October 31, 2005

Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween!
Happy Halloween! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As I walk around my neighborhood, I notice that most of the homes have Halloween decorations up. I find this somewhat surprising. After all, this is the Bible Belt. My neighborhood is not some atheist stronghold surrounded by Southern Baptists (wouldn't that be nice?); it is filled with them. Mine was virtually the only house around here without pro-Bush signs during the last election, and most of my neighbors decided that it was their business to ask me where I attend church when we first met. "God bless America" and anti-choice bumper stickers cover their cars, and they consistently vote to ban sales of alcohol within our county.

According to the Southern Baptists who are interviewed this time of year by our local paper, Halloween is evil. It is an evening with Satanic overtones where demonic forces somehow break through the defenses of their god and his army of angels. It is a time when children are at increased risk of being corrupted by these evil forces. They should not be allowed to trick-or-treat, even in the safest neighborhoods. Instead, they should be taken to church. Yes, church. Many churches in this area have daytime programs for children on or near Halloween. In part, this is to ease the children's pain at not being allowed to participate in Halloween. Some churches even allow the kids to dress up (in positive sorts of costumes without any hint of "evil") and receive candy from people at church. In addition, it is hoped that the extra time at church will fortify their fragile souls against the demons who wish to prey upon them.

So when I see pumpkins carved with scary faces, rubber skeletons, ghosts, etc. adorning the doors and porches in my neighborhood, I am filled with questions. Maybe my neighbors really aren't the Christian extremists I thought they were. But if so, why are they so quick to push religion and carry the extremist torch during the rest of the year? Maybe they just being selective in deciding what part of their pastor's dogma to ignore. But how do they reconcile this with their so called faith? If the pastor is right that homosexuals are evil and should be persecuted, why isn't he right about Halloween? Could it be that my neighbors are simply selecting which sections of religious dogma appear to justify their pre-existing beliefs and discarding the rest?

October 30, 2005

Solutions to the Problem of Faith: Critique Necessary, Not Sufficient

Alan at Meet An Atheist has taken up my call to discuss solutions to the problem of faith in an excellent post.

He suggests that publicizing problems with religious belief can be thought of as one type of solution to the problem of faith. This is a good point, and I was mistaken to suggest otherwise. After all, I would imagine that exposure to this type of material and examples of hypocrisy is one reason that formerly religious people abandon religion. Education about the dangers of smoking, sun tanning, unhealthy diets, etc. are effective in reaching at least some people. When Alan says, "I think that the best thing we can do is to encourage believers think, to get them to question aspects of their faiths that they may never have considered," he perfectly captures this approach and why it deserves to be considered a crucial part of the solution.

Of course, there are important limitations to the criticism-as-solution approach that prevents it from being a complete solution. Christians are taught from an early age that they belong to a persecuted class of people. In essence, they are prepared for attacks on their faith. Since their educators know (at least on some level) that their religious beliefs are absurd, they can rightly predict that they will be assailed by the forces of reason. For a great many believers, our attacks on religion will be interpreted as predictable persecution and will have little impact. In fact, such criticism may end up strengthening the faith of some.

Alan is also correct to point out that reason and skepticism will never be able to compete with infantile beliefs in immortality. The real power of religion is that it makes it socially acceptable for people to avoid their deepest collective fear - death. By clinging to belief in an afterlife, one can shelter oneself from death anxiety and even the grief that is supposed to accompany loss. This is comforting in a way that cannot be found outside of religion. That it happens to be delusional does not make it less comforting. This is what people mean when they say that religion "works" for many believers.

I am in full agreement with Alan that we can and should continue to plant our seeds of doubt. Faith may feel good to the individual, but it is maladaptive at the societal and international levels. However, I suggest that we view the practice of criticizing faith as necessary but not sufficient for reducing its impact. To succeed, our critique must be accompanied by a strong case for the benefits of rationality. Reducing one's reliance on faith only creates a vacuum. We must make a case for something more positive to fill this vacuum. Secular humanism seems like a good candidate.

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October 29, 2005

Let's Get Solution-Focused

There are many outstanding atheist blogs out there, and it seems like more are springing up each week. Different atheist bloggers have different takes on their subject, but it does seem like most of us have focused on documenting and analyzing the nature of the problem (i.e., the dysfunctional consequences of religious belief). In the early stages of such any movement, this is a necessary step. In our case, the necessity of this problem focus is made more apparent by the refusal of many people to acknowledge the dark side of faith.

In this post, I call for the beginning of a shift toward a greater focus on solutions to the problems we have identified. We are right to continue addressing the problems until they are more widely acknowledged. However, religious belief endures through the ages in part because it satisfies human needs that are not easily met by the available alternatives. Thus, I believe that increased attention to solutions is required to achieve real change.

I envision an ongoing series of cross-blog collaborations in which we come together to discuss potential solutions to the problem of faith. Blogger A might post a potential solution which will be analyzed and expanded by Bloggers B and C. Posts can be linked and tagged under the same content areas. Bloggers would benefit from increased traffic, and readers would benefit from encountering multiple perspectives on various solutions. Besides, increased interaction with like-minded individuals can only help us advance the movement away from faith.

October 28, 2005

Pre-Game Prayers

I ran across this letter written by an evangelical Christian and thought it was worth recommending. The author takes a strong and unexpected position against school-sanctioned prayer. Drawing on his experience as a religious minority while stationed abroad in the Air Force, he realized the effects of imposing the religion of the majority on the minority.

"Yet when placed in a setting where the majority culture proved hostile to my faith and beliefs, I became paralyzed with indecision and could not act decisively to defend and proclaim my own beliefs. I felt instantly ostracized and viewed myself as a foreigner in my own land."

Unfortunately, this insightful comment reflects the day-to-day experience of atheists in America.

"Because unless you're ready to endure the unwilling exposure of yourself and your children to those beliefs and practices that your own faith forswears, you have no right to insist that others sit in silence and complicity while you do the same to them."

I'd like to conclude by applauding the sentiment expressed by this author. He is an example of the kind of Christian who could be a powerful ally in our quest to preserve the wall of separation between church and state. Maybe the next time we find ourselves tempted to lump all Christians together as ignorant we should first re-read this letter.

October 27, 2005

Atheism Online Celebrates 50 Atheist Blogs

Atheism Online, started as a directory for atheist blogs and soon expanded to list other blogs likely to be of interest to atheists and even forums, now has 50 atheist blogs in the directory. Given that we started with only a few blogs listed, hitting 50 is a big deal.

Personally, I love having the task of approving each request to be listed in the directory. In reviewing each blog to make sure the content is relevant, I have discovered many excellent atheist-oriented blogs which I now read regularly.

To all those who make this site possible...thank you!

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Cenk Uygur: If You're a Christian, Muslim or Jew - You are Wrong

The Blog | Cenk Uygur: If You're a Christian, Muslim or Jew - You are Wrong | The Huffington Post

This is a great post over at Huffington that is getting a ton of comments. Although the content is not all that different from what you have seen here and many other atheist blogs, it is refreshing to see such wisdom coming from an extremely popular blog that is widely recognized by the mainstream media. Bravo!

October 26, 2005

Scientific American Review: The Republican War on Science

Science & Technology at Scientific American.com: Science Abuse -- Subverting scientific knowledge for short-term gain

This one is going on my reading list. Of course, I feel like I add 10 books for every 1 I have time to finish, so my own review may take awhile.

October 25, 2005

Christian Coalition Official in Oregon Molested Children

Local Christian Coalition Official Did Molest, Family Members Tell 'The Oregonian'

This story is disturbing on so many levels. These are the people who are trying to legislate morality to the rest of us. Does their version of morality include child abuse? Even after he's caught, this guy says he wants to consult his bible for directions about how to proceed. Isn't it just a bit late for that?

October 24, 2005

Miers is Not Qualified for the Supreme Court, But She's Religious

The saga of Harriet Miers and her unfortunate nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court is fascinating. While I realize that an important criticism concerns her religious beliefs and Bush's need to broadcast them as an important reason she was selected, it sounds like the central problem with her nomination is that she is simply unqualified for the position.

The claim that Miers is unqualified is not coming from fringe media but from major outlets such as Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. In addition, one cannot dismiss this criticism as coming from the "liberal elite" because many prominent conservatives have come out against the nomination for the same reason.

It appears that those defending Miers are either blind followers of Bush who believe that the man can do no wrong (Hurricane Katrina must have never happened) or Christian extremists such as James Dobson. By touting her religious faith as part of her qualifications, Bush is coming dangerously close to violating the prohibition of a religious test for office. Given her obvious lack of legal qualifications, one can't help but wonder whether her religiosity and personal relationship with Bush are the sole reasons for her nomination.

Please join me in making sure your elected representatives know that we the people do not want Miers confirmed (link to DefCon Take Action). This is a rare issue where I believe there will be genuine bipartisan opposition, but it can't hurt to make sure our voices are heard.

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October 23, 2005

Being "A Good Catholic" Without the Pope?

I was not raised a Catholic, so I apologize if the answer to my question is obvious to those who were. Still, maybe you can help me understand a recent conversation that has left me puzzled.

While having a discussion with S, I asked about a mutual friend, M. I commented that M must be happy with the Supreme Court becoming more conservative because Roe would surely be overturned. S informed me that M was pro-choice.

vjack: What? She's Catholic - how can she be pro-choice?

M: She is Catholic, but she also happens to be pro-choice. In fact, she's become quite an advocate for a woman's right to chose and for supporting the GLBT community.

vjack: If she's pro-choice and supportive of homosexual individuals, I guess she's not a very good Catholic.

M: Actually, she is a good Catholic. She attends mass regularly and is very active within the church.

vjack: How does she reconcile her progressive social values with the Pope?

M: Oh, she doesn't think too much of the Pope. She thinks he's out of touch and not especially relevant.

So let me get this straight...M is "a good Catholic" who thinks the Pope is full of it, supports abortion rights, and is an advocate for the GLBT community. Does this make sense? I fail to see how characterizing her as a Catholic is either accurate or even possible. What am I missing here?

October 22, 2005

Introducing "Meet An Atheist"

In my role of maintaining the directory at Atheism Online, I get to check out each new blog submitted for listing. I particularly like to see new atheist blogs appearing. One of the recent ones, Meet An Atheist, is off to a great start. Of course, I may be biased since the author is also living in the South. So nice to see that rational thought is alive and well in the Bible Belt. Check it out.

October 21, 2005

Education Dept. Suspends Grants to Christian College

Inside Higher Ed :: Education Dept. Suspends Grants to Christian College

Always nice to have some good news to report! The U.S. Department of Education is cutting federal funding to Alaska Christian College due to church/state separation. Bravo! And who do we have to thank for this? The decision was made in response to a suit brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

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October 20, 2005

Challenging Faith

Faith, allegory by the Spanish sculptor Luis S...
Faith, allegory by the Spanish sculptor Luis S. Carmona (1752–53). The veil symbolizes the impossibility of knowing sacred evidence directly (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Assuming that we are someday able to overcome our reluctance to challenge faith-based claims (see previous post on this issue), what would such challenges look like? I think this would depend greatly on whether the claim is a moral statement (e.g., "X is wrong because X conflicts with my religious faith.") or one which addresses objective reality (e.g., "My faith leads me to believe the Genesis account of creation.").

When faith is used as a basis for moral statements, challenges are probably limited by the subjective nature of morality and the impossibility of external validation. In these cases, challenges might focus on (1) refuting the implicit assumption that the morality claim is both universal and valid on its face, (2) examining the consequences of the moral statement, and (3) addressing the underlying faith directly. Consider the following:

Mark: "I oppose homosexuality because of my faith. The Bible clearly says it is wrong, so it is wrong."

How might we respond to this? We could remind Mark that there are many different interpretations of the Christian bible and that many Christians do not oppose homosexuality for faith-based reasons. We might attempt to help him to see that his faith is leading him to be intolerant and perhaps hateful. Does this fit with the image he has of himself? Is the persecution of others really how he wants to manifest his faith? An alternative theory might be suggested where Mark's homophobia is already present and he is simply trying to justify it via his faith. Did he form his opinions about homosexuals prior to consulting his bible? Finally (and we usually stop well before this point), what does this sort of intolerance say about Mark's faith? Yes, his beliefs probably have little to do with any religious dogma (except it serves as a convenient excuse). However, there are serious problems with any dogma that is this divisive. This could be examined too.

Things are much easier when we encounter faith-based statements about external reality. At least, they should be. I think we can attack such statements directly. These claims can be (and have been) refuted by volumes of scientific evidence. Why pretend otherwise?

Will this evidence make a dent in the position of the Christian extremist? No, of course not! He or she will hear it all and eventually reply, "Well, I guess I believe it on faith." In other words, he believes it because he wants to. This is usually the point where the discussion ends, but it does not have to be. We could take the next step. We could label what we are seeing as delusion. We could explore the psychological reasons that this particular individual is engaging in this particular form of self-delusion? We could ask ourselves why any religious dogma that leads to erroneous beliefs should be treated with respect?

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October 16, 2005

Theocracy: Can It Happen Here?

CBS News | Can It Happen Here? | October 2, 2005�07:52:13

This is a great article exploring America's continuing slide toward theocracy. The author makes a good point that we could learn something by observing the European experience. Bottom line: church and state need to be kept separate.

October 14, 2005

The Dark Side of Faith

In this study published in the Journal of Religion and Society, we see scientific data suggesting that national religiosity is correlated with several indicators of social problems (e.g., homicide, teen pregnancy, STDs, etc.). Countries with higher rates of atheism experience fewer of these problems than heavily religious countries like the United States. Even within the United States, one sees sharp differences between Republican stronghold states and Democratic states.

My favorite quote from the LA Times summary of this article: "Arguably, Paul's study invites us to conclude that the most serious threat humanity faces today is religious extremism: nonrational, absolutist belief systems that refuse to tolerate difference and dissent."

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October 12, 2005

Faith-Based Bill Blurs Church-State Divide

The Anniston Star - Faith-based bill blurs church-state divide

Intelligent words from an unlikely source. This is a reminder that we shouldn't dismiss all Christians simply because they are Christian. The Christian extremists may have the political power, but many progressive Christians oppose theocracy just like we do. If only more of them would allow their votes to be influenced by issues broader than abortion and homophobia.

October 10, 2005

There is Nothing Intelligent About 'Intelligent Design'

With federal courts hearing arguments over whether public school districts can include "intelligent design" in biology courses, it feels like the Scopes trial all over again. If you are reading this blog, I am fairly confident that you have been following this story with interest.

I haven't posted much about the evolution vs. creationism (intelligent design is nothing more than creationism with a scientific sounding label) debate here. As a scientist, I recognize that there is no controversy about evolution within the scientific community. Disagreements exists over the precise mechanisms and details of evolution, but no reputable scientists are questioning the accuracy of the overall theory. Without vocal groups of religious fanatics, there would be no controversy. Maybe part of me was hoping that this insanity would just go away. I should have known better.

On the surface, exposing students to many alternative viewpoints sounds good. The problem is that evolution is a robust theory with volumes of empirical support while creationism (no matter what they call it) is something of a bad joke. If we teach our children about "intelligent design," we should also teach them about demonic possession, flat earth theories, Holocaust denial, alien abduction, and countless other theories in which some people believe despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

It is obvious that none of this belongs in the science curriculum. Evolutionary theory forms the foundation of modern biology and has had a profound influence on many other scientific fields. To deprive our children of this knowledge or to convey some sort of nonexistent controversy in order to push a religiously-based theory will have devastating consequences on our ability to train the scientists of the future.

To learn more about evolution, I highly recommend this site.

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October 8, 2005

My Faith Made Me Do It

Chevrolet Camaro photographed in Laval, Quebec...
Chevrolet Camaro photographed in Laval, Quebec, Canada at Les chauds vendredis. Category:Les chauds vendredis 2010 Category:Second-generation Chevrolet Camaro (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Faith is surprisingly difficult to define. In a religious context, I think we can agree that it refers to one's confidence in a belief for which there is no evidence. Thus, when someone refers to his or her faith, we generally interpret this as reflecting a body of religious dogma in which the speaker believes without evidence. If one had evidence to support one's belief, faith would cease to be necessary. It would not even be meaningful to describe a belief supported by evidence as "faith."

I have never understood how people can use faith as justification for their actions without sounding at least somewhat crazy. Suppose a friend tells me that he just bought a 1999 Chevy Camaro. I might express surprise, noting that Consumer Reports rated this particular model (and virtually everything else made by Chevy at the time) rather poorly. If my friend were to respond, "Well, my faith leads me to believe the car will be perfect," I would expect most of us to think that this was at least somewhat odd.

Religious faith serves as a shield capable of deflecting almost any evidence which contradicts a theist's beliefs. It reminds me of the phrase, "My mind's made up, so don't confuse me with the facts." When people resort to faith to explain or justify their actions, they are really seeking to end the argument. Unfortunately, this is usually effective because people are rarely comfortable criticizing someone's religious faith. For some strange reason, raising questions about someone's religious beliefs is perceived as rude or intolerant.

"I can see why some people would think that the death penalty is cruel, but my faith leads me to support it." What? Now we are in a situation where blind acceptance of religious dogma for which there is ample contradictory evidence somehow provides justification for another set of beliefs. And the argument ends because we are too polite to go after the faith statement. "My faith leads me to vote Republican." The second one runs out of rational arguments or finds oneself losing an argument, one resorts to one's faith. The creationists are ultimately forced to resort to faith. The terrorists must eventually use faith to explain and attempt to justify the unjustifiable.

It is time to overcome our reluctance to criticize these faith claims. They cannot remain off limits because their consequences are too great and have the potential to impact us all (e.g., 9/11, destroying our science education, etc.).

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October 7, 2005

Sam Harris: There is No God (And You Know It)

The Blog | Sam Harris: There is No God (And You Know It) | The Huffington Post

Another outstanding piece by Harris. He provides a great definition for what atheism is and what it is not.

October 6, 2005

Americans Struggle With Church-State Separation

Americans struggle with church-state separation issues

According to the survey described in this article, 50% of Americans oppose having a clear boundary between church and state. They also appear to favor religious liberty when it applies to Christians and less so for persons of other religions.

These attitudes have been shaped by the neo-con propaganda machine. It is time for a backlash. It is time for those of us who have a problem with this to do our part in educating the public and attempting to reverse the damaging influence of this propaganda. If "truth" means correspondence with objective and historical reality, then it is on our side.

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October 4, 2005

Line Between Church and State is Getting Blurry

Line between church and state is getting blurry

In this article from The Daily Item, we hear about the ACLU's position on the church-state issue. I do not agree with the ACLU on every issue (including their occasional defense of religion). However, this article makes me glad I decided to support them over the many other organizations who talk a good game but don't seem to actually do anything on the relevant issues.

My favorite quote from this article is this: "We have a president who was elected after stating the goal to essentially make his government serve his view of religion and morality." America is the only country in the world whose founding documents call for a clear separation of church and state. Sadly, we also appear to be the only Western country where such separation is under constant assault by Christian extremists.

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October 2, 2005

Movie Recommendation: Soldiers in the Army of God

Soldiers in the Army of GodWith Halloween approaching, some of you may be looking for the ultimate scary movie. I think I just might have found it. Although Soldiers in the Army of God is a documentary produced by HBO's American Undercover series and not a horror movie, it was far more terrifying than any film I've seen.

Filmed in 2000, Soldiers documents what is probably one of the most extreme groups of Christian extremists, the Army of God (AOG). Responsible for much of the anti-abortion violence in the South, AOG is the violent wing of the Christian extremist movement.

In Soldiers, the viewer is treated to several interviews with AOG members and a few heartbreaking ones with the families and co-workers of their victims. What makes this so scary is the complete lack of remorse on the part of the AOG members, virtually all of whom have served prison time. From their perspective (so clearly articulated by one of the men interviewed), their place in America is similar to that of German citizens during WWII who realized what the Nazis were up to. That's right - the German holocaust was the slaughter of millions of Jews, and the American holocaust is the killing of millions of "babies" at the hands of "the abortionists." With such views, it is no great surprise that they believe that killing is justified in the defense of the unborn.

October 1, 2005

Alabama State Senator Says Katrina Was "God's Wrath"

Thanks to Delta at Freethought Weekly for bringing the following to my attention:

Hank Erwin, a state senator from Alabama is proclaiming that Hurricane Katrina was god's punishment for sin. Clearly, this perspective is no longer limited to the lunatic fringe of Christian extremist movement. Watching this video clip turns my stomach and reminds me why I must continue to oppose Christian extremism.

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