February 27, 2014

Belief in Demonic Possession and Exorcism Causes Real Harm

A woodcut from 1598 shows an exorcism performe...
A woodcut from 1598 shows an exorcism performed on a woman by a priest and his assistant, with a demon emerging from her mouth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It is difficult to question the fact that media content can impact attitudes and beliefs. We have seen countless examples of the effects that propaganda can have, and few would question whether what we see on cable news these days has any impact on our political climate. Moreover, there is a large body of scientific research demonstrating that television violence affects children in some unfortunate ways. Nobody is claiming that everyone exposed to certain media content will be affected by it in the same manner, but it is generally accepted that media content can have an effect on at least some people.

Having recently watched Insidious and The Conjuring, both of which I enjoyed, I cannot help wondering if there is any connection between the frequent depictions of demonic possession and exorcism in the horror genre and real-life exorcism. While I agree with those suggesting that religious institutions deserve much of the blame for the occurrence of exorcisms today, I wonder whether the horror genre I love so much might have at least something to do with shaping public attitudes toward things like demonic possession and exorcism. If nothing else, do they promote the idea that demonic possession is real and that rituals like exorcism are the solution?

February 25, 2014

Why Don't More People Know About This?

Image of the Dutch Reformation iconoclasm (Bee...
Image of the Dutch Reformation iconoclasm (Beeldenstorm)  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Pick almost an issue of importance to atheists, and you can probably ask some version of "Why don't more people know about this?" The epidemic of child sexual abuse perpetrated by some Catholic clergy and then systematically concealed by the Catholic Church...why don't more people know about this? Bigotry and discrimination against atheists and other groups from prominent Christians...why don't more people know about this? The many destructive effects of Christianity and Islam on the world...why don't more people know about this? You get the point.

The answer to this question is complex. Some people don't know because they don't want to know. They hear the information but willfully disregard it to maintain their faith. They have decided that their faith is too important to let something trivial like reality interfere with it. But I suspect that there are many others who do not fall into this category. They don't know because they haven't been exposed to these things.

February 21, 2014

How an Atheist Could Become a Christian

Christian atheist ? Man in Hyde Park, London.
Christian atheist? Man in Hyde Park, London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The scenario I am about to describe will strike some of you as farfetched, so I want to preface it by pointing out that I have known a few people who were raised Christian, spent several years of their lives as atheists, and returned to being Christians. I should also note that I have heard from many atheists that even though they prefer atheism to the religions into which they were previously indoctrinated, they miss something about their prior religions, even if it mostly boils down to the social acceptance they received from being part of a religious community.

Now suppose an atheist were to come to you and explain that he was raised as a Christian but abandoned this religion years ago and that he has been an atheist for much of his life. He says that he is aware that there are probably no gods; however, something has been troubling him lately, and he would appreciate your advice. He tells you that he has not been happy for some time and that he cannot help wondering if he might be happier if only he could be a Christian again. His family are all Christians, as are most of his friends.

He says,
It isn't like I can just snap my fingers and start believing again. Still, I have found myself thinking lately that I would if I could. I mean, if I could somehow unlearn atheism and go back to being a Christian, I think I would do so.
He's serious, and the hint of sorrow you hear in his voice moves you. What do you tell him? Is there anything you could do to help? You could tell him some version of "it gets better" except that he's been an atheist for over 20 years and you see no reason to discount what he's telling you.

February 18, 2014

Obstacles to Improving Science Education

Gulf Coast Regional Science Olympiad
Gulf Coast Regional Science Olympiad
Some depressing news was released last week at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's meeting in Chicago. A 2012 survey conducted by the National Science Foundation found that 26% of the 2,200 Americans surveyed failed the following question:
Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?
The story was reported by NPR and included a few other gems:
  • Only 39% correctly recognized that the universe started with an explosion.
  • Only 48% correctly answered that modern humans developed from earlier species.
  • Just over half of respondents recognized that antibiotics are not effective against viruses.
It would be easy to point to results like these and argue that we need to increase our investment in science education. I'd certainly agree with such a suggestion. We do need better funding for scientific research and science education (and reality-based eduction in general).

February 17, 2014

Satanism: The Next Dangerous Idea

Satan, as drawn by Gustave Doré, in John Milton's Paradise Lost.
Many religious believers have viewed atheism as a dangerous idea for as long as there have been religious believers. While there have certainly been exceptions, many religious individuals have discouraged others from seriously considering atheism. They perceive it as a threat to their worldview, their privileged status in society, and perhaps even to their eternal souls. They would prefer that their children never hear of atheism, as they fear it may have a corrupting influence. Atheists should remain silent, know their place, and keep their doubts to themselves. Religious believers should not be curious about atheism; they should steer clear of it.

To some degree, the perception of atheism as a dangerous idea may be starting to change. We atheists have made it clear that we are not willing to remain silent; we are speaking out. Thanks to a number of books about atheism and the availability of atheist-oriented material on the Internet, it has become much easier for people to encounter atheism. Someone who is curious about atheism can find many great atheist websites, blogs, podcasts, and videos in mere seconds. The genie is out of the bottle. While many religious fundamentalists continue to see themselves as being at war with atheism, secularism, and much of the modern world, some religious moderates have shown signs of growth in their willingness to acknowledge that atheists exist and have the right to express ourselves.

Unfortunately, there is at least one other dangerous idea, one that actually seems capable of uniting many religious believers and many atheists in opposition to it. They do not want to acknowledge it, remain largely ignorant about it, spread misinformation about it, demonize its adherents, and seek to silence them. Much like used to be the case for atheism, this idea should not be explored or discussed. What idea is so dangerous that it could possibly unite many religious believers and many atheists in this way? Satanism.

February 16, 2014

Does Religious Belief Enhance Gullibility?

English: 2 gravestones at Arlington National C...
English: 2 gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery, with religious symbol for United Church of Religious Science and "belief group" symbol for Atheist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Religious belief (i.e., faith) does not offer the sort of protection against gullibility one finds in critical thinking or skepticism, but this is not necessarily a problem for religion. After all, religious belief does not provide us with many of the things we find in science, and we do not expect it to do so.

There is some evidence that religious belief is associated with gullibility, but I am not aware of clear support a one-directional causal relationship. That is, religious belief may lead to gullibility, gullibility may lead to religious belief, or some other variable could potentially lead to them both. Remember, correlation is different from causation.

So my question here is not about whether religious belief causes or is caused by gullibility but whether religious belief enhances gullibility. Does an individual tend to be more gullible than he or she would otherwise be because of his or her religious belief?

February 13, 2014

The One New Thing About 'New Atheism'

Robert G. Ingersoll. Library of Congress descr...
Robert G. Ingersoll. Library of Congress description: "Ingersoll, Robert (The Infidel)". (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I have been fairly critical of the mainstream news media's embrace of "new atheism," questioning whether there is really anything new about it. When I think about the sort of writing Bertrand Russell was doing or the speeches Robert Ingersoll was giving all those years ago, I really don't see the so-called "new atheists" writing or saying anything that is different enough to be characterized as "new." But I'm perfectly willing to admit when I'm wrong, and I think I might have been wrong here. There does appear to be at least one thing that is at least sort of new about "new atheism."

Austin Cline (About.com Agnosticism/Atheism) writes some good stuff about atheism, and much of it is aimed at the sort of visitor who would arrive at his site after having searched the Internet for answers to specific questions about atheism. I want to draw your attention to a recent post: What's So 'New' About 'New Atheism'? What is New Atheism? Not only is this a fairly common question, but Cline's answers are spot on.

February 11, 2014

Religious Belief and U.S. Geography

Location of state of XY (see filename) in the ...
Location of Mississippi in the United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Much has been made of the recent results from Gallup showing religious belief varies by geography in the United States. Maps like this one show where one will find the most highly concentrated religiosity today and where one can expect to find relatively little of it. They provide an interesting, if somewhat oversimplified, way to visualize the relative importance of religion in various regions. Seeing this sort of map and learning about the most and least religious states certainly helps to explain the culture shock I experienced in moving to Mississippi from one of the least religious areas of the country. But what practical uses, if any, does this sort of information have?

February 10, 2014

Anti-Christian Bigotry From Atheists

English: The British Atheist Ariane Sherine at...
Ariane Sherine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
If I were to say that anti-atheist bigotry is a problem in many parts of the United States, most atheists would agree. Such a statement would be about as uncontroversial as one could expect to find on an atheist blog. Many of us have experienced religiously-motivated bigotry directed at atheists first-hand in our daily lives; many more have seen examples from our news media and elected officials. And of course, it is regularly on display from many prominent Christians. It would be fairly difficult to question the existence of bigotry aimed at atheists. If you are one of the lucky few who doubts it, a few seconds on Twitter should erase those doubts.

But what about anti-Christian bigotry on the part of atheists? This gets us into somewhat more controversial territory, doesn't it? We recognize that Christians enjoy a privileged status in the U.S. and that their fantasies about how non-Christians standing up for our rights equate with Christians being persecuted are just that - fantasies. However, I think we have to accept that some atheists are bigoted against Christians. And whether we like it or not, several of them are expressing this bigotry in public.

February 8, 2014

The Nye-Ham Debate

Bill Nye the Science Guy at The UP Experience ...
Photo by Ed Schipul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I have received several questions in the past few days about what I thought of the recent debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. Almost every other atheist blog I read seemed to have something to say about the debate, and it received a surprising amount of attention by the mainstream news media. I suppose the notion that evolution would still be debated in 2014 was newsworthy. I didn't watch the debate due to a lack of interest. I rarely find debates worth watching, regardless of the subject or the participants. It just isn't a format I enjoy or find particularly informative. And the idea of debating a subject that really isn't debatable by sane people holds little interest. What will they debate next - gravity?

I enjoy seeing open and honest discussions of relevant issues, but this is rarely what happens in a debate. Most debates are about rhetoric, talking points, making one's opponent look stupid without addressing his or her valid points, and so on. Even some of the expanded versions of debates that have been turned into books are like this. When one party isn't sure how to respond to a point raised by the opponent, he or she just ignores it and responds to other parts of what the opponent says. I find this infuriating even though I recognize it is widely accepted that this happens in a debate.

February 7, 2014

Conservative Christians Often on the Wrong Side of History

Same Sex Marriage
Same Sex Marriage (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The sale and consumption of alcohol, suffrage, the teaching of evolution in public school, the Civil Rights movement in general and interracial marriage in particular, feminism...they all had something in common. There was a time when they were opposed by a significant number of conservative Christians in the United States on religious grounds (I realize that this is still the case for evolution). To be sure, there were Christians who not only did not oppose these things but who worked tirelessly to help bring them about. And yet, there was a time when each of these things was opposed by a majority of conservative Christians for what was presented as religious reasons.

February 5, 2014

West Memphis Three and the Satanic Panic

satanic pizza
satanic pizza (Photo credit: romana klee)
A couple weeks ago, I caught CNN's 2011 documentary on the West Memphis Three, "Presumed Guilty: Murder in West Memphis" (here is how CNN described it when it aired). On the off-chance that any of you are unfamiliar with the case, it involves a triple-murder of three 8 year-old boys in 1993 for which three teenagers were convicted in spite of what was questionable evidence. What makes the case relevant here is that it occurred during the "Satanic panic" that swept through the U.S., and it appears that Christian hysteria over Satanic cults was a contributing factor in how the case was investigated and prosecuted. The three would serve 18 years in prison before being released through an Alford plea prompted by new DNA evidence and a ruling from the Arkansas Supreme Court.

Having read a bit about the case several years ago and watched Paradise Lost - The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills again within the last 2-3 years, I was familiar with almost everything in the CNN documentary. Paradise Lost went into far greater detail; however, it was interesting to see the more recent prison interviews with Damien Echols before his release. I don't believe I had previously seen all of the clips they included.

February 3, 2014

Giving the People What They Want: Blogging Controversy and Conflict

Controversy legend
Controversy legend (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As the end of 2013 approached, I was faced with the task of identifying Atheist Revolution's most popular posts of 2013. It was an easy enough thing to do, but I was not terribly thrilled with the results. Of the posts written in 2013, the one that received the most page views was the one about PZ Myers publishing allegations against Michael Shermer. I initially found this rather discouraging. What did it say about my readers, I wondered, that this post ended up being far more popular than anything else I wrote in 2013? I soon realized that this was not fair since most of the traffic captured by this post was not from regular readers but from search engine traffic. Google Analytics confirmed this suspicion. Why was this post so popular? Because conflict and controversy draw in the crowds. Is it any wonder that some bloggers are tempted to use this insight to promote themselves?

I certainly wrote better posts about more important subjects in 2013. As we atheists know quite well, the popularity of an idea has little to do with the merit of the idea. I suspect the same is true of blog posts. The fact that a post drew lots of traffic does not make it a good post or even one that is worth reading.

February 2, 2014

Super Bowl 2014: Go Seahawks!

Today is Super Bowl Sunday in the U.S. Of course, we are told every year that the entire world tunes in to watch the Super Bowl, but I've always had my doubts about that. I assume it is nowhere near as popular outside the U.S. as it is here. Anyway, I have skipped the Super Bowl for the past few years because I haven't really cared who wins. I'll be watching this year because I'd really like to see Seattle win, almost as much as I'd like to see Denver lose.

In honor of the occasion and since I really haven't been following the hype leading up to the game this year, I thought it would be fun to share some of what I've written about the Super Bowl in previous years:
Now if you'll excuse me, I suppose I should go pray for the Seahawks or perform an equally silly ritual to make sure they win.

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Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act to Add God Reference to State Seal

keep church and state separateDue to the importance of this issue to those of us residing in the state of Mississippi, as well as the broader interest to those everywhere who care about the separation of church and state, I am cross-posting this at Mississippi Atheists.

The state of Mississippi appears to be moving toward adding "In God We Trust" to the state seal. It was requested by our conservative Republican governor, Gov. Phil Bryant, and approved 48-0 by the Mississippi Senate (SB 2681). The bill, called the "Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act," now moves to the House. I would estimate the probability of it passing and becoming law as close to 100%.

What is particularly fascinating about this bill is the rationale that has been offered by its supporters for why we need it, given that the U.S. Constitution already guarantees religious freedom. According to Emily Wagster Pettus' article for the Associated Press, the bill's sponsor, Sen. Phillip Gandy (identified as minister of Liberty Baptist Church) explained:
Times are changing, and Christians are afraid of a lot of different things. And some of that is reality, possibly, and some is perception. But we want to do what we can.