November 20, 2018

People Can and Do Change

Great quotes about Learning and Change

As an atheist, I often find myself in the position of explaining to others what atheism means. When I explain that I do not believe in gods, one of the most common questions I receive in response is, "Then what do you believe?" My lack of god-belief does not need to be replaced with something else. It would not occur to most people to ask this question of someone explaining that he or she does not believe in Odin or Zeus. Having said that, I recognize that atheism says something about what I do not believe and nothing about what I do believe. And so, I often express what I believe, taking care to make it clear that whatever I say has nothing to do with atheism and does not necessarily apply to other atheists. In this post, I'll give a specific example by highlighting something I believe.

I believe that people can and often do change over the course of their lives. Moreover, I am convinced that recognizing this simple truth and reminding ourselves of it periodically can help us treat others better than we might otherwise be inclined. I'll even take this an additional step and say that remembering that people can and often do change seems to be important in preventing us from inflicting harm upon them.

November 18, 2018

Unexplained Phenomena Are Not Evidence of Gods or Ancient Aliens

If ancient aliens didn't exist...
Whatever channel I was watching when I turn off my TV and cable box is the one that will be brought up the next time I turn them on. This might not be the most useful feature, but it is one about which I would never complain. Recently, it led to some fun experiences. I was watching something on the History Channel the other night. When I turned on the TV the next day, I was just in time for the Ancient Aliens marathon they seem to air...well...pretty much every day. I kept it on in the background for a while because I was doing something that did not require much concentration.

I have written about Ancient Aliens before, and after seeing more of it, I now think it just might be one of the stupidest things one can find on TV these days. Yes, I realize that is really saying something. The contest for the stupidest thing on TV is a competitive one. At the same time, I would not say that Ancient Aliens is entirely without merit. I think it can and should be used to illustrate the problems associated with religious thinking. It continues to baffle me how any atheist could be taken in by this nonsense, but I know that some are.

There are all sorts of things science cannot explain. Science may eventually explain some of them; however, there are likely to be things that science will not explain, at least not during our lifetimes. Most atheists I have encountered are quick to note that the inability of science to explain something does not mean "goddidit." They have no difficulty recognizing the absurdity of such claims. Most are familiar with the "god of the gaps" trap into which many religious believers fall.

November 17, 2018

The Selfish Nature of Prayer

hands clasped in prayer
"I'll pray for you." "You're in my prayers." What do statements like this mean to you? What do you suppose they mean to most atheists who are on the receiving end of them, atheists who do not generally believe that prayer accomplishes anything?

I derive no benefit from your prayers. If you want to pray, go right ahead. All I ask is that you admit that you are doing it for yourself. You derive whatever benefit there is to be had from the act of prayer.

Maybe prayer lets you feel superior to others, especially when you insist on doing it publicly. Maybe it helps you relax. Maybe it gives you the reassuring impression that you are not alone in the universe. Like I said above, these are all potential benefits to the person praying and not whoever they might be praying for.

Horror Favorites: The Shining (1980)

The Shining Poster
Andrew Kitzmiller [CC BY 2.0]
No horror film scared me more than The Shining (1980) did the first time I saw it, and no horror film has affected me as much since. This is why The Shining holds the top spot in any list of my favorite horror films. I credit it with sparking my lifelong love of horror films. To be sure, some of this is about nostalgia (i.e., it is about remembering what I felt when I watched it for the first time at a young age). But it is more than just nostalgia. I have continued to enjoy this film over the years, finding something else to like about it every time I watch it.

While I am not certain whether The Shining was the first horror film I ever saw, it was the first that scared me and the first I remember. I think I was about 11 or 12 at the time. My father had read Stephen King's book previously and wanted to see the movie. My parents decided to let me watch too. I don't remember having any idea that it was going to be scary.

I had nightmares for at least a week after watching it, but that wasn't the worst part. I also had what I can only describe as flashbacks or hallucinations. While I was fully awake, images from that film would repeatedly pop into my head and startle me. Without drugs or extreme stress, this was the closest thing I've had to visual hallucinations. Something as simple as walking into a dark room or closing my eyes while washing my face at the sink would prompt them. And each time, it was like it was real. I quickly realized it wasn't real, but for that brief second, I wasn't so sure. I'd be left with an intense adrenaline rush and have to talk myself down. This lasted for a few days.

November 15, 2018

Being a Better Atheist

For as long as I have been in contact with online atheism, I have noticed that there are plenty of people eager to tell us how to be better atheists. "You should be nicer to religious believers." Why? "You know, you'd catch more flies with honey than vinegar." But I'm not interested in catching flies. "If you're not as outraged as I am about [insert the speaker's pet issue here], you're part of the problem!" Why must I have the same priorities as you in order to be valued? That does not seem terribly consistent with freethought or humanism.

I think it would be fair to say that most of what we are told about being better atheists can be boiled down to the following sentiment: "You should be more like me." That does not necessarily mean we should be dismissive of everything we hear about being better atheists, though. Some of it probably is good advice. At least, some of it is probably worth considering. So how do we sort through the advice that is out there?