December 31, 2006

Diamonds in the Rough: The Year-End Post

I want to do something a little different for my obligatory year-end post. Rather than attempting to do the traditional year-in-review type of post, I'll simply refer anyone seeking that sort of information to this post on the top religion stories of 2006 at ReligionNewsBlog. With that out of the way, I've decided to focus on a few bright spots in what has been an otherwise dismal year.

While the biggest story of 2006 will undoubtedly be Iraq, I think that it was more of a symptom of what happens when a government throws reason out the window and relies instead on faith. Whether we look to stem cell research, violence over cartoons, ongoing denials of global warming, "intelligent" design, or even the unapologetic denial of the actual origins of the Grand Canyon (hat tips to NoGodBlog, Deep Thoughts, and ExChristian.net for this one), we see a suspension of reason.

I've selected 3 diamonds in this rough for no particular reason other than they put a smile on my face. First up, we have a story with which you are all already quite familiar. 2006 was a great year for atheist organizations, as nearly all experienced significant membership growth. Following this trend, the American media finally woke up and has suddenly started talking about "the New Atheism." I'll confess that I think this is hilarious because the only thing that is new about this "movement," allegedly headed by Dawkins and Harris, is that the media is paying attention to it. Still, the fact that we are finally getting some attention and stimulating some national discussion is certainly welcome. While much of this coverage continues to perpetuate misconceptions and inaccuracies, it is a start, and some of it has been fairly effective.

The second diamond was none other than the Democratic takeover of Congress. I know that this will make all the year-end lists, so I'll give you something new at the end. That the Democratic victory suggests to me is that increasing numbers of people are fed up with Republican corruption. I realize that the newly elected Democrats are going overboard to appear kind to religion. However, I sincerely hope that they will restore efforts toward social justice and restore much of the scientific integrity that we've lost under Bush.

Finally, this story just out in the Contra Costa Times describes a group of seniors living in a gated senior community who banded together to form the Rossmoor Atheist and Agnostic Club.
"Many of our members are perfectly happy living their lives, but there are many closet atheists who are lonely and pretend to believe in something to make their families comfortable," said founder Richard Golden, 81. "In this retirement community, many people do not realize that next door may be someone just like them."
I add this as a small-scale example of what can be accomplished on the local level. The story also reminds me that the passion of youth is undoubtedly an asset, but there is something to be said for the wisdom of age.

Before I leave you to your own year-end reflections, I'd like to wish you a Happy New Year and encourage you to keep Sagan's candle of science and reason burning brightly in the darkness of superstition throughout 2007. Here's hoping we find even more diamonds.

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Tentative Optimism About This Template

I ended up spending all day yesterday trying to get Haloscan (which I use for both comments and trackback) working with this new template. I'm now tentatively optimistic that the core features are working. If you visited yesterday, you may have noticed that there was a comments link on the main page but not on individual post pages. I think I finally managed to fix that. As I gain a little more confidence that the template is stable and comments are working, I will get the sidebars back up. Please let me know about any problems you encounter.

December 30, 2006

Saddam's Death is Illuminating

While watching the national news on ABC last night, something caught my ear that has been running through my mind ever since. Charles Gibson was discussing the impending execution of Saddam Hussein, hours away at that time, which subsequently occurred.

The part that caught my ear involved concern among the Iraqis about the timing of the execution. You see, the execution came very close to overlapping with the four-day Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. Why was this noteworthy? According to Gibson, this holiday involves a central theme of forgiveness. This appears to be confirmed by Sheikh Ashraf Salah on IslamOnline. Since they couldn't very well execute someone in the midst of a holiday about forgiveness, they would just have to do it right before or right after!

Never mind that, according to Sheikh Ashraf Salah, "This is the day when Allah forgives many sins of His servants." Forget what Sheikh Ashraf Salah says next:
In this blessed gathering, on this happy day, we have to start taking sincere steps towards love and harmony. Let's forget what might have happened between us because of unintended mistakes. Let's decide to achieve closer bonds in our relationships. Let's remember everything that Allah asked us to do. Look at what Allah says: [Let them pardon and forgive. Do you not love that Allah should forgive you (An-Nur 24:22).
Gibson gave no indication whatsoever that he recognized the absurdity involved in speeding up or delaying an execution so it would not have to be carried out during a celebration of forgiveness. I am reminded of the rabid Christian right-to-lifers calling for the death of medical doctors, celebrating an execution outside the prison walls, or supporting preemptive war. One cannot help but wonder if religion has little meaning beyond the empty rituals which accompany it.

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December 29, 2006

Stretching the Dollar to Support Atheist Activism

With the end of the year rapidly approaching, it is natural to start thinking about making year-end contributions to charitable organizations and those which support atheist activism. Of course, the number of worthy organizations far exceeds my financial means, forcing me to be selective.

On the charitable side, I just made my yearly contribution to The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). I believe strongly in what they do, and I try to support their efforts both nationally and locally. Thus, I'll also make a donation to the local animal shelter.

Moving to the activist arena becomes much more challenging. I renewed my ACLU membership in October and joined the Union of Concerned Scientists in June. I'll consider these contributions sufficient until renewal time. My membership in the Freedom From Religion Foundation will be up for renewal in January, so I will go ahead and renew now. Their monthly newspaper is great, and they take on many causes I support.

There are many other possibilities to consider. At the top of the list would be American Atheists, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and the Godless Americans PAC. What I like about American Atheists is that they actually call themselves atheists and seek to take some pride in this. What I don't like is that they don't seem to do much of anything in comparison to FFRF or Americans United, both of which are very active organizations. Hopefully, I am mistaken about this, but it is my impression. Americans United is appealing but seems quite similar to FFRF. This makes me wonder if it wouldn't be smarter to make a larger contribution to one rather than splitting it up between both. I know the least about Godless Americans, but they seem to have a rather limited mission of lobbying.

Whenever I am confronted with this sort of decision-making, I find myself wondering why there isn't an umbrella organization which unites all these and other freethought groups. This would have a tremendous advantage in maximizing the numbers and thus political clout. Just imagine something like an American Freethinkers group which could unite atheists, church-state separation activists, brights, etc. under one banner. I suppose it is unlikely that these diverse groups would ever unite in that fashion, but such a group would wield tremendous power through its numbers.

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Update to New Blogger Going Well

I've been working on switching to a new template that will work with the new Blogger finally out of beta. It is going fairly well, and I think I have now managed to restore most of the features from the previous template. Comments and trackback should be working again thanks to a tip from The Logical Philosopher.

My main challenge now is going to involve coming up with a system for labeling posts that will make sense and help readers find what they are looking for. If I get it right the first time, it will save tremendous time later. If not, well...I better just get it right now.

Changing Template

Now that the new version of Blogger is no longer in beta, I'm going to attempt to convert Atheist Revolution over to the new format so I can take advantage of organizing posts by category labels. I expect things may be a bit chaotic around here until I figure out how to pull this off.

December 28, 2006

Time For Faith-Based Medicine

In reading many atheist blogs, I am used to finding well-written and informative posts that lead me to think about things in new ways. Once in a rare while, I find a post that leaves me in stunned silence as I experience a blend of awe and envy. A few minutes ago, I found just such a post, Faith Hospital, at Atheist Ethicist. It is so good that I had to share it, and I encourage you to do the same.

The general topic of the post deals with efforts to reconcile faith and science. The metaphor Alonzo uses in this one is brilliant. He asks the reader to imagine two hospitals, one based on science and one based on faith. The scientifically-based Institute for Scientific Medicine is the pinnacle of the modern hospital. They practice what is referred to in the medical literature as "evidence-based medicine." Outcomes are carefully tracked, treatments are empirically informed, and each patient is treated as a single-case design. On the other hand, Faith Hospital relies on scripture and prayer rather than science. The methods their practitioners employ have no scientific support behind them. However, they do not see this as a drawback, arguing that there are "other ways of knowing."

Comparing these two hospitals across any valid medical outcome measures produces exactly the conclusion you would expect. As patient mortality rates differ in the expected direction, the administrators of Faith Hospital mount a desperate defense of their faith, claiming a host of absurdities about how it was these patients' "time to be with God." But the data do not lie. One approach results in better health; the other leads to complications and death. This is not an illusion, and no amount of faith changes this reality.

I ask my Christian readers to consider which hospital they would choose if a loved one needed medical attention. If you'd opt for the Institute of Scientific Medicine, I'd ask you to think long and hard about why. I suspect we both know the answer. If you are honest with yourself, I think that you know deep down that your religious beliefs are false. I know that you want them to be true, but you are smart enough that you probably wouldn't put them to the test in this way, would you? I know that this may be an unpleasant realization, but have no fear. The real world is a great place, and we'd love for you to join us.

Update: This one is spreading fast (see Stardust Musings and Thoughts for the Freethinker and God is for Suckers!).

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December 27, 2006

There is a Reason Why Miracles Require Faith

The title of this article in The Arizona Republic, "Belief in miracles is a matter of faith," is quite fitting. Common sense would lead one to believe that a miracle (i.e., an unambiguous violation of natural laws by a supernatural agent) would serve as evidence of supernatural activity which would bolster one's faith. Rabbi Bonnie Kopell believes that this is a mistake and that people should not view miracles as a test of supernatural power. She argues that it is inappropriate to lose faith in the absence of miracles adding, "The miracle is that more doesn't go wrong."

Just what is the relationship between miracles and faith? Faith appears to be a necessary condition of experiencing miracles. Rather than miracles providing evidence of faith, faith itself prompts one to interpret experiences as miraculous. Starts to sound an awful lot like people simply seeing what they want to see, doesn't it?

Sabahudin Ceman, imam for the Islamic Center of North Phoenix, says that persons of faith see miracles in tragedy as well as positive experiences. By his reasoning, one might perceive that one's survival of a tragedy that killed countless others was a miracle. What natural laws are violated here? Since when did luck or coincidence start to count as miraculous?

The problem is that theists tend to attribute any unexplained phenomena to their various gods. The inability of science to explain a given phenomenon in no way implies that anything miraculous has occurred. That electricity must have seemed miraculous at one point in time demonstrates this point rather clearly.

Curtis Dickman, a neurosurgeon with Barrow Neurological Institute, evidently believes in "divine guidance." The authors of this article appear to think that this is noteworthy, however, what is noteworthy is the pure idiocy with which he argues for his position. We are told that he believes in miracles. What is his evidence? "He has seen a boy whose head was nearly severed brought back to life. He has seen a sheriff's deputy shot in the head return from the brink of death." How do either of these incidents have anything to do with a supernatural entity suspending natural laws? These incidents are simply uncommon occurrences.

Suppose you win the lottery. Would that be a miracle? "Yes," answers the Christian a little too eagerly. Now suppose that a neighbor of yours you do not particularly like were to win the lottery instead of you. Would that be a miracle? You do realize that someone is going to win, right? So what does any of this have to do with miracles? Just because something is uncommon does not make it miraculous.

Fortunately, the atheist position is represented in this article too. "Spectacular claims require spectacular proof." Yep. To this effective statement, I would simply add what I have already said: simply because something is uncommon or cannot currently be explained does not make it a miracle.

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December 26, 2006

Post Christmas Thoughts

I did not celebrate Christmas at all this year and simply treated it as if it were any other day off work. As an adult, I've never been particularly into Christmas, but this was probably only the second year where I did not observe the holiday at all. Without local family to insist on honoring the holiday, the choice was mine, and I chose to ignore it. I must confess that I found it much more relaxing and enjoyable this way.

Although I cannot honestly say that the religious associations with Christmas do not bother me, I do not believe that this is the main reason I prefer not to celebrate it. It is not even the commercialism, although I do also find that distasteful as well. Now that I think about it, I'm not sure I see much point in celebrations of any kind. It is not that I do not understand why others value them; it is that I just do not seem to have the need for them.

The best example of my feelings toward celebration involves birthdays. Asa child, these were usually fun and had a different meaning. As an adult, what exactly is it that I'm being asked to celebrate? Is it that I am another year older? Is that really something to celebrate? New Years is around the corner, and this is a similar example. Does celebrating the end of one year and beginning of a new one make any sense whatsoever?

As I reflect on these questions, I realize that what really bothers me about these kind of celebrations is that they are based on tradition. We celebrate various holidays or milestones because we were raised by people who celebrated them. Maybe we continue these traditions because we don't know any better. Maybe we value them because we are reminded of happier times. And of course, we live in a culture that pushes us to celebrate them. Those who participate are rewarded with acceptance and inclusion. Is this starting to remind you of another sort of tradition?

I am not anti-tradition per se. However, if what may have been a harmless source of enjoyment and comfort during childhood ceases to be so, why should I continue it simply to perpetuate the tradition? Outgrowing religion and eventually learning to feel comfortable with atheism has shown me that I can find fulfillment without religious traditions. I suppose it is only natural that this would cause me to assess other traditions and discard those which have ceased to serve a purpose.

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December 25, 2006

Some Christmas Silliness

This really doesn't have much of anything to do with Christmas, but I just ran across this collection of proofs over at godlessgeeks and had a good laugh. Enjoy. It might just make you a hit around the table with your Christian relatives this year.

December 24, 2006

Journey of an Atheist, Part IV

This is the fourth part of a multi-post series. Part III can be found here, or if you'd like to start from the beginning, you can find Part I here.

Where the third part of this series left off, I had graduated from high school and entered a private liberal arts university in the Pacific Northwest. Attending this particular Christian university turned out to be exactly what I needed. As I described in my previous post in this series, I received an outstanding secular education in this context, studied Christianity from both a theological and philosophical position, and honed my critical thinking and debate skills. I read Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Thoreau, Freud, and of course, Bertrand Russell. It was Russell's excellent Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects that gave me permission to fully reject Christianity and helped me understand that I was certainly not the first to do so. By the conclusion of college, I was openly atheistic and experiencing the joy of finally breaking free of religious indoctrination.

I graduated with a B.S. in psychology and acceptance to a Ph.D. program (also in psychology) in the central U.S. Since I knew I wanted to go the distance for the Ph.D., I saw no reason to wait. I left for the graduate school the summer after graduation. In retrospect, it might not have hurt me to do a bit more growing up before beginning graduate school, but I felt like I needed to capitalize on the momentum I had built up in college and keep going while my motivation was high.

I would not be exaggerating to say that nearly everything about my new graduate program was a shock. My life changed so dramatically at that point that I would end up becoming a very different person than the one who had just completed college. Relevant to my purpose here, I will focus on only one aspect of the transition - my exposure to a very different view of religion than anything I had previously experienced.

The community in which I resided was much smaller and more conservative than the area I had left on the West Coast. Religion was still a rather private matter here, but it was certainly more prevalent. However, this shift was trivial compared with what I experienced in graduate school itself. Not only was I the only atheist among my peers, but I would soon learn a very difficult lesson about my chosen field of psychology which continues to affect me to this day.

An important part of my training involved multiculturalism. This is typical in the helping professions because programs are faced with preparing students who may have had rather limited experiences with diverse groups to competently provide services to members of these groups. To my amazement, religious belief was considered part of multiculturalism in the sense that perceived intolerance of religious beliefs was considered as unacceptable as human differences based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. For a more in depth discussion of multiculturalism, political correctness, and religion, see my previous posts on the subject.

As you can imagine, this put me in an excruciatingly difficult position. It was made clear to me that successful completion of the program would depend on my ability to keep my disbelief to myself. Trust of my peers became an issue, as I learned that statements I had made outside of school got back to a professor. Clearly, this was not a safe environment to be open about atheism. I became increasingly depressed, withdrawn, and distant. I convinced myself that this had to be a fluke of this program and couldn't possibly reflect the field as a whole. I was determined to soldier on, bury my atheism, and refocus my energies on my studies. I would succeed, but success would come at a price I am only just beginning to understand.

On to Part V.

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Some Xmas Eve Reading

The Xmas Eve edition of Carnival of the Godless is now up at God is For Suckers! If that isn't enough reality-based reading for you, check out Skeptic's Circle at Humbug Online. Finally, I am working on the fourth part of the story of my personal journey to atheism and plan to post it later today. That ought to keep you busy for awhile.

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December 23, 2006

Christmas Ruined By Christians

Just when I get a little holiday optimism, something comes along to shatter it. No, it wasn't getting merry Christmased by my doctor yesterday. It wasn't the minor annoyance of everything closing down this time of year. It wasn't even the increasingly over-the-top decorations in my neighborhood. Instead, it was two news items I'll share with you in this post.

First, I ran across this story about elementary school children writing letters to Santa. Sounds pretty innocent until you read it and hear about the Christian mother who decided to raise a stink after being told that it was not appropriate for her to change the assignment and have her daughter write a letter to Jesus instead. How dare this school attempt to keep Jee-zuhs out of the classroom! How dare they prevent a parent from modifying work assigned by a teacher!

Here is what the mother said in her interview with the Times Record News:
You'd rather have them write a letter to someone who is not real rather than let my daughter write a letter to someone who's real? Even if you don't believe in Jesus, you can at least admit that he was a real person who existed.
Isn't this great? She thinks that Jesus is somehow more real than Santa Claus! I suppose she must be unaware of the many unanswered questions about whether the Jesus described in the Christian bible ever lived (see here). The part of the story even more depressing than this mother's ignorance is that the school caved. "We honor all parents' requests," said the principal. I guess this includes those made by delusional parents. How sad.

Next up, we have a story that may hit some of you closer to home. Why? Because this one involves an interesting twist on the war on Christmas. According to this story, the war on Christmas is generating vast sums of money for the Christian extremist groups which promote it this year. For example, the American Family Association has earned $550,000 from sales of items branded with "Merry Christmas: It's Worth Saving." Not surprisingly, these groups plan to concoct a war on Easter this year too.
Scouts for the American Family Association, which is based in Tupelo, Miss., will keep a keen eye out for stores that promote "spring baskets" or "spring bonnets" instead of celebrating Christ's resurrection. The group already has laid in a stash of Easter buttons, featuring three gold crosses and the words "He Lives." They'll go on sale just after New Year's.
The depressing part is not that these groups are profiting from the war they created. The depressing part is that people are actually buying this crap. They truly believe that their precious holiday is under attack by the forces of evil (i.e., atheists). So now we have to contend with a bunch of angry Christians, provoked by an imagined threat.
A Zogby International poll conducted last month found that 46 percent of Americans are offended when a store clerk greets them with "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." More than a third of the 12,800 adults surveyed said they have walked out of a store or resolved to avoid it in the future because the clerks didn't show enough Christmas spirit.
What? Forty-six percent are offended by hearing "happy holidays?" Offended? Are you kidding me? When did being respectful of persons with different beliefs become offensive?

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December 22, 2006

Trapped: An Atheist in Hiding

I feel trapped by an inner conflict with which I have been struggling lately. This conflict is nothing new, but it has been occupying my thoughts more than usual for some reason. The conflict concerns my decision to write this blog, Atheist Revolution, under a handle rather than my real name.

I would like to be able to replace my handle with my real name and perhaps even add a photo of myself. Why? Among the more trivial reasons are things like enhancing my credibility, gaining a greater sense of ownership over my writings here, and serving as a better model for other atheists seeking to be more open about their views. These reasons are not trivial in any absolute sense; I only label them this way in comparison to what I perceive as a more important reason. Posting under a handle is starting to limit me from doing things I would like to be able to do. I'd like to be able to write more book reviews here and to assist authors with developing their materials. Working more closely with publishers requires an identity. I'd like to be able contribute to mainstream media on the topics on which I post. Anonymity is rarely an option here.

If I am going to be perfectly honest with myself here, I suppose I should confess that there is another reason to "come out" in the way I have described. I feel like I'm hiding, and that is unpleasant. This makes me feel like a bit of a hypocrite. I mean, who am I to call for increased atheist activism when I can't even use my real name here? That makes me feel like a fraud.

What stops me from unmasking myself here? I have four primary concerns. First, I live in the heart of the Christian extremist America, have virtually no local support in the form of fellow non-believers, and am scared to death by the prospect of the local citizenry learning of my views. Unfortunately, I am quite convinced that fears of increased alienation, vandalism, and even assault are not unrealistic.

Second, I fear that my job would be jeopardized. It isn't so much that I think I would be fired (although I suppose it is possible, given the climate of my workplace) as much as I think that I would be thoroughly alienated and that it would become much harder to do my job effectively. Most of my co-workers are Southern Baptists who take their religion very seriously, and the same is true for the vast majority of the students I teach. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly likely (although still relatively unlikely) that I may need to occasionally work with high-ranking political officials (including Congressional representatives). Thus, I see a rather large potential for identifying myself here to cause problems at work. I'd have to say that this is my primary deterrent.

Third, I am not exactly thrilled with the idea of my family and non-work friends learning of and reading this blog. It isn't really that I think they'd be terribly surprised. They all know that I am an atheist, and I think most are aware that I have the views I express here. It is more about having to discuss that I write here with them, answer their questions, and have to deal with their reactions to the depth of the feelings I express here. This isn't a major reason, but it is one deterrent.

Fourth, and probably a close second to #2 above, is that I worry that revealing myself here might actually change the manner in which I write this blog. If I knew that friends, family, co-workers, students, bosses, etc. were (or even could be) reading this blog and knowing that it was mine, I think I'd be tempted to hold back. I think I'd rather quit blogging than feel like I was intentionally watering down what I write here. Holding back through self-censorship would leave me with a blog about which I could no longer feel passionate.

The struggle continues. This atheist must continue to hide for the foreseeable future. I have taken more steps toward announcing my atheism this year than I did the previous year. I also expect that I will continue this trend. Eventually, some of the deterrents may evaporate or the trap will become worse than the alternative. At least, this is the thought with which I shall console myself.

(This post was inspired by a recent conversation with atheist writer John Bice)

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December 21, 2006

"Happy Holidays" - Deal With It

christmas tree
christmas tree (Photo credit: fsse8info)
The phrase "happy holidays" enrages countless Christians and represents the heart of the war on Christmas. When an individual says "happy holidays" to a Christian instead of "merry Christmas," the Christian is supposed to assume that this is code for "I am an atheist, and I detest your Christmas." Never mind that many prominent atheists celebrate Christmas. Even worse is when a company sets an official policy whereby employees are supposed to say "happy holidays" and discouraged from saying "merry Christmas." This is worse because it is supposed to reflect an organized conspiracy of misguided political correctness and hostility toward religion. Thus, "happy holidays" has become symbolic to many gullible Christians for efforts to "take the Christ out of Christmas."

If we cut through the right-wing efforts to inflame their easily provoked base, we can examine what is really happening here and learn something valuable about the socially conservative mind. Our starting point is to ask what would lead an ordinary person to say "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas." Perhaps the person simply wants to wish someone a merry Christmas and a happy New Year in the most efficient manner. "Happy holidays" accomplishes this quite well. However, this is probably not the speaker's motivation in most cases.

Atheism Online Directory is Back

Atheism Online is back and under new management. All atheist bloggers are strongly encouraged to add their blogs to the directory and spread the word to potential readers. You may recall that the original Atheism Online was designed to be the one-stop directory for all atheist-oriented blogs and websites. The sudden loss of the original was a blow to the community of atheist bloggers, so I welcome the revival of the site. Best of all, they plan to continue the mission of the original site. See Black Sun Journal for more information.

Listed at AtheismOnline.com

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December 20, 2006

Atheist "Spirituality"

English: A woman walking a prayer labyrinth
English: A woman walking a prayer labyrinth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In the social sciences, it is common to distinguish between religion and spirituality. Questionnaires designed to tap these two constructs are fairly different in their content, and the attitudes of many scientists toward spirituality are often kinder than those toward religion. Thus, it is not surprising to encounter someone who claims to be "spiritual but not religious."

Is spirituality an important part of life which we atheists are neglecting at our peril? There certainly are correlations between spirituality and various measures of well-being. Maybe we shouldn't be so hasty to dismiss these findings as little more than evidence that ignorance is bliss.

According to this article in the American Chronicle, atheism is compatible with spirituality. Most definitions of spirituality agree that it has nothing to do with any sort of gods. Despite the unfortunate name, it isn't even about spirits or anything else necessarily supernatural. Rather, it is more about the perception of oneself in relationship to one's environment. A point made in this article is that atheists, even those of us who are also naturalists, can have spiritual experiences through nature.

I suspect every one of you has had experiences that would qualify. There have been many occasions where I have experienced a sense of awe of nature and the universe. Of course, I never felt the need to call these experiences "spiritual." That has always seemed to me to be an unnecessary layer of abstraction. I'd prefer to talk about my feelings of connectedness with other humans, awe of the cosmos, etc. than my spirituality.

If the article is correct, it might be healthy for me to reconsider. Framing our discussions in terms of spirituality (i.e., deliberately using that particular label) might be a good PR move. The author envisions a spiritual atheist movement having more success at wining converts from religion than any of our current approaches. He imagines that a sort of spiritual atheism would show the rest of society that atheists are not so different from our fellow humans. At the same time, he certainly is not suggesting that we stop being scientists, naturalists, skeptics, or atheists.
Whatever form this spiritual defense of naturalism takes, it must be unabashedly passionate about science and the scientific method of inquiry. With this must come a fervent skepticism of all things supernatural and a complete rejection of the concept of faith. Faith is the last recourse of the intellectually defeated. When you invoke faith, you admit your belief cannot stand on its own merit, for if the evidence compelled you to believe it, faith would be superfluous. The faith that allows you to believe in a personal, all-merciful God allows your next-door neighbor to believe an invisible dragon is living in his basement, or the fanatic on the bus next to you to believe that a martyr’s death (spectacularly accomplished by blowing himself, and you, to pieces) will send him straight to heaven and into the waiting arms of 72 sex-starved virgins. Either way, you’ve entered the realm of irrationality and, in many cases, severe mental illness. Faith and reason (and, by extension, religion and science) are as incompatible as trust and jealousy or joy and sadness, and it’s high time people of intellect stopped according them equal respect.
I couldn't agree more with the passage quoted above. I also agree with the author that atheists must continue working to dispel the myth that atheism is somehow immoral and meaningless. I believe that this myth, and the historical association of atheism with Communism, remain the most important obstacles to greater acceptance of atheists. While I am still not sure about the merits of using the "spirituality" label, I do agree that we should devote more time to providing examples of the meaning our lives have and how this is actually strengthened by the absence of religion.

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December 17, 2006

Your Beliefs Are Not Sacred to Me

Christians seem to think that their religious beliefs deserve respect, even from persons who do not share them. "You don't have to believe what I do," they say, "but you should at least respect my beliefs." Why? I happen to think that I can defend your right to believe as you wish without having even a trace of respect for what you believe. Moreover, I can respect you as a person without respecting your religious beliefs.

The truly interesting thing is that many religious moderates, freethinkers, and atheists share this viewpoint that religious beliefs should be respected. In other words, many non-Christians would agree that it is okay for me not to share your beliefs as long as I still respect them. Whether this perspective comes from politeness, a desire to avoid conflict, a fear of retribution, or some other source, it remains a powerful factor maintaining religious belief. It erects a force field around religion, preventing meaningful criticism from entering.

The question that needs to be asked is whether your religious beliefs deserve respect. That they are your beliefs or that they are religious in nature is irrelevant here. I happen to be convinced that your belief in a personal god who hear your prayers, intervenes in the world, etc. is both delusional and harmful to the world we share. Delusional because it is maintained in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence and harmful because it promotes irrationality and conflict. In other words, your religious beliefs do not warrant respect. Telling me that I should respect your religious beliefs is comparable to claiming that I should respect the racist beliefs of a white supremacist.

When you protest the release date of a movie I'd like to see, I have to laugh at your implicit expectation that Christmas means anything to me whatsoever. If you want to celebrate, please do so. In fact, I wish you the best and hope that your celebration is wonderful. Seriously. But don't make the mistake of assuming that I will be celebrating with you. You claim, "It's not enough to ignore and omit Christmas, but now it has to be offended, insulted and desecrated. Our most sacred holiday, actually a holy day, is being assaulted." But you must remember that your sacred day does not mean anything to me at all. I see no reason to pretend that it does.

Your expression of outrage over efforts by atheists to lower the volume of your church bells which have been playing religious music over a public downtown area seems a little silly. The church's sound system was purchased with tax dollars. Not everyone wants to hear your music. Can you imagine me purchasing a sound system with your tax dollars and then playing Satanic heavy metal throughout your downtown? If so, you can probably relate. Just think about how absurd it would be for me to then claim that you were not respecting my Satanic beliefs. The thing is, you don't usually seem to bother with putting yourself in anyone else's shoes. Your bible tells you that you are better than everyone who does not share your beliefs, and you accept this. This leads you to interpret this request as an undeserved attack on your precious Christian beliefs. Again, you assume that atheists should respect these beliefs.

When you protest a CBS television show in which Charlie Sheen sings about his sexual escapades to the tune of "Joy to the World," you assume that your beliefs are somehow off limits to criticism.
Such actions send a signal from CBS and Hollywood: "It’s ok to bash Christians, their religion and their God."
Yes. When you put absurd beliefs into the public form, they will be criticized. It is okay to "bash" your religious beliefs. These beliefs are not sacred to me, so do not expect me to pretend that they are. Your religious beliefs are delusional and destructive, making them undeserving of respect. As I continue to speak out against them, please recognize that I am not attacking you. I can still respect you without respecting your religious beliefs at all. I have no interest in condemning you. Rather, I hope that you will eventually come to recognize the many fatal flaws in these beliefs and adopt a more reality-based belief system.

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Edwards Enters 2008 Presidential Race

I am happy to hear that John Edwards is poised to enter the 2008 Presidential race. During the 2004 campaign, I found him to be quite a bit more charismatic than Kerry but clearly less experienced. At the time, I remember thinking that he could be a viable candidate in a few more years. Now I think he just might be what the Democrats need to put up a fight in '08.

I have said before that I believe Hillary Clinton is simply too divisive. I fear that she would rally the conservative base like nothing we've seen this side of gay marriage. Many of them would need no more reason to oppose her than her gender. As if that weren't bad enough, I'm not sure her support among Democrats is going to be that strong. Should she run against a moderate Republican, I'd give her little chance of success.

The other name heard a great deal lately is Obama. While I like what I've seen from him so far, I fear that his inexperience would be an issue. He might make a good choice as a VP, but I'm just not sure he has enough of a record yet for '08.

With Edwards, one gets name recognition, charisma, fundraising ability, a sense of humor, a political record, and a clear commitment to progressive values. I think what I like most about Edwards is how active he's been lately toward actually doing something about poverty. It seems like he really believes in what he's doing, and that is refreshingly rare in politics.

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December 16, 2006

Stay Warm, Pacific Northwest

Having lived in both Oregon and Washington State for a number of years, I have an appreciation for how unusual this winter storm is for that part of the country and how poorly prepared the area is to deal with something like that. It sounds like prolonged power outages plus cold temperatures could be a real problem, especially in the coastal communities. Time to break out the long underwear and fire up those wood stoves.

This time of year, I can't help but wonder what residents of the Pacific Northwest might have done to offend Jee-zuhs. I haven't heard any pronouncements from Jerry or Pat yet, so maybe things will be okay. After going through Katrina, I have extra sympathy for victims of a wrathful Jee-zuhs. Take care all. My thoughts are with you.

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The New Atheism on NPR

Thanks to Unscrewing the Inscrutable for alerting me to a great NPR story on atheism. It is nice to know that the media periodically remembers that we exist. It also has some good Sam Harris quotes. You can listen to it here.

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December 15, 2006

Want a Free Copy of The God Who Wasn't There DVD?

How would you like a free copy of The God Who Wasn't There DVD? All you have to do is post a video of yourself on YouTube saying "I deny the Holy Spirit." For the details on this great deal, visit The Blasphemy Challenge.

Thanks to Pharyngula for the tip.

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Book Review: Letter to a Christian Nation

You may have noticed that I've been reading Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris. After reading the diminutive 91-page book twice and taking some time to reflect on its contents, I'm ready to offer my review.

To get your most likely question out of the way first, readers of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason will find little in the way of new material here. For the freethinking reader, End of Faith is easier to recommend. While far from perfect, it offers a broader scope and more detailed arguments. Of course, it was also written with a different purpose and a different audience in mind. Nevertheless, Letter has merit as a concise summary of portions of End of Faith. It was an enjoyable read, even if it did little beyond reinforcing my views of Christianity.

To evaluate Letter to a Christian Nation and grasp what I believe is the book's central flaw, one must identify the target audience. Harris says that he wrote this book for a subgroup of Christians we could characterize as fundamentalist, socially conservative Christians who read their bibles literally. Writing a book for this audience guarantees Harris of two things. First, members of this target audience are the least likely persons to actually read the book, insuring that Harris' expressed intent of reaching them is doomed to fail. In the brief introduction, Harris informs the reader that his intent in this book is to "demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity." Can you imagine a fundamentalist Christian reading beyond that sentence?

Second, and far more problematic in my opinion, is that most of those who do actually read the book will see little relevance for them. Freethinkers will enjoy it, as it reinforces our views on Christian extremism. However, the large group of potential readers characterized by Harris as liberal or moderate Christians will simply conclude that he is right about extremist Christians but fail to acknowledge their responsibility for the maintenance of extremism (End of Faith was much more effective in this regard). I believe the book would be far more effective if it was directed toward moderate Christians, a group which contains many relatively open-minded individuals who might actually consider the information presented to them. As good as it was in parts, End of Faith was too unfocused, deviating on many irrelevant tangents. I sincerely hope that Harris will follow Letter with a similar book aimed at moderate Christians.

Letter is organized effectively in such a way that it permits Harris to attack (and the tone is quite attacking throughout the book) Christian extremism wherever it is vulnerable. Harris starts with the veracity of the Christian bible, moves onto morality, takes on the "evil atheist" myth, skillfully addresses the problem of evil, dismisses prophecy, tackles science and religion, and concludes with religious violence. In the slim volume, Harris provides freethinkers with powerful but concise arguments for opposing Christian extremists. This is where Harris really shines. In what has to be my favorite sentence of the whole book, he responds to the issue of religious tolerance by writing:
"Religion raises the stakes of human conflict much higher than tribalism, racism, or politics ever can, as it is the only form of in-group/out-group thinking that casts the differences between people in terms of eternal rewards and punishments."
I will remember that the next time a Christian argues that religion has been misused by bad people but does not actually lead to conflict itself.

Despite its flaws, I do recommend Letter to freethinkers, especially those who do not already have End of Faith on their bookshelves. In addition, I recommend this book to Christians who are not completely closed to the possibility that their religious beliefs are maladaptive. I actually bought a few extra copies of this book to give as Christmas gifts this year. Even if the book isn't ideally suited to moderate Christians, I imagine it will provoke some thought and discussion.

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December 14, 2006

The Persecution of Believers

I don't usually find myself in agreement with George Will, although I certainly respect his intellect. However, I thought this brief article on religion in America was worth sharing.

I am encouraged by the numbers he cites which indicate a doubling of the number of nonbelievers between 1990 and 2001. Similarly, it is nice to see some recognition that politicians may be starting to think twice about atheist-bashing. It will be interesting to see how the mid-term elections affect this. Finally, I appreciate Will's observation about the unrealistic nature of the Christian persecution complex. This is a topic about which I have previously posted and which I continue to find fascinating. This is particularly true this time of year when complaints about a "war on Christmas" are common.

As long as Christians continue to equate disagreement and criticism with persecution, they will continue to feel persecuted. Of course feeling persecuted is quite different from being persecuted, but this point is often overlooked. As Will notes, the evidence simply does not support the sort of persecution of which they routinely claim.

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December 12, 2006

Time for Action in Darfur

According to the Catholic News Service, religious leaders in the Save Darfur Coalition are calling for a weekend of prayer to stop the violence in Darfur. Even though intercessory prayer is ineffective, I hope that their efforts to call attention to the situation in Darfur will help.

Due to a puzzling lack of media coverage on Darfur, many Americans have no idea that at least 400,000 people have been killed since 2003 in a genocide sponsored by the Sudanese government. Peace in Darfur does not appear to be one of President Bush's priorities, and this needs to change.

To learn more about the dire situation in Darfur and see what you can do to help, please visit SafeDarfur.org.

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December 11, 2006

DefCon Protest is Misguided

DefCon is asking readers to contact Wal-Mart to protest their decision to sell the Left Behind: Eternal Forces video game. The game, developed by Christian extremist and bestselling author Tim LaHaye, depicts Christian players "converting or killing non-believers which can include Jews, Muslims, and Catholics." The heart of DefCon's protest seems to center on the idea that selling this game promotes religious violence. I wonder if they are also asking Wal-Mart to stop selling the Christian bible?

I value freedom of speech, and this means that I seek to defend the freedom of individuals to create and sell material with which I do not agree or even find personally offensive. Thus, I don't see this particular protest as something worth supporting. Why must we be so quick to attempt to ban anything with which we disagree? This game could open a dialogue about the perils of religious violence and demonstrate that Christians should refrain from pointing the finger at Muslims when they support a game like this. How does removing it from store shelves accomplish anything productive?

If we ask Wal-Mart to stop selling this game, how can we not also ask them to stop selling Grand Theft Auto and countless other games? Are we really going to argue that religious violence is somehow worse than other kinds of violence? That is absurd. I would much rather keep the games on the shelves and work to educate the players. A game such as this which depicts Christians slaughtering persons from other faiths sheds considerable light on the Christian mind. I would not deprive the world of this lesson.

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December 9, 2006

How About Some Accountability?

Like most Americans, my thoughts have been turning increasingly to Iraq. With the release of The Iraq Study Group Report: The Way Forward - A New Approach (Vintage), there has been much speculation about how Bush will respond. The media's consensus appears to be that the report offers him a way out of Iraq if he wants it.

I would like to see the situation in Iraq resolved with as few casualties as possible on both sides. However, I remain frustrated that there is no sign that the Bush administration will be held accountable for deceiving the American people and launching a preemptive war to accomplish ideological goals rather than to suppress an actual threat. It isn't that nobody is calling for the administration to be held accountable (see United States v. George W. Bush et al.), but Congress does not seem particularly interested.

Admittedly, this is a difficult call. In the immediate aftermath of the Democratic wins in Congress, I remember having mixed feelings about the newly elected Democratic leaders saying that they had no intention of pursuing impeachment proceedings against Bush. I understood their reasoning - that the American people would quickly tire of partisan bickering and might regret having elected them in the first place. On the other hand, I remember feeling disappointed that Bush and his cronies would get away with misleading the country into war.

I now find myself leaning more toward wanting to see some accountability. I would like to see a bipartisan investigation of the Bush administration aimed at uncovering the manner in which intelligence information was manipulated for political gain. Was Bush merely a innocent pawn in a neoconservative plot to increase American power in the Middle East, or was he one of the key players driving this? I would not call for impeachment unless the facts support it, and I actually hope that they do not. However, I want to see the people who were probably behind this mistake (e.g., Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, etc.) held responsible if they were in fact responsible.

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December 7, 2006

The Paradox of Intolerance

Bad Religion, Barcelona
Bad Religion, Barcelona (Photo credit: alterna2)
If you are an atheist, it is likely that you have first-hand experience with religious intolerance. You have learned to hold your tongue in certain situations (e.g., family gatherings where religious persons are involved, around religious co-workers or supervisors, etc.), and you have probably experienced as least some adverse consequences for failing to do so in other situations. You are fully aware that many believers despise you, fear you, and misunderstand you. If you've spent any time studying religious texts, such as the Christian bible, you have learned that these negative attitudes are not simply a twisted interpretation of religion but painfully clear in the texts themselves.

Of course, if you are an atheist who has expressed your lack of belief, it is equally likely that you have been accused of being intolerant yourself. You are perceived as hating religion and religious believers. You want to ban their "holy" texts, prevent them from engaging in their cherished rituals (all of which seem to involve public displays and proselytism), and even end their "sacred" holidays. In other words, it is you and not they who are the real purveyors of intolerance.

This paradox of intolerance has become something of a pet issue for me, as I find it occupying my thoughts as much as any other topic. The moment an atheist expressed criticism of religion he or she is attacked as being intolerant. I have blogged about it before, and I'm quite confident I shall do so again. I believe that there is a way out of the paradox, but I recognize that it will not be an easy sell as far as believers are concerned. Besides, I'm not convinced that I've managed to completely resolve this paradox for myself yet.

Let me begin by saying that I value human diversity and believe that promoting tolerance is a worthy goal for any civilized society. At the same time, I reject the notion that all human differences deserve equal respect and tolerance. For example, I have no interest in being tolerant of racism, sexism, homophobia, or other forms of irrational hatred. Thus, we should not be held to the expectation that we must be tolerant of intolerance. These beliefs are divisive, lack justifying evidence, and foster conflict. We should not tolerate them.

As we start to consider religion, things appear to get a bit more complicated. Am I not being intolerant by criticizing religious belief? But in this way, religious belief bears very little difference to racism and the other previous examples. It is divisive (e.g., believers are pitted against non-believers and believers from other religious traditions). It not only lacks evidence of justifying belief, but it lacks any evidence whatsoever and goes as far as to make claims about reality that have been discredited by science. Finally, religion fosters conflict through its divisive nature and by elevating believers to a status above everyone else (i.e., the conviction that one is part of a "chosen people" surrounded by evil infidels permits all sorts of atrocities). Like other forms of intolerance, tolerance of religious belief is a liability.

When your beliefs become maladaptive, promoting irrationality and condoning conflict, hatred, exclusion, and a host of other adverse effects, I am not under any obligation to be tolerant of them. In fact, I am morally obligated to speak out against them.

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December 5, 2006

Bush as a Religious Leader?

I recently watched a Ted Koppel special on the Discovery Channel called "Iran: The Most Dangerous Nation." It was interesting, and I continue to be appalled by how little most Americans know about this country and how blindly many follow our elected leaders without understanding the implications of their policies for the region. But this is not going to be the point of this post. As suggested by the title, I have something else in mind.

During the special, Koppel was interviewing an articulate Muslim woman who, in a very matter-of-fact tone, referred to President Bush as "a religious leader." Bush as a religious leader? How could she think that? Falwell, Robertson, and until recently, Haggard - these are religious leaders. Not Bush. The woman noted that Bush regularly speaks from office about his religious faith, going so far as to say that America's invasion of Iraq was the will of his god. Maybe she has a point.

The more I thought about this, the more I started to realize how Bush must appear to much of the Muslim world. They are used to living in a society where religion and politics are virtually inseparable and where religious leaders have more power than political leaders. When they hear an American President flaunting his Christianity, claiming that his god tells him what to do, etc., it is reasonable for them to conclude that they are listening to a religious leader.

I have been so focused on my experience and the experience of countless other secular Americans living in a society where we are devalued that I've devoted insufficient time to considering the international implications of Christian extremism in America. Each time Bush puts his foot in his mouth, this echoes around the world. When the content of his blunders are religious, this has serious implications for how America is perceived in the Muslim world. Of course many Muslims think America is waging a holy war against them! Given Bush's comments, why wouldn't they think this?

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December 3, 2006

Bathing in a Sonic Ocean of Dogma

This time of year, it is easy to feel bombarded by all things Christmas the moment one leaves one's house. Mine is one of the few houses on my street with no Christmas decorations. A few doors down, a neighbor has a full nativity scene in the front yard. Downtown I encounter Christmas decorations purchases with city funds. Every store I enter features decorations and music. Ah, that Christmas music. Song after song about Jesus and his divinity, with occasional mentions of Santa Claus for the kiddies.

Andrew Bernardin at A Daily Dose of Doubt asks whether he is the only one offended by what he describes as an "involuntary audio bath in dogma." No Andrew, you are certainly not alone. I'm not sure if "offended" is the best label for how I feel. For me, being offended generally includes some element of surprise (i.e., I can't believe they are doing such and such). In this situation, I don't have this reaction. I expect the pervasive noise pollution each December. So what terms would I use to describe by emotional reaction? I'm probably somewhere between "annoyed" and "disgusted" when encountering this celebration of ancient superstition.

Andrew does an excellent job of describing his thought process when the music strikes his ears. He tries to reassure himself that the Jesus music comes from an understandable human desire to celebrate tradition.
I attempted to temper my feelings of having my ears and beliefs violated with this line of reasoning: It's just folk music. They're telling stories about folk heroes.
Andrew then remembers that lives have been ruined - even lost - for the crime of not believing in the phenomena described by these songs. He realizes that many people today think less of him for not believing in them himself.

Like Andrew, I would prefer that all the Christ stuff be kept out of the public sphere, whether it is December or any other month. However, I recognize that this is may be an unrealistic expectation. When a business chooses to play this music, they are catering to the majority of employees and shoppers. As long as their competitors are doing the same, I'm not sure anybody can question the soundness of this business decision. However, by catering to the wishes of the Christian majority, they are alienating non-believers and non-Christian believers. I can't imagine that Jews are going to be any more thrilled than I am with having to hear about Jesus each time they go shopping.

I do not do much shopping any time of year, and December is no different. Other than weekly trips to the grocery store and periodic trips to home improvement stores, I meet most of my minimal shopping needs online. Much like Andrew, I try to avoid the businesses that can be counted on to play the most Jesus-centric music this time of year. If I wanted to go to church, I would go. I don't - I want to be able to shop without being bombarded by religious nonsense. What I hadn't considered until reading Andrew's post was going the next step and letting the businesses I avoid know why they are losing my business.

For some information on the fascinating history of the War on Christmas, check out Chronicles of the Beast.

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December 1, 2006

Misconception About Atheism

In previous posts, I have addressed many common misconceptions about atheists, but an important misconception remains about the whole of atheism. This particular misconception is difficult to classify and appears to involve a synthesis of several of those which I addressed previously. It is used to stimulate fear, and I predict that it will become more popular as more atheists gain prominence. This misconception concerns what I will refer to as the "atheist agenda." It can be stated as follows:

Misconception: There is an atheist agenda which includes the complete eradication of religion, the systematic persecution of believers, and maybe even mass murder.

Lest you think that I am making up this misconception only to dispel it, I will direct you to this recent article in The Christian Science Monitor. As you can see, this misconception involves the belief that theism is the only thing keeping us from murdering each other. Nice view of human nature, isn't it? Of course, atheism is not synonymous with Communism, and the crimes mentioned in this article were not committed in the name of atheism at all.

As I have previously suggested, atheists are a diverse group without any common political position. Political organization has never been our strength, and you can find atheists throughout the political spectrum. In fact, we even lack uniformity in our stance on religion. However, our lack of a consensus position pales in comparison to a far more obvious issue: this misconception is based on a fundamental misunderstanding about the very definition of atheism.

Since I have addressed this elsewhere, I'll keep it brief here. Theism refers to the belief in a god or gods, and atheism is simply the absence of such a belief. Atheists do have something in common with each other - we would not answer "yes" to the question of whether a god or gods exist. That's it. Many atheists are not naturalists, not materialists, not liberals, etc. In fact, I've even encountered an atheist who rejects evolution! To assume that atheist entails any of these other beliefs, even naturalism, is a mistake. There is nothing to stop an atheist from believing in ghosts. Such a belief does not make anyone less of an atheist (although it certainly calls into question one's rationality).

Okay, so there is no atheist agenda. But let's consider the second part of the misconception anyway. If there was an atheist agenda, is there any reason to believe that it would involve the eradication of religion, persecution of believers, and mass murder? As for the eradication of religion, there are certainly some prominent atheist voices calling for this very thing. Some atheists clearly want to abolish religion; many others do not. I could imagine a scenario where religious belief is devalued, but I would be surprised if most atheists were bent on destroying it. Personally, I hope my fellow humans will outgrow religion, move beyond it, etc., but attempting to ban religion is not compatible with the value I place on freedom.

Of course, I'm not aware of any atheists who strive to persecute others or engage in mass murder. In fact, I believe that an ethical code based on secular humanism would be far more tolerant for human differences that would one based on religion. This is probably a subject better reserved for another post, but I'll refer the interested reader to Atheist Ethicist, Atheism Unlimited, and Ministerturnsatheist.

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