March 31, 2014

A Great Example of Coming Out Atheist

peace doves

There is not a right way to come out as an atheist. It looks different for everyone who does it, and it is a personal decision about if, when, and how best to do it. That said, a recent post by Coal Miner's Granddaughter called Coming Out of the Closet put a smile on my face. After identifying herself as an atheist and explaining why she believes that religion has "caused more harm than good" in the world, she delivers a message to the religious people in her life:
I know that once I hit publish on this blog post, some of you who read this will think I'm a Godless, immoral, horrible person. That's fine. Think of me what you will. Cut me out of your life because of this. But know this. I'm the same person whom you've always known. I just kept my questioning of religion, of God, secret from all of you and it is just now, at this stage of my life, that I feel comfortable enough in my own skin to "come out" finally, and announce who I am.

March 30, 2014

Goodbye, Dear Friend

Racetrack Playa, Death ValleyMy best friend, a dog who had been with me for 16 years, recently died in my lap at the vet following an injection of chemicals administered to end his life.

While my parents had dogs while I was growing up, this was my first dog after leaving home. He also had the distinction of being by my side during an unpleasant divorce, providing me with the sort of support during this rough time that only a cherished pet can provide. And while I do remember having family pets die when I was living in my childhood home, this was the first time the responsibility fell solely to me.

Sixteen years is a long time for a dog to live, even a small dog like this one. He had been very healthy up until the last year. But even then, his quality of life was still quite good. He enjoyed eating, playing with his toys, laying next to me with his head in my lap, tugging on a piece of rope, and laying in the sun outside when it wasn't too hot.

This would all change in the span of only 2 days, and I wasn't prepared for how quick the decline was. He stopped eating, had difficulty getting around, and was clearly not his normal self. The vet confirmed what I had feared: widespread organ failure. She was surprised that he hadn't dropped dead already. I suppose he always was too stubborn for that. I was fortunate that the decision to euthanize was about as clear-cut as could be. He might have lasted another day or two but would have been miserable. I owed him more than that.

March 27, 2014

Christian Extremism in the South

Southern United States
Southern United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In one of the most thought-provoking and terribly sad things I've read in some time, The destructive myth about religion that Americans disproportionately believe, CJ Werleman addresses a recently published Pew survey about the degree to which people believe that some sort of god is essential to morality. After noting that the United States is an outlier among developed nations (i.e., 53% of U.S. respondents indicate that god-belief is a necessary condition of morality) and commenting on the discrepancy between these findings and data showing that atheists are underrepresented in the prison population, Werleman addresses the regional differences found within the U.S. and the links between religiosity and poverty.

Not coincidentally, the South leads the way in both poverty and Christian extremism. Werleman believes that the Republican Party has successfully convinced voters throughout the South to support policies that maintain poverty and other social ills by playing to their Christian extremist sympathies.
In an earlier piece, I wrote that the primary reason for abject child poverty in these Southern states is that more than a third of children have parents who lack secure employment, decent wages and healthcare. But thanks to religion, these poor saps vote for the party that rejects Medicaid expansion, opposes early education expansion, legislates larger cuts to education, and slashes food stamps to make room for oil and agriculture subsidies on top of tax cuts and loopholes for corporations and the wealthy. Essentially, the Republican Party has convinced tens of millions of Southerners that a vote for a public display of the Ten Commandments is more important to a Christians’ needs than a vote against cuts in education spending, food stamp reductions, the elimination of school lunches and the abolition of healthcare programs.

March 26, 2014

10 More Things I Wish Everyone Knew About Atheism

Herb Silverman (President, Secular Coalition o...
Herb Silverman (President, Secular Coalition of America) AAC02 (Photo credit: Marty Stone)
Herb Silverman's recent post at FaithStreet presented religious believers with 10 things he wishes everyone knew about atheism. It was an excellent list, and I found myself agreeing with every item on his list. I too wish that more religious believers knew these things about atheism. We probably wouldn't see so much bigotry directed at atheists if religious people had accurate information.

By limiting himself to 10 items, Silverman was bound to leave a few things off. I thought it might be fun to challenge myself to see if I could come up with another 10 I'd like to add to the mix. So here are 10 more things I wish everyone knew about atheism:

March 24, 2014

How Do You Know It Isn't Real?

Pikes peak highway bigfoot As a skeptic, I often face the same question moments after rolling my eyes when someone is talking about the latest Bigfoot sighting, ghosts, demons, monsters, visitation by aliens, the "special powers" you think you have, or one of the many gods in which some people incredibly still claim to believe. "But how do you know it isn't real?"

I don't know that it isn't real, at least not with absolute certainty. What the eye roll likely signifies is some combination of the following:
  • Mild disappointment in response to the realization that you actually believe this stuff,
  • Familiarity in the sense that I've been down this road too many times to count and can anticipate where this is likely heading, and
  • Bracing myself to be called all sorts of names when I calmly explain why I think you are probably wrong.
But if I don't know it doesn't exist with absolute certainty, why am I not investigating it? Why am I not more excited about whatever it is you have to tell me? If I am not certain it doesn't exist, aren't I being close-minded by not joining you in exploring your claim?

March 22, 2014

Atheists React to the Death of Fred Phelps

Fred Phelps at his pulpit: August 4, 2002 All ...
Fred Phelps at his pulpit: August 4, 2002 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
If you read any atheist, secular, or progressive websites, blogs, or social media accounts, you have already heard that Fred Phelps is dead. You have probably also encountered some mixed reactions, ranging from calls for celebration to somber reflection; however, I think it is accurate to say that the majority of the reactions have been more in line with the somber reflection end of the continuum.

I have written about Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church here a few times, but I decided not to comment on the news that Phelps was dying or his death. I suppose I did not feel like I had much to add to what had already been said. That hasn't changed.

March 20, 2014

Public Impressions of Skepticism

English: Skulls Unlimited Owner, Jay Villemare...
English: Skulls Unlimited Owner, Jay Villemarette and Director of Education, Joey Williams with the Mythbusters Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman at the Discovery Channel's Young Scientists Challenge 2004. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Public impressions of skepticism seem quite negative, and I think that our entertainment media bears much responsibility for this state of affairs. Aside from something like MythBusters, I have trouble thinking of many examples where skeptics and skepticism are depicted favorably on television. Positive depictions seem even scarcer in the movies. Skeptics are nearly always depicted as being close-minded, stubborn, unreasonable, and most important of all...wrong to have been skeptical.

It is tempting to blame this on religion and to suggest that the negative depictions of skepticism are based on the fear of many religious believers that skepticism, if allowed to flourish, might undermine their beliefs. I suspect this is a factor some of the time, but I am reluctant to conclude that it is the main factor. Far more important, I suspect, is that many people do not want all sorts of comfortable but irrational beliefs called into question. The do not want to have to admit that their biases, hunches, intuition, or folk "wisdom" are often wrong. Religious belief is likely to be part of this mix, but I think the need many people seem to have to cast skepticism in a negative light goes beyond religion.

March 19, 2014

Atheists Shitting on Your Parade

Ashwaubenon High School Marching Band, 2011 NYC St Patrick's Day Parade 2

There are many simple but unpleasant truths in life, truths that can be expressed in a single sentence. Here is one of them:
It is far easier to shit on someone else's parade than it is to organize your own.
What does organizing a parade have in common with writing a book or a blog, doing a podcast, making YouTube videos, recording a song, designing a billboard, cooking a meal, or practically any other activity that involves the intentional production of some sort of tangible outcome? They all require an investment of time, effort, persistence, and creativity. But this is not the only thing they have in common. They also seem to attract a particular type of critic - the sort who complains without offering anything of value or who criticizes without trying to be even remotely constructive.

If there is one thing the Internet attracts, it is people who seem to thrive on this sort of criticism. Everybody wants to be a critic, but few want to do so in any constructive sense. They want to tear down, not to build up. They are quick to shred the ideas of others and reluctant to provide any of their own. It is understandable why this would be the case, but it is unfortunate that so much of it goes on among people who claim to be working toward at least some common goals.

In this post, I want to offer some thoughts on why this sort of "parade shitting" is as common as it is among atheists, highlight one of the costs we may not fully appreciate, and suggest a few alternatives.

March 18, 2014

Be Skeptical of Holistic Medicine

medicine bottles

Writing for Guardian Liberty Voice, Nathan Cranford provides a succinct response to the question of whether holistic medicine works. Referring to alternative and complementary medicine (ACM), he notes:
The problem is that ACMs lack any sort of peer review study. For example, a patient will claim that they took an herbal remedy, got better; therefore, the herbal remedy works. The problem with this reasoning is that it is much more likely that the malady in question would have gotten better anyways, like a bacterial infection or cold. Sometimes the remedy is due to the placebo effect. And occasionally, the product actually does positively contribute to the patient’s health. Nevertheless, it is precisely because of these conflicting possibilities that scientific study, rather than individual hearsay, is most needed. If AMCs worked, then they would simply be dubbed as medicine.
It was unfortunate to see him lump alternative and complementary medicine together in this otherwise effective statement, particularly since he took care to distinguish between them just two paragraphs earlier. Still, the point about holistic medicine is well taken.

March 16, 2014

Importance of Religion Declining in U.S.

Crossed out version of original image File:Rel...
Crossed out version of original image File:Religious_symbols.svg, containing symbols of various religions. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
There is some recent evidence to suggest that the importance of religion may be declining in the United States. A new poll by NBC and The Wall Street Journal shows that 21% of respondents say that religion does not play an important part in their lives. According to Carrie Dann (NBC News), this is the highest percentage recorded since the poll started in 1997 and is up from 16% in 1999.

National trends like this are somewhat challenging to interpret, as there will almost certainly be large differences by region, ethnicity, age, education, and a host of other variables. Still, it is encouraging to see that there is an overall decline in the importance assigned to religion. Here's hoping the decline continues and picks up a bit of momentum.

In my opinion, the most likely reason for this decline (if we had to pick just one) is the anti-equality stance taken by many religions when it comes to same-sex marriage. I'm just speculating here, but this seems to be the main area where the gap between where society is moving ahead at the same time organized religion is refusing to move.

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March 13, 2014

Raising the Dead

Clive HarrisWhen religious believers ask atheists why we insist that religious belief can be harmful, there are so many valid answers that it can be difficult to know where to start. One of the more common categories of reasons includes the perils of indulging in false comforts, leading one to abandon the sort of real-world action that might resolve a problem in exchange for superstitious rituals that accomplish little (e.g., prayer).

One of the more concerning areas where we see this sort of thing is in the arena of health care. Imagine the person who learns he has high blood pressure and desperately needs to make dietary changes and increase his level of exercise. Suppose he decides to ignore his doctor's advice and rely instead on prayer. We atheists are inclined to see this as problematic.

Of course, there is also the far more powerful example of the parents who deny medical care to their child and resort to prayer instead. When the child dies, we cannot simply say that the religious person got what he or she deserved; a child is dead because of superstition.

March 12, 2014

Religious Belief is Not a Mental Illness

English: An American Lady butterfly against a ...
An American Lady butterfly against a cloud-filled sky. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I read Chris Stedman's post for Religion News Service, "5 reasons atheists shouldn't call religion a mental illness" and some of the reactions to it with interest. Stedman receives quite a bit of criticism from atheists for being overly accomodationist at times; however, this does not mean that much of his work is not still worthwhile.

I think he raised some good points in this post, and I agree with his conclusion that we atheists probably shouldn't call religion a mental illness or label all religious believers as mentally ill. My reasons for doing so overlap with his but are a bit simpler.

After consulting with "two atheist activists," Stedman offers the five reasons listed below:
  1. Even if well-intended, the equation fails
  2. Mental illness is not an insult
  3. Religion is often associated with wellbeing
  4. This parallel distracts us from trying to understand and learn from religion
  5. Atheists and theists share in the challenge of being human
If Stedman writes more on this subject in the future (and I hope he does because I enjoy his work), I'd recommend that he try consulting mental health professionals instead of atheist activists. I imagine that he'd find that more useful if the goal is to understand mental illness, how it is defined, and the process through which mental disorders are diagnosed.

March 11, 2014

The Return of Cosmos

Dr. at the November 29, 2005 meeting of the NA...
Dr. at the November 29, 2005 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council, in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I watched the first episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey a day after it aired. I figured I would post my thoughts on the reboot of the series after seeing the first episode, but I have to admit that I am having trouble doing so. You see, the the original version with Carl Sagan made the impact on me in my youth that I'm finding it almost impossible to evaluate the new one on its own merit. I really enjoyed it - and not just because I found myself thinking "the fundamentalist Christians aren't going to like this" so frequently. But I can't separate my enjoyment from my memories of the original or how happy I am to see anything on TV aimed at getting kids interested in science.

When I was growing up, Cosmos was not the only educational show on television. I also remember catching several episodes of PBS's long-running NOVA, Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, and various shows featuring Jaques Cousteau, the names of which escape me right now. All of these shows contributed to my interest in science, nature, and the concept of discovery. What made Cosmos different was that it had Carl Sagan. To this young boy, he was something special.

March 10, 2014

Defending Separation of Church and State in Difficult Situations

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peal...
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale in 1800. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
One of my pet peeves - and I have many - concerns the manner in which some Christians in the United States often adopt a stance of willful ignorance about the point of church-state separation whenever it suits them. I recognize that ignorance of such matters is widespread, but I suspect that many of these Christians really do know better and would want church-state protections when beneficial to their cause.

Hank Fox (A Citizen of Earth) brings us a recent example of what I'm taking about in his post, Grieving Mother Mistreated by Heartless Atheists. A mother who lost her son erected a memorial including crosses on city property, a humanist group protested the church-state violation, the city council ordered the crosses to be removed, and the humanist group is now being criticized around the Internet (with much of the criticism coming from other atheists/humanists/secularists).

If this sounds familiar to you, it should. We have seen similar scenarios play out countless times. It is fascinating to see how quick many atheists, humanists, and secularists are to join the criticism of those who seek to preserve the separation of church and state. It is almost as if they are more concerned about public relations than church-state separation.

March 9, 2014

Respect My Religious Beliefs!

respect and diversity
respect (Photo credit: Heliøs)
The demand from religious believers to "respect my religious beliefs" is one with which most atheists will be familiar. We have encountered it more times than we can count, and it rarely resonates. Why should we respect a set of beliefs that is both irrational and harmful? Is it even possible to respect such a set of beliefs?

Still, I cannot help wondering if some of us might have misunderstood what a believer who makes this demand is actually requesting of us. Moreover, I am convinced that many of my fellow liberals misunderstand what is being requested so much so that they run the risk of creating a host of other problems by attempting to comply with the demand.

When a religious believer demands that you respect his or her religious beliefs, what is he or she really asking of you? Is there something in particular that the believer wants you to do differently? Imagine yourself responding to the demand with something like the following:
I hear you asking me to respect your religious beliefs, and it is clear that this is very important to you. I'd like to comply, but I'm honestly not sure what it is that you are asking me to do differently. Please help me understand what you'd like to see me do more of or less of. That is, if I could manage to increase the degree to which I respect your religious beliefs tenfold, how would my behavior change? What would I do differently?
What I am getting at here is that I do not think the religious believer actually cares that I change my thoughts or my feelings; I don't think respect is what the believer is after. I think what he or she is really after is a change in my behavior. So what does this change look like? What does the believer want to see me do differently to provide evidence of an increase in my respect for his or her beliefs?

March 7, 2014

The God Who Wasn't There

If you have not yet had the opportunity to see The God Who Wasn't There, I noticed that this 2005 documentary is up on YouTube. I suspect it may not be available there for long, so check it out while you can.

March 5, 2014

Imposing Religion on Our Children

Circumcision, 1724, from Juedisches Ceremoniel
Circumcision, 1724, from Juedisches Ceremoniel (Photo credit: Center for Jewish History, NYC)
Richard Dawkins generated quite a bit of controversy for suggesting that the religious indoctrination of children is abusive. I have previously explained that I tend to agree that it is abusive for parents to impose their religious beliefs on their children, and I have written about how being compelled to attend church after a certain age felt abusive at the time. In this post, I'd like to take a brief look at two related subjects about which I have not written much: circumcision and baptism.

I was circumcised as an infant. I was not given any choice in the matter. It was done to me without my consent or understanding of what was happening to me. Strangely, I don't remember ever asking my parents why they did this to me. I suspect that their answer would be that it was tradition and that everyone they knew was circumcising their male children at the time, but I'm really not sure. Perhaps they had other reasons.

March 3, 2014


Picture of Larry the Cable Guy
Picture of Larry the Cable Guy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I've always been interested in how people can assign such vastly different meanings to words and then experience impaired communication because neither understands that the other party is using a word in a different sense than they are. It seems like an awful lot of misunderstandings and conflict could be avoided if we would take the time to make sure we understood what the other party was saying before angrily attacking.

When you hear the label redneck, what comes to mind? What is a redneck? Who deserves the label, and who does not? I suspect that the meaning of this word varies widely by where you live, your age, and a host of other factors. As far as I know, it is not used much outside the U.S. But even here in the U.S, I'd think that the meaning likely varies across region. For example, the image of a redneck in West Virginia is probably quite different from those in Louisiana or California. I know many people consider redneck a pejorative term, but I have known many people over the years who proudly referred to themselves as rednecks.