March 31, 2007

Miracle Weight Loss or Absence of Critical Thinking?

I found a fascinating example of how kind the media tends to be toward religious nonsense and suggest that this may be one of many factors which help keep people trapped in irrational belief. The content of this story, an obese pastor who found that the only way to lose weight was by changing his behavior, is only somewhat interesting. However, the way the account is infuriating to this atheist.

According to this story from The Beacon News, pastor Robby Dawkins lost 200 pounds. He once weighed 425 pounds, and "the faithful man of God who firmly believes he has witnessed numerous miracles could not understand why his own prayers for weight loss went unanswered." Indeed, how could his god fail to answer his prayers? Never mind the millions of prayers from starving children which go unanswered every day - this "man of God" takes priority!

But the good pastor seems to have come to his senses, at least partially. "I realized that God wasn't going to do it," Dawkins said. "This was a discipline issue that I needed to learn myself." Really? You mean he's just like everyone else? After spending his career claiming that prayer could heal and making absurd claims about how "Cancer and other diseases have disappeared because of faith in God," the pastor oriented himself to reality. He lost weight through the same combination of diet and exercise that physicians have been recommending to everyone else.

Just how does the article's author address the pastor's success through behavior change? "In a sense, Dawkins has experienced his own miracle." What? Weight loss through diet and exercise is miraculous? In what way? Just because something is difficult does not make doing it any sort of miracle. I see no evidence of supernatural intervention here.

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March 30, 2007

Thoughts on Conversion

From a Christian perspective, salvation is not quite as simple as simply saying that one believes the Christian doctrine. One is expected to actually believe it if one's salvation is to be considered legitimate. The same is true with conversion. While many Christians might take a former Muslim who converts to Christianity at his/her word, I expect that they believe that the professed convert actually believes the Christian doctrine and is not simply making a false belief claim for some ulterior motive.

Christian Conversion

Whatever else conversion means, it means that the convert now believes the religious doctrine in question. This is considered the path to salvation in that the convert now has a chance at salvation due to his/her beliefs. I expect most Christians would agree that the point of conversion is salvation. Salvation is likely to be a prominent theme in Christian proselytizing because it is the benefit of conversion.

The Christian who seeks to convert others believes that he/she is doing them a favor. By informing potential converts about Christianity, its doctrine, and the prize of salvation, the Christian believes that he/she is facilitating others' salvation. Thus, the Christian who strives to convert others may really believe that he/she is doing them a service and that conversion is a compassionate act.

It might be helpful for a nonbeliever who is approached by Christians with conversion in mind to remember that the motive is likely to be at least partially one of genuine benevolence. In fact, I suspect that this is the primary motive most of the time. Remembering this would certainly serve me well, as I do not tend to handle such approaches particularly well.

Atheist Deconversion

From an atheist perspective, it is nonsensical to talk about someone converting to atheism. Atheists have no doctrine. There is no set of atheist beliefs to which one could be expected to convert. It would be more accurate to view atheism as a product of religious deconversion.

Some atheists do, however, talk about spreading an atheist message. Of course, this message is generally little more than a critique of religion, but this does not change the fact that many atheists seek to persuade others that a secular worldview is superior to religious belief.

Much like Christians hoping to win converts for their own good, some atheists believe that deconversion would have favorable effects for the deconverted. I count myself among them in the sense that I believe that humanity would be better off without religion. I do not actively seek to deconvert believers, but I certainly believe that deconversion is healthy and would do what I could to facilitate it in someone who expressed an interest.

Common Ground

To sum up, it appears that Christians who work to convert people and atheists who work to deconvert people have something in common. In both cases, I think our motives are primarily benevolent. Christians believe they are doing potential converts a favor; atheists believe they are doing potential deconverts a favor. Perhaps atheists could strive to be more understanding when approached by Christians promoting their beliefs. Similarly, it seems that Christians could work on their reactions when their beliefs are criticized by atheists.

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March 28, 2007

Atheist-Theist Dialogue: One Obstacle

Is it possible for atheists and theists to have a meaningful dialogue? Forget for a second whether such a dialogue would be beneficial and consider whether it is possible. If so, what might it look like? As atheism becomes more common, this question will be asked even more frequently by both atheists and believers. I see one fairly massive obstacle to such a dialogue, and I am not sure what it will take to overcome it.

The obstacle can be illustrated best with the following quote from Daniel C. Dennett (italics added):
"..can we public atheists have productive conversations with believers? Certainly. We can discuss every issue under the sun...respecting each other as citizens with honest disagreements about fundamental matters that can be subjected to reasonable, open inquiry and mutual persuasion... As long as those who are believers will acknowledge that their allegiance gives them no privilege, no direct line to the absolute truth, no advantage in moral insight, we should be able to get along just fine."
I told you it was a big obstacle! I think that Dennett is absolutely correct here. As long as believers insist that their faith counts as some sort of special knowledge, that they are the only ones capable of being moral, and that they alone have "the truth," it is difficult to imagine meaningful dialogue. Sadly, I am doubtful that believers will do this.

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March 27, 2007

Getting On My Blogroll

Atheism is increasing gradually here in the U.S., but interest in atheism is experiencing explosive growth at the moment. This is reflected in increased traffic to many of the established atheist blogs and in the emergence of many new ones. Keeping up with the many atheist blogs worth reading is becoming more of a challenge. Not surprisingly, I have been receiving at least a few e-mails a week asking me to add an atheist blog to my blogroll. In this post, I will clarify how my blogroll works and provide some tips for those of you looking to increase your blog traffic.

Please recognize that bloggers use their blogrolls in different ways. Some use them almost exclusively for reciprocal links (i.e., I'll add you if you add me) and will add anyone who reciprocates. Others are highly selective, adding only a handful of blogs which they regularly read. Still others attempt to catalog every single atheist-oriented blog, regardless of merit or reciprocation.

So how do I use my blogroll? I use it to list those blogs which I read myself (at least periodically), find useful, and believe that others interested in atheism would find useful. That is, these are blogs which I recommend to my readers. I make no attempt to include every atheist blog in existence. I want inclusion on my blogroll to reflect quality and not simply quantity or reciprocal link agreements. Thus, my criteria for including a blog on my blogroll are as follows:
  • The blog must be primarily focused on atheism, freethought, or similar topics. A limited number of exceptions may be made for truly outstanding blogs in peripheral areas.
  • In order for my recommendation to mean anything, the blog must be one that I read fairly regularly and recommend to others interested in atheist-oriented material.
  • The blog must have at least 10 posts.
  • Blogs must be active, posting at least twice a month.
  • A reciprocal link to Atheist Revolution is appreciated but not required.
Continue to notify me about your blog if you think it might make a suitable addition but understand that I owe it to my readers to be selective. For other ways to jump-start your traffic, I recommend you check out Mojoey's Atheist Blogroll, Planet Atheism, AtheismOnline, and Atheist Blogs Aggregated. These can get you on the map quickly. Also, start commenting regularly on posts at other atheist blogs. This helps you establish a reputation as someone with something to contribute. Finally, and I can't stress this enough, reference posts from other blogs on your blog. With trackback, bloggers and their readers will learn about you and start visiting your blog.

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March 25, 2007

Atheist Revolution Criticized by Atheists

I recently installed StatCounter, making it easy to explore how visitors are finding this blog. After noticing a few visits from Goosing the Antithesis, I decided to check it out. To my surprise, I found this post in which I was characterized as someone who "would try to stop everyone else from having a good time" and as seeking to "temper everyone into falling into step for an 'atheist movement' which does not exist." Is this how I am perceived among atheists? I certainly do not see myself this way, so I wonder what I might have written to give this impression.

I am used to receiving everything from bible quotes to personal attacks from a handful of Christian extremists, even though most Christians who comment here or e-mail me directly have been civil, polite, and downright thoughtful. What I am not used to is what I believe is unfair criticism from within the atheist community. That is not to say that I expect to always agree with other atheist bloggers or for them to agree with me. Disagreements are to be expected and are often helpful in expanding the perspective of both sides, or at least stimulating critical thought. Still, this caught me off guard.

The post which was referenced on Goosing was this one. Naturally, I went back and read it again, worried that I must have inadvertently said something I'd forgotten about. My use of quotes did imply that I am skeptical about any sort of new atheism. As I've said previously, all this phrase means to me is that the media has suddenly decided that we are worthy of attention. I reject the notion that this new atheism is meaningfully different from the atheism most of us have affiliated with for decades. Does this mean that I don't want others to have fun or embrace atheism? Of course not.

I then asked a question which seems relevant, "If we become too aggressive, don't we run the risk of becoming the very fundamentalists we oppose?" Notice the question mark on the end. I asked this as a thought-provoking question. That is, this was not my claim. In fact, this was an intentional device to set the reader up for what would come next - my argument that there is no such thing as fundamentalist atheism or militant atheism. This was my claim.

In the final section of the post, I explored the possibility of atheist extremism. I suggested that this concept at least appears meaningful in the sense that it is possible to imagine an atheist extremist. I then specifically excluded those most commonly associated with the new atheism from consideration as extremists, noting that they did not come close to the characterization of atheist extremists I offered.

I asked the author of the Goosing post, Francois Tremblay, about this apparent misunderstanding. He indicated that he had not actually read my post before labeling me this way but that someone named Alison had and that she assured him that I was "one of those people." I had no idea who Alison might be, but I think I may have figured it out. I am guessing that Alison was one of those who commented on my original post.

There was an Alison who commented, however, I cannot for the life of me figure out the relationship between the content of her comment and the content of my post. I can only guess that she was responding to another comment rather than to what I had written and somehow presented this to Tremblay as if I had said it. She said, "I disagree strongly that we should monitor others' behavior because they share that little thing in common with us." I'm not sure what my post said that could have prompted this comment. She goes on to say, "Trying to censor others' behavior in order to 'make atheists look good' doesn't make any sense to me." I agree, but again, I'm not sure where I said anything that would suggest otherwise. The rest of her comment suggests that she has little interest in contemporary psychological theories of thought and emotion. That is certainly her right. How people think about their world may be irrelevant with regard to truth, but it is certainly relevant to belief. Personally, this is an unending source of fascination to me - understanding how the mind works to permit the irrational beliefs which are so common among our fellow citizens.

I believe that Tremblay's criticism of me, based on a post he admits to not having read, is unwarranted. I can easily identify posts I have written arguing against each of the fallacies of which I am supposedly guilty of committing. I trust that you will let me know if I am wrong and if I am truly coming across as someone who "would try to stop everyone else from having a good time" and someone who wants to "temper everyone into falling into step for an 'atheist movement' which does not exist."

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I Support This Religious Nut

This is not something I've heard myself saying very often, but I found a case where I actually support a Christian who wishes to broadcast his religious idiocy. Yep, you read that correctly. I agree with a Christian that he should be able to promote his superstition as he wishes. I still think he's a nut for wanting to do so, but I support his legal right to do so.

According to ReligionNewsBlog, a Vermont man wanted to obtain a vanity license plate referencing a passage from the Christian bible, John 3:16. His first two requests (JOHN316 and JN316) were denied by the Department of Motor Vehicles on the grounds that they violated the law mandating that there could only be two numbers on any plate. However, his third request (JN36TN) was denied on the grounds that "it conflicts with agency rules forbidding motorists to express religious viewpoints on license plates."

This is wrong. Just as the state can make no law promoting religion, it should not be able to prohibit religious expression. This case is now before a federal judge as a free speech issue. I hope this Christian prevails. He should be able to have his bible quote.

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March 23, 2007

Atheist Extremism

Atheist Badge: The design of the A-le...
Atheist Badge: The design of the A-letter originates from the - "Scarlet A" (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Well before the mainstream media decided that atheism was worth examining and begin to report on a so-called "new atheism," atheist bloggers were discussing issues of strategy and tone. This discussion has intensified, becoming one of the hot topics within around the growing atheist blogosphere and beyond. How aggressive should atheists be in opposing religion? If we become too aggressive, don't we run the risk of becoming too much like the religious fundamentalists we oppose? In this post, I will examine the possibility of "atheist extremism" and how we might recognize it if it were to appear.

I am going to start with the premise that is is at least possible for atheists to become too assertive/aggressive/militant/extreme in their views and/or behavior. If you disagree with this at the outset, I ask only that you try to suspend judgment until the end of the post. What might atheism extremism look like, and what are we to call such an atheist?

Fundamentalist or Militant Atheism

The first term with which we can easily dispense is that of "fundamentalist atheist." It is quite clear to me that there can be no such thing as atheist fundamentalism, and I will refer you to my previous post on this issue. In a nutshell, religious fundamentalism is about adherence to a particular doctrine. Atheism has no doctrine, as it reflects nothing more than the lack of god belief. Thus, there can be no fundamentalist atheism. For more on fundamentalist atheism, I encourage you to read this post at The Uncredible Hallq.

"Militant atheism" is probably the second most popular term used to describe over-the-top atheists. Is it any more viable than "fundamentalist atheism?" It initially appears so, but there are at least two problems with this label. First, militancy is virtually always used to describe a pattern of behavior rather than a viewpoint. Thus, "militant Christian" or "militant Muslim" conjures the image of someone who engages in militant acts and not just someone with strong beliefs. Second, "militant" implies violence. When The Uncredible Hallq searched Google for these terms, he found that they were used primarily to depict persons or groups engaged in violence. This hardly fits any group of American atheists I've encountered.

Atheist Extremism

I suggest that "atheist extremism" is the term we have been seeking. It carries no requirement of adherence to a particular doctrine, and it does not imply violence. But what does it mean, and what would an atheist extremist look like?

The atheist extremist would hold views which would be considered extreme by most members of the atheist community. Like any other type of extremist, an atheist extremist would be irrational. This irrationality would be manifest through cognitive errors such as (and not limited to) the following:
  • Overgeneralization - Drawing grand conclusions based on isolated examples (e.g., "Because one Christian does something bad, all Christians are bad.").
  • Dichotomous Thinking - Framing the world in terms of absolutes without acknowledging meaningful gradations (e.g., "Atheists are smart; religious believers are stupid.").
  • Disqualifying the Positive - Rejecting positive experiences as somehow not counting in order to preserve one's negative view of some group (e.g., "Christians may give a lot to charity but only to promote their agenda of brainwashing.").
Through irrationality, the atheist extremist would maintain his or her position by selectively focusing on supportive evidence while ignoring or explaining away contradictory evidence. Attempts to question his or her worldview would be experienced as personal attacks and would solidify extreme positions. Such an individual would form an intense emotional attachment to his or her viewpoint, overriding that justified by evidence and reason.

I have not encountered many atheists like this, but I have come across a few. I don't believe they are common, but I do believe they exist. Like extremists of other brands, they have largely stopped thinking and exist simply to argue a viewpoint they may no longer be able to articulate.

Note that what I have described here bears little resemblance to Harris, Dawkins, or any of the other prominent "new atheists" who are often accused of being too extreme. These prominent authors to express controversial opinions, but they are opinions with which the vast majority of atheists agree and opinions which are supported by reason and evidence.

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March 21, 2007

Ignorant and Proud

I recently found myself stopped in traffic behind a car with this symbol on the back. I had to laugh, wondering whether the owner of this car realized the irony involved with this magnet. I would not be at all surprised to learn that the driver thinks his religion counts as "truth" simply because he believes it. It probably doesn't even strike him as absurd that his primary reason for believing it is almost certainly that he learned it from his parents.

How much arrogance is required to elevate one's personal beliefs into absolute truth? Never mind that there is a consensus in the scientific community supporting Darwin's theory of evolution. "Who are these scientists to tell me that I'm wrong?" I wonder if the driver could even articulate the basics of the theory he mocks here.

One does not have to be a fundamentalist to put a Jesus fish on one's car. Some of those who do so are certainly fundamentalists, but many more would better be described as moderate Christians. And yet, they share at least something with the fundamentalists - some degree of pride in their faith (i.e., their belief of something without evidence). It is not enough for these individuals to believe; they want others to know about it.

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March 19, 2007

I Believe That Living in Reality is Preferable to Living in Fantasy

swamp (Photo credit: vjack)
I am an atheist who dismisses the concept of gods as incomprehensible and lacking in evidence. I also believe that the natural world is all that exists and find great joy, beauty, and meaning in this world. This post continues the What I Believe series by examining my belief that living in reality (i.e., the natural world) is preferable to living in fantasy or delusion. While I suspect that this statement of belief will not be controversial to most readers, that does not mean that it should be accepted uncritically.

Reality is Both Natural and Objective

I previously stated that "reality" refers to to the natural world and only to the natural world. Gods and other supernatural entities are not part of the natural world by definition, and this excludes them from reality itself.

Beyond this, I believe that there is such a thing as objective reality. I mean this in the sense that there is an independent reality which exists outside of human consciousness. Just because I cannot see the tree with my eyes closed does not mean that the tree ceases to exist. This is not to say that our subjective experience of reality is not important. However, I believe that using phrases such as "subjective reality" or discussing "multiple realities" introduces unnecessary confusion. Our subjective experience of reality is vital, but it is no suitable replacement for reality itself.

I can agree with the postmodern view that people construct their own realities only up to a point. That point is where subjective experience of reality is equated with reality itself or where objective reality is actually denied. This is a form of mental masturbation with which I will not go along.

Connection to Reality is Healthy

Psychosis is recognized in virtually all circles as involving a break with reality. That is, a psychotic person can no longer distinguish between reality and fantasy. Psychotic individuals are viewed as ill and deserving of treatment in all cultures (although treatments certainly vary). Thus, an important sign of mental health involves one's connection to reality.

Part of what distinguishes psychosis from other forms of indulgence in fantasy is the degree of voluntary control the individual retains. A truly psychotic person cannot distinguish between reality and fantasy and is thus unable to control his/her behavior with reference to reality. This is quite different from daydreams where one knows what is real and what is fantasy and can intentionally alternate between them.

But Fantasy Feels Good

Much like drugs, fantasy does feel good. However, just like drugs, too much indulgence is unhealthy. The daydreamer, superstitious person, or religious believer knows (or can know with a little effort) the falsehood of his/her beliefs. This does not stop the beliefs from feeling good or even from having some short-term benefits. However, there is a clear long-term danger.

Much like drugs, prolonged indulgence in fantasy leads to suffering in reality. For example, the individual may ignore real-world problems by focusing on an afterlife. Also like drugs, the worse one's real life becomes, the more tempting it is to retreat to fantasy.

While temporary use of fantasy can be beneficial, learning to live in our natural, objective reality is far more healthy in the long run. By living in reality, we are better able to adapt to and change our environments. By confronting real sources of unhappiness, we are better able to cope.

But What Does it Mean to Live in Reality?

Simply put, learning to live in reality involves the exercise of reason and critical thinking to examine and modify one's beliefs. Beliefs are based on the application of reason, implying some degree of fluidity. New information with relevance to one's beliefs is actively sought, evaluated, and used to change one's beliefs. For example, my belief about the possible deterrent effect of capital punishment is based on scientific data which I have sought out and evaluated. Should new information emerge, my belief may change.

March 18, 2007

It is a Happy Birthday: Delighting in Small Pleasures

Today is my birthday. I haven't exactly looked forward to a birthday since the year I turned 21. Birthdays can serve as a sobering reminder that one has not accomplished many of one's goals, that one is marching toward death, or simply than one is feeling more of the effects of the natural aging process. But I really haven't been thinking about any of that today. Instead, I have been enjoying some of the small pleasures which I often take for granted without stopping to consider how their sum is associated with my happiness.

I sit here this morning with a large cup of coffee and optimism to face the day. I watched a beautiful sunrise this morning, and my RSS aggregator is collecting posts from the atheist blogosphere for my perusal. I plan to digest the contents of the latest Carnival of the Godless while I drink my coffee and my dog sleeps at my feet. If these clouds clear, I will eventually make my way outside with my camera to see what inspiration I might discover. Sitting perfectly still so as not to spook the birds that make their homes in the trees around my house, I might get lucky and snap a picture of one of the more elusive ones I've been after. But even if I miss the perfect shot, the birdsong, warm sun, and alert relaxation will bring peace, just as they always do.

Atheists may be many things, and we are accused of being many more. Still, I've never quite understood the accusation that we are nihilists. At least, this is something with which I have never been able to relate. I don't need a lot of money, power, or superstition to be happy or to find meaning. All the joy and meaning I could ever desire is to be found in the small pleasures.

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March 17, 2007

Know Them By Their Deeds: Florida Church Aid Accused of Molesting Teens

Sexual molestation of youth in one's charge is not limited to Catholic priests; Catholic church aides sometimes get in on it too. According to this disturbing story from the Associated Press and printed in The Times Argus, a church aide from a Florida's New Life youth group has been accused of molesting several teenage girls during a field trip to Vermont. The accused is an assistant youth minister from the St. Louis Catholic Church in Pinecrest, FL.

Maybe religion really does foster sexual predation.

Florida church aide accused of sexual assault in Vermont

March 11, 2007
Staff Report
The Associated Press

BURLINGTON — An aide with a Florida church group is accused in a lawsuit of molesting "multiple" teenage girls while they were on a field trip in Stowe.

A 15-year-old girl and her parents have sued Anthony B. Ricco, 19, an assistant youth minister with the New Life youth group at the St. Louis Catholic Church in Pinecrest, Fla., according to court papers filed with the 11th Judicial Circuit Court in Miami-Dade County.

"My information is that three girls were involved up in Vermont, one of whom is my client," said Jeffrey Herman, the Miami lawyer for the alleged victim.

Cindy Maguire, a Vermont deputy attorney general, said Friday she did not know about the Florida case. Lamoille County State's Attorney Joel Page was not available for comment.

Ricco was arrested in Florida in May, a month after the Vermont trip, and pleaded no contest to nine charges of lewd and lascivious conduct with a child, according to Miami court records. The allegations included sexual contact with a 13-year-old girl. The charges were related to incidents that occurred only in Florida.

The alleged victim in the lawsuit told a school counselor about the sexual assault claims after the Stowe trip, said Mary Ross Agosta, spokeswoman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Miami.

"We applaud her courage for doing that," Agosta said.

The lawsuit said that "as a youth minister and in his role with New Life, Ricco groomed 'Jane Doe' and manipulated her into a sexual relationship with him. He sexually assaulted 'Jane' on numerous occasions in March and April 2006."

Richard Hersch of Miami, Ricco's attorney, said the victim in the lawsuit has admitted she engaged in consensual sexual relations with Ricco.

"This stuff happens five million times a day in the United States," Hersch said. The allegations of sexual contact with the 13-year-old girl were a "different case with different circumstances. It occurred outside the church setting," he said.

President Wanted: Christians Only

Never mind what the Constitution says about not having any sort of religious litmus test for the American presidency. No such law needs to exist because the voters will insure that atheists are excluded. In fact, this is one place where there is little evidence of our American culture war at all because the American people are largely united in their opinion that no atheist should be president.

Mitt Romney certainly agrees. Belief in the poorly defined Christian god is a necessary prerequisite for holding the highest political office. Atheists simply do not have what it takes.

I find it particularly interesting that flag-waving, gay-hating, conservatives say they would elect a homosexual president before a nonbeliever. I wonder how they feel about atheist marriage? Perhaps the marriage of two atheists also represents a violation of the "sanctity of marriage."

This is bigotry - plain and simple. We can try to water it down by emphasizing that American believers simply want someone in office who shares their values, but this does not disguise the bigotry. In fact, we could make this same sharing values excuse to exclude women, African Americans, homosexual, or any other group from office.

We want our presidents to share our delusion, and this seems to override most other considerations. According to Reuters,
Apparently we’d even rather have an egocentric nincoompoop who actually believes he’s on orders from God than a completely rational atheist as the POTUS. After all, at least the former believes in God, which I guess means that he can’t be all that bad.
I don't know about you, but I want a president who is a hell of a lot smarter than I am. I will take this over "folksiness" any day. And I want someone who can act decisively but who bases his/her actions on sound, rational thought. Faith is a liability because it entails unwavering belief in the absence of evidence. This is not a trait to encourage in someone with this much power.

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March 16, 2007

Christian Seniors Bash Atheists

According to the Secular Coalition for America, it did not take long for Rep. Pete Stark's identification as a nontheist to elicit Christian outrage. I suppose it was just a matter of time. The idea that belief in gods is not necessary seems to terrify many Christians. Stark has been applauded in the atheist community, as many of us have concluded that it is about time we finally had some representation in Congress. Perhaps anything that makes atheists happy has to be inherently bad.

A group of Christian seniors, the Christian Seniors Association (CSA), are using the occasion of Stark's announcement to attack atheism. They are calling on members of Congress (update: link no longer active) to proclaim their theistic beliefs on the floor of the House.
"It is time for religious members of Congress to push back. A simple declaration of a belief in God by members of Congress on the House floor will be greatly informative for the American people. Members who wish to expand could use the ‘special orders’ portion of the House calendar to elaborate but a simple "I believe in God" will suffice."

March 15, 2007

Gen. Pace, Homophobia is Only Part of the Problem

I can't stand it any longer - I have to sound off on Gen. Pace's recent condemnation of homosexuals. I get madder every time I think about this. Maybe this will make me feel a little better. The point I'll be making here is that Pace's homophobia, as despicable as it is, is only part of the problem here.

On the off chance that you somehow missed this story, this is what General Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during an interview with the Chicago Tribune on March 12:
"My upbringing is such that I believe there are certain things, certain types of conduct, that are immoral. ... I believe that homosexual acts between individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts."
As important as his words was the context in which they were spoken. Pace expressed his intolerance after he was asked about the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Pace indicated that he supports this policy and the above quote was his rationale for doing so. The policy is a good idea because homosexual acts are immoral, and the military should not condone immoral behavior.

Forget for a second that Pace, a high-ranking government official in a democratic nation supposedly concerned with protecting minority rights, actually said that sexual behavior between two consenting adults was immoral. Forget that this blatant homophobia has been met with condemnation from progressives and applause from Christian and Jewish leaders (also see here) and ultra-conservative politicians hoping to land the GOP presidential nomination.

If you strip away the bigotry, you are left a powerful government official defending an important policy with nothing more than his own personal opinion, one undoubtedly influenced by religion. Pace himself has since issued a statement in which he stops short of apologizing but says that he should have focused "less on my personal moral views" when discussing the policy. You think?

I am so sick of our elected and appointed officials relying on nothing more than personal opinions and prejudices as the basis for important decisions with wide-ranging effects. We deserve better! Important decisions should be based on reason and science rather than superstition and bigotry. Gen. Pace has the right to his beliefs, however wrong they may be. He should not have the right to impose them on others when they are based on nothing but uninformed opinion.

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March 14, 2007

Interview With Brian Flemming at Bloggasm

I just received a news tip via e-mail that Bloggasm posted an interview with Brian Flemming, director of The God Who Wasn't There and developer of the Blasphemy Challenge. It was a great interview, and Flemming's responses were certainly encouraging. Here is my favorite quote:
"Religion has created a rule in our culture that says religious beliefs are the sole beliefs that cannot be critically examined — one is allowed to state the most outlandish conclusions under the banner of religion, and it is considered rude to question those conclusions in the way one would question any others."
Flemming had lots of encouraging things to say about the current state of atheism in America and what the future holds. I certainly hope he is right and renew my commitment to promoting atheism.

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Parenting Beyond Belief

Living as an atheist in one of the most religious Western democracies is no picnic, but I suspect that is is nothing in comparison to trying to raise children in such an environment. I imagine that most godless parents want their children to be capable of making informed choices about their participation (or lack thereof) in religious customs, thinking critically, and applying a healthy dose of skepticism in examining all things (including religion). At the same time, I bet that most atheist parents are fully aware of the ridicule, hatred, and cruelty their children may experience at the hands of Christian children (and teachers) if they should choose not to believe. What does an atheist parent teach his or her children about religion and about the legions of believers surrounding them? How can a rational parent instill morality and compassion without religion?

A new book, Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion, is due for release in April.According to the editor, Dale McGowan, the book has a similar tone to some of my posts here (e.g., this one). Mr. McGowan provided the following excerpt from the book flap:
"Parenting Beyond Belief is a book for loving and thoughtful parents who wish to raise their children without religion. There are scores of books available for religious parents. Now there's one for the rest of us. Includes essays by Richard Dawkins, Julia Sweeney, Penn Jillette, Mark Twain, Dr. Jean Mercer, Dr. Donald B. Ardell, Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons, and over twenty-five other doctors, educators, psychologists, and secular parents."
To learn more about the book and participate in a discussion forum, visit the website at

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March 13, 2007

Belief in God Not Needed for Congress: California Rep. Pete Stark Makes History

One of the brilliant parts of the U.S. Constitution is the prohibition on religious tests for public office. However, it is difficult to imagine voters electing an openly atheist candidate in a country so ravaged by superstition as America. After all, atheists are the most distrusted minority. Given this context, the decision of Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) to come forward as the first member of Congress to officially self-identify as not believing in any sort of god is remarkable.

The Secular Coalition for America, the organization behind Rep. Stark's historic announcement, issued a press release (update: link no longer active) explaining why we should take note of this event. Secular Coalition president Herb Silverman says, "The only way to counter the prejudice against nontheists is for more people to publicly identify as nontheists. Rep. Stark shows remarkable courage in being the first member of Congress to do so."

I expect that Rep. Stark is going to take some major heat from the Christian extremist community for this. His office is likely to be flooded with nasty correspondence, death threats, and the like. Thus, I fully endorse the Secular Coalition's call for all atheists to e-mail Rep. Stark and thank him for his willingness to come forward. We need to do our part to make sure that he receives some positive responses too. I sent him a brief note of thanks a few minutes ago.

The atheist blogosphere is really lighting up over this one. For more reactions, check out the following:

March 12, 2007

Ann Coulter Spouts More Hate: How to Respond?

I guess I'm not sure what to think about Ann Coulter's recent indulgence in hate speech. Well, I guess that is not entirely true. I know what I think about her calling John Edwards a homophobic slur. The part I'm not sure about is how the rest of us should respond in this and similar cases. I have addressed this topic before and will almost certainly continue to do so in the future.

Anyone who was surprised by Coulter's statement has not been following her very closely. Her hatred of gays is well known, and she has made similar statements before. Thus, I think it is safe to say that any organization which invites Coulter to speak is explicitly condoning this sort of bigotry.

Case in point, after her comments at the Conservative Political Action Conference, she was an invited speaker at the Center for Reclaiming America, an organization affiliated with Christian extremist D. James Kennedy and his Coral Ridge Ministries. Coulter was there for the Center's "Reclaiming America for Christ" conference. During this presentation, she repeated what she had previously said about John Edwards. Not only that, but she appeared to condone the murder of personnel at clinics where abortions are provided.
"Those few abortionists were shot, or, depending on your point of view, had a procedure with a rifle performed on them. I'm not justifying it, but I do understand how it happened....The number of deaths attributed to Roe v. Wade — about 40 million aborted babies and seven abortion clinic workers; 40 million to seven is also a pretty good measure of how the political debate is going."
Clearly, the woman knows her audience.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State is calling on the Center for Reclaiming America to disavow Coulter's statements.
"Ann Coulter's statements can only be described as loathsome," said Lynn. "It is astounding to me that this type of vitriol was unleashed before a religious organization that claims to be 'reclaiming' America for Christ. This rhetoric must be repudiated immediately."
There seems to be at least some public disapproval of Coulter since her original comments about Edwards. A handful of politicians on both sides of the aisle have expressed outrage. She has experienced the loss of some advertisers and a few newspapers have dropped her column. Perhaps she will finally be banished to the extremist fringe where she belongs.

I worry that the more outrage Coulter generates, the more popular she becomes with the Christian extremists to which she appeals in the first place. And yet, if we ignore her, are we not guilty of implicitly condoning what she says?

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March 11, 2007

Know Them By Their Deeds: Church Refuses to Pay Bills

In this story out of Kansas, a Kansas church has been delinquent in paying both tax bills and several bills from building contractors. In fact, it is now facing a variety of liens from contractors attempting to collect the money owed to them. Rather than being a simple misunderstanding or a temporary oversight, it appears that this church and its pastor have a long history of tax problems.
"Former church members and contractors also complain that despite the money flowing in, the church also is slow to pay its bills."
So much for being a responsible member of the community.

Woman Sees Jesus in Wallpaper

I guess this is a case of the title saying it all. I'm not sure I have the energy to comment on the idiocy here. Just read the story.

March 10, 2007

Cultural Divisions and the News Media

With the appointment of George W. Bush to the presidency in 2000 by the Supreme Court, a culture war erupted in America. At least, that is what the American media has been telling us ever since. I was initially tempted to dismiss much of this culture war talk as little more than an effort to boost ratings by manufacturing conflict and giving voice to polarizing elements on either side of the political continuum. Nevertheless, I have become convinced that there is in fact an important cultural divide which I expect to deepen as we get closer to the 2008 election.

The right has long complained of a "liberal media bias." In fact, exposing oneself to any form of conservative media will quickly reveal that "liberal media bias" remains one of their chief talking points. Is there any evidence of a liberal media bias? Absolutely, but not in the way the right envisions.

When conservatives refer to a liberal bias in the media, they are claiming that all mainstream news media (i.e., everything but Fox) is biased in a liberal direction. Al Franken and others have examined the available data on this possibility and have concluded that this claim is without merit (see Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right). Franken's data are difficult to dispute and suggest that if the mainstream news media (again, I'm excluding Fox here) is biased, it is in the direction of supporting the status quo. All one has to do in order to see this bias is to examine the media's coverage of 9/11 through entering Iraq.

While there is no evidence of a systematic liberal bias in the mainstream news media, one can certainly find examples of liberally biased programs on mainstream networks which masquerade as news. Countdown With Keith Olbermann is as biased in a liberal direction as anything you can find on Fox News is in a conservative direction. A progressive who views Olbermann as presenting the unbiased truth is every bit as guilty as the conservative who thinks that Fox News is truly "fair and balanced."

In examining many common national news programs, it is clear that there are two main ways in which news can be biased. First, a subtle bias can enter through decisions about what it newsworthy (i.e., what topics are presented). We should all be suspicious of this, given the identity of the umbrella corporations which now own virtually all media outlets. I think the massive pro-war campaign we saw as Bush invaded Iraq illustrates this danger well. This is why it is so important to maintain an independent media and oppose further corporate consolidation.

The second clear form of bias, and one which has become disturbingly prevalent, is the mixture of punditry and news we see on Countdown, The O'Reilly Factor, and the vast array of similar shows. Olbermann and O'Reilly do report some news, but most of what they give us is their opinion on what we should think or how we should feel about various topics. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this sort of punditry, it becomes problematic when these men and their parent stations attempt to pass them off as news anchors rather than pundits.

A quick visit to the Fox News website reveals the tagline "We report. You decide." Great, except that O'Reilly, Hannity, and others want to decide for us, or at least tell us how to decide. Still, we find the very same tagline on O'Reilly's page. Does the average American know the difference anymore? As the opinion shows attempt to mimic news programs, and the news programs become increasingly opinionated, will any of us be able to tell which is which should these trends continue?

The likely effect of continued merging of opinion and news is that the cultural divide will deepen past a point of no return. When I watch Countdown and O'Reilly on the same day, I experience two very different "realities." In all likelihood, both represent perversions of reality. I worry about those who take either at face value. Programs like this cement the viewer's worldview by reinforcing what the viewer thinks about the world. We have seen the devastating effects of religious indoctrination; is there any reason to think that this sort of indoctrination won't be harmful as well?

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March 8, 2007

Reality-Based Community Skeptical of Discovery of Jesus' Tomb

As news broke of James Cameron's supposed discovery of Jesus' tomb, most in the reality-based community reacted with skepticism. While some Christians acknowledged that Cameron's claim challenged the very core of their faith, most atheist bloggers appeared to regard the news with minimal interest. At first glance, this might appear surprising. After all, wouldn't atheists be expected to celebrate the death knell of Christianity?

As you have almost certainly heard by now, the big news involved claims by filmmaker James Cameron that his upcoming documentary on the Discovery Channel reveals the tomb of Jesus and his family. This claim, if it can be shown to be true, would challenge the Christian dogma surrounding the physical resurrection of Jesus.

So why are many atheists dismissing this news as being relatively unimportant? I believe the answer lies in our rationalist nature. I'm not here to claim that atheists are necessarily rationalists, but I readily identify myself as such. A rationalist is someone who looks to reason as the route to knowledge and who requires evidence rather than faith to sustain belief.

As a rationalist, I look at Cameron's claim with skepticism. First, I'm not convinced that anyone has conclusively proven that the Jesus figure described in the Christian bible ever lived. Second, I'm cautious about accepting the veracity of an archaeological claim made by a non-archaeologist. Cameron is unlikely to be qualified to identify the remains of Jesus, so I'd prefer to hear from the experts. Third, I note that making outrageous claims is a highly effective marketing strategy. It seems that Cameron is likely to be more interested in attracting viewers than he is in uncovering the truth.

Of course, it is entirely possible that my mind may change. That is the thing about we rationalists - we are quite willing to change our minds if convincing evidence emerges. I will await further developments in this story with interest. I'm content to follow the evidence on this one.

I should also point out that I am skeptical of something else related to this story. I am skeptical that any amount of evidence would actually alter the faith of many Christians. Known for distorting reality to preserve their beliefs, I see no reason to expect that Christians would suddenly embrace reality here if the remains could be authenticated. How would they explain it away? They have already shown us one approach:
James Tabor, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said that while literal interpreters of the Bible say Jesus' physical body rose from the dead, ``one might affirm resurrection in a more spiritual way in which the husk of the body is left behind.''
In any case, this is one more example of Christians taking a great risk when it comes to their superstition. As they make claims about the natural world (e.g., a man lived, died, and was resurrected), they open themselves to the possibility that these claims will be conclusively shown to be false.

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March 7, 2007

Homeschooling is About Indoctrination

Lest there be any doubt that homeschooling is about indoctrination for many Christian parents, I refer you to this report on Christian Newswire. The article reveals that one of the core motives for Christian parents who homeschool their children is modification of attitudes toward abortion. Disgusted yet? You will be.

The title of this article, "Considering Homeschooling: Christians Can Help Stop Abortion," leaves little to the imagination about what is going on here. Just in case it still strikes you as ambiguous, the tagline should clear things up even more: "Home education is a deterrent to abortion and a way to boost pro-life activism."

How silly I was to think that homeschooling was about education, even among Christian parents. It is not. It is about indoctrination of one's children to the Christian worldview. According to Charles Lowers, Director of Considering Homeschooling, Christian parents are urged "to see home education as a powerful tool to deter abortions in their own families, and as an excellent means to raise up leaders with a strong life ethic."

Deciding to homeschool one's own children is one thing, but why would someone care so much about whether other parents did the same that they would form a "nationwide homeschool recruitment group?" Evidently, homeschooling is viewed as a means of eliminating female reproductive freedom. You see, without homeschooling, our nation's children are "immersed in the public school culture of death."
Most Christians still enroll their children in government schools despite evolution in the textbooks, Planned Parenthood as guest speakers, school based sex clinics giving out birth control and promiscuous peers. Believers are risking the lives of the next generation by sending their children to such a place.
Interesting. This statement clearly implies that most Christians do not accept evolution and oppose a woman's right to make health care decisions. What is a poor, persecuted believer to do? Fortunately, it is actually quite simple.
Believers who can create a safe, loving home should have or adopt as many children as possible and homeschool them.
As many children as possible. Man, you'd think they were trying to build an army or something!

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March 4, 2007

Opening Old Wounds: 18 Months After Hurricane Katrina

I just watched Spike Lee's outstanding documentary on Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke. I thought I could handle it. After all, it has been 18 months since the hell that was Katrina, and I was spared most the agony many others experienced. It turned out to be an intense emotional blow, making me feel like it was happening all over again. I woke up this morning in the midst of a nightmare and ran to the window to make sure my property had survived. Now I just feel numb again, except for the flashes of rage directed toward the government who allowed the horrific aftermath to happen and who has yet to resolve the situation in Mississippi and Louisiana. This is a film every American needs to view, chronicling a disaster no American should be allowed to forget.

Watching the images of Katrina was much harder than I expected. It brought back the vivid memories of seeing the devastation outside my window. I'll never forget the roar of that wind or the cracking of trees snapping in half. Still, the storm itself paled it comparison to the aftermath, an aftermath which continues to this day for many.

Without electricity or running water, those days in the Mississippi heat were agonizing. My friends and neighbors struggled to find even basic shelter, food, and water. Nobody took charge, and FEMA was nowhere to be found. Roughly 60 miles to the south, entire communities had been obliterated. Government officials were absent. Television, radio, phones were down, making any kind of coordinated communication impossible. One could catch the tail end of a rumor, but nobody seemed to know what was going on with any certainty.

As power and water were gradually restored, I first learned what had happened in New Orleans. Like viewers around the country, I would see desperate people crying out for help from a government who was not listening. I wanted so badly to help but felt powerless to do anything. Most gas stations were down, and the few that were open were rationing gas in small quantities. The roads were filled with debris more than a week after the storm hit. I felt guilty that I had survived what many of of them had not.

I was convinced that the local, state, and federal governments would spring into action. After all, New Orleans was an American city. We take care of our own. It was inconceivable that our government would prefer to occupy and rebuild Iraq than assist our own citizens at home. Aid did eventually arrive, but it was too late for those who were already dead. The question of why it did not come faster remains unanswered.

I thought this would be a watershed moment in American history - surely Americans would rise up and demand accountability. The American government stood by and did nothing while people were pleading for help on national TV. I also hoped that Katrina would serve to highlight the third-world conditions in which many poor residents of New Orleans found themselves long before the storm.

Here we are 18 months later, and Bush is in New Orleans again making more empty promises. Evidently, he believes that the Saints' wining season is evidence of the progress in New Orleans. Progress in Louisiana and Mississippi has been undeniably slow, and many people are still living in FEMA trailers. I am not convinced that any lessons have been learned. I'm incredibly sad for America today.

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March 2, 2007

Christians Are Not Being Persecuted

English: Persecution of the Christians
English: Persecution of the Christians (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I have often wondered whether it would be possible for Christians to sustain their religion without the imaginary threat of persecution. I suspect not, but that really is not the point of this post. Instead, I want to draw your attention to a great letter to the editor I found in the Evansville Courier & Press. It argues that American Christians are not persecuted in the arena of school prayer, as they are so fond of claiming.

This letter was written in response to a previous letter complaining about how Christians "allowed one woman ... to remove prayer from our schools ... Christians sat back and let it happen without a fight." I did not attempt to find the previous letter, but I suspect it was referring to Madelyn Murray O'Hair. Regardless, the author of the response, Mr. Hartley, points out that this is untrue, noting that Christians fought hard to retain prayer in school. Defending their desire to infuse superstition into public education all the way to the Supreme Court is hardly standing by and doing nothing.

They lost because it is a violation of religious freedom to use taxpayer-funded schools to indoctrinate children into one particular faith. Public schools belong to everyone, not just Christians.
Mr. Hartley also notes that (and this is important) no child has been deprived of his/her right to pray in school. In fact, America's children are free to wallow in any form of superstition they choose at school, as long as said wallowing does not disrupt other children or interfere with the learning process.

True, public school teachers do not have the freedom to lead their students in prayer. However, this is not what the Christian extremists are labeling persecution. As the author suggests, "So, when Christians complain about the lack of prayer in public schools, what they really mean is they would like NON-Christians to pray to Jesus." Yep, that seems to be exactly what they are after.

Are American Christians persecuted? As the author of this article recommends, it is helpful to look at the evidence:

  • American public school children are free to pray silently to whatever imaginary being they wish.
  • The American government is filled with avowed Christians at all levels.
  • American political candidates are united in their efforts to flaunt their Christianity to potential voters.
  • It is difficult to imagine that an openly atheist candidate for virtually any public office would even be taken seriously, much less elected. In some states, it wouldn't even be allowed!
As Mr. Hartley appropriately concludes, persecution is not the same thing as being expected "to follow the same rules as non-Christians."
Christians aren't being persecuted. They've been privileged. They've been privileged for so long that they must feel picked-on whenever they are subjected to a level playing field.
I couldn't have said it better myself. I am thrilled to see such an important message being distributed through letters to the editor. Perhaps the day will come when I will be able to occasionally share my thoughts in this manner without fearing retribution.

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