August 30, 2006

The War on Reality

The "culture wars" prominently featured in the media for the last several years initially appeared to be about abortion and gay marriage. More recently, there has been increased recognition that religion is at the center of this perceived fragmentation of America. More than abortion and gay marriage, one side in this disagreement wants to complete the transformation of America into a Christian nation.

As the sides in this debate become increasingly polarized, it has become evident that this has become a "war on reality" itself. Yes, I'm intentionally borrowing the absurd Republican need to phrase all disagreements in terms of wars on various issues. Sometimes it is necessary to use language in such a way that they might understand it. So different have our accepted realities become that this is often necessary.

Rational individuals tend to accept the existence of one external reality. If we speak of multiple realities on occasion, we are referring to different interpretations of reality rather than actual multiple realities. This is a crucial point, so I'll restate it: There are many different interpretations of reality, but there is only one reality. Reality refers to phenomena which can be empirically verified. This necessarily excludes anything supernatural.

Admittedly, Christian extremists have a very different interpretation of reality than the rest of us. Their constructed reality contains angels, demons, zombies (at least one they call Jesus), miracles, and even some sort of god. But these things exist only in their minds. They are not part of the external world (i.e., reality). They are part of a type of wishful thinking that has crossed into delusion.

If I had to select one thing that frustrates me about Christian extremists more than anything else, it would be their apparent inability to separate belief from truth. Believing that I can lift my car over my head does not make it true no matter how much I believe it. Believing that I have a soul does not make it true no matter how strongly I believe it. It appears that the Christian extremist concludes that anything they believe strongly enough becomes part of reality. This is precisely the same thought process I encountered in various psychiatric hospitals among individuals we would all agree belonged there.

"It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring." -- Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

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August 29, 2006

Katrina: One Year Later

Today marks the one year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. To those of us in Mississippi who experienced the storm first-hand, its impact continues to be felt. Thousands of people remain without permanent housing one year later. Many are still residing in FEMA trailers, waiting on government and insurance assistance to rebuild. Entire coastal communities were destroyed, and countless people lost everything they owned. Despite the promise of billions of dollars in aid by the Bush administration, this money has been slow to reach the areas where it is desperately needed. One year after Katrina less than half of the money allocated has been distributed.

The psychological impact of Hurricane Katrina will take years to gauge. Increased cases of post-traumatic stress disorder are expected but take time to fully develop. Distrust of the federal and state governments is widespread. The decision of the national media to focus on New Orleans despite much more severe devastation in Mississippi continues to foster resentment among Mississippi residents.

Personally, I'd have to say that I've experienced two important lasting effects from the experience of Katrina and its aftermath. First, I've lost a great deal of confidence in the willingness of the federal and state government to care for American citizens. I do not believe that the governmental failures we observed reflect poor preparedness or lack of ability to help nearly as much as they reflect lack of desire to help. Thus, I see this as an issue of willingness to help rather than ability to help. We can invade and occupy foreign countries to protect corporate interests, but we simply aren't interested in protecting our own citizens at home.

Second, the Katrina experience forced me to take a hard look at poverty. All our talk of "culture wars" pales in comparison to the class war that was exposed following Katrina. This is nothing new, and this was nothing caused by the hurricane. Katrina required us to acknowledge that is has been there all along, and we have decided that it was not a priority. The problem of poverty does not have simple solutions, and it is easy to feel powerless when confronted with it. However, this experience convinced me that I have a responsibility to do what I can to help.
"I hope we realize that the people of New Orleans weren't just abandoned during the hurricane. They were abandoned long ago to murder and mayhem in the streets, to substandard schools, to dilapidated housing, to inadequate health care, to a pervasive sense of hopelessness." -- Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.
It is time to end our abandonment of the poor in our own communities. This isn't about heaven or trying to please imaginary beings. This is about social justice and doing what we know is right. As an atheist living in America, I know something about facing overwhelming odds. I don't end poverty by myself just as I won't end religious delusion by myself. But since when did that mean I shouldn't try to do what I know is right?

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August 28, 2006

Stories You Might Have Missed

Time for me to have a go with one of these quick-link style of posts. In this one, I'm digging through my collection of stories I had planned to post on but never quite got around to doing so. These were too interesting to ignore any longer, so here are a few worth checking out:
  • In this letter from the Berkeley Daily Planet, Jacqueline Sokolinsky calls on believers to abandon their religious texts and embrace the positive aspects of religion. While I don't agree with her need to preserve religion, this does appear to be a step in the right direction. I'd be interested to know what Christians think about this letter.
  • Atheist summer camp? According to this article in Cincinnati's The Enquirer, such a camp actually exists (unlike supernatural beings). It is nice to see that atheist parents have an option.
  • Remember Harriet Miers? I'm going back a ways for this one, but there was an excellent article in the San Antonio Current which recognized that there now appears to be the very sort of religious litmus test for Supreme Court appointments that the Constitution explicitly prohibits. Warning: Reading this article will almost certainly enrage you.

August 26, 2006

Academic Freedom: The Plight of Atheist Professors

A recent post at Deep Thoughts reminded me of a Dear Amy column I read with great interest.

A self-identified atheist going under the name Offended Professor wrote in to Dear Amy about his unfortunate experience at work. He indicates that he was recently hired as a professor at a public university, where he now faces a constant barrage of Christian e-mail, notes, and even prayer from his co-workers.
"I would respect this practice if I were in someone's home. However, in a workplace -- especially an academic institution that is supposed to broaden minds -- I felt that it was inappropriate, presumptuous and intolerant -- and maybe even illegal at a federally funded institution. (If this were a private college funded and associated with religion, it would be understandable.)"
I read this with great interest because I'm in a similar situation as an atheist working at a public university who is surrounded by Christian co-workers (and students). How would he handle the situation, and what advice would be offered from Dear Amy?

Offended Professor said that he does not plan to complain because doing so would likely affect his relationships at work. From my experience, I can say that complaining would almost certainly hurt his relationships with co-workers. He's right about this. However, I wonder if he also realizes that complaining might also jeopardize his continued employment?

Dear Amy's response was somewhat naive but generally pretty good.
"I'm with you on this, but I can't figure out why you wouldn't give your colleagues the benefit of knowing your point of view."
He already said that he was worried about the impact of complaining on his relationships with co-workers. To deny that this is likely is overly naive. True, one could adopt the stance that one would not want to be friends with those who have a problem with one's atheism. However, this is easier said than done. Amy's statement that he has "a right to let your colleagues know where you stand" is certainly true, however, this is only relevant if the professor decides he can live with the consequences.

The interesting part of her response was when Amy shared the situation with Paul Miller, previously of the EEOC and now on faculty at the University of Washington. This was some truly useful information.
"At a federally funded government institution, this runs counter to the 1st Amendment. The law is structured to protect employees from mandated religious practice. There should be boundaries around religion in the workplace and at a workplace function. Religion doesn't belong in the workplace, in terms of creating an overt or covert pressure to participate."
This suggests that Offended has at least some law on his side. However, all this really means is that if he was fired explicitly for refusing to participate in religious activities in the workplace, he could probably bring a successful suit. Of course, this assumes that he had the money, time, and energy to do so.

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Blogging is Hard, So Consider "Quick-Links"

Those of you who maintain your own blogs know that it is not an easy task. Think about all those times when you find yourself thinking that you should post something but either don't have the time or the inspiration for what you feel is a solid post. Sure, you could just post a link to a story at another site in one of the common one sentence "Hey, read this" type of posts. This may work as long as you don't overuse it, but I want to suggest an alternative I've come to value much more.

This is an idea I picked up from Beware of the Dogma. Let's call it the "quick-link" approach. As a regular reader of BOTD, I really like this method because it conveys relevant information with minimal effort. Here is an example of one of BOTD's quick-link posts. It is almost like a mini Carnival of the Godless, isn't it? Like COG, I think it works because it provides the reader with links to relevant posts on other blogs with a brief description of what they will find and why it is probably relevant to them. It also works because it fosters collaboration across our various blogs.

The next time I want to post but run out of time or nothing comes to mind, I am going to make use of BOTD's quick-link method. You might also give it a try. I suspect your readers will find it valuable.

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August 25, 2006

Response to My Free Thoughts: Proving a Negative

SH at My Free Thoughts recently posted a response to my previous post about reclaiming the meaning of atheism. Here I will examine the point on which we appear to disagree.

SH indicated that he was in agreement with me until I made the following statement:
"...if we make the mistake of defining atheism as the conviction that there are no gods (as many atheists do), we are now guilty of making the same type of truth claim as the theist, namely one for which we are able to offer no evidence. Besides, it is highly doubtful that proving the non-existence of something is logically possible."
SH disagrees with my claim that it is a mistake to define atheism as the conviction that there are no gods. Since this is going to be a fairly common source of disagreement among atheists, some elaboration may be useful.

SH makes the case that it is possible to prove a negative (i.e., to prove that something does not exist). As long as we limit this to the idea of showing that something is logically impossible such as the example SH offers of parallel lines with a shared point, I must agree. A common example I've encountered in philosophical texts is the notion of a square circle. Since the meaning of "square" and "circle" contradict each other, we can say that the existence of a square circle is logically impossible and thus cannot exist by definition.

If we follow this line of reasoning, we can argue (as many have) that the concept of god offered by Christians is logically impossible. If we can show that the god concept is logically impossible, we can safely conclude that god does not exist because god cannot exist. This is exactly where SH wants to take us.

I agree. The concept of god, at least as offered by Christians, is logically impossible, and that this is sufficient to conclude that no entity with the properties they claim can exist. At the same time, I don't want to make the unnecessary assumption that all atheists must agree with this in order to be counted as atheists.

My test of atheism is quite simple and has among its advantages that of parsimony. An individual is asked, "Do you believe in any sort of god or gods?" If the answer is anything other than an unqualified "yes," this person is an atheist. People abandon theism for many different reasons. Some will hang their hat on the logically impossibility of religious doctrine; others will focus on the consequences of belief. The definition I have advocated includes all those who SH refers to as "positive (or strong)" atheists, but it also includes those who do not belief the theistic claim for a variety of other reasons. Thus, I suggest that the assertion that god does not or cannot exist is sufficient but not necessary to be counted as an atheist. All that is necessary is the lack of belief in the theistic truth claim.

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August 23, 2006

The High Cost of Church recently shared a story from the Los Angeles Times describing the high cost of church in a Texas community. I am ashamed to say that I had never before realized the economic toll an excessive number of churches exerts on a town.

The issue is the tax exemption churches enjoy. Personally, my support for this tax exemption is conditional and applies only to those churches who stay out of politics. I believe that the second a church becomes politically active, instructing members how to vote, their exemption should be pulled.

However, politically active churches violating federal law is not the focus of this article. Rather, the article makes the case that a large number of churches in a small community has the effect of depriving the community of tax revenues which would be generated by allowing secular building in place of churches.

Stafford, a town of just under 20,000 near Houston, has 51 churches and other religious organizations. Now the town is attempting to block more churches from being built in the few remaining undeveloped areas. Their rationale is that they would lose the tax revenue other buildings would generate in these areas.

51 churches in a community of 20,000! This is beyond excessive, and I appreciate the town's situation. A city councilman notes, "Somebody's got to pay for police, fire and schools." Maybe they can just have a faith-based fire department. A call comes in, it is relayed to one of the many churches, and the parishioners pray for the fire to go out.

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August 21, 2006

Using Daily Kos Diaries for Blog Promotion

We bloggers have a myriad of reasons for beginning and maintaining our blogs, however, almost all of us share the desire for increased readership. As I have noted previously, atheist-oriented blogs may have some natural limits to their growth due to our focus on a rather unpopular idea. Of course, there is still considerable room for expanding readership within these limits, and this brings me back to the topic of blog promotion.

I assume that you are at least somewhat familiar with Daily Kos, commonly rated as one of the three most frequently visited blogs in the world. If you've spent any time on Kos, you've probably noticed that readers can contribute diaries. Diary posts are limited to 1/day but otherwise operate much like the blogs with which you are familiar. Other readers can comment on diaries and even recommend them. Those that receive the highest recommendations get more attention on the main Kos page. Best of all, Kos permits cross-posting between a reader's blog and their diary. Thus, I could enter the post you are reading now into my Kos diary.

I signed up with Kos and started a diary, entering a couple of my Katrina diary posts. This gave me an opportunity to see how the diary and comment system worked. On Sunday I posted my first atheist-oriented entry to my diary, my recent post on defining atheism.

My intention in doing this is both to promote Atheist Revolution and to spread the meme of atheism into the wider consciousness of the blogosphere. The more people encounter the meme, the more likely they will be to think about it, consider the implications for their own worldview, and perhaps experience some attitude shift. Is this plan to use the Daily Kos diaries in this way going to work? I'll keep you posted. In the meantime, you can check out my diary entry and see whatever interest it generates here.

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August 20, 2006

Can Faith Make a Contribution?

This article in The Guardian argues that faith can make a contribution in both politics and science. Ms. Bunting argues that Islam is prompting a increased discussion of religion in the West. I think she's right that expanding this discussion is a good thing. Unfortunately, this is where my agreement ends.
I've lost count of the number of times at recent public debates where some good soul has got up to lambast religion for its barbaric history of violence and despotism. It's a cherished myth on the secular left, but its willful historical ignorance increasingly irritates me. Violence and despotism are not monopolies of the religious. Niall Ferguson's new book on the 20th century might enlighten a few. Much of the worst violence of that century was the product of atheist regimes.
That religion has been a central factor in intolerance, cruelty, and violence throughout history cannot be argued by any rational person. Of course, it is not the only cause of these atrocities. I've not encountered an atheist who would claim that religion is the sole cause for these things. As for much of the "worst violence" in the 20th century being the fault of "atheist regimes," this is little more than a common myth about atheism.
There are links between religion and violence, but there are similarly links between nationalism, ethnicity and violence, or even between scientific revolutions and violence.
Yes, but nationalism is nearly always accompanied by religion - the whole "god on our side" crap. Similarly, many scientific revolutions have been violent precisely because of religion. Scientists have never been very keen on the burning of heretics.

Part of my complaint about religion is that it requires the believer to intentionally distort reality, ignoring portions which would raise questions about religious doctrine. This article is a good example of this selective focus.
The question is: are we in danger of outstripping our ethical imagination? And if a resounding 'no' is to hold, we must pit all our global ethical resources of faith and reason to the task.
But faith is simply not necessary here. Faith is not a valid way of acquiring or verifying knowledge, so it has little to contribute. We do need to have discussions of ethics and morality, but these must be informed by reason and not obscured by faith.
Many areas of science are legitimising religious thought in ways regarded as inconceivable for much of the past century and half. Quantum physicists question our understanding of reality and Hindus respond: 'So what's new?'; neuroscientists formulate understandings of consciousness and Buddhists retort as politely as possible: 'We told you so.'
That neuroscience has demonstrated alternative states of consciousness has nothing to do with Buddhism or any other religion. These findings, with which I have at least some familiarity, say nothing about religious doctrine. On the other hand, controlled studies of the benefits of prayer on the target of such prayer repeatedly show that it is ineffective. Theists, you can't use science when you think it suits you and then discard it when it contradicts your cherished faith. It doesn't work like that. Unlike your religion, science is a method and a body of knowledge under constant revision; it is not a dogma.

Do we need more discussion about religion? Absolutely. However, more religion is the last thing we need. The dialogue on religion must include believers and non-believers. It must focus on how we can end the most dangerous forms of religious extremism and bolster the courage of religious moderates to denounce their extremist brethren. Assuming we place any value at all on religious freedom (and I suspect most of us do), we must also work to keep religion out of politics and politics out of religion.

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August 19, 2006

Sam Harris' New Book Is Out

I just learned that Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, has a new book out that is now available for pre-order. Harris' new book is called Letter to a Christian Nation. It sounds great, and I'm ordering it right now.


UK Police Turn to Prayer to Solve Crimes

When I first ran across this story, I thought it had to contain a misprint. Examples of this sort of religious idiocy are so common in the U.S. that it is hard to be surprised anymore. But this one actually took place in the UK.

The Christian Police Association is providing churches with crime details and asking them to pray for breakthroughs on various unsolved crimes. My favorite part of the article is that the advocates of this program, called Prayer Watch, say that they expect skepticism. Then a representative of the Lincolnshire Christian Police Association is quoted as saying, "I know that praying can make a difference in my work, but it's all a question of faith."

Huh? If you know it, prove it. Knowledge is about reason and has nothing to do with faith. You can believe something on faith, but this sort of belief has nothing to do with knowledge. In fact, if you had evidence to support your belief, no faith would be involved.

This is quickly becoming my primary problem with Christians - they mistake faith-based beliefs as knowledge. The efficacy of prayer in solving crimes is an empirical question. The police representative's claim is a hypothesis that can be tested. Not only can it be tested, but it must be tested if it is ever to gain any more progress toward knowledge than a simply hunch.

A local citizen says, "I respect people's individual beliefs, but I think they're living in cloud cuckoo land if they think praying will solve crimes." Yep.

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August 18, 2006

Study Finds Worst Performance in Conservative Christian Schools

Education Study Finds Worst Performance in Conservative Christian Schools

Education is a serious matter, and I would not wish a poor education on anyone...even if that is what they want. I know it is tempting to laugh about this one, but I think that would be a mistake. Yes, the sort of people who would send their children to conservative Christian schools are probably not our most rational neighbors, but we are still going to live in a society that includes their children.

The federal Department of Education found that public school kids do as well or better than those in private schools. Nice to hear some positive news about the public school system for a change. But the real story here is that the kids in conservative Christian schools performed significantly worse in math than those in public schools. This suggests that at least some of Bush's enthusiasm over vouchers was misplaced.

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August 17, 2006

Opposing Militant Islam: Christian Extremists Not Qualified

The threat of Islamic extremism cannot be overlooked. Muslim extremists seek theocracy under Islamic rule, and the militant among them want to expand their dominion through force. Sadly, what I have just said also applies to Christian extremists in America. For this reason, I worry that America is not currently well equipped to deal with militant Islam and that we are all in danger of our government making the problem far worse.

I think you will agree that the solution to religious extremism is more likely to be reason and critical thinking rather than more religious extremism. However, the Bush administration has effectively silenced any real voice of reason within their inner circles. To what degree is the administration influenced by Christian extremism? With the media's refusal to ask difficult questions and the secrecy of the administration, it is not easy to tell.

In the Nieman Watchdog, Ira Chernus explores Bush's religious beliefs and their likely role in his policies. He notes that the media have avoided asking many questions of this administration that should be of great importance to the American people. While Chernus argues that Bush, Cheney, and Rice do not appear to be particularly interested in "end times theology," he acknowledges that this matter should be thoroughly investigated.

As another example of why this is important, we turn to the case of Texas televangelist, John Hagee, who claims that war with Iran is a necessary condition of Jesus' return. Just another Christian extremist who everyone will ignore, right? Don't be so hasty to dismiss the influence of this nutjob. His book, Jerusalem Countdown, is selling well, he has his own TV show, and he has the money and power of several mega churches behind him.

What Hagee wants is nothing less than war with Iran. Surely this is a small price to pay for the return of Jesus (and the end of the world). Hagee and his lobbying organization, Christians United for Israel, is an example of end-times nonsense at its most dangerous.

According to Sarah Posner at The American Prospect,
...Hagee's view of Iran'’s central role in a world-altering showdown seems to be catching on. And not just on the wingnut airwaves or among war-mongering chattering heads. ItÂ’s gaining momentum among certain Republican presidential aspirants, who, like all Republican presidential aspirants, count beans and feel compelled to bow to the will of American religious extremists to win.
Yep, both Gingrich and McCain have evidently been influenced by Hagee and have predicted World War III. Posner writes, "Preachers like Hagee seem easy to ignore because we think their audiences, while vast, consists of rank-and-file religious extremists who have no real sway over American policy-makers." As she points out, however, several Republican politicians appear to have been influenced by Hagee's views.

I consider Christian extremists to be among the least qualified segments of the American population to address militant Islam. They offer more extremism and risk viewing the scenario as some sort of "holy war." What we need is critical thinking, informed debate, and the exercise of reason.

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August 16, 2006

Federal Appeals Court Rules Against Texas Bible Display

Nice to have a shred of good news for a change. According to this press release from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a federal appeals court ruled against a bible display at a courthouse in Texas. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that this violates the separation of church and state, but these days it is tough to predict how the courts will rule on these issues.
"“A courthouse should welcome citizens of all religious perspectives and none," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "“This display sent the clear message that Christianity was the government-preferred faith and other Americans are second-class citizens. In a diverse country, that'’s unacceptable."”

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No Thinking Allowed

Ever have one of those days where you look at the news and feel like you are being bombarded by example after example of religiously-motivated stupidity? I'm having one of those days.

The Middle East is receiving great attention because of the violence and the important role of religion in this violence. However, we cannot restrict our focus on the harmful effects of religion only to the most extreme examples of violence. To do so would be misleading and would allow people to continue believing that their everyday religion causes no problems.

I just opened my RSS aggregator, and within 5 minutes, I was confronted with Christian extremists seeking to hide evidence of evolution, ignore medical evidence for the efficacy of emergency contraception, discriminate against non-Christians, ignore the U.S. Constitution on church-state matters, and the list could go on and on.

Sometimes it is difficult to imagine that this isn't simply a bad dream. I live in a country where an overwhelming majority of the people believe in the existence of something for which there is not a trace of evidence. In fact, those of us who employ reason and critical thinking in order to evaluate and select our beliefs are the most hated minority group! I live in a country where 1 in 3 people reject evolution. Never mind the scientific evidence. I live in a country where the President's policies are driven by a particularly scary brand of Christian extremism. He has been open about this all along and yet is allowed to remain in office.

As hard as it is, I know I have to remain optimistic that reason will triumph over faith. I know I must recognize that this will not happen by itself and that I must accept responsibility to help bring about this shift.

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August 15, 2006

Atheist on 30 Days

30 daysIn a previous post, I expressed come concern about what I feared the 30 Days episode involving an atheist going to live with a Christian family might involve. I suggested that it would make more sense to have a Christian move in with an atheist family. My point was that the show's setup usually focused on the individual learning to become more tolerant from the family they lived with temporarily. I was worried that the last thing we atheists needed to do was become more tolerant of false beliefs in supernatural entities.

I recorded this episode when it aired and finally had time to sit down and watch it. I was both pleasantly surprised and somewhat disappointed. However, I'm happy to say that I was wrong about the decision to have the atheist move in with a Christian family.

On the pleasant surprise side, I felt that the show clearly exposed that one can be a good person and have a moral, happy life as an atheist. Belief in the supernatural is not necessary for morality, effective parenting, kindness, or any other positive qualities. The show effectively conveyed this truth. I was also impressed to see how the show depicted evangelical Christians as being focused on converting the world. Based on my experience with such individuals, this seemed to be refreshingly accurate. Finally, I was surprised to see how well the show presented the intolerance, stubbornness, and irrationality of the Christian man in the household. While his wife was clearly attempting to look past the differences, he seemed quite uncomfortable each time he was asked to examine his own beliefs. This too fits with my experience of evangelicals.

The minor disappointment I experienced was mostly due to the atheist coming across as excessively fragile. I certainly understand her not wanting to rock the boat, but she had to realize that she was in the position of being a spokesperson for atheists to an audience who prefer to deny that we exist. Still, I think she was reasonably effective, and her presentation was still worthwhile.

I was wrong to predict that she show would focus on an atheist learning to better understand and appreciate the mindset of Christians. There were traces of this, but they were overshadowed by the Christians (at least the woman) gaining a better understanding of atheists and the fact that we are perfectly capable of leading good lives without worshiping nonexistent entities.

Here are some other opinions worth checking out:

Friendly Atheist
Deep Thoughts

August 13, 2006

Reclaiming "Atheism" for Atheists

Atheism: The Case Against GodAtheist is a dirty word in modern American society. In the minds of many, it conjures images of Communism, immorality, Satanism, and the like. Rather than encouraging accurate definitions and working to correct misconceptions, far too many atheists avoid the term altogether, referring to themselves as "non-believers," "brights," "freethinkers,", or "agnostics." I see this as a neglect of our responsibility and argue that standing by an accurate definition of atheism is in our interest. Within our community and without, we face a bewildering variety of definitions. Confusion over the meaning of atheism is an important obstacle to increased acceptance of atheists in society. It is in this context that I offer the following thoughts.

Defining Atheism

To understand the meaning of atheism, we need to start by defining theism. Theism refers to belief in a god or gods of some sort. Thus, a theist is one who believes in a god or gods. If I tell you that I am a theist, all I am telling you is that I believe in a god or gods. We can add the prefix "mono" to limit ourselves to one god or "poly" to specify belief in multiple gods. Christianity is a subcategory of monotheism. Christians are monotheists because the Christian doctrine posits one god. However, not all monotheists are Christian because Judaism and Islam are also monotheistic religions.

August 12, 2006

Christian Extremists Protest Psychology Convention

The annual convention of the American Psychological Association opened on Thursday in New Orleans. A small group of Christian extremists, including Dobson's Focus on the Family, were on hand to protest. Why? They oppose APA's position on "therapeutic" efforts to convert homosexuals. So called "restorative" or "reparative" therapies (i.e., psychotherapy designed to convert homosexuals into heterosexuals) have been the subject of several well-controlled scientific studies. The data show that they are not only ineffective, but harmful. These data form the basis of APA's position in opposition to such approaches. This is a clear example of religious extremists opposing science when it conflicts with their faith.

This fits well with Mooney's The Republican War on Science because we see the anti-science bias of the right emerging in a particular form. Just like Mooney says, the right calls any scientific findings which conflict with their politics "bad science." As you can see in this newswire, the Christian extremist protestors are doing just that. Whenever you see the term "bad science," remember that this says absolutely nothing about the quality of the science. Instead, it refers to scientific findings which do not support the right's religiously-based social agenda. Scary stuff.

Overall, the convention was a positive experience. Lots of interesting stuff on the psychological aftermath of Katrina, how the profession should respond to terrorism, and other socially relevant topics. Aside from the extremist protesters and a speaking appearance by embarrassment-to-the-field, Dr. Phil, the my only complaint was the number of sessions dealing with religion/spirituality in positive terms. But I think I'll save that for another post.

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Atheist Blogs: Are We Just Preaching to the Choir?

There are a number of active atheist-oriented blogs which offer reality-based perspectives on church-state issues, religious extremism, politics, and countless other issues of relevance to non-believers. At the time I posted this, the Atheism Online directory listed 80 blogs whose primary focus is atheism. While this number would shrink if we excluded those bloggers who do not make at least one post per week, it appears that there are a growing number of atheist-oriented blogs springing up. I seem to run across a few more every week.

Most of us share at least some common motivation for why we started and now maintain our blogs. However, I expect that there are many individual differences as well. Some blog primarily for themselves and view their blogs as a kind of public diary. They may not pay much attention to the number of hits or comments they receive because they are doing this mostly for themselves. Others have more of an activist stance and blog to stimulate thought and action in others. They may seek to influence others through persuasive arguments and view their contribution as a needed voice of opposition.

Motives aside, one thing we all have in common is that our readers primarily consist of fellow non-believers. Not all our readers would identify themselves as atheists, and a brief examination of the comments any of us receive will reveal that we are visited by at least some believers. However, I think it is safe to say that most of those who find their way to our blogs and return are atheists.

This sort of "preaching to the choir" is not necessarily a bad thing. The comments I receive on this blog expand my thinking in unanticipated directions, offer new ideas I had not considered, and cause me to question many of my positions. The fact that most of these comments come from fellow atheists in no way minimizes their value. They remind me that there is a growing community of atheists seeking to connect. Through this blog, I have become familiar with several other atheist bloggers. Their work is a source of inspiration.

The limitation of this scenario is that there seems to be a cap of sorts on how much traffic an atheist blog can expect to receive. Depending on the blogger's motivation, this may or may not matter. Assuming that it does matter, the question becomes how one can attract a wider audience without compromising one's core message. I am interested to hear from those of you who blog (feel free to reply with a post on your own blog and connect here via trackback) and those who are regular blog readers. Am I wrong about this traffic cap? If not, does it bother you at all? Assuming that you would like to reach more people, what are you doing to expand your reach?

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August 10, 2006

Could Their Faith Interfere With Your Medical Care?

In mid-July, the Washington Post ran a story titled "A Medical Crisis of Conscience:
Faith Drives Some To Refuse Patients Medication or Care
." It has been in my queue since then. I think I kept putting off posting about it because I knew I'd have to read it thoroughly, and I just couldn't bring myself to do so. I guess you might say that this issue - people allowing others to die because of their faith and anti-science beliefs - is one of my sensitive areas. As a scientist and a helping professional, this type of story hits me at home.
Around the United States, health workers and patients are clashing when providers balk at giving care that they feel violates their beliefs, sparking an intense, complex and often bitter debate over religious freedom vs. patients' rights.
Health providers who believe in superstitious nonsense that prevents them from providing effective services should not be allowed to provide health care. When one's medical welfare is at stake, one should not be burdened with fears about whether the treating professional is a religious fanatic who will base treatment on anything other than the best medical science available. Maybe I'm oversimplifying things, but this does not seem to be a difficult concept.
"If your religious orientation is such that you can't discharge your professional responsibilities, then you shouldn't take on those responsibilities in the first place," said Ken Kipnis, a philosophy professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. "You should find other work."
You've all seen cop and lawyer TV shows that have used some version of the line that "Your freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins." The idea behind this entertainment cliche is important: individual freedoms are accompanied by responsibilities. If your exercise of religious freedom causes harm to another, then you are liable and should be disciplined or fired.

According to this article, "Congress and more than a dozen states are considering laws to compel workers to provide care -- or, conversely, to shield them from punishment." Shield workers who cause harm to others through religiously-based inaction? What century is this?

"The issue is driven by the rise in religious expression and its political prominence in the United States, and by medicine's push into controversial new areas." Look closely at the first part of that last sentence. This is a serious problem and remains one of the primary reasons I keep this blog active.

Let this article serve as a wake-up call to anyone who is still questioning the merits of religion's intrusion into politics. Let this article run through your mind the next time you visit your doctor. Most of all, let this article renew your inspiration to be an active atheist who promotes rationality and opposes superstition.

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August 9, 2006

CD Review: Slayer's Christ Illusion

Christ Illusion I have been a fan of Slayer since the groundbreaking 1986 release of Reign In Blood. The are one of the only thrash bands from this era who has remained true to the style of music they helped to create. I have every album they've released from Show No Mercy to the brand new Christ Illusion, and I listen to them all regularly.

Many of the songs on Christ Illusion would have been right at home on their last album, God Hates Us All. Examples include "Catalyst," "Skeleton Christ," "Cult," and "Supremist." The tone is angry, the subject matter is often anti-Christian, and the tempo is fast. Other tracks remind me of Divine Intervention ("Black Serenade"), South Of Heaven ("Catatonic"), and Seasons In The Abyss ("Eyes of the Insane"). Fans of the more overtly Satanic imagery from Slayer's early albums will not find much of that here, other than Black Serenade. However, Slayer continues their attack on religion from God Hates Us All into Christ Illusion.

August 8, 2006

What If Atheists Ruled the World?

Alonzo at Atheist Ethicist, one of the atheist blogs I read regularly, recently posed the question, "What if atheists ruled the world?" This is an interesting question and one I'd like to address in this post. By the way, I'm a firm believer in the value of using trackback to facilitate cross-blog discussion.

Since I continue to stand by my restricted definition of atheism as meaning a lack of belief in god, I have to reframe this question as follows: What if there was no religious belief? This is important because it recognizes that atheism does not imply anything other than lack of belief. Atheists are not necessarily going to be more rational (except in their views on religion), more intelligent, more liberal, or more anything else. Again, I stress this because I recognize great diversity among atheists. While I am both an atheist and a secular humanist, I do not make the common mistake of confusing the two.

So, what if there was no religious belief? I agree with Alonzo that the elimination of religion would not result in the end of conflict. Religion is a primary source of conflict, but it is certainly not the only one. Scarce resources, cultural differences, power struggles, international misunderstandings, etc., would continue without religion. Alonzo is right to raise the question of whether atheist factions would emerge - of this we could be quite certain. Humans are wired to detect differences, and intergroup conflict is an inevitable part of the human condition. This is another reason why I believe that the restricted definition of atheism is so important. To assume too much similarity among atheists (e.g., we are all liberal, rational, free of biases, etc.) is dangerously misleading.

At the same time, I am not sure that Alonzo is being hard enough on religion. Religious doctrine is inherently divisive. All the major religions teach that believers are better than non-believers or believers in the "wrong" gods. If you add the imagery of violence and cruelty contained in scripture, you are on the road to glorification of the self and dehumanization of the other. Faith pushes one down this road by making belief without evidence not just acceptable but mandatory. Faith is the enemy of reason and the primary tool of authoritarian systems.

Besides potentially reducing conflict, would there be any benefit to the elimination of religious belief? Since religious belief continues to be an obstacle to scientific/medical progress (e.g., stem cell research, evolution, etc.), tolerance of human diversity (e.g., homophobia, sexism, etc.), and efforts to improve this life (e.g., global warming, animal welfare, etc.), a world without religion would facilitate growth in these and other important domains. In addition, there is something very appealing about my fellow humans learning to live with one less delusion. Just think how much of a difference it could make if people were willing to live in this life rather than the next.

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August 7, 2006

Prayer in School: In-Service Training in Mississippi

I received the following comment from a reader in another post, Gisan, and thought it deserved greater attention:

This is off topic a bit, but I would like some feedback on this.

I work in a public school district in Mississippi, and we started the school year today with our opening session. First thing on the agenda? Prayer.

Yeah, you heard that right: prayer.

One of the elementary school teachers got up and went into this very loud (and progressively louder and more frantic...oh we went so nuts on it) prayer with "God" almost literally being every other word. The first God three quarters God of the God entire God prayer went God alot like God this God. I am not exaggerating. I really am not. The last quarter of the prayer was God and Jesus being tossed in almost every other word. The whole prayer was asking God for excellence in education.

I must say that I am MORTALLY offended. Like "about to call the ACLU" offended. I do not go to ANY church, if possible, because of stuff like this, but now it is standard operating procedures on the first day of staff in-service!

Thoughts? Suggestions?

This is highly inappropriate but unfortunately common here in Mississippi. My first thought is that you would probably have more luck by contacting the official(s) in charge (e.g., training organizer, school principal, superintendent, etc.) before going to the ACLU. Ideally, this would be a face-to-face contact followed by a letter. Of course, I understand that you may not want to have your identity attached to the complaint. An anonymous letter would be better than nothing, but if I went this route, I'd send the letter to several officials at different levels of administration.

Involving the ACLU makes sense, but the complaint would be stronger if it was not anonymous and if it followed a failure to change policy by the school officials. In your initial complaint process, I'd mention that you are considering filing a complaint with the ACLU. This way, if an ACLU complaint is necessary, you can state that you first tried to resolve the matter with local officials and they refused to budge.

Another action to consider would involve writing a letter to the editor of your local paper. This might inspire fellow freethinkers in the area to join you in contacting the school. Yet another option would be to file a complaint with the state department of education.

Readers, if you have additional suggestions for Gisan, please share them.

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August 6, 2006

Carnival of the Godless #46

COG #46 is now up at love @nd rage. It looks like a good one, so be sure to check it out. Oh yeah, and a belated happy birthday to Durruti.

The Letter Ended "Yours in Christ"

English: Flying Spaghetti Monster sketch
Flying Spaghetti Monster sketch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In recent weeks at work, I received two letters in which the authors used "yours in Christ" before their signature in place of the commonly accepted "sincerely," "regards," etc. Let me clarify that these were both business-related letters and not personal correspondence. One of them, as it so happens, had even been notarized.

When I was learning professional correspondence in high school and college, I don't ever remember hearing that "yours in Christ" was an acceptable way to end a letter. I went back and checked some style manuals, and my memory appears correct. So, when did this become acceptable? I should probably mention at this point that both of the letters I received were written by college graduates. I note this because it is almost certain that both would have had formal training in professional correspondence.

Is this yet another Southern thing? The quality of public education here in Mississippi is appalling, but something tells me that this cannot be the whole story. I suspect this is something the authors were never instructed to do in their English courses.

When I see this closing on a letter, my initial reaction is one of dismissing the author as an ignorant fanatic. In fact, I have difficulty taking the contents of the letter seriously when this is how it ends. Yep, I freely admit that this is my gut reaction. Is this fair? No, it isn't fair. I can't actually dismiss the contents of the letter based on these words. And yet, ending a letter this way would be a bit like me ending a letter with "yours in the flying spaghetti monster" or some other absurdity. If I did that, I would expect the recipient to form a negative impression of me. I certainly wouldn't expect to be taken seriously.

Why do some Christians feel that they must push Jesus even in their professional correspondence? The Jesus fish affixed to their car, the homophobic t-shirts, and the prayer calendars are bad enough, but this seems different somehow. I'm still struggling to get my head around this one.

August 5, 2006

Angelina Jolie is an Atheist

English: Angelina Jolie at the Cannes Film fes...
Angelina Jolie at the Cannes Film festival (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Lists of celebrity atheists abound, but I vote for Angelina Jolie to be our poster girl. She'd be a great source of unity because anybody who can look at her and not believe that something supernatural created her must be a real atheist.

Of course, as soon as the atheist community embraces a prominent celebrity for describing a lack of belief, Christians must come out of the woodwork to challenge it. I suppose our very existence suggests that they might be wrong, and so the denial kicks in. This seems to be especially important to them when celebrities are involved. You know, because atheism something that someone would emulate because a celebrity does it.

Not surprisingly, the claim that Jolie is an atheist is not without controversy. One of the more thorough attempts to trace her views on religion is provided by ReligionFacts.

According to ReligionFacts, "Angelina Jolie does not identify herself with any single religion, nor has she declared herself an atheist (contrary to the claims of some atheist websites)." However, they then acknowledge that the most direct statement on the subject was the following response in 2000 to the question, "Is there a God?"
Hmm... For some people. I hope so, for them. For the people who believe in it, I hope so. There doesn't need to be a God for me. There's something in people that's spiritual, that's godlike. I don't feel like doing things just because people say things, but I also don't really know if it's better to just not believe in anything, either.
Here is where it gets really interesting. ReligionFacts follows this quote with this statement, "So at least in 2000, Angelina Jolie had no specific religious beliefs, didn't personally feel the need for a God and disliked authority-based religion, but was not willing to go so far as atheism and expressed hope that there might be a God for the sake of those who dedicate their lives to religious belief."

What? First of all, having no specific religious beliefs is the very definition of atheism! An atheist is someone without belief in god. Second, either there is a god or there isn't. The idea that there might be an actual god for some people and not others doesn't make any sense and certainly doesn't fit with any mainstream religion. What Jolie seems to be saying here is that while she doesn't believe, she doesn't want to condemn those who do.

I have a difficult time reading the ReligionFacts information and not concluding that Jolie is an atheist - an ethical atheist with strong moral convictions who is actively pursuing important humanitarian goals.

August 4, 2006

Tense in Mississippi Over Recent Hurricane Threat

It has been almost 1 year since Hurricane Katrina ravaged Mississippi and Louisiana, but this region is still traumatized. Many people are still dealing with Katrina-related damage. Some are still living in temporary housing, and many are involved in litigation with their insurance companies. Others are simply trying to cope with the psychological aftermath, including symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

I realized the lingering impact of Katrina most vividly when the national media coverage of Chris began. These reports showed Chris strengthening into a tropical storm and heading straight for the Gulf Coast. The local reaction to early reports of Chris were so different from how storms were treated before Katrina. I'd characterize the mood not as one of panic, as many had predicted, but one of palpable dread and tension. It is as if people are torn between not wanting to think about a possible hurricane and being unable to push it from their minds.

My co-workers started monitoring Chris almost as soon as it was announced. Virtually every computer had been directed to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) website. It has been surprising how many people assumed the worst, never considering that Chris might weaken, might not enter the Gulf, etc. The consensus was that a hurricane strike would be the last straw for those residents who were attempting to rebuild there. I must admit feeling myself caught up in considering such worst-case scenarios.

Now that Chris appears to be weakening, one would expect a massive sign of relief. However, I do not see this happening. Rather, the sense is that we have only earned a temporary reprieve. The question on everyone's mind is, "What about the next one?"

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August 3, 2006

"Christians Only"

Does a landlord have the right to refuse to rent to non-Christians? This is the question New Jersey officials are seeking to answer after a New Brunswick Christian decided to rent only to Christians. According to this article in the Asbury Park Press, referencing religion on tenant applications is illegal.

This particular case is complicated by the fact that the landlord is renting rooms in his own home. In such a case, where a homeowner is seeking tenants for his/her own home, I think that discrimination should be permitted. In fact, I'd be okay with this guy discriminating against potential tenants on any grounds he can find.

It would be different is we were talking about a rental property other than his home. Supposing he was managing a rental property other than his residence, he should be bound by state and federal housing law. Moreover, I would expect that most people would agree with this distinction.

The source of my interest in this particular story is that the media decided that it was newsworthy. This seems like a clear attempt to incite conflict where little is likely to exist in the first place. It seems like there are enough valid conflicts without manufacturing trivial ones.

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Conservatives Defend Gibson

In my obligatory Mel Gibson post, I wondered aloud about whether his anti-Semitic comments would make him more or less popular with Christians. It appears that an answer is starting to emerge. In this story from Media Matters, you can see that a number of right-wingers are coming to Gibson's defense. Evidently, criticism of Gibson or his Passion means that one hates Christians.

August 2, 2006

Free Speech: The Right of Foot-in-Mouth

speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on Februar...
speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on February 12, 2011. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We Americans are proud of the freedom of speech afforded to us by our Constitution. Both ends of the political spectrum agree that free speech is important. I don't imagine you would find much disagreement on this issue among atheists and Christians. Of course, you would discover many differences on one's views around the limits of free speech.

The political left attempts to suppress speech that offends their politically correct sensibilities, focusing on racism, sexism, and other forms of perceived intolerance. They believe that our freedom of speech is tied to a responsibility to embrace multiculturalism, respect human diversity, and foster unity. Thus, they are appalled by Ann Coulter's homophobia, Mel Gibson's anti-Semitism, or Massachussetts Gov. Mitt Romney's racism.

Not to be outdone, the political right seeks to suppress all they consider immoral, emphasizing human sexuality, blasphemy, and other perceived vices. They are guided by ancient religious doctrine, and despite questionable applicability to today's world, they have no qualms about using it to support their views of morality. They encourage censorship, want to stop people from speaking out against the actions of their politicians, and prevent their children from learning about science, preferring to create pseudoscience which supports their religious beliefs. The encourage criticism of religion, as long as it is not their own.

Underlying both of these positions appears to be the perception that one has a right not to be offended. In this way, the left's opposition to racism starts to sound quite similar to the right's opposition to sex on TV. I'm not trying to gloss over the differences or suggest that the two approaches are equivalent, but I am arguing that a perceived right not to be offended is involved with both.

I do not believe in any sort of right not to be offended. Nobody has this right, including me. I have no right not to be offended. I have no right not to have my feelings hurt. I have no right not to be criticized.

So what are we to do when we are confronted with views we don't like? Change the channel, walk away, speak out in protest, vote, etc. Ann Coulter has the right to put her foot in her mouth; I have the right to hope she chokes on it.

August 1, 2006

Have You Seen "30 Days" on FX?

I finally got around to watching an episode of Morgan Spurlock's 30 Days. I loved Super Size Me but had so far been unable to coordinate my schedule with the show's airing or remember to record it. The episode I saw involved a Minuteman living with a family of illegal immigrants. As you can imagine, the family put a human face on the plight of immigrants and helped the houseguest broaden his mind. Despite the over-the-top sappiness, it was watchable.

Now I hear that they are planning to do a show involving an atheist moving in with a family of evangelical Christian. Interesting idea, but I think they might have it backwards. Did it not occur to the show's producers that this should have been the other way around (i.e., an evangelical Christian living with atheists and learning that we aren't Satan incarnate)? If the show involves an atheist changing Christian minds, this will be so unrealistic that it will be laughable. On the other hand, a show in which an atheist becomes more accepting of conservative Christian beliefs (my prediction) would be a big mistake. Why? Oh, just because these beliefs happen to be false.

In the show about the immigrants, it worked because the Minuteman was able to maintain his beliefs with some expansion of them. He came to realize that there were two sides to a complicated issue. Frankly, I don't see how this can work in the atheist-Christian show. Maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised, but I am anticipating a message to atheists about being more tolerant of Christians. In contemporary America, this is the last thing that needs to happen.

How can I say this? The value of a belief is based on the evidence in support of the belief. This is how knowledge works; truth claims are evaluated through reason. There is no evidence to support the core components of Christian doctrine. Maintaining a belief in the absence of supporting evidence is not rational. Intelligent Christians acknowledge this but then resort to faith. But faith is not a valid method for acquiring or verifying knowledge. Only reason can accomplish these goals. Why should anyone be tolerant of irrational beliefs? That they might make someone feel better temporarily is insufficient.

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