibility of a marriage outside your social group’s definition of a marriage will cause this? If that’s true, the marriage was impossibly fragile to begin with, and therefore doomed.”
“It is objectively not right. People are harmed.”
“Whom?”
“The children.”
“They are empirically not. There are many examples of high-achieving children with gay parents.”
“The people in the marriage are harmed.”
“They are consenting adults, what evidence can you put forth to justify the disregard of their personal choices?”

There isn’t any. I cannot continue this hypothetical debate because it requires an impossible standard of evidence to justify an anti-homosexual standpoint. Yet, apparently, we would prefer to retain this fabricated and ancient conglomeration of myths that is absolutely proven to be capable of justifying the use of slaves, and the interruptions of consenting adults’ personal lives.

So no, I will not forgive you, until you admit not only you were wrong, but show me you understand why you were wrong.

 

Activism Current Events Link News

Tell Obama to Pressure Indonesia to free Alexander Aan!

If you are an atheist and have ever expressed your offensive views online, you would be a criminal in Indonesia.

Such is the case for Alexander Aan, an Indonesian atheist currently serving a 2 1/2 year prison sentence for posting blasphemous statements in an atheist group on Facebook.  He also has to pay a fine amounting to about $10,000 US, and has received numerous death threats from Islamic fundamentalists calling for his head on a platter.

This outrageous case has received a fair amount of attention within the atheist community, prompting a protest outside the Indonesian embassy by the Center for Inquiry earlier this month.

Not all of Aan’s supporters here in the US could make it to New York City for the protest, but now there’s something that all of us can do: sign this petition to the White House urging President Obama to take a stand for religious freedom and tell the Indonesian government to let Aan go.

Like all “We the People” petitions on the White House website, it needs 25,000 digital signatures in order to end up on the President’s desk.  Go sign it now!  Atheism should not be a crime anywhere.

Activism General Lifestyle Opinion

The different flavors of atheism

Despite what The Oatmeal may think, this isn't every atheist's idea of a good time.

For better or for worse, some people like to categorize.  I can be one of those people at times.

PZ Myers recently posted a list of taxa that he believes describe different personalities within the atheist movement; I did something similar on my personal blog last fall, though with a slightly different focus.  PZ focused on patterns of thought, while I looked at patterns of behavior (I also marked each of mine with a card suit for symbolism).  Here’s an executive summary of both of our lists:

PZ’s Taxa:

  • Scientific AtheistKnows that there is no god due to total lack of empirical evidence for one.  Sometimes a little too arrogant.
  • Philosophical Atheist: Doesn’t believe in god because believing in one requires making unfounded assumptions.  Sometimes overly long-winded.
  • Political Atheist: Motivated to fight the political and legal battles to make the world a better place for atheists.  Sometimes makes compromises that other atheists don’t like.
  • Humanist: Altruistic do-gooder who wants to help people in the name of godlessness.  Sometimes “pragmatically fickle” and may join up with liberal churches instead of expressly atheist organizations.

My Taxa:

  • Agitating Anti-theist (spade): Sees religion as an enemy to be vanquished, and fights its advances tooth and claw.
  • Incredulous Inquirer (club): Skeptical toward religion, but wants to discuss rather than fight.
  • Mainstream Materialist (diamond): Doesn’t believe in god, stops worrying, and enjoys life.
  • Diplomatic Disbeliever (heart): Strives to form friendly alliances with open-minded religious people.

Many people who read either or both of these posts may find themselves identifying with more than one category.  They’re archetypes, and very few people strictly belong to any one of them.  Each one of us has a different story behind how we realized we were atheists, how we came to join up with other atheists in this ever-evolving movement, and where we’d like to see the movement go.

And yet I unfortunately continually see bickering among these different “kinds” of atheists, the most vitriolic of which occurs on the internet.  Atheists call one another “bullies” and “accommodationists” and accuse one another of dogmatism and “Tinkerbellism” over different approaches toward the movement.  We see nasty exchanges of ad-hominems and passive-aggressive head shaking on Twitter because one party is either too critical or not critical enough of religion for the other party’s tastes.

Don’t get me wrong; I think that atheists who speak out in the name of atheism should be willing to defend why they say, and if an atheist says or does something reprehensible then others can and should call him or her out on it.  But let’s try to keep it civil.

A diversity of perspectives and approaches toward living without religion is, in my opinion, healthy for the movement.  We need people who uncompromisingly fight for the truth, we need people who make nice with theists, and we need average citizens who aren’t full-time activists to show the general public that we do walk among them.  This movement isn’t one-size-fits-all.

Ethics Lifestyle

Vegetarian Ethics: It’s not black and white

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time,

Dave

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 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.

Science

Why some people don’t accept evolution: a layperson’s perspective

I’ll come right out and say that I am not especially well-educated in science.  I studied the liberal arts in college and never took a course beyond Intro to Biology.  I do think that I gained a fundamental literacy of the science through my minimal classroom study (and copious independent reading as a child), to the point that I can understand what science journalists and bloggers are talking about even without being able to make sense of the raw data myself.

Image credit: Ethan Hein

I do understand, at the most basic level, how evolution works and why it works, even if I can’t wrap my head around the intricate processes that drive it.  I’d be out of my league attempting to teach it to someone or to debate a creationist on it (a position in which we atheists too often find ourselves, as if we’re all PhD biologists in the minds of creationists).

Even as a layperson (especially as a layperson?) I feel that scientific literacy is a vital part of being an informed citizen.  I’m troubled by the widening knowledge gap I see between scientists and everybody else, and particularly by the anti-intellectual sentiment that is rising alongside populism.

Denial in favor of design

To many atheists (and even theists who are skeptics about most everything but gods), it may seem shocking and frustrating that so many people in the United States dismiss evolution as wild conjecture.

When we see the notion of “intelligent design” being taught alongside actual science in biology class as if the two had equal weight, our first reaction may leave a palm-shaped depression in our foreheads (or a forehead-shaped indentation in our desks).

Sure, there are a number of people so hopelessly dedicated to ancient origin stories that they don’t want evolution to be true. It would turn their entire world upside down were they to accept that they are part of a 3 billion year old solar-powered chemical reaction rather than a unique, purposeful creation apart from nature.  It would mean to them that they are no better than their animal kin and take away all incentive for civilized behavior in their minds.

The threat of such a crisis of conscience has been used as an argument against evolution since Darwin first proposed it.  It was used by the prosecution in the infamous John Scopes trial, and even today is rehashed and regurgitated by creationist groups like Answers in Genesis.

I’m not so sure that there’s a way around this roadblock. How does one persuade a person to step over a ledge if said person is utterly convinced that they’ll tread onto a slippery slope?

Framing it like a religion instead of science

There are others still who are taken in by deceitful rhetoric like “evolution is just a theory”, people who don’t believe the science because they don’t understand it.

I suspect that a major reason why people don’t “get” evolution is that they try to understand the theory as something that it’s not: an infallible history that’s conveniently spelled out for them.  Unfortunately, science doesn’t offer the romance or clarity of religious mythology, no matter how badly our human minds want it to (not to say it can’t be exciting in its own right if you embrace your inner nerd, but most don’t).

The narrative of Darwin on his epic odyssey through the harsh environment of the Galapagos, suddenly experiencing a “eureka!” moment as the idea of natural selection dawns on him, is false.  It is nevertheless taught that way to schoolchildren to make the subject more fun (the same goes for the myth of Newton and the falling apple revealing to him the concept of gravity).

On the Origin of Species was a breakthrough 150 years ago, but it isn’t a sacred text.  A century and a half of new discoveries have rendered it obsolete, and the biologists of the 2160s will likely say the same about our most cutting-edge scientific literature today.

Unfortunately, people don’t seem to want an amendable explanation that says “We can’t know for sure, but this is what most probably happened based on what we’ve found so far.”  It doesn’t satisfy that desire for certainty that nags at all of us.  It leaves room for doubt, and makes many people uncomfortable.  No, people want an ironclad explanation that says “We know that this is what happened, for these irrefutable reasons.”

Science can’t offer that.  It’s driven by uncertainty – that’s what leads to new discoveries and new questions to be answered.  Until the American public learns to accept that, how can we expect them to accept evolution?

Opinion

The Path to Non-Belief

The freethought community is full of extremely diverse opinions on a wide range of subjects. Some members of my local student group are socialists, feminists, anarchists, libertarians, and yes, even a few conservatives. Collectively, this diversity is one of our major strengths.

Having such widely varied opinions, we tend to find common ground most readily in our skepticism of religious claims.  In fact, my student group emphasizes that while the Kent State Freethinkers is not expressly an “atheist group,” it is a group that contains many atheists, agnostics, religious skeptics and secularists. Simply put, we don’t exempt religious claims from our bologna detection kit.

But being in a group of skeptics, it is easy to forget that many of us come to our non-belief from very different backgrounds. Some of us have never been religious, while some of us consciously decided to leave religion. While non-theists of all stripes are of course welcome at meetings, it is important to remember that we all took very different paths to get there…and sometimes picked up very different types of emotional and philosophical baggage along the way.

For example, many atheists who have never been religious tend to view religious ideas with the same sense of anthropological bewilderment usually applied to the exotic customs of foreign tribes. It is sometimes difficult for them to comprehend how otherwise intelligent adults can so fervently believe such blatant hogwash. These never-believers tend to have trouble debating religious people because some religious concepts are so cloaked in a veil of transcendental mumbo-jumbo that it requires real effort to even begin talking. Starting conversations with the devout sometimes requires a suspension of critical faculties that these non-believers have never experienced. Their thought process might look something like, “Okay, so Jesus died for our sins, but then rose from the dead? So basically, he is alive. How exactly is this a sacrifice again?”

Conversely, non-theists who have made the difficult decision to leave the comfort and familiarity of their religion are usually better able to put themselves in the shoes of believers. People leave religion for many different reasons, but I’ve found that the circumstances of their departure can have a huge impact on how they continue to view religion, especially their former faith.

Many people leave religion after a nasty falling out, such as institutionalized abuse or conflict with religious leaders. I know of at least one student who left the Catholic Church after her grandfather was denied last rites (the last blessings before death), because he neglected to include the church in his will. Other, more serious examples abound, such as instances of rape, corruption, and violence. While most religious members are not direct victims, many leave after seeing such deplorable behavior from a group they had thought was a paragon of morality. Being so burned by faith often ignites a deep seated hatred of all things religious, and while this allows them to be extremely passionate proponents of freethought and secularist ideals, these anti-theists often become extremely emotionally entangled in arguments.  They may be prone to making hyperbolic statements about the evils of the church, which may end up hurting their credibility. Other anti-theists may still have very raw feelings about religious groups, and may prefer avoiding the discussion altogether.

In contrast, many non-believers left the church simply because religion has faded away into the realm of irrelevance, often times due to apathy or in response to a better understanding of how science explains the natural world. They find the claims and promises of religion to be lacking when examined in the harsh light of day – a light that shines from scientific literacy. They may begin calling themselves an atheist or agnostic after many years of being a non-practicing (or rarely practicing) religious member. In many ways, this type of non-believer is more similar to the never-theist than the anti-theist.

Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive, and many non-believers have had a very arduous ascent into freethought, and retain very complex emotions and opinions about religious faith. Many people that attend meetings may still be making that climb toward enlightenment. They may still be overcoming obstacles to unbelief that most of us have already cleared, or they may be dealing with obstacles that many of us have never had to clear. Then again, there are some atheists are so anti-religious that they see freethought groups as an underhanded attempt to create a secular church.

My point is, as current and future freethought leaders, it is important to recognize and appreciate the various perspectives, talents, and biases that your members bring to the discussion table. If a diplomat and a firebrand are arguing over the tone of your group’s advertisements, or debating which speaker you want to bring to campus, it is often helpful to recognize that those differences stem not just from the side of the table they are sitting on, but also the path they took to get there.  I’ve found that some of the most helpful and enjoyable meetings have been where we take turns describing where we stand philosophically in relation to religion, and talk about the often convoluted paths that led us there. I highly recommend dedicating some time to this discussion at one of your early meetings this upcoming semester. It will definitely help you understand the perspective of someone that you may disagree with.