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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.

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.

Opinion

Common Arguments, Refuted: the Cosmological Argument

Hello all,

This is the second in a series of posts deconstructing and refuting some common arguments in favor of theism, religion, faith, etc. This article will feature the so-called “cosmological argument.” The cosmological argument, also called the First Cause argument, goes way back. It was employed by both Plato (in Laws, book 10, his longest dialogue) & Aristotle, and by Thomas Aquinas. A version of this argument, the Kalam Cosmological Argument, is favored by theologian William Lane Craig.

The argument goes something like this:

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

Put another way,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time,

Dave

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.

 

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 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.