May 30, 2006

Interesting Discussion of Church Tax Exemptions in Australia

Churches reap the benefits of belief: $500 million in tax exemptions - National

Should churches, especially those who are politically active, receive tax exemptions? This is a question that has been asked by many of us at one time or another. This article presents both sides of the issue from an Australian perspective. Worth a read.

May 28, 2006

Twin Pillars of Christian Morality

If you are a regular visitor to this site, you know that I've been reading Atheism: The Case Against God (Skeptic's Bookshelf). I'm almost finished with it, and I must report that this is one of the best books on atheism I've read in years. This will be another post inspired by this book.

One of the most common justifications Christians offer for their religion is the link between it and morality. Without the Christian god, they say, morality would have no meaning and mass depravity would result. These Christians can offer many passages from their bible which appear to convey solid ethical principles with which few of us would disagree.

According to most Christians, especially those we would label "moderate," "liberal," or "progressive," the central theme of Christianity is love. As it relates to morality, their god has provided humanity with ethical rules much like a good parent. If we follow these rules, we are promised eternal salvation. Those who have difficulty following the rules are not necessarily lost because god is about love, forgiveness, compassion, etc.

This view of god falls apart the second someone actually reads the Christian bible. When the entire context of this book (and not just select passages) are considered, a very different picture of the Christian god emerges. Drawing on Smith's book, what I refer to as the twin pillars of Christian morality are fear and guilt.

The pillar of fear concerns the existence and meaning of hell. Hell is something you don't hear much about from moderate/liberal/progressive Christians, but the fundamentalists and indeed the bible itself, remind us that it is central to Christianity. Hell is the stick you get hit with for engaging in bad behavior. To stick with our parenting analogy, hell is physical punishment.

As effective hell-induced fear is, it pales in comparison to the pillar of guilt. In the context of Christian morality, guilt concerns the doctrine of sin. In the parenting analogy, guilt is about psychological control. By indoctrinating children into Christianity's doctrine of sin, the Christian accomplishes an internalized guilt which is supposed to aid in good behavior.

Thus, Christian morality is about fear (hell) and guilt (sin). Can this version of morality be reconciled with the "god is love" claim we so often hear? No. Is there a viable alternative to this version of morality? Certainly. Secular humanism provides just such an alternative.

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Carnival of the Godless #41

COG #41 is now up at Frank the Financially Savvy Atheist. Check it out here.

May 27, 2006

Know Them By Their Deeds: Priest Steals From Church

North Jersey Media Group providing local news, sports & classifieds for Northern New Jersey!

I feel it necessary to remind my readers that I post these "know them by their deeds" bits not to claim that all Christians are bad. Since many Christians seems to think that morality derives from their religion and that atheists are by definition immoral, I just like to remind everyone that religion is no guarantee of ethical behavior.

May 26, 2006

Superstition: Mothers Expect Damien on 6/6/06

Superstition :: Mothers expect Damien on 6/6/06

If all the fanatics don't burn themselves out protesting the Da Vinci Code movie, maybe they'll have the energy to do something equally entertaining for 6/6/06. The heart of their protest is that they are supposedly concerned about people taking the fictional story too seriously. Nevermind that we can make the same objection to their silly bible. Now we have people freaking out because 6/6/06 is approaching. Sometimes I just have to laugh.

May 24, 2006

The Taboo of Questioning Religious Claims

I just listened to an interview with Sam Harris on a Point of Inquiry podcast (thanks again for bringing this to my attention, Bruce). He was talking about how religion is the only form of belief for which there is a taboo preventing those who disagree from questioning it. For every other type of belief, we expect the person making the claim to provide a solid rationale and evidence in support of their claim. In other words, we evaluate the merit of the claim using reason.

If a co-worker tells me that taking vitamin B-12 supplements has helped her asthma, I ask for additional information which will help me evaluate her claim. Where did she hear about this? If her asthma has improved, how does she know it is the B-12 and not another factor? If I'm truly interested in evaluating the claim, I may search Medline to see whether this "treatment" has been subjected to medical research.

Assume that she fails to provide any reasonable evidence and I discover that the use of B-12 supplements for asthma has not received any support in the professional literature. I would not hesitate to point this out, and my attitude toward my co-worker would probably change if she were to stubbornly continue making this claim after having been informed of the problems with it.

What makes religion so different? There is no evidence supporting the most basic theistic claims (e.g., that gods exist, that the Christian concept of god is even coherent, etc.). There are compelling arguments against the existence of the sort of god described by Christians (e.g., the problem of evil, scientific evidence disproving many biblical claims, etc.). So why don't we question, criticize, or challenge religious beliefs in conversation? Does it make any more sense to say that I should respect the religious claims than to say that I should respect the B-12 claim?

Ah, but there is a difference, you say. My co-worker is much less likely to have a strong emotional attachment to her B-12 claim than her religious claims. So we avoid this type of discourse because we believe it is likely to be upsetting and we would prefer to avoid this level of conflict. Right? But she could have a very strong emotional attachment to many irrational claims (e.g., appropriate methods of child discipline, effective methods of birth control, etc.), and this would probably not deter our criticism, would it? So what is the real difference?

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May 23, 2006

Freethought Radio

Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Has anybody had a chance to hear this weekly radio show from the Freedom From Religion Foundation yet? I keep getting error messages when I try to subscribe to the podcast through iTunes. However, the individual show files can be downloaded here.

I just listened to the May 13 broadcast "One Nation, Indivisible." Interesting stuff. It seems like this will be a great recap of the week's atheist-related news and an opportunity to hear from some fascinating guests (Mike Newdow in this case).

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May 21, 2006

Know Them By Their Deeds: Pedophile Priests

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | Mark Honigsbaum: The cover-up of paedophile priests

I'm not even sure how to comment on this. As bad as the growing number of sexual abuse claims is, the role of the church in conspiring to keep this a secret is even worse. Why? Because they knew that their priests were doing this and kept it hidden, exposing even more children to the risk of abuse.

May 19, 2006

Is "Not Superstitious" a Better Way to Say "Atheist?"

I regularly read a number of atheist blogs and sometimes find certain posts so fascinating that I want to do more than just leave a comment. A post on Separation of State and Superstition caught my attention.

In this post, David suggests that the word "atheist" has acquired so much negative baggage that it might be time to replace it with an alternative term. I believe that this may have been the very rationale underlying the "brights" movement. Instead of "brights," David suggest that we consider replacing "atheist" with "not superstitious."

David is absolutely correct that "atheist" has acquired a negative connotation, but I am not in favor of revising terminology. Replacing the atheist label with something else will not remove the negative association; it will simply create additional confusion. Instead, we need to do better about defining and explaining atheism.

I am sticking to my previously expressed agreement with George Smith and defining atheism as a lack of theistic belief. When I say "I am an atheist," I am saying that I do not believe in gods of any sort. In other words, I do not accept the proposition "God(s) exist(s)" as true. The theist has not made an adequate case to establish the veracity of this proposition. Thus, identifying myself as an atheist means only that I do not accept the belief that gods exist (i.e., theism).

In addition to being an atheist, I am also a naturalist (or materialist, if you prefer). This is where the "not superstitious" part might come in. It would be a mistake to explain atheism as meaning a refusal to accept all sorts of superstitious belief. I could easily be an atheist and a superstitious person, believing in luck and engaging in meaningless rituals to obtain it (e.g., consider the rituals many baseball players go through before batting). Part of what David is defining as superstition fits into naturalism. Naturalism means that I reject the claim that anything exists other than the natural world. I do not accept any hint of supernatural beings, places, occurrences, etc. Thus, to more fully explain my worldview, I must go beyond atheism and include naturalism.

Because I could be an atheist and a naturalist and still be superstitious (e.g., believing in luck, fate, astrology, etc.), I need one more component. I need a commitment to reason as the path to knowledge. In this way, I set criteria for truthfulness that requires the rationality. Irrational beliefs are by definition rejected. Now luck, psychic phenomena, and other examples of superstition (including religion) can be swept aside. In fact, they must be swept aside because they are irrational.

I am an atheist, but I am also much more.

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May 18, 2006

Recipe for Holy War

Recipe for Holy War: Add two nut jobs and stir

This brief op-ed appeared last month but still seems relevant. It deals with the scary thought that both the Iranian president and the American president appear to be religious extremists. Adding nukes to this equation cannot be a good thing, especially when the end of the world may be welcomed by both religions.

I suppose the good news is that Bush's approval ratings continue to fall. Hopefully, this suggests that the American people are finally waking up and will make it harder for Bush to attack any other countries.

May 16, 2006

Forcing One's Beliefs on Others Should Bring Criticism

The State News - www.statenews.com

In this compelling editorial, John Bice argues that the tendency of certain Christians to impose their will on others warrants criticism. While supporting the right of individuals to maintain their religious beliefs, Bice notes that "...religious beliefs almost invariably spawn fundamentalist sects, which are usually the principal source of the conflict and violence frequently associated with religion. Most moderate and liberal believers are, regrettably, unwilling to denounce the extreme dogmatism of the radicals, perhaps partly due to the taboo of criticizing religious beliefs."

Drawing on examples such as Christian pharmacists refusing the fill certain prescriptions, Christian opposition to science, sex education, AIDS research, and contraceptive use, Bice suggests that Christianity has become an appropriate target for criticism. I thoroughly agree.

My favorite quote from Bice's article is: "Christianity is so prevalent in America, and its core myths so widely accepted, Christians are often blind to how absurd their beliefs appear to nonbelievers."

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May 15, 2006

Defining Atheism: The Advantage of Parsimony

I just started reading Atheism: The Case Against God (Skeptic's Bookshelf), and I couldn't have discovered this classic at a better time. I first heard of Smith's book back when I was in college, but I had forgotten about it until recently. It turns out that it is exactly what I needed right now.

The book reminded me of precisely what atheism is and what it is not. Simply put, atheism refers the absence of theistic belief. That's it. It doesn't mean anything else. Atheism is not a religion, a philosophy, a worldview, or anything of the kind. It is not the conviction that there are no gods or other supernatural entities. Rather, it is the absence of a belief in god(s). We can attempt to derive subcategories of atheism (e.g., positive, strong, radical, etc.), but these are neither necessary nor particularly useful. Atheism is nothing more than the lack of belief in gods.

As Smith points out, this trivial-sounding definition is actually quite important because it reminds us that the burden of proof rests solely on the theist. While we must provide evidence to support our positively asserted beliefs (e.g., Christianity is destructive, theism is correlated with intolerant views, etc.), it is nonsensical to expect evidence for atheism. If the theist fails to make a reasonable case for the claim that gods exist, atheism is the only sensible position. This is how knowledge works - the group advocating belief in something bears the burden of proof. Nobody expects you to prove that you do not have a fairy godmother, but if you claim that you do, we all (including Christians) expect evidence. Belief without evidence is irrational, to say the least.

When the believer is denied his/her first choice of argument (i.e., asking us to prove that he/she is wrong), only one argument remains. This may take many forms initially but can ultimately be reduced to some variation on "I believe because it makes me feel good to believe." I can think of no other scenarios where we (Christians included) would make such a statement and expect to be taken seriously.

If I tell a room filled with Christian medical professionals that I have a cure for cancer, they would request evidence to support my claim. If I could provide none but insisted that maintaining this belief improves my self-concept, grants me a sense of purpose and efficacy, etc., they would not hesitate to laugh in my face. Their response would be along the lines of, "Just because thinking you cured cancer might feel nice doesn't mean that you actually cured cancer." They would request evidence for my claim, and in the absence of any such evidence, they would wisely reject it.

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May 14, 2006

Proselytism in the Workplace

Conn. Considers Bill to Prevent Proselytism in the Workplace | Christianpost.com- Christian News Online , Christian World News

This bill sounds like an interesting measure to reduce proselytism in the workplace. While this is a worthwhile goal, it is hard to see how this particular bill could succeed. By the way, employer-mandated religious activities do occur. If you don't believe me, come work in the South for awhile.

According to this article, the bill under consideration "would not restrict voluntary, casual conversation among employees or between an employer or employee." But this is exactly where most of the offensive proselytism occurs! It is through casual conversations the "hostile environment" found in sexual harassment law generally takes place. If anyone is serious about stopping proselytism in the workplace, this concept from sexual harassment law could be used as a model. If you repeatedly attempt to convert me despite my clear responses that I am not interested, the beginnings of a hostile environment claim should be present. Because sexual harassment law often goes too far, I'd make the extension to religion a bit more conservative and say that I have no claim until I explicitly inform you that I want you to stop, and you do not. If I refuse to tell you that your conversion attempts bother me, I have no claim.

Is it possible for religious activity in the workplace to create a hostile work environment? You bet! If you are an atheist, imagine yourself in the following situation (if you are not an atheist, imagine people from a different religion doing this to you): Your boss begins every meeting with a lengthy Christian prayer, discusses his Christian values daily, repeatedly invites you to go to church with his family, and hands you evangelical literature regularly. Your boss and co-workers constantly make disparaging comments about non-Christians. When you reluctantly admit that you are not a religious person, you are alienated from all social activities, your co-workers ignore you, bible quotes mysteriously turn up in your inbox, and you suddenly find yourself getting the crap assignments that nobody else wants. Unfortunately, I'm not pulling this out of thin air - this was my ex-wife's job.

Just because the Connecticut bill probably isn't an effective solution for this scenario doesn't mean we don't need one.

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May 13, 2006

Darby is Embarrassment to Atheists

One of my readers posted this story about how Atheist Law Center founder, Larry Darby, is a Holocaust denier and possibly a white supremacist. The Law Center was among my Atheist Resources links. You will note that it is no longer listed. So much for atheists necessarily being rational individuals, huh?

I just sent the following e-mail to the Atheist Law Center:

I have been supporting the Atheist Law Center with a link from my blog. However, it was just brought to my attention that Larry Darby may actually be a Holocaust denier (see http://www.newsday.com/news/local/wire/ny-bc-nj--alabamaattorneyge0512may12,0,3823208.story?track=mostemailedlink). Actually, this article makes Darby sound like a racist. I cannot in good conscience support an organization with prominent members like this, and so I will delete the link and attempt to educate my readers.

If you feel similarly and want to let them know, they have a form which can be used to e-mail them here.

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May 12, 2006

Save the Internet: Contact Congress Now

Until recently, you've probably never heard of "Net Neutrality." This policy, under which the internet was developed, allows each of us to compete on a level playing field. My lowly blog is as easy to access as CNN or any other major news site.

Under the influence of a multi-million dollar lobbying campaign by the telecom industry, Congress is moving to abolish Net Neutrality. How would such a move affect you? Search engine priority based on fees. In other words, when someone enters "atheism" into Google, they'll first see all the Fox News information and not get to our atheist blogs until several pages later. Inexpensive internet access could become a thing of the past. Worst of all, political/underground news sites with which the telecom giants disagree could suddenly get much harder to access. For more information, visit savetheinternet.com.

Please join me in taking action on this important issue.

Save the Net Now

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May 11, 2006

Church Leaders Face Fraud Charges

According to this article in the Las Vegas Sun, a federal grand jury has indicted several members of a Nevada Baptist church with bank fraud and other crimes. Among those charged were a pastor, his wife and an associate minister. In addition to being another in an endless series of examples of why Christians have no unique claim to morality, this article caught my eye because church members are charged with diverting federal grant funds into their own pockets.

With the federal government pouring money into faith-based organizations (and even considering them the equal of reality-based organizations such as secular universities), this was bound to happen. In this case, the church received $423,000 to setup and run halfway houses for former convicts. Church leaders are now charged with spending around $330,000 without even opening a halfway house!

If this article is any indication, the press may well overlook the religious piece completely and instead focus on race (this was a black church). This may reflect the reluctance of the media to raise important questions about religion. In any case, you can file this story in the vast collection of examples of Christian wrongdoing.

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May 9, 2006

Homeland Security's Faith-Based Office

Executive Order: Responsibilities of the Department of Homeland Security with Respect to Faith-Based and Community Initiatives

Back in March of this year, George W. Bush issued an executive order in which the role of Homeland Security with regard to “faith-based community initiatives” was outlined. What? You see, this order was intended “…to help the Federal Government coordinate a national effort to expand opportunities for faith-based and other community organizations…”

For some strange reason, I am reminded of another important quote: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Ring a bell anyone? Since it sounds like W’s intent is for the federal government to “expand opportunities for faith-based and other community organizations,” I am curious how this can be Constitutional. Is the fact that this is an executive order somehow create a loophole? Perhaps the framers of the Constitution didn’t intend for the executive branch to make laws.

Is there something obvious I’m missing here? Is there any possible way to understand this as anything but the government making a new law supporting religion?

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May 7, 2006

U.S. Serving as Example Of Why Religion Must Be Kept Out Of Politics

Keep religion out of politics, Canadians say

So Canadians are worried about the effects of mixing politics and religion, are they? Well, good for them! We in the United States are happy that we can serve as a bad example of what happens when religion interferes with politics. Canadians don't need to look all the way to the theocratic Arab nations; they can simply look south of their own border.

According to the survey described in this article, Canadians say "they'd be more likely to vote for a party lead by an atheist or a Muslim than an evangelical Christian." Wow! I'm jealous. The numbers suggest that there is still a lot of support for evangelical Christians, but at least they are moving in the right direction.

Meanwhile, here in the U.S., "Americans...also appear to be less inclined than they were a decade ago to vote for a leader who is an evangelical Christian." If this is true (and I trust you will excuse me for being skeptical), then why is it that these people keep getting elected? Maybe the approaching Congressional elections will result in fewer evangelicals returning to Congress. Call me naive, but I have to find hope somewhere.

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May 5, 2006

National Day of Slayer: June 6, 2006 (6/6/6)

National Day of Slayer: June 6, 2006 (6/6/6)

A friend sent me this link, and I must say that it will be nice to have something meaningful to celebrate on June 6th. While Christians everywhere are praying, I'll be listening to some Slayer. In other words, it will be like any other day.

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May 3, 2006

Media: The New Crusade

Islamophobia Worse in America Now Than after 9/11, Survey Finds

It is hard to believe that attitudes could have worsened since 9/11 until one focuses on the stories featured in the media. Could it be that the conservative Christians who own the megacorporations which own the various media outlets have an agenda? There is a name for media presentations designed to mold public opinion in particular ways: propaganda.

"Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play."” - Joseph Goebbels

May 1, 2006

We Atheists Could Learn Something From Christians

Yep, you heard right. If we atheists are serious about making a difference in the world, we need to organize in our communities. I can already hear the protests - atheists aren't really joiners - but I'm sticking to my guns on this one. I should also admit that I've never been much of a joiner either. In other words, I've done a lousy job of this too. Maybe it is time to put up or shut up.

Here is the story that got my attention. Instead of bitching about all the Jesus crap in the article (my first reaction), I want you to join me in considering something else. What if there was a small group of atheists in your community who did something like this? Would you join them? I submit that such a group, combined with the publicity their actions would generate, would do more to educate the public about atheism and even change attitudes toward atheists than just about anything else could.

So what gets in our way? If I'm going to be honest with myself and with you, I'll have to admit to three main obstacles. First, I'm busy. Work requires an average of 60 hours/week. I have a home to maintain, and I've been developing the first actual hobby I've had in years (digital photography) which I really enjoy. Fitting more in is certainly possible, but finding the energy for it is challenging. Second, I'm not exactly what you would consider the most social person. I value my alone time and have never been much of a joiner. In this context, I suppose you could say that I tend to be more comfortable with ideas than with people. Third, there is the fear of being publicly "outed" as an atheist in my community. This didn't bother me at all when I was living in other parts of America. Here in the deep South, I feel that I have reason for concern. I think I can live with threats, periodic vandalism, etc., but I worry that becoming known as an atheist would jeopardize my job. I have worked too hard to get where I am to take such a possibility lightly.

I'm not going to pretend that I have all this worked out and am now committed to community activism. I can say that I find myself moving increasingly in this direction, but I haven't arrived yet. The struggle continues, and this one is more internal than anything else.

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