February 28, 2007

Know Them By Their Deeds: Christian Parents Beat Son to Death

Remember all those knock offs of America's Funniest Videos? One was called Kids Say the Darndest Things and featured, as you'd expect, humorous clips of kids. Kids do say the "darndest things," and most of us delight in it because it reveals their innocence and reminds us what it is like to view the world through the eyes of a child. Unfortunately, not all parents find what their children say to be cute or endearing. This is the disturbing tale of a Georgia couple who killed their 8 year-old after the child claimed to be a "soldier of the devil."

Before you protest that these were obviously crazy parents and that their motivation had nothing to do with religion, there are some facts of which you should be aware. First, the father claims that he regularly beat his son "because the child carved death threats on the walls and claimed to be a 'soldier of the devil.'" Second, the parents told police that their son died after an internet-linked prayer session with their church. Third, authorities actually raided the parents' church in this case because of its support for corporal punishment.

There is a fine line between religious faith and mental illness, and it seems particularly blurry in this case. Our culture is quick to defend religious beliefs but less so to defend the sort of atrocities committed in the name of religion. This is a good thing, however, I cannot resist commenting how unfortunate it is that even cases like this rarely lead to any probing discussion of what people are taught at their churches and in their bibles.

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February 26, 2007

I Believe in the Awe-Inspiring Natural World

nature
(Photo credit: vjack)
Following up on my post about the importance of atheists articulating what we do believe, it is time for another addition. I believe in the natural world and use the word "reality" to refer to the natural world. That is, I believe that the natural world exists and that it is all that exists. Thus, I am a materialist in the philosophical sense (i.e., I reject all notions of a supernatural realm). Far from being the nihilism with which atheists are frequently accused, this is an awe-inspiring worldview.

Many atheists probably share my belief that the natural world is all that exists, however it is not synonymous with atheism. One can be an atheist and still believe in ghosts, monsters, demons, etc. However, I do not. I believe that ghosts, angels, demons, etc. are fictional constructs which do not exist in the real (i.e., natural) world.

Truth is not a democratic construct, so the fact that the majority of people believe in something like angels has no bearing on whether angels actually exist. Truth is not based on wish-fulfillment so the fact that millions of people desperately want there to be angels does not mean that there are. Truth is not subjective in the sense that it would be absurd to claim that angels exist for some people but not for others. They either exist or they do not; they do not.

The Existence of Supernatural Entities

How do we know that supernatural entities, forces, etc. do not exist? First of all, it is worth noting that there is no evidence to support the existence of supernatural beings. At the same time we are learning about the natural world, there is no unambiguous evidence of anything supernatural. Does this mean that supernatural beings cannot exist? No, but it makes their existence highly improbable and the belief in their existence clearly irrational.

Many atheists are content to stop with the question of evidence and the lack thereof. Others suggest that we can go beyond the question of evidence and arrive at the position we just temporarily discarded - that supernatural entities cannot exist.

Borrowing from a previous post and from Smith's Atheism: The Case Against God, we must understand that to say that something is supernatural is to tell us what it is not (i.e., of nature) but not what it is. But more importantly, identifying something as supernatural places it forever outside the scope of human comprehension. A supernatural entity can possess no properties or defining characteristics because such characteristics or properties are inherently restrictive with reference to the natural world. To introduce supernatural concepts is to refer to the unknowable (i.e., a being without any nature or defining characteristics). This brings us right back to the problems inherent in positing an unknowable god. A truly unknowable being cannot be believed in because one would not even know what one was believing in.

In Awe of Nature

To summarize the journey so far, I started with atheism, moved to a strong conviction that there are no gods because the god concept itself is fundamentally incoherent and lacks a shred of supportive evidence, and now equate reality with the natural world, rejecting anything supernatural. This brings me to something much broader than atheism but something which many people continue to confuse with atheism. It also brings me to what many theists perceive as being void of meaning.

I've never understood this perspective. Not a day goes by where I don't experience my surroundings with a sense of awe. Perhaps it is a beautiful sunset, a colorful bird at one of my many feeders, an interesting cloud formation, or one of the many forms of human beauty with which I am surrounded. The fact that I can understand what I am seeing does not diminish the awe and appreciation with which I experience it. In fact, I am convinced that it enhances my experience.

The common religious claim that atheists are missing an important part of human existence and lead empty lives as a result is beyond absurd. I am passionate about learning everything I can about the fascinating world in which I find myself. Every step toward understanding fuels my excitement and deepens my sense of connection to the larger whole of nature. I have no need or desire to worship gods, man, nature, or anything else for that matter. I am clear-headed enough not to confuse what I experience with some form of spirituality for I derive no benefit from positing superfluous constructs to explain my experience.

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February 25, 2007

Book Preview: A 21st Century Rationalist in Medieval America

Have you ever thought about someday turning your blog or other material you have written into a book? Wouldn't it be nice to have a model of exactly how to do this in the most effective way possible? Good news! Just such a model will be published soon in the form of A 21st Century Rationalist in Medieval America: Essays on Religion, Science, Morality, and the Bush Administration by John Bice. The book has a May 2007 publication date, but John was nice enough to send me a preview copy. In this post, I will explain exactly why you need to get your hands on this book as soon as it is available.

Unless you just started reading atheist-oriented material on the web, you have probably encountered Bice's writings before. He is a freelance writer, currently employed by Michigan State University, where he writes regular columns from a godless perspective for The State News. I have long enjoyed his columns and was thrilled to hear that he was working on a collection of his writings.

A 21st Century Rationalist is quite different from many of the atheist-oriented books you have read, both in style and in purpose. Stylistically, it offers a collection of Bice's outstanding essays on religion and politics, many of which are expanded versions of columns which originally appeared in The State News. The essays are grouped into chapters on topics such as "Weird Beliefs," "Evolution & Creationism," and "Iraq War, Media, & Patriotism," but they are presented as brief essays (often no more than 5 pages in length).

But the real departure from other atheist-oriented books lies in Bice's purpose - writing for a mainstream audience which is expected to be predominately Christian. Remember, most of these essays originally appears as newspaper columns in a widely read mainstream newspaper. This gives Bice's book a much more accessible yet still unapologetically godless tone than many of the alternatives.

A 21st Century Rationalist is easily one of the most enjoyable, thought-provoking, and quotable books I have read in years. Bice's courage in spreading the godless meme through his writings is inspiring, and he has given us a model to emulate. Make room on your bookshelf for this one.

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February 24, 2007

Action Alert: First Freedom First

The recent Department of Justice (DOJ) initiative called "First Freedom Project" sounds an awful lot like the First Freedom First campaign I have been supporting. Sadly, it turns out that this is far from the truth. While First Freedom First is about maintaining church-state separation, the DOJ's First Freedom Project is a typical Bush policy in that the title ends up mocking its true purpose, much like No Child Left Behind or the Patriot Act. Fortunately, there is something you can do.

Bush's DOJ appears to have rolled out its misleading initiative right before the Supreme Court hears Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation next week. You are going to want to follow this case because our Christian extremist government will argue that we taxpayers should not have the legal right to challenge faith-based initiatives and other government spending that clearly favors religion. For more information, see here and here.

So what can you do? Join the 100,000 and growing who have already signed the First Freedom First petition. The heart of the petition says the following:
  • Every American should have the right to make personal decisions -- about family life, reproductive health, end of life care and other matters of personal conscience.
  • American tax dollars should not go to charities that discriminate in hiring based on religious belief or that promote a particular religious faith as a requirement for receiving services.
  • Political candidates should not be endorsed or opposed by houses of worship.
  • Public schools should teach with academic integrity and without the promotion of religious preference or belief.
  • Decisions about scientific and health policies should be based on the best available scientific data, not on religious doctrine.
In addition to signing on yourself, you can help spread the word by contacting friends and family and by blogging about this.

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February 23, 2007

Superstition in Presidential Politics: Implications for Obama

Shortly after Sen. Barack Obama announced his candidacy for the American Presidency, the Christian power structure sprang to life. Was this a candidate that they could endorse? You see, it is evident that a sizable number of American Christians have no intention of butting out of politics. They believe that voting their Christian values is the most important consideration, far overriding any need to keep church and state separate.

According to Christian Newswire, Rev. Rob Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council, released the following statement about Obama:
"Barack Obama began his presidential campaign today with the words, 'All honor and glory to God.' While all Christians should welcome the public acknowledgment of God by a serious presidential contender, such a bold pronouncement and infusion of Christian faith into his campaign will require much of Mr. Obama. Jesus Christ said by what measure we judge others, we will be judged. By injecting his faith so directly into his campaign, Mr. Obama has invited an examination and debate focused on his faith. Sadly, we will find Mr. Obama's Christianity woefully deficient."
Evidently, Obama's attempt to broadcast his superstition was not fooling this reverend. In fact, Obama's Christianity was declared "woefully deficient." If this seems a bit harsh, it might be helpful to recognize that Obama's faith has already been judged by Faith and Action. If you are not familiar with Faith and Action, it is an organization you should know. You see, their mission is none other than "Bringing the word of God to bear on the hearts and minds of those who make public policy in America."

Regardless of what you and I think about the importance of protecting the church-state separation upon which America was founded, we must realize that ours remains a minority position. So when Obama says that he doesn't think American voters have a "litmus test on religion," I fear that he is mistaken. Of course, he is making this statement in the context of worrying that voters might assume he is a Muslim. Perhaps, but it appears that some have already decided that whatever else Obama may be, he is not Christian enough.

Obama insists that his faith is important to him (i.e., I'm superstitious like you), and he recognizes that he must do so. He says that voters seek "a candidate [who] has a value system" and who is "appreciative of the role that religious faith can play in helping shape people’s lives." Evidently, he believes that atheists do not have value systems. I wonder where he's been getting his information about us.

I have not yet made up my mind about Obama or any of the other candidates for 2008. However, I have made up my mind that superstitious nonsense has no place in government. It is a threat to democracy.

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February 22, 2007

Secular Coalition for America Grows But Still No American Atheists

The Secular Coalition for America is the sort of umbrella organization I have long said was necessary. They are a lobbying organization focused on changing public perceptions of atheists by providing us with a political voice. An organization such as this, composed of many different atheist groups, offers a tremendous advantage because it more accurately reflects our numbers than any single organization can.

The Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers has joined the Secular Coalition (see the press release). And you thought there were no atheists in foxholes! This is a great addition to the Secular Coalition.

Unfortunately, this news reminds me of the fact that American Atheists are still not among the Secular Coalition member organizations. As I have previously noted, this seems like an obvious alliance which would be beneficial to everyone involved. I would like to see American Atheists join the Coalition.

Hat tip to Friendly Atheist.

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February 20, 2007

Do They Really Believe?

Sexta/Viernes/Friday-POSER-Deus - Dios - God
God (Photo credit: Caio Basilio)
I think that many atheists take it for granted that the vast majority of Christians believe what they say they believe. The fundamentalist Christians really do take their bibles literally, hate homosexuals, oppose abortion, etc. The liberal Christians really do care about the environment, hope to reduce poverty, and wish their fundamentalist brethren would think before speaking. But what if we're wrong? What if many, even most, Christians do not actually believe much of what they profess?

Aaron at Kill the Afterlife has a great post about the recent tornadoes in Florida and how at least one pastor has responded. He raises many excellent questions about the nature and limitations of faith, prompting me to add my thoughts here.

After several tornadoes killed 20 people, damaged over a thousand homes, and destroyed a church in Lady Lake, the pastor of this church called for his parishioners to praise their imaginary god. Aaron notes that this pastor seems to forget about the death and devastation his god just caused, focusing instead on how his parishioners presumably managed to escape unharmed. He points out that this pastor is trying to have it both ways: his god did not cause the storm but did save the congregation. The absurdity here and the refusal (or inability) of most believers to see it makes me want to scream.

The crux of Aaron's post is the following:

Theists never really expect their faith to actually do anything other than make them feel better emotionally. The object of their faith didn't create those tornadoes, nor will it actually rebuild their church and their town. Appropriately, these faithful will not blame the devastation on their God. Yet strangely, once these flesh and blood people finish rebuilding their community, they will scramble to be the first to thank their God for fixing everything!

At the very least, these people will claim that God gave them the hope and/or emotional strength needed to rebuild their town. They will do anything to make their imaginary friend appear necessary. Who are they trying to convince, anyway? Perhaps themselves?
As I read this, I can't help wondering how much of what they profess is actually believed by these Christians. If their god did not send the tornadoes and if their god will not actually rebuild their destroyed town, what good is their god? Aaron is right that these people will thank their god and that they will claim that their strength to face adversity came from this god. But why doesn't their god actually do anything to help like the god described in the Christian bible is reported to have done?

Could it be that these Christians find hope, emotional strength, and the courage to face adversity in the act of believing itself? Perhaps many Christians know (at some level) that their god is fiction but they find their belief useful in some way and maintain it for that reason. This belief would be fragile, require faith, and would need frequent reinforcement, justification, and defense. We could almost characterize this as a form of intentional self-delusion, except that proper indoctrination would minimize the degree of intentionality. Could this help to explain the massive disconnect between what Christians say they believe and how many live their lives?

Alternatively, perhaps many Christians do not actually maintain these beliefs but simply the charade of belief. In other words, they know their god is imaginary and do not actually believe but maintain a deliberate facade of belief because it is useful. There would be nothing delusional about this whatsoever. The appearance of belief serves a function, and the appearance is maintained without necessarily requiring much in the way of actual belief.

Ted Haggard certainly did not live in accordance with what he claimed to believe. If he actually believed what he claimed to believe, it is extremely difficult to explain his behavior without resorting to mental illness. However, if he did not believe what he claimed to believe, he might be little more than a skilled con-man.

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February 19, 2007

Kudos to Kansas: Science Returns to Science Class

After much high-profile controversy over whether to teach religious nonsense alongside actual science in science classrooms, Kansas has approved evolution as part of their science standards. Not only is this a temporary defeat for creationists, but it represents a much needed recognition that science should be...well...scientific.
"The board on Tuesday removed language suggesting that key evolutionary concepts — such as a common origin for all life on Earth and change in species creating new ones — were controversial and being challenged by new research. Also approved was a new definition of science, specifically limiting it to the search for natural explanations of what is observed in the universe."
This is only the latest in a long series of defeats creationists have suffered, but they are not going away anytime soon. Recognizing that science education poses a significant threat to their efforts to perpetuate their superstition, they are unlikely to abandon efforts to control the educational curriculum.
"The Board of Education’s swing back wasn’t likely to settle the issue, given many Kansans’ religious objections and other misgivings about evolution."
Religious objections to science, huh? Really? So, you'd prefer to deprive America's children from the opportunity to learn the foundation of modern biology by filling their heads with misinformation and false controversy? Does it not bother you at all that this will continue to jeopardize America's ability to compete with the rest of the world? Are you really okay with giving up a leadership role in what could well be the future of medicine?

And you want to know why atheists are angry!

Hat tip to DefCon Blog.

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February 18, 2007

Atheist Revolution Video Collection

The growing popularity of YouTube is undeniable. As I find interesting video clips across the web, I have been saving them to my YouTube favorites. I have now created a playlist (Atheist Revolution Video Collection) containing those videos dealing with atheism, freethought, godlessness, etc. which should be of interest to readers of Atheist Revolution. I will continue to add to this playlist as I find suitable content, but I thought it was time to share what is there so far.

February 17, 2007

Mixed Feelings on the Iraq Escalation

I've always voted for the Democrats, and I have no question that progressive values are a better guide for America than the "family values" preached by conservatives. Still, I have some difficulty sticking to the party line that America should rapidly withdraw from Iraq because the Iraqi people are somehow not honoring their obligation to maintain their own security. In all honesty, I suppose you could say that this is a question on which I am still undecided.

The American invasion and widespread destruction of Iraq were unjust and clearly a mistake. There were no links between Al Qaeda and Iraq, Saddam bore no demonstrable responsibility for 9/11, and Iraq had no WMDs. The American people were misled to war and will pay the price of this betrayal for decades. The eventual outcome in this region, no matter how positive it could someday be, does not change these fact. The ends do not justify the means. The neocons took us into Iraq largely because of oil and the hope of permanent military bases. They ordered the destruction of the infrastructure as a show of superior force and to secure lucrative contacts for Halliburton.

Regardless of why we went into Iraq, we are there now and have to find a workable way out. I understand why the American people want our troops to come home safely and soon. I share this sentiment. No more Americans (or Iraqis) should have to die in this unnecessary conflict. When Democrats call for a timetable, benchmarks, phased redeployment, etc., I tend to agree. Bush's plan to escalate the conflict with his "surge" represents more of the same losing strategy. I expect that it will have some short-term successes but will fail over time. Thus, I believe that much of what the Democrats are saying should be heeded.

At the same time, I am ashamed to be a citizen of a country who overthrew Saddam for no justifiable reason and now blames the Iraqis for not cleaning up our mess fast enough. How could our neocon government have been so ignorant of the tensions in Iraq which Saddam held together? Now that we have made mistake after mistake in how we approached the post-invasion period, we have the nerve to talk of the Iraqi people somehow letting us down. We created this situation, and this carries the responsibility of setting it right.

Continued occupation increases international hatred of America and the terrorist threats that go with it, but a rapid withdrawal would almost certainly open the door to ethnic cleansing and wholesale slaughter. This is no easy decision. Rather than pressuring Congress to decide one way or another, I encourage them simply to debate the issue. There are valid points on both sides, and they should be debated.

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February 16, 2007

Keep Superstition Out of the Courtroom

I call your attention to a short letter published in the Fayetteville Observer by Roy Speckhardt, Executive Director of the American Humanist Association. Speckhardt argues that courtroom oaths should be secular and to attempt to incorporate all possible religions is absurd. He's right.

Should a witness be required to swear an oath on the Christian bible? Of course not! America may be a Christian nation in the sense that the majority of Americans profess their Christianity, but this is simply not relevant here. Why would a Christian want a non-Christian to swear on a bible in the first place? Doesn't the Christian realize that an oath sworn over something that is not meaningful to the swearer has no value?

What is the optimal solution given that we live in a multicultural society with great religious diversity? Do we have Christians swear on bibles, Muslims on Qurans, Scientologists on Hubbard, etc., and how much of this are we really prepared to accommodate? Before commenting on the absurdity, Speckhardt raises the logistical question about whether we start asking people to bring their own book to court for this purpose.

Of course, Speckhardt also raises the critical question: How are a witness' religious beliefs (or lack thereof) even relevant here? He concludes that they are not and that any oaths deemed necessary should be secular.

I can hear the inevitable protests which will follow (and isn't it interesting how they always come first from Christians?). There will be a chorus of complaints about how secularism is a religion (it isn't), about how secular oaths represent the persecution of Christians (they don't), or about how Christians should be entitled to ram their beliefs down the throats of the unwilling (they shouldn't). But the lesson here is clear - ending religious discrimination requires us to honor the secular roots of our system of government.

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February 15, 2007

Know Them By Their Deeds: Priest Assaults Parish Worker

According to an AP report in the Union-Tribune (San Diego), a Catholic priest has been arrested in Arizona on suspicion of sexually assaulting a Vegas parish worker. The priest is wanted in Las Vegas for "attempted murder, sexual assault, kidnapping and battery with a deadly weapon." I wonder how many hail-Marys that will require?
The woman told Las Vegas police that she was sitting at her desk when Chaanine broke a full bottle of wine over her head, grabbed her by the hair and dragged her down a hall toward his office.

She fought back, lost consciousness, and awoke with Chaanine groping her, according to the police report. She continued fighting until Chaanine straddled her and grabbed her throat. She told detectives she began to pray for her life before the attack suddenly stopped.
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February 13, 2007

I Believe That No Gods Exist

No Gods IMage
No Gods IMage (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Following up on my post about the importance of atheists articulating what we do believe, it is time to begin. I start with a small but important step. While atheism refers to the lack of theistic belief and need not imply an active rejection of theism, I go an additional step in my beliefs. I believe that there are no gods of any kind.

Many atheists will undoubtedly join me in this additional belief that there are no gods, but it is not necessary that they do so in order to be counted as an atheist. Still, this will be a familiar position to anyone with even minimal familiarity to atheism.

What makes me willing to take this additional step? After all, theists are correct to claim that one cannot prove the nonexistence of their particular god (or anything else for that matter). Thus, it is technically possible that some sort of god exists, right? Not so fast. Before we can determine whether the existence of some particular god is possible, we must know what is meant by "god" and what properties this god is presumed to have.

What is god?

According to George Smith, author of Atheism: The Case Against God, all modern conceptions of monotheistic gods include at least two common properties. First, god is presumed to be supernatural. Second, god is presumed to be unknowable. Can a being with these properties exist?

Following Smith's excellent analysis, we realize that saying a being is supernatural tells us almost nothing about the being. We know that it is somehow apart from nature, but we have learned nothing about what it is. If a child asks me what a horse is, and a reply that a horse is a being without wings, the child is unlikely to be satisfied. In the same way, attempting to define god with the attribute of "supernatural" tells us nothing.

Far worse, the idea of a supernatural being may well be incomprehensible. We know of nothing that exists outside of nature. It is highly suspect that we can even entertain such notions. This brings us to the notion that god is inherently unknowable, somehow beyond the grasp of human understanding.

Many believers will be all too happy to proclaim that no human can possibly know the mind of god, that "god works in mysterious ways," or that we cannot possibly understand "god's plan." Such claims not only fail to tell us anything about what god might be; they tell us that attempts at understanding are likely to be futile.

Part of why I do not believe in any sort of god is that this undefined and unknowable entity makes no sense to me. I have yet to encounter an intelligible concept of god that is not logically incoherent. Since it is logically impossible to believe in something that has no definition and no informative properties, here I am.

Where is the evidence?

In all cases of human belief except for one, there is an expectation that evidence is required to justify belief. The one exception is in matters of religion. No other sort of belief claim is so routinely viewed as being exempt from this evidentiary requirement. And yet, this is precisely what must happen when one is dealing with an undefined and unknowable entity such as god.

Because believers refuse to commit to any sort of definition of god, they can change the rules at will. "Well, that might be evidence against that sort of god, but that isn't the god I believe in." Never mind that they appear to have no idea what the god they supposedly believe in truly is (i.e., the properties of this god).

I see no reason to grant an exception to the requirement of evidence, especially when I am expected to believe in something unknowable and without definition. After all, how could I even know if I believed in this unknowable and undefined entity in the first place?

Spotlight on the Christian god

I tend to focus on the Christian concept of god because it is the one with which I am the most familiar due to my upbringing and the culture in which I live. This concept of god suffers from the same flaws I have discussed above.

I am familiar with the arguments which have been offered to suggest that this sort of god might exist, and I have found them lacking. Thus, I see no reason to believe in this sort of god. Nothing more than the exercise of reason is necessary for me to conclude that it is far more probable that this god does not exist than it is that this god does exist.

There is absolutely no evidence to support the existence of the Christian god or any other sort of god. Thus, believing in any god would be irrational. While no human can claim to be 100% rational, I certainly strive toward rationality rather than intentionally turning my back on it. The absence of evidence does not equate disproof of existence, it certainly makes it more likely, especially when the very concept is declared to be unknowable.

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February 12, 2007

Happy Darwin Day!

Today (Feb. 12) is Darwin Day. For some ideas on how to celebrate, see this announcement at ReligiousRightWatch. I applaud their suggestion about joining the National Center for Science Education. Even if you don't have the money to join now, I encourage you to familiarize yourself with their organization. They do good work, and their site is a great place to get information on the state of science education in American schools.

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February 11, 2007

Evolution Sunday

Today is Evolution Sunday. What's the matter - don't you remember that holiday from back when you used to be a Christian? Yeah, me neither. What exactly is Evolution Sunday? Evidently, this is the one day a year on which believers pay lip service to the value of science.

According to this article in the Mercury News, Evolution Sunday is observed by approximately 500 American churches. It is a day when some clergy express their belief that science and faith can be reconciled. Of course, the date is linked to Darwin's birthday tomorrow.

The article notes that Evolution Sunday is "part of a movement to provide a moderate voice in the divisive debate between creation and evolution that has often pitted the faithful against the scientists." In most cases, I think there is some value in such moderate positions, but I'm not so sure about this one.

When religion makes claims about the natural world, which it inevitably does, it tends to place itself at odds with science. These religious claims are shattered by science, forcing believers to modify their interpretations of their ancient text or actively oppose science.

A letter signed by an 10,500 members of the clergy (which does not appear to include any of our beloved fundies) states that they "believe the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably co-exist." Timeless truths? Really? Like what? I don't buy the claim that science and religion provide answers to separate realms of existence or that religion offers us anything science does not.

Believers often claim that religion answers the question of why we are here. Unfortunately, the "answers" to this question provided by religion are no more valid than those we could derive from pure fantasy. Christians will join us in laughing at Scientology's answer to this question but will protest when we point out that their answer is no less absurd.

The battle over evolution, and particularly the prominent role it deserves in science education, is fundamentally a quest for believers to figure out how to reconcile archaic beliefs with the modern world. If Evolution Sunday is to be anything more than another empty ritual, believers are going to need to confront the many cases in which their beliefs are inconsistent with reality.

Also see:
  • Pharyngula's reaction to Evolution Sunday.
  • Stardust Musings and Thoughts for the Freethinker

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    February 10, 2007

    "Then What Do You Believe?"

    English: Atheist avatar.
    English: Atheist avatar. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
    Christians often have many questions when encountering an atheist. Many reflect a lack of scientific knowledge (e.g., "Then how did we get here?"), a lack of moral development (e.g., "If there is no god, why should we be good?"), or just a lack of imagination (e.g., "Then what do you worship?"). However, there is at least one valid question to which more of us should be prepared to provide meaningful answers.

    A Christian who recognizes that atheism refers only to the lack of theistic belief and not to some broad agenda, philosophy, or alternative religion, sometimes asks an excellent question: "I understand that you do not accept the existence of any gods, but I'm curious about what you do believe." Many atheists are too quick to dismiss this question as irrelevant or even provoking, but it is not necessarily either of these things. It may represent a genuine attempt to understand the worldview of the particular atheist being questioned.

    As we consider this question, one critical disclaimer must be offered at the outset. Because atheism has no doctrine, set of core values, or even shared vision of the world, no honest atheist will have much to say about how his/her fellow atheists think. Since atheism implies nothing besides a lack of theistic belief, one must expect tremendous diversity among atheists. I have met atheists who believe in ghosts and others who do not. All they necessarily share is that they do not believe in gods. This may be difficult for some Christians to grasp because they do have at least some shared doctrine.

    To understand the importance of the question we are considering, imagine that you encounter someone who informs you that he does not believe in fairies. Regardless of what you think about fairies, this man has told you very little. You know that he does not believe in fairies, but you know absolutely nothing about what else he may or may not believe. Such is the case with atheists. Those of us who think it is important to provide believers with an alternative worldview are going to need to offer something beyond atheism.

    To do my part, I am going to use this post as a springboard to periodically address what I do believe in and the values which inform my worldview. I will update it with links to relevant posts. That way, anyone wanting to know what besides atheism composes my worldview will find it here. I think this will be a useful exercise because it will force me to clarify my values and because it will demonstrate incompleteness of atheism.
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    February 9, 2007

    Hurricane Katrina Proved That I Don't Exist!

    It is one thing to question the existence of supernatural entities for which there is no evidence, but it is an entirely different matter to question one's own existence. Since Descartes, most of us would agree that the fact that there is something which I call "I" asking the question suggests that this "I" exists. Unfortunately, I just ran across an old news story which suggests that I do not exist.

    This story takes us all the way back to September 1, 2005, right after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. At the time the story was written, yours truly was...well, just read for yourself. Silly me. Clearly, I thought I existed at that time.
    The popular adage, "there are no atheists in the trenches" sums up the truth that in times of disaster it is natural for people to turn to God, for help and also for an explanation.
    At the time I was huddled in my closet listening to the roar of the hurricane overhead and hearing trees breaking in half all around me, a disturbing thought went through my mind. The thought was that people would use this storm to make the tired old no atheists in foxholes claim. Never mind that I felt no need to call on imaginary supernatural forces; clearly, I did not exist.

    As I was dealing with trivial concerns such as whether I had enough food and water to hold out before the governmental help (it had to come eventually, didn't it?) would arrive, the governor of Louisiana was calling for a state-wide day of prayer.
    "As we face the devastation wrought by Katrina, as we search for those in need, as we comfort those in pain and as we begin the long task of rebuilding, we turn to God for strength, hope and comfort."
    Beg your pardon Ms. Blanco, but not all of us find it necessary to resort to ancient superstitions to calm our nerves. I see no need to turn to your god now or ever. Frankly, I know that many of us would prefer food and water to futile prayers. It is difficult for me to imagine that there was no better use for Governor Blanco's time and energy.

    The real slap in the face - and yes, it still makes me mad even to this day - was the comment by the New Orleans City Council President (and echoed by many others) that the hurricane suggested that "Maybe God's going to cleanse us."
    Michael Brown, creator of the immensely popular SpiritDaily.com website - popularly known as the Catholic DrudgeReport, has said that Katrina was "definitely" a purification for New Orleans. Brown points out that the name Katrina itself means "pure". And that, Brown told LifeSiteNews.com, is not a coincidence. "I don't believe in coincidences," said Brown, adding that God has everything in His control and "I think that everything is interwoven."
    Oh, he sounded so confident - he must be right. He says he doesn't believe in coincidences, and it seems safe to infer that he probably doesn't believe in nature either. The truly sad thing is that Mr. Brown is probably not delusional (at least no more so that other theists). His perspective represents just world theory, a fairly well-understood phenomena. At least, that is what I must tell myself to calm my ire.

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    February 8, 2007

    Know Them By Their Deeds: Church Ignores Homophobic Bullying

    According to a report in the U.K's Hemel Gazette, the Catholic Church "is abdicating its responsibility for children's welfare by refusing to target homophobic bullying in schools." Evidently, the church has rejected repeated calls to institute any sort of policy for preventing homophobic bullying on school grounds.

    Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT union, is quoted as saying, "The Catholic Church is abdicating its responsibility to look after the health and well-being of youngsters." The article also notes that victims of homophobic bullying are not necessarily homosexual but may be labeled as such based on their appearance.

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    February 7, 2007

    Baptists Bombard Troops With Propaganda

    As an American soldier struggling to stay alive in Iraq, I don't suppose Christian propaganda is likely to be very high on the list of supplies you would like to have. Still, it is nice that the Southern Baptists are happy to send Christian reading materials to American troops in Iraq.

    The Southern Baptists are "hoping to get clean, positive images in front of the servicemen." I wonder what motivates this effort. Is this supposed to help the soldiers? Maybe it will make them more effective on the battlefield, relieve their stress, save their souls, etc.

    As hard as it is for me to believe that some soldiers would prefer Christian propaganda to skin mags, I'll go along with the assumption that there actually are some. I wonder if they are the only ones receiving the Baptist propaganda. Somehow, I doubt it.

    I wonder if it is possible that the motivation behind these Baptist boxes might have little to do with the soldiers at all. Perhaps this is about winning converts, strengthening one's political influence, or some other more sinister goal. If only there were a clear statement about the intent behind this effort so we wouldn't have to guess!
    "We feel like for them to have something on a more Christian basis would be better for them and their families as well. It shows that somebody cares. It's also giving them a chance to feed their faith."
    Okay, so Christian propaganda is better for them than Maxim magazine or one of its many competitors. Why? Because it lets them "feed their faith." It is almost as if faith might starve without being fed. Yes, I suppose that maintaining beliefs for which there is no evidence and for which overwhelming contradictory evidence exists must get tiring after awhile. It is nice that these Southern Baptists are willing to provide a sort of indoctrination booster.

    Regardless of what you think about America's right to be in Iraq, I think we can all understand that these soldiers are engaged in the business of killing other human beings. And we are going to worry about whether they have pictures of women in bikinis vs. bible verses?

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    February 5, 2007

    "You Atheists Are Just in Denial"

    Pedro's recent post at Way of the Mind got me thinking about a criticism I periodically encounter around the blogosphere and in the comments here. According to many Christians, we atheists are simply in denial. Our vast arrogance leads us to refuse to acknowledge the supreme being we know exists. Pedro did a good job of setting this criticism aside, but I'd like to add my thoughts in this post.

    The implicit core of the claim that atheists are being arrogant in the rejection of the Christian god has two components. First, many Christians assume that the existence of their god is self-evident. That is, no evidence is needed beyond the observation that one is alive. Think of this as a perversion of Descartes' cogito where "I think, therefore I am" becomes "I am, therefore the Christian god exists." The second component is the conviction, deeply held by many Christians, that atheism involves the elevation of humankind to the status of gods. Some Christians simply cannot fathom an existence in which one does not believe in gods. This leads them to misconstrue atheism as an elevation of humanity to godlike status.

    The existence of god or gods is not self-evident.

    I think the truth of this statement is fairly obvious to anyone who has spend time studying theology or philosophy. The volumes of philosophical and theological material produced throughout the ages serve as clear evidence that the existence of the Christian god is far from self-evident. Generations of people do not base their entire careers, or branches of entire fields of study, on offering evidence for or against something which is self-evident.

    Pedro is correct to point out that disagreement or even dislike of someone or something does not lead us to deny that the object of our disagreement or dislike exists. And yet, this is often what we atheists are accused of when it comes to god. Because we supposedly know in our hearts that the Christian god exists, our denial of its existence must reflect our hatred, etc.

    Atheism refers to the absence or lack of theistic belief. specifically, atheists do not accept the theistic claim that any sort of god or gods exist. Thus, the claim that we somehow now that gods exist involves a clear contradiction in meaning. The Christian who wants to commit to this position must argue that atheists and atheism do not exist. This would seem to involve a significant departure from their own bible to say the least.

    Atheism does not entail arrogance.

    Once again, the Christian who makes this claim is demonstrating a fundamental misunderstanding of atheism. Not accepting the theistic claim is a far cry from making oneself into a god.

    Perhaps a clearer demonstration of arrogance is the Christian who cannot understand how someone could not share his/her worldview. That seems to be exactly what is involved here. The Christian is convinced that everyone must believe in gods. Since the atheist claims not to believe in the Christian's particular god, the Christian insists that the atheist is making humans into gods. But the atheist doesn't agree that there must be gods at all! The Christian's inability to consider this and to assume that everyone must perceive the world exactly as he/she does starts to sound like arrogance.

    As an atheist, I recognize that some people share my worldview involving religion and that many do not. I recognize that there are people who call themselves Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc. who believe very different things about the world than I do and than each other does. While I may question the degree to which some members of these groups really hold the beliefs they claim, I am content to say that the majority of them probably do believe what they say they believe. This poses no problem. On the other hand, I think Pedro makes a good case that acknowledging the very existence of atheist poses a considerable problem for Christians.

    Conclusion

    I do not accept the theistic claim that god or gods exist. As there is not one shred of evidence to suggest that this extraordinary claim is true, I see no reason to accept it. When I encounter a great deal of evidence supporting various scientific claims, I am comfortable tentatively deciding that these claims are more likely to be true than to be false. And yet, I hold open the possibility that they may be shown to be false, requiring me to change my previously held positions. I fail to see how this makes me arrogant or how it involves any sort of denial.

    The Christian who wants to accuse atheists of being arrogant or of denying truth needs to look in the mirror. It is hard to conceive of anything which better captures arrogance and denial than the sort of faith in which believers take pride.

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    February 4, 2007

    Superbowl Party: Atheist Style

    I enjoy watching football but almost always seem to be too busy to watch more than a few of games each year. I'm going to a Superbowl party this year at which virtually nobody cares about either of the teams playing. I hope the Bears win, but I can't say I really care all that much. It should be a good excuse to watch interesting commercials and hang out. However, I just found a good reason to root for the Bears (or at least against the Colts).

    I have never understood the use of religion in sports, and this was true even in the dark days when I was a Christian before I found the light of reason. The idea that a team or fans would pray for success always struck me as absurd. Did they not think that the other team was probably doing the same thing? Did they really think that their god would favor them? Evidently, some really do believe this.

    When one's team wins, it must be because of one's god. When one's team loses, it is never because of one's god. Instead we hear vague references to the loss being "part of god's plan" or how "god works in mysterious ways."

    Players will argue that they derive strength, motivation, or will through prayer. There is probably some truth to this, as long as we are talking about psychology and not supernatural nonsense. Much like soldiers become more effective killing machines by dehumanizing the enemy, athletes competing in team sports may improve motivation in this way. Since religion is inherently divisive, fostering an us against them mentality, it should be no surprise that coaches use this method.

    And yet, there remains something disturbing about the owner of a professional football team meddling with religion in this way. Irsay thinks his god helped him through a personal crisis. It would be more accurate to say that his belief in a god provided some sort of psychological assistance to him. I could buy that. And yet, his need to provide "public words of testimony" reveals a lapse in his orientation to reality.

    Do I really care who wins this game? No. But this at least gives me a reason to cheer for the Bears.

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    February 3, 2007

    Know Them By Their Deeds: Pastor Steals Church Money

    Rev. David Thompson of the Columbus, OH, World of Pentecost Church has been accused of stealing almost $1 million from his church. And it appears that he's not the only one. This story from The Columbus Dispatch and reprinted by ReligionNewsBlog notes that the lawsuit filed by members of the congregation names "several other church officials" as defendants.

    The best part of the story is Thompson's reaction when confronted with his misdeeds by members of his congregation.
    According to the suit, George Thompson attended a Bible study service on Jan. 23 and told the congregants that his son made a mistake and that they must forgive him. And if they pressed his son for answers about the money, they were “children of the devil.”
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    February 2, 2007

    Should Freedom of Religion Include the Freedom to Refuse Life-Saving Medical Care?

    ReligionNewsBlog brings us a disturbing account of a 26 year-old Jehovah's Witness who refused a blood transfusion, leading to his death. In the aftermath, his brother (a former Witness) has started an internet petition asking the federal government to prohibit the refusal of life-saving medical care on religious grounds. Should freedom of religion extend to the right to refuse life-saving medical care?

    I have mixed feelings on this one. On one hand, I tend to believe that people should have the right to refuse medical care (including life-saving medical care), as long as it is freely made without coercion. I want people to have the freedom to die with dignity, including physician-assisted suicide in terminal cases. I want this right to extend beyond the "on religious grounds" part. People should have this right regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof.

    On the other hand, the introduction of religion into this issue makes me nervous. I question the degree to which victims of religious indoctrination are truly free to make such decisions. Chronological and developmental age are already considered. However, the courts refuse to acknowledge the nature of religious delusion, and this complicates the issue. For the purposes of medical decision-making, can we consider a religious extremist to be of sound mind? Potentially tricky question I suppose.

    Of course, things are much clearer when parental religion interferes with the medical care of their children (at least in my mind). In this case out of Nebraska, parents are opposing blood screening of their newborn on religious grounds. I do not support exemptions here. Innocent children should not have to suffer the cost of their parents' religious beliefs (although I realize that they often do).

    For more on this topic, see biblioblography.

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