July 31, 2007

Christian Legacy: The Inquisition

The Inquisition is one of the darkest and least understood chapters in history, and yet, one cannot understand Christianity and the threat of Christian theocracy without delving into this horrifying part of the Christian legacy. In recently watching Secret Files of the Inquisition, I was surprised to discover just how much I did not know about this period. I had bought into many of the intentionally false claims made by Christian apologists without even knowing I was doing so.

Here are some examples of some of what I learned from watching this documentary:
  • The Inquisition was not simply some brief case of Christian extremism run amok. The Spanish Inquisition alone lasted over 300 years.
  • The Inquisition was not some ancient mistake with little impact on the modern world. The Roman Inquisition was thriving into the mid-1800's, and the Christian program of systematically confining Jews to ghettos, depriving them of rights, and making them wear identifying symbols likely influenced Hitler.
  • Having different beliefs from the official Christian orthodoxy was a criminal offense. The mantra of the Inquisition was "convert or die," and they meant it.
  • The extreme cruelty of Christians during this period is difficult to comprehend. They kidnapped children, burned people at the stake, boiled them in oil, utilized virtually every imaginable form of torture, and desecrated graves. Far from being rare instances, 15% of those accused by the Christian Church of heresy between the 1500s and the 1800s were burned at the stake, usually in front of crowds of cheering Christians.
  • The end of the Inquisition (1870) was directly linked to the Pope's loss of police power. That is, the Inquisition did not end until he lost the power to enforce his Christian extremism.
What needs to be emphasized is that the intolerance, hatred, cruelty, and violence of the Inquisition was perpetrated by real Christians using the Christian bible to justify their atrocities. Modern Christians do not want to acknowledge this and would prefer that you do not hear about this important part of the Christian legacy. They want to pretend that it had little to do with Christianity or that modern Christianity is nothing like that. They read their bibles selectively, picking the parts they like and discarding the rest.
"Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
-- George Santayana
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July 30, 2007

"So, What Church Do You Go To?"

If you've spent any time in the American South, you are fully aware that asking this question to complete strangers is commonplace here. I am not sure if I will ever get used to it, but a recent article in The Charlotte Observer suggests that I should not expect to stop hearing the question anytime soon. It is part of the culture here, although I do not say that in order to excuse it.

I moved to the South after having spent most of my life on the West Coast. I'd lived in California, Washington, and Oregon. Religion was a private matter, not to be discussed with strangers. I believe that the inherent divisiveness of religion was recognized on some level. People seemed to realize that public proclamations of one's religious beliefs were antithetical to the maintenance of social cohesion.

But the South has a very different history than the West, so it should not be surprising that a very different culture has emerged. Church is far more important here than in many regions of America.
In the South, the conversation-starter is born from history, tradition and sociability, experts and faith leaders say. In other regions, particularly the Northeast, it's a matter left in private life, newcomers say.
I was certainly unprepared for this sort of question. It initially struck me (and continues to do so) as rude. My temptation has always been to respond with something along the lines of, "I don't see how that is any of your business." It really isn't! Of course, I also realize that saying this would be received about as well as telling the speaker to go f@%k the skull of Jesus.

Of course, part of the reason that so many Christians ask the question to everyone they meet is that their pastors tell them do do so. Recruiting new members to one's church is considered a source of great pride here. This is why the question is nearly always followed with an invitation to attend the speaker's church. They are hoping you will say that you haven't found a church so they can get you to theirs.
It makes some uncomfortable, even some from the South. "In a world where we tend to align ourselves with other people who are `like us,' the answer to this question may be immediately polarizing," said Jessica Hooks, who moved here from Raleigh.
And the polarizing nature of this question is exactly the problem. The implicit meaning of the question is something like, "Do you believe the same crap I do? If so, we can be friends. If not, you are doomed for hell." I have learned that explaining that I do not attend church and have no interest in doing so quickly ends the conversation (often right after being informed that I will "burn in a lake of fire"). but it ends much more than the conversation - it ends the possibility of any future interaction with the speaker. They have written me off.

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July 28, 2007

Know Them By Their Deeds: Methodist Volunteer Held in Molestation

According to The Arizona Republic, a youth fellowship volunteer was arrested for allegedly molesting a 13 year-old mentally retarded girl. Police reports and court records indicate that 39 year-old James Ward Chapman III admitted to inappropriate touching. As is generally the case with this sort of offense, it appears that this was not Chapman's first foray into sexual depravity and that the church had prior warnings about him.

Police indicated that Chapman has generated prior complaints of inappropriately hugging teen church members, and Rev. Dan Morley confirmed that teens have complained to him about Chapman. One cannot help but wonder why the church permitted Chapman to continue in the youth fellowship after receiving multiple complaints about inappropriate behavior.
"The complaint was that he was engaging in too much interaction with the youth . . . too much hugging," he said. "We discussed boundaries, and he was no longer working with the youth fellowship group."
The response of the church after receiving this sort of complaint was to transfer Chapman to the volleyball program. I wonder if their refusal to simply dismiss him (he was after all, a volunteer) had anything to do with the widespread delusion that Christians don't engage in immoral conduct? Now I wouldn't be surprised to see some irate parents sue the church.

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New Blog: Shared Difference

"Shared difference, self-belief, and a rational humanism" is the tagline for a new blog by James C Buckley, Shared Difference. Although Shared Difference is still in its infancy as a blog, I really like where it is going. As a therapist, Buckley brings an interesting perspective to his writing that will help make his contributions stand out in the secular blogosphere. Check it out.

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July 27, 2007

Pope Acknowledges Reality of Evolution

I know that the Pope is irrelevant to many of us and what he says may be of little interest. However, there are still many Catholics who value what he represents to them. Thus, I am happy to have received this article from a reader via e-mail. The Pope has acknowledged "much scientific proof in favour of evolution."

Speaking to an audience of 400 priests, the Pope addressed the creationism-evolution "controversy," noting,
This clash is an absurdity because on one hand there is much scientific proof in favour of evolution, which appears as a reality that we must see and which enriches our understanding of life and being as such.
Not surprisingly, he still insists on creating a role for archaic superstition by claiming that evolution leaves many questions unanswered. Ah yes, the god of the gaps may be smaller and smaller, but as long as there are gaps, we'll get to hear about it.

The Pope is starting to sound like a bit of a Deist, isn't he? He now accepts evolution but still tries to cling to the notion that there must be a god to have set evolutionary processes in motion. He cannot accept that matter and energy simply are; he must posit the unnecessary creator. Still, I'll take acknowledgment of evolution as a sign of progress.

It also looks like he's starting to question some of the human dominion over the Earth garbage which has caused us so much trouble.
“We cannot simply do what we want with this Earth of ours, with what has been entrusted to us,” said the Pope, who has been spending his time reading and walking in the scenic landscape bordering Austria.
It would certainly be nice to have more religious leaders on the side of reality when it comes to climate change. Perhaps they'll even be able to bring some Republicans along with them.

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July 26, 2007

Opposing Religious Extremism: More Religion Not Answer

Most American Christians are brought up believing that religious extremism is a serious problem in the Middle East. They define religious extremism almost exclusively in terms of that associated with Islam. They are correct about the dangerous of Islamic extremism, but they tend to overlook the Christian extremism right here in America. Religious extremism is a global problem which knows no boundaries and which has vast implications for shaping the future of our world.

Writing for Spencer Speaks, former Denver Post columnist and feature writer for The Chicago Tribute Jim Spencer has crafted an interesting article on this important subject. Starting with the recent act of Christian terrorism at the University of Colorado and the protest in the U.S. Senate by Christian extremists, Spencer asks whether it is time for us to examine religious extremism right here in America.
When the crazies think God is on their side, they know few limits.
And while Spencer is quick to point out that American extremists are more likely to pound pulpits than use explosives, he notes that there are ample cases of crazed Christians turning violent. Case in point, Spencer shares some of a message received by CU biology professor Michael Grant:
Every true Christian should be ready and willing to take up arms to kill the enemies of Christian society.
Spencer recognizes the similarity between this message and the calls to jihad in the Muslim world. Perhaps it is time for us to stop pointing the finger at the Islamic world without at least recognizing that we have our own home-grown nutjobs.

While I agree with much of Spencer's article, I do have to take issue with his suggestion that we encourage the question of what Jesus would do as a way to combat Christian extremism.
I’m pretty sure he would not drown out the incantations of another faith by shouting.

I’m pretty sure he would not menace university faculty for teaching science. I’m pretty sure Jesus would try to explain a peace that passes understanding.
Maybe, but this simply is not the Jesus worshiped by Christian extremists and many Christian fundamentalists who some might hesitate to call "extremists." Their Jesus isn't about peace, forgiveness, and tolerance.
Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it. (Matthew 10:34-39 NASB)
What Spencer does not seem to realize is that this is the Jesus of fundamentalists and extremists. Their actions are quite consistent with this Jesus. Spencer is correct that we must oppose religious extremism wherever we find it; he is incorrect that more religion will help.

H/T to The Panda's Thumb

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July 25, 2007

Dogfighting and Christian Morality

Debunking Christianity asks whether Christians find Michael Vick's dogfighting morally reprehensible. The assumption is that Christians will say "of course," opening the door to some version of the problem of evil. However difficult it may be to consider that this assumption might be wrong, there is some evidence that it may be exactly that.

As reported on ChristianNewswire, Dr. Alveda King, niece of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Pastoral Associate of Priests for Life, views animal cruelty as little more than an opportunity to oppose a woman's right to a certain medical procedure. Evidently, Dr. King believes that the real significance of the Vick case is that it highlights "the disparity in societal protections for animals and unborn humans."
"The appalling cruelty to dogs described in the complaint against Michael Vick immediately reminds me of another kind of cruelty that is not only not punished, but is protected by our authorities," said Dr. King. "I'm talking about the incredible cruelty suffered by babies who are stabbed, have limb torn from limb, or have their skulls crushed in the womb by abortionists. The pain these children endure is undoubtedly excruciating, yet we close our eyes and look the other way in the name of 'choice.'"
Humane treatment for animals appears to be something as an afterthought to Dr. King. While she pays lip service to it, she cannot help asking, "but shouldn't we also humanely treat humans?" Funny, but I didn't realize that was in any way relevant here.

To honor Dr. King, I just made a donation to The Humane Society of the United States. I also signed a petition asking Nike to drop Vick and another one asking the NFL to suspend him.

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July 24, 2007

New Book for Atheist Parents

Atheist parents often have a difficult time finding good resources in a country dominated by Christian mythology. Earlier this year, we saw the publication of Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion, and now another book on the subject is available, Sean Curley's Humanism for Parents - Parenting without Religion.

According to a press release, Curley's book "discusses the ramifications of parenting without reliance on religion" and "details rites, rituals, and practices that can be used in a home regardless of religious affiliation." I think this sounds interesting, especially given Curley's point about how one of the benefits of religion is the family traditions with which it is often linked. This book should be informative for secular parents seeking ways to gain this benefit without the ridiculous superstition that accompanies the religious versions.
"Parenting has always been difficult, but historically parents have had thousands of years of religious history, traditions and practices to use as a basis for their parenting. With the modern prevalence of the secular or Humanist household, this is no longer true and parents need a guide to help them understand the advantages of religion in parenting, but without reliance on religion." said Sean Curley. "The book includes information on humanism, morality, spirituality, traditions, practices, moral issues, and has sections for teens and younger children.

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War on Christmas Starts Early in Berkley

I realize it is July, but I'm here to tell you that the War on Christmas is coming early this year. This year's war could get interesting since increasing numbers of atheists seem to be finding a voice and since it provides political candidates with opportunities for more pandering to superstitious voters.

According to The Daily Tribune, Berkley voters are signing petitions to require their city to display a nativity scene and other Christmas symbols on City Hall property this December. It appears that they will have a chance to vote on this requirement in November. If approved, the city charter will be amended to include the requirement.
The petition calls for the city to display the nativity scene along with secular holiday icons so that it is in compliance with existing law, which prohibits displays of only Christian religious icons on government property.
However, something interesting happened last year after the ACLU objected to a nativity scene at City Hall.
The city then included other religious and secular icons with the nativity display to bring it into compliance with existing U.S. Constitutional law on such displays. However, a majority of City Council members voted to remove the display shortly before last Christmas, in part because they felt secular items such as Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman undermined the dignity of the nativity display.
Dignity? Don't make me laugh! I fail to see how a monument to some archaic superstition which any rational person should be embarrassed to acknowledge is in any way dignified.

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July 23, 2007

Doing God's Work By Killing Gays

According to the Houston Chronicle, 26 year-old Terry Mark Mangum believed he was doing the work of the Christian god when he killed a gay man in a bar last month. " ... I believe with all my heart that I was doing the right thing."

Why should we expect Mangum to feel remorse when he is convinced that he was doing the work of his god?
Mangum, who described himself as "definitely not a homosexual," said God called on him to "carry out a code of retribution" by killing a gay man because "sexual perversion" is the "worst sin."
According to the Chronicle, Mangum spent 6 months planning to murder a gay man, went out specifically looking for a gay man to kill, stabbed Cummings to death solely because he was gay, and buried him on his grandfather's ranch. I know many of you do not agree with me about the need for hate crimes legislation, and I'm okay with that. You might say I've grown accustomed to holding unpopular views. Still, I have a hard time seeing how this sort of crime doesn't warrant a hate crimes enhancement at sentencing.
"I planned on sending him to hell," he said.
Where on earth would Mangum get such a vile idea? How could he possibly be convinced that this was what his god wanted him to do?
Mangum — who claimed he has studied the Bible for "thousands and thousands and thousands of hours" — said God first commanded him to kill during a "visitation," or dream, while he was in prison in 2001. He said his victim must be a man because men "carry the harvest of the sinner."
Although he did not express remorse for his act, it is important to Mangum that we not misunderstand his motive, think he might be crazy, or consider him evil.
"It's not that I'm a bad dude," he said, expressing concern that people might view him as "strange." Pausing briefly, he said, "I love God."
Indeed.

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July 22, 2007

Reality-Based Investing

The human mind is vulnerable to a variety of biases, cognitive errors, and the like. Primitive superstitions, such as religious belief, are particularly fascinating examples, but they are hardly the only one. The ritualistic behaviors of baseball players, buying lottery tickets and other forms of gambling, the "hot hand" phenomenon in basketball, and even most approaches to investing share a common core of irrationality.

It is worth noting at the outset that none of us are immune to making the sort of errors which bias human judgment. Even those of us who readily embrace reason do not always think or act in rational ways. Not the very intelligent, not the nonbeliever, and certainly not me. While we can minimize the damage done by various errors and even learn to defend against them, some level of irrationality will almost certainly creep in.

I have previously described some of the mistakes I made with regard to investing strategies and how I took some initial steps toward reality-based investing. More recently, I have discovered an entire field, behavioral finance, devoted to understanding investor behavior. This is as clear a case as I have ever encountered of the worst enemy of the investor being the investor's own psychology. Just as the vulnerabilities of the human mind open the door to religion, they open the door to a host of awful investment decisions.

As a quick and simple example, consider that the typical investor buys when the market is already going up, after he or she has been bombarded with media hype. In other words, the investor buys when prices are high. And what does he or she buy? The top performing investment vehicles of the past year, past 5 years, etc. Not only are these investments likely to be overpriced, but the data show that past performance does not predict future performance. As if that wasn't bad enough, the phenomenon of mean-reversion suggests that yesterdays top performers will be more likely to be tomorrow's worst.

Reality-based investing is actually quite simple. The basic principle involves allowing one to be guided by the data rather than by one's emotion. This means that the reality-based investor utilizes no-load index funds and does not hold shares of individual stocks or actively-managed funds. Market timing is avoided, as is the bulk of the finance media.

The more I study investing, the more parallels I see between typical investor behavior and that of religious believers. Not only is the irrationality not avoided, it is celebrated, hyped, and sold to a gullible and largely ignorant public. Breaking free from irrational belief in investing is not that different from doing it with regard to religion.

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Carnival of the Godless #71 and Humanist Symposium #5

Ready for some quality godless reading? The 71st Carnival of the Godless is now up at Aardvarchaeology. As if that wasn't enough, the 5th Humanist Symposium will soon be appearing at The Green Atheist. Just how I like to spend my Sunday mornings.

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July 21, 2007

BBC Asks "Must the U.S. President Believe in God?"

Sometimes I forget that international observers examining the role of religion in American politics must occasionally feel the way I do when I look at politics in Iran. This article from BBC News asks whether belief in supernatural entities which contradict scientifically-based natural laws is a prerequisite to the American presidency. I'm afraid so. Yep, we have freedom of religion here. One of these days, we might also have freedom from religion.

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Christian Terrorism: A Growing Threat?

One of the reasons I started this blog was that I was concerned that constant media coverage of "militant Islam," "Islamic extremists," and the like, while undeniably important, might obscure a threat much closer to home - Christian extremism. American politics was dominated by a neoconservative cabal, influenced by biblical literalism, Christian premilleniumism, militarism, and imperialism. I soon discovered that these neocons had close ties to the Christian Reconstructionist, Christianist, Nationalist, and Dominionist movements. The more I learned, the more convinced I became that the danger was real. Nevertheless, I was unprepared for the intensity of hatred and intolerance I found as I dug deeper into Christian extremism. Most of all, I was unprepared for Christian terrorism.

Just like we distinguish between Muslim extremists and terrorists on the basis of their behavior (e.g., terrorism involves actual or threatened violence), we can distinguish between Christian extremists and Christian terrorists.

When I think of Christian terrorism, I first think of those who bomb family medical clinics, murder doctors, etc. (e.g., Paul Hill). This seems to be the most common form of terrorism linked to Christians. But there are others with other preferred targets. Some examples include:
Sadly, this list is by no means exhaustive. There are many more incidents which would fit here, as well as other less clear cut examples. Some would consider pastors molesting child congregants to be a form of terrorism, and others would cite the outrageous war on science as a possible contender.

Christian terrorism is a real concern, reminding us that Muslims do not have a premium on religiously-inspired aggression. Opposing Christian extremism remains a worthwhile goal, but one which must not overlook the even more sinister reality of Christian terrorism.

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July 19, 2007

Public Prayer

The Angelus (1857-1859) by Jean-Fran├žois Millet.
The Angelus (1857-1859) by Jean-Fran├žois Millet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Christians may squabble endlessly over what it means to be a Christian, and many are fond of claiming that only those who believe exactly as they do deserve to be called "real Christians." However, it seems fairly obvious to this author that there must be some common doctrine shared by all Christians. One of these is the belief that the Christian bible is central to the religion. Granted, fundamentalists are going to take their bible far more seriously than so-called liberal or moderate Christians, but all seem to agree that the Christian bible provides an important source of guidance. So why is it that so many self-identified Christians ignore what their bible says about prayer?

What are we to say about a Christian who prays publicly or crusades to promote public prayer? Here we seem to have an individual who is either ignorant of what his or her bible says about prayer or is intentionally disregarding it.

July 18, 2007

Religious Intolerance: Christian Pot, Atheist Kettle

From a Christian perspective, spotting religious intolerance is a fairly simple matter. Odds are, if you are an atheist, you are intolerant. And yet, this is a simplicity based on irrationality and Christian privilege. What is religious intolerance, how should we recognize it, and is it a crime of which all atheists are guilty?

Christians Accuse Atheists of Religious Intolerance

First, anyone who openly criticizes the idiosyncratic beliefs of a particular Christian is guilty of intolerance. This is true even if the critic is simply pointing out inconsistencies between an individual believer's belief system and the Christian bible or other official doctrine of a recognized religious group. Of course, critics of the bible itself or mainstream Christian doctrine will also be accused of intolerance, but what matters most is the individual believer's unique interpretation and personal experience (e.g., revelation). Anyone who questions this is labeled as intolerant.

Second, anyone who dares to oppose the right of a group of Christians to oppose their religious ideology on others is guilty of religious intolerance. Select any hot-button issue you like to see how this works. Do you think that Intelligent Design should be taught in our nations schools? No? Intolerant bastard!

Third, promoting a reality-based worldview in which science, reason, and secular morality are valued is religious intolerance. Indeed, rejecting religious faith as a valid way of verifying knowledge claims is intolerant.

I could go on and on like this for awhile, but I think you get the point by now. Time to move on.

What is Religious Intolerance?

Religious intolerance is the failure to respect "the fundamental right of other people to hold religious beliefs that are different from your own." It has nothing to do with religious practices or behavior motivated by religion. The focus rests squarely on respecting the right of others to hold religious beliefs.

I think it is fair to say that I have never met an atheist (nor am I such an atheist) who does agree that others have a fundamental right to hold any religious belief they select. It is your absolute right to maintain your Christian beliefs even if they are false and even if they cause harm to you. I hope you will outgrow them. I think they are laughably absurd. I have not one shred of respect for the beliefs themselves. However, I respect and defend your right to hold them.

But Secular Intolerance of Religion is Recognized as a Form of Intolerance

Yes it is, and so is intolerance by a religious group against nonbelievers. But we need to stay focused on religious intolerance coming from atheists and being directed at Christians.

According to ReligiousTolerance.org,
We consider the following actions as exhibiting religious intolerance:
  • Spreading misinformation about a group's beliefs or practices even though the inaccuracy of that information could have been easily checked and corrected;
  • Spreading hatred about an entire group; e.g. stating or implying that all members of a group are evil, behave immorally, commit criminal acts, etc.;
  • Ridiculing and belittling an entire faith group for their sincerely held beliefs and practices;
  • Attempting to force religious beliefs and practices on others against their will;
  • Restricting human rights of members of an identifiable religious group;
  • Devaluing other faiths as worthless or evil.
  • Inhibiting the freedom of a person to change their religion.
In the case of atheist intolerance of Christians, most of these are easy to dismiss. I have yet to encounter atheists deliberately spreading misinformation (criticism you do not like is not the same as misinformation). We often go overboard in the opposite direction and end up knowing the Christian bible better than many Christians! Next, atheists do not typically attempt to spread hatred against Christians as described here. We recognize that there are many wonderful people who happen to be Christian (I've had the pleasure of knowing several), and some of us work with Christians regularly to pursue common goals. As I've said before, most Christians are good people. Clearly, we cannot reasonable be accused of attempting to force religious beliefs and practices on others. Atheism (i.e., the lack of belief in gods) is hardly a religion and has no attendant practices. Similarly, atheists (especially those who are also secular humanists) seek to expand rather than restrict human rights. Secular morality does not distinguish between others in terms of religion when it comes to human rights. Finally, we have no interest in inhibiting the freedom of a person to change his or her religion. While we hope that people will eventually arrive at atheism on their own accord, everyone should be free to explore.

Oops! If you read that closely, you'll see that I left one out. What happened to "Devaluing other faiths as worthless or evil?" Certainly we atheists are guilty of this form of intolerance, aren't we? We can dispense with the part about "evil" right away (atheists do not claim that all Christians are evil simply because they are Christian). But don't atheists devalue other faiths as worthless? Actually, what we devalue as worthless is faith itself. Specifically, we devalue faith as a being a valid means for acquiring knowledge (i.e., we recognize that faith cannot be applied to verify truth claims). While atheists do tend to criticize the various religious faiths, we do not devalue them as worthless. To the contrary, we recognize that believers meet many important needs through their religions. We think that there are better ways of meeting these needs, but we recognize that the burden to show how the needs can be met without religion is ours.

The Christian Pot and the Atheist Kettle

Christians are quick to label atheists intolerant because we have the nerve to criticize their religion. And yet, many are reluctant to acknowledge that Christian intolerance of atheists and those who practice non-Christian religions is widespread and even built right into the Christian bible. Let's review the above list and add some brief examples via links.
This was a long post but one that is easy to summarize: there is minimal evidence of widespread intolerance from atheists directed at Christians; there is ample evidence of intolerance from Christians directed at atheists and persons from non-Christian faiths.

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July 17, 2007

Secular Humanism Involves Compassion Too

English: Happy human, a secular humanist logo ...
English: Happy human, a secular humanist logo made in blender quick. Some edges could be cleaner.. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
There is an interesting letter to the editor in The Times Herald-Record (New York) that I cannot let slide without responding. The letter, "My View: Being a believer means caring about and for others," by Kim Dixon contains one of the most common and harmful misconceptions about nonbelievers so prevalent among Christians.

I believe that it is important that we counter such misconceptions when they appear in the media. I'll address my response to Ms. Dixon even though I realize that the odds of her reading this post are minimal.

Ms. Dixon, you identify yourself a "devout Roman Catholic." As a member of the only true Christian church, your comments deserve to be taken seriously.

Being a believer means I have faith, hope and love. It means I try to take care of myself and those entrusted to me and those I don't even know. It means I donate time and money to my church community and to my town community. It means I raise my children to follow my example.
Everything you describe here except "faith" and "church community" apply equally well to virtually every nonbeliever out there. I see nothing else in this statement that is not fully captured by secular humanism.

As a secular humanist, I have hope in the future and love for humanity. I too try to take care of myself and others, including those I have never and will never meet face-to-face. I too donate time and money, not to a church community, but to a town community, and indeed a global community. I do not have children, but if I did, I would certainly attempt to model sound ethical behavior and the values of compassion, tolerance, and scientific skepticism.

Further demonstrating how little you understand about nonbelievers, you go on to say:

Giving is our nature because it's God's nature. It means I will hold the door for you — male or female, hands empty or full, no matter what color, race or religion you are. It means I will smile at you if I pass you on the street or say "good morning." It means I know I am not perfect but can own up to and accept my mistakes and make amends when necessary. It means I am not afraid to accept responsibility for my actions.
It is sad that you must attribute your generosity to supernatural beings. I give because it is the right thing to do. I do my best to treat others how I wish to be treated. I need to promises of heavenly rewards or threats of hell. I recognize that I would like to be treated with kindness and respect, and I strive to treat others in the same manner.

You reference some of the more controversial findings of the Barna Group without seeming to realize that there is a considerable social stigma around atheism, likely to prevent some of the largest donors who are likely atheists (e.g., Bill Gates, etc.) from "coming out." But nevertheless, what you call "disengagement" is probably better described as alienation. It is not easy to be fully engaged in a culture which actively condemns us on the basis of belief in supernatural entities and acceptance of many claims about the natural world which have been shown to be false by science.

You assert, "Believers do not reject science." Are you familiar with fundamentalism and biblical literalism? Many, but certainly not all, believers do in fact reject science. Sadly, many of those who do now control our government. Oh, and since you brought it up, what exactly happened to Copernicus, Galileo, and others throughout history who have contradicted the doctrine of your church?

Finally, Ms. Dixon, I am curious about the role of hell in your system of morality. Seems like a bit of a problem to me.

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July 16, 2007

Delusion, Crime, and Personal Responsibility

The American legal system is based on the assumption that someone who commits a crime acted out of free will and should be held responsible for his or her crime. However, there are exceptions designed to absolve (e.g., insanity) or reduce (e.g., diminished capacity) one's responsibility. The purpose of this post is not to discuss these scenarios but to use them to ask some probing questions about the nature of religious belief.

A man with a gun was killed today by a security officer outside the office of Colorado governor Bill Ritter. The gunman claimed, "I am the emperor and I'm here to take over state government" and refused orders to drop his gun before he was shot.

For the sake of discussion, let's assume that facts emerge showing that this man had a long history of mental illness, was off his medication, and had become psychotic. Let's further assume that we learn that he was delusional at the time of the incident and that he genuinely believed that he was the emperor of Colorado and that he had a duty to retake his rightful office by any means necessary.

Is he morally responsible for his criminal act? That is, do we hold him responsible and punish him regardless of his mental illness, or do we relieve him of responsibility because he was operating under a mental disorder sufficient to render him unable to know what he was doing or to know that what he was doing was wrong?

If you are even mildly familiar with psychology and the law, you'll recognize this as a question about the insanity defense. Even people who don't like the insanity defense tend to agree that someone suffering from a serious mental disorder is less responsible for his or her actions even if we might not be comfortable removing responsibility completely. So far so good. Time for the central question...

What about Osama bin Laden? Should he be considered less responsible for his terrorist acts because of his religious delusion? I'm guessing that you wouldn't go for this, and I wouldn't either. He may be suffering from what laypeople would consider a delusional form of religious belief, but it is unlikely that he would meet diagnostic criteria for a psychotic disorder (i.e., it is unlikely that mental health professionals would consider him delusional in the psychiatric sense). What about a Christian terrorist who kills an abortion doctor because he believes that this doctor is sending souls to hell. Should he be considered less responsible for his actions? Again, I'm guessing you would say no and I'd agree. Again, most of the Christian terrorists who bomb abortion clinics would not be found to be delusional in the psychiatric sense.

In mental health law, mental disorder is not sufficient to mitigate responsibility for crime. Even those who are delusional in the psychiatric sense and who are diagnosed with psychotic disorders are usually not found insane in the legal sense. They are usually tried and convicted for their crimes.


Even if religious belief were universally accepted as a mental disorder (and it is not), the overwhelming majority of religious fanatics would still not come close to meeting contemporary legal standards for insanity. This is because the legal standard in most states goes far beyond mental disorder, requiring serious impairment to the point where the defendant's capacity to form criminal intent is limited or absent. Only the most seriously delusional would come close, and in fact, this is exactly what happens now.

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Congratulations to the FFRF

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has exceeded the 10,000 member mark, making it the largest association of atheists and agnostics in North America. As a member, I can tell you that they are a worthwhile organization with an excellent newsletter and an active program of both promoting freethought and opposing church-state violations. If you are not already a member, check them out.

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Christian Agrees That Children Cannot Be Born Christian

Since an atheist one one who does not believe in any gods (note that not believing is not synonymous with disbelieving), it follows that all children are born atheists. One cannot believe in something of which one has never heard. Thus simple truth bothers many Christians, but I'm happy to report that some Christians do acknowledge it.

Writing for the conservative Christian website, WorldNetDaily, Greg Laurie explains,
You cannot be a Christian simply by being born into a Christian family. I'm amazed at how some people, when asked how they know they are Christians, will answer, "Because I think my grandfather was," or, "Because my mother is a Christian." It's as though they believe their family somehow has Christian "genes." Having Christian parents is a great privilege. It's a wonderful thing to be raised with biblical values and to develop a Christian worldview. But you still must personally believe in Jesus. You cannot live off the faith of the family.
Given that Laurie is a pastor at one of the largest churches in America, Christians may have a harder time dismissing him as a hack. So it appears that there are some Christians who recognize the absurdity of referring to children as Christians, at least before they have reached the age to make thoughtful and informed decisions about faith.

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July 15, 2007

LA Catholics Settle Abuse Claims For $660 Million

The Associated Press is reporting that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles reached a deal where the church will pay approximately $660 million to settle hundreds of clergy sexual abuse lawsuits. I'm not sure how to put a price on the sort of suffering caused by these sex offenders who preyed on those entrusted to them, but I am glad to see that victims will receive compensation. I hope we will see some serious reforms in the aftermath of this settlement and that other denominations will be more proactive in implementing reforms than the Catholics were.

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New Blog Aggregator For Humanist Blogs

With the success of Planet Atheism as an aggregator of atheist-oriented blogs, it was inevitable that someone would think of utilizing the same approach for a somewhat different goal. Planet Humanism is now up and running. If you have a humanist-oriented blog, even if you are not an atheist, be sure to add your blog to this new aggregator.

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July 14, 2007

Proselytizing in the Classroom

High school is a turbulent time for many, and I think we'd all agree that there are plenty of things that can interfere with the learning process. If you are a high school student or the parent of one, you know the myriad difficulties in navigating this period. But the list of potential obstacles rarely includes the teachers. Imagine that you are a 16 year-old public high school student and one of your teachers spends considerable class time proselytizing, explicitly promoting Jesus, threatening sinners with hell, telling the class that dinosaurs accompanied humans on Noah's ark, and that evolution is a lie. What do you do?

It is bad enough when adults are exposed to this sort of nonsense, but pushing it on children is unpardonable. Teachers serve as intellectual role models, and few 16 year-olds can be expected to critically evaluate the quality of the information offered by their teachers. This makes them ideal candidates for indoctrination, but indoctrination is very different from education and has no place in public high schools.

There is a trust between student and teacher that is essential for learning to occur at this level. The student must be able to believe that the teacher has his or her best interests in mind, is providing accurate information, and would not intentionally mislead. Without such trust, how can we expect education to succeed? It will be minimally effective at best.

This case involving 16 year-old, Matthew LaClair, a junior at Kearny High School in New Jersey, sickens me to the core. Matthew's history teacher David Paszkiewicz (who also happened to be a Baptist pastor) is accused of Christian proselytizing in class, and Matthew has audio recordings to prove it.

The tapes reveal Paszkiewicz telling students "that if they do not believe that Jesus died for their sins, they 'belong in hell.' Imagine being a parent of a Jewish student. According to Paszkiewicz, neither evolution nor the Bing Bang theory have any scientific basis. Imagine that you are a student with interest in science.

Matthew and his family approached school officials with his recordings. Case closed, right? Not so fast.
Since Matthew turned over the tapes to school officials, his family and supporters said, he has been the target of harassment and a death threat from fellow students and “retaliation” by school officials who have treated him, not the teacher, as the problem. The retaliation, they say, includes the district’s policy banning students from recording what is said in class without a teacher’s permission and officials’ refusal to punish students who have harassed Matthew.
This report appeared in The New York Times in December of 2006, however, it had been making rounds on the atheist blogosphere well before that. It turns out that the school agreed to settle, and the settlement included training for teachers and students about the scientific basis of evolution, separation of church and state, etc. No child should have to go through this in modern America, but I applaud Matthew for his courage.

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July 13, 2007

Christian Extremists Disrupt Senate: Hypocrisy Not the Real Story

When I fist saw this headline appearing on several atheist blogs, I figured that the Christian extremists involved were probably senators. As it turns out, they were members of Operation Save America, a Christian extremist group. This is a fascinating tale of hypocrisy, as the Religious Right defends regular Christian prayer in the Senate by playing the "religious tolerance" card. It appears that tolerance is only supposed to extend as far as their particular religion. Still, I think that there is a far more important story here which should not be neglected.

The U.S. Senate opens every day with a prayer - I'll come back to that. However, this was the first time a Hindu chaplain was invited to give the prayer. Needless to say, this did not go over well with a trio of Christian extremists in attendance. You can see what happened here.

From the coverage I've seen so far, the story appears to be the hypocrisy in how the Religious Right defends the Senate's daily (almost always Christian) prayer and then opposes a Hindu prayer. According to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, disrupting the Hindu prayer is evidence of religious intolerance on the part of the protesters.
“This shows the intolerance of many Religious Right activists,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “They say they want more religion in the public square, but it’s clear they mean only their religion.
The protesters called the Hindu prayer an "abomination" because it was not directed at their particular god. Secular Left notes, "Some Christians talk a good game about religious tolerance until they are asked to do it for other beliefs." Similarly, PZ Myers of Pharyngula stated, "It's absurd but so typical of Christian extremists that they would freak out at the imposition of a prayer that does not reflect their beliefs — welcome to my world, guys."

I think Ed Brayton from Dispatches From the Culture Wars may have provided the best analysis:
Mind you, when we criticize the fact that the Senate begins every other day with a Christian prayer, we are accused of trying to destroy religious freedom. When any other type of prayer is offered, this magically has nothing at all to do with religious freedom. Silly Hindus, don't you realize that only Christians get to have the official government imprimatur upon their religion? You just sit back and enjoy your cheeseburger and let the Christians pray.
Not to take anything away from this fascinating example of how "religious tolerance" is only supposed to apply to the Christian religion, I think that the real story is getting lost in the shuffle. And just what is the real story? The United States Senate begins each day with a prayer.

I don't care whether this prayer is Christian, Hindu, Mormon, whatever. That this example of superstitious idiocy is a formal part of Congressional proceedings is an embarrassment to those of us in the reality-based community. I applaud PZ Myers for hitting the nail on the head:
Anyway, the only fair response to all this is simply to stop the magic incantations to any deity in our government. Let the senators who feel a need say a quiet prayer on their own, without dragging everyone into their personal superstition. And let's chide any senators who complain about that for the weakness of their faith, that they can't even pray without someone at the front of the room to help them out.
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Atheism: A Choice to be Alone?

alone in the dark
alone in the dark (Photo credit: miss vichan)
Is atheism a choice one makes? Did I wake up one morning and decide I was going to be an atheist? No. I recognized that I had become an atheist and gradually came to terms with it. What I did choose was applying the label to myself and telling other people about it. But I do not think I chose atheism.

While doing some reading in the atheist blogosphere, I cane across a post by J. C. Samuelson that captured my attention - Ex-Christian.net's article, "Public Atheism: A Question of Image or Discrimination?" Even if you haven't read it yet, it will be familiar because it addresses a popular question you will surely recognize from the title. However, there was something else about the post that caught my eye.

The whole article is a good, thought-provoking read, but something in the first paragraph made a particularly strong impression.

In a world in which faith and supernaturalism have always ruled, being an atheist (in the broadest possible sense and including naturalists of many stripes) has never been easy. Classically, the individual claiming that title (or one like it) risked alienating his/her entire social circle and, depending on prominence, society at large. In other words, choosing atheism seemed to be - and perhaps still is in some places - a choice to be alone. [italics added for emphasis]
Is that accurate? Is atheism really a choice to be alone? I think there may really be something to this. Don't we have to assume that anyone "coming out" as an atheist today has at least some understanding of the consequences they are likely to face?

If we assume that most atheists are aware of degree to which they will be isolated by professions of atheism, we must ask why anyone would chose to do so unless they wanted to be alone. Do we atheists prefer truth over acceptance? Have we simply gotten carried away with an urge to rebel?

Of course, my questions imply that atheism is a choice. Is this something we can assume? At one point in my life, I was conscious of making a choice to embrace atheism, but I'm not sure if this is the same thing as choosing to be an atheist. Moreover, I have great difficulty imagining that I could go back to Christianity even if I wanted to do so. Could I really unlearn virtually everything I know and retreat to superstition and irrational faith? Much to think about.

Samuelson goes on to describe how the current atheist revival is changing the degree to which atheist are isolated, at least for those atheists fortunate enough to live in reasonably progressive areas. If this is correct, we may begin to see a different sort of atheist. Only time will tell whether the positive effects of the atheist movement will last or will continue to spread to other areas.

As for the increasingly popular question of whether atheists are dealing with a public relations problem or one of discrimination, I can answer with one word...yes. We do have a serious public relations problem, and we are often discriminated against. Any dichotomy here is a false one.

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July 12, 2007

Christian Terrorism in Colorado

It looks like the Christian terrorists are at it again. According to The Denver Post, police at the University of Colorado are investigating threatening messages received by the biology department from "a religious-themed group and addressed the debate between evolution and creationism."

The Post article said that police were not ready to reveal the full nature of their investigation, but the commander did disclose, "It basically said anybody who doesn't believe in our religious belief is wrong and should be taken care of."

The Panda's Thumb has some inside information about the case and has revealed additional details. Disturbing stuff to be sure, but not yet as bad as what is happening in Texas.

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Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Religion

While all varieties of religious belief share the flaws of irrationality and falsehood, there is evidence that some forms of religious belief are less damaging than others. In fact, the intrinsic-extrinsic dimension has been one of the most central constructs in the modern psychology of religion and remains popular in psychological research today.

It is difficult to read much on the psychology of religion without encountering Allport's work on intrinsic-extrinsic religion. Essentially, this dimension deals with maturity and is based on the assumption that some people hold more mature religious belief than others. It may be tempting for nonbelievers to dismiss this notion, especially when one learns that Allport developed it at least in part because he was troubled by the positive relationship between measures of religiosity and measures of prejudice.

Interesting how this works, isn't it? A researcher finds that religiosity is positively correlated with prejudice (i.e., people with higher reported religiosity report greater levels of prejudice), is puzzled by this finding, and decides that there must be something else going on besides the obvious explanation. Still, I think we can rest assured that there is a considerable body of scientific research supporting the utility of the I-E construct.

Simply put, an intrinsic (I) religious orientation is described as being more mature in that the believer views religion as an end into itself. That is, the believer believes without clearly identifiable external motives for doing so. In contrast, an extrinsic (E) religious orientation is immature and is more of a means to some other end. That is, belief is motivated external factors (e.g., social acceptance, advancement, etc.). E (but not I) is correlated with prejudice.

Modern I-E scales are set up so that I and E are thought of as separate constructs where individuals score along two separate dimensions (i.e., low E to high E and low I to high I). Research has identified many negative correlates of high E (e.g., narcissism, guilt, fear of death, aggression, etc.).

Current work in the psychology of religion is characterized by the assumption that measuring religiosity as a unitary construct produces misleading results. Instead, the field has been influenced by the separation of religiosity into E and I orientations. The practical implication is that most of what we think of as the negative correlates of religious belief have been supported for extrinsic religiosity but not intrinsic religiosity. It is also noteworthy that extrinsic religiosity is much more highly correlated with measures of religious fundamentalism than is intrinsic religiosity.

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July 11, 2007

Darwin Fish Exposes Christian Privilege

I like the Darwin fish. To me, it is a healthy pro-science statement. Of course, I acknowledge that it also carries an anti-religion connotation for some people due to its design (i.e., borrowing from the Christian design which came first) and the inevitable conflict between religion and science. I'm also aware that some people view displaying a Darwin fish as an act of symbolic aggression. More than just being an interesting symbol that is interpreted in diverse ways, the Darwin fish exposes the scope of Christian privilege and says volumes about the plight of nonbelievers.

I do not have a Darwin fish on my car, but I would very much like to. Why? I perceive it as one of the rare symbols which conveys both a pro-science and an anti-superstition sentiment simultaneously. Since I am both pro-science and anti-superstition, it is an unusually accurate symbol for my worldview. But the main reason I'd like to have one because of how it makes me feel when I see one on another vehicle. They are a rare sight around here, but when I glimpse one, it instantly puts a smile on my face. Suddenly I am no longer alone, even if only for a brief second on the road. I'd like to be able to spread that feeling to other freethinkers.

Isn't this the main reason why Christians put Jesus fish on their cars - they like how they feel when the see one on another car? I'd like to have the same option. If they have the right to be part of a Jesus fish community, communicating "I'm one of you" to other Christian drivers, I'd like to be able to do the same a nonbeliever.

I do not have a Darwin fish on my car because I am not interested in having my car vandalized. I have known a handful of people in this community who have had their vehicles vandalized other progressive symbols (e.g., anti-Bush and pro-Kerry bumper stickers), and I have heard conservative Christians talk about damaging vehicles for messages with which they disagreed. In other words, I have empirical evidence (e.g., reports of vandalism to vehicles displaying progressive symbols) to support my estimation of the likelihood of vandalism.

So while I have the right (in a legal sense) to display a Darwin fish, exercising it requires me to put my personal safety and my property in jeopardy. Christians do not have to worry about this when they affix a Jesus fish to their vehicles, put on a cross necklace, wear a Campus Crusade for Christ t-shirt, or engage in some other symbolic expression of their beliefs.

Digg my article

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July 10, 2007

Atheists in Politics

A new energy is sweeping American atheists, secular humanists, and freethinkers. More of us are coming forward, speaking out, and taking action to preserve our secular democracy. The backlash against years dominated by Christian extremism is underway, and a grassroots movement is starting to emerge. While lacking cohesion or recognized leadership, this atheist wave is finally being noticed by the American media. In fact, some are now recognizing our growing political influence.

We are fed up with religion in politics. We want a President who recognizes that it would be inappropriate for him or her to discuss personal religious beliefs while in office. We've had enough of ineffective faith-based policies and are hungry for policies based on scientific findings. We'd like to make sure that government funding is reserved for programs with scientific merit and that the programs are required to demonstrate evidence of efficacy as a condition of continued funding. We find it morally unacceptable for a politician's religious beliefs to interfere with potentially life-saving medical research, family planning, sex education, or reproductive rights. We believe that political appointments should be based on competence rather than ideology and that the performance of such appointees should be judged by results rather than loyalty. In short, we seek reality-based government.

The Republican party has made their decision to become a tool of Christian extremists seeking to impose Christian theocracy and legislate biblical morality. Deciding not to support them is an easy call. And yet, the Democratic presidential candidates have evidently decided to tie themselves to a Religious Left. Their colleagues in Congress sit idly by while Bushco continues its crusade of pushing fear and idiocy. Might this help to explain why Congress now enjoys an approval rating of around 25% and dropping quickly? By refusing to demand accountability, work for meaningful change, and stand for something besides lining their own pockets, the Democrats risk losing Congress again.

According to Ellen Johnson of American Atheists, the approximately 58 million nonbelievers in America can represent an important voting block. With the Godless Americans Political Action Committee, she is trying to make sure that politicians know of us. We can help by continuing to criticize religious idiocy and promote atheism, secular humanism, freethought, and reason. We must not be content to let the Democratic party continue to ignore us.

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July 9, 2007

Your Religion Hurts Us Too

A "live and let live" attitude is very common among believers. It is probably the single most common excuse nonbelievers give for dismissing atheist activism. Many of those who do not believe in any gods have managed to convince themselves that the religion of others is simply irrelevant to them. "I'm not religious, but I understand that religion is important to many people. I have no interest in changing anyone's mind, and I'm content to leave them alone as long as they leave me alone."

You have heard variations of this argument many times, but repetition or popularity is clearly no measure of veracity. Statements like this reflect a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of religious belief and the costs of religion, costs shared by nonbelievers.

The costs of religion to believers are readily apparent, but what costs could religion have for nonbelievers? Setting aside the obvious costs (e.g., religiously-based discrimination, intolerance, violence, etc.), it has become increasingly clear that religion can have an adverse impact on the health of believers and nonbelievers alike. Maybe we can remember this the next time we encounter a nonbeliever who does not understand the importance of atheist activism.

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July 8, 2007

Journey of an Atheist, Part V

This is the fifth and final part of a multi-post series. Part IV can be found here, or if you'd like to start from the beginning, you can find Part I here. I have postponed writing the the final part of this series for quite some time because I knew it would be the most difficult. This is the part that takes us up to the present time, meaning that I lack the perspective I had in the earlier parts. Still, it is time to get through this.

When Part IV left off, I was in graduate school and struggling to come to terms with a form of multiculturalism that insisted that religious belief was on the same level with race, gender, and sexual orientation. On one hand, I was told that I was being evaluated on my openness, willingness to self-disclose, and exploration of how my beliefs impacted my work with others. On the other hand, I learned that hard way that questioning someone's religious beliefs equated with criticism of someone's race - it was a a marker of serious intolerance. To survive this program, I would need to bury my atheism and profess respect for religious belief.

This bind was nearly intolerable at times. I vividly recall turning in "personal reflection" papers where we were supposed to discuss our racial, ethnic, gender, and religious identities. When I disclosed my atheism in one of these papers, it became the subject of intense class discussion. As the only atheist, I was expected to defend why I rejected religion without saying anything even mildly critical of religious belief! My peers seemed to think that my very presence in the program was a threat to their spiritual well-being. I became increasingly isolated. At least one professor penalized me for being intolerant because she felt that atheism was per se evidence of intolerance.

I made it through the program and completed my Ph.D. but not without lots of second thoughts about what I was doing and why. Looking back on it, I suppose I can almost see a valuable lesson about society's tolerance of atheism. As I moved to Mississippi for a job, I would be surrounded by Christian fundamentalists. Perhaps it was a good thing that I learned how to conceal my beliefs about religion and the importance of doing so.

Mississippi is by far the most conservative place I have ever lived (or even visited). Nothing I had previously experienced prepared me for the degree to which religion is part of public life. Within weeks of being here, I had been approached by complete strangers in the grocery store and at the gas station with some variation of, "Hi there! What church do you attend?" My ex-wife was repeatedly told by strangers that she was going to burn in hell after she indicated that she did not attend church. She was also subjected to mandatory prayer meetings at work and persistent invitations to attend church with her boss and his family. Our next door neighbor never spoke to me again after I politely told him that we did not attend church. I was invited to church by nearly every co-worker, secretary, pest control technician, and delivery person I encountered. I know this is hard to believe if you haven't been here, but I am really not exaggerating any of this this in the slightest.

I know full well that the obvious question is why I am still here. There are many days when I ask myself the same question. If it wasn't for loving my job, really liking some of the folks I work with, and the feeling that being settled (even in a place with many negatives) is better than the hassle of going through the academic job search and relocation processes again, I would have left long ago. Other perks include the winter weather, the cheap housing, and the small town atmosphere.

But if I am honest with myself, I suppose I must admit that another reason I'm still here is that I've made a lot of progress learning to become comfortable in my own skin, less concerned with what others think, and more willing to be true to myself even when it is unpopular. I've gained something intangible from struggling against Christian extremism while being in its heart. I'm not saying I don't still have a long way to go, but there has been movement, and I suppose that is what keeps me going.

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