Wednesday, August 22, 2007

In the face of disaster

Most atheists know, and loathe, the term "there are no atheists in foxholes." The theistic analysis is that when one is truly in the face of danger, the hate/mistrust/disdain that one has for religion such that they call themselves atheists loses its prevalence and the person becomes desparate enough to start praying/believing again. The atheistic analysis of the people making this theistic analysis is twofold: 1) they obviously don't understand true atheism, and 2) they have just accidentally explained that their own beliefs are due to a general feeling of desparation and lonliness. Fortunately many theists understand us better than that, but as with any demographic, there are those that are blinded by their own truthiness.

Recently, known atheist Richard Stallman was in Peru during a tragic earthquake. Stallman, known in some circles as simply rms, is a software developer and activist in the Free Software movement (pretty much the same as Open Source software, such that they are commonly combined in the acronym FOSS -- Free and Open Source Software). In fact, rms is considered the father of the movement, and remains one of its most influential characters. Simply put, he's a pretty big name among computer geeks like me. When it was discovered he survived the earthquake, he was asked to write about his experience.

The last paragraph is what caught my eye (enough that I paused my ongoing insane work schedule to write this!).
I read that a church collapsed on worshipers during mass; later I heard that the
priest had been rescued. Believers surely attributed the rescue to the good will
of a benevolent deity. They probably did not attribute the collapse to the ill
will of an evil deity, but it would be equally logical. In the 18th century, an
earthquake destroyed a cathedral in Lisbon, killing thousands of believers. Many
in Europe began to doubt religion as a result.

What a well-aimed shot at religion! These tragedies are typically accompanied by even doses of "Thank God we survived!" and "How mysterious are the ways of God!" that it's good to see a rational point.

But even more importatly, it was from a survivor of the event itself. One that did not suffer the foxhole-conversion predicted by so many theists.

Thank reason for that!

Monday, July 16, 2007

How do you explain...this?

I'm a bit late jumping on this story, so I'm betting most of you have already heard about this. But it's just too... juicy. A door-to-door salesman in Florida was struck by lightning from a cloudless sky, nearly killing him. Paramedics found him not breathing, and without a pulse, but were able to revive him. Or at least, somewhat. The man is currently (as of about a week ago at least) in a coma and recovering. Hopefully he will make a full recovery, and finish raising money for his religious education, because I'm sure he's got some big questions right now.

Because, see, did I forget to mention? He was selling religious books at the time he was struck by lightning. Oh, the irony!

First, yes sometimes lightning does strike from cloudless skies. This isn't a divine miracle, but rather a natural event known as "positive lightning" that is understood scientifically. But if you believe in an active, personal God, then everything is caused by God, right? So what did this poor man do wrong? Was God afraid of him making it to divinity school?

But wait, he was revived. So even though God was able to kill him for a moment, human beings were able to pull him back to life. (Uh oh! Sounds like humans are getting too big for their britches, God's gonna have to do another Tower-of-Babel smack-down!) Not only that, but if they used defibrilators, then the paramedics were really fighting fire with fire. So God throws down his electricity to kill a man, and Man volleys back with their electricity to revive him. Sounds like we're out-divine-ing God's bolts from heaven.

The leader of the man's religious group is quoted as saying, "It's difficult what happened, you know, but what can we do? Things happen in life, but we still believe in God." That's a pretty level-headed response, I suppose their particular group doesn't believe in the "everyone's a sinner, we've all got one foot in hell and the other in purgatory!" point of view that my wife and I are observing so much here in southwest Virginia. Aside from that last phrase "but we still believe in God" that would be pretty much what I would say in such a position.

But it's that "but we still believe in God" that really caught my eye. I wish I knew the full context, because this was probably a response to a question by an interviewer. But it's still interesting that he jumps right to that. Because, I would think, a bolt-from-the-blue event would actually lead many people to even stronger convictions.

But then again, I could just be wrong. One of the larger churches in the next town over from mine was once struck by lightning and burned (not completely, but there was a significant fire). Nobody seemed to think there was a particular message there. I wonder what the opinion would have been if, say, lighting had struck down and burned a Walmart? Or one of those evil evolution-teaching schools? The story might have sounded a little different.

update: A brand new story to add a little perspective to the above -- "close to 2,700 lightning strikes were reported in Washington and Oregon on Friday and early Saturday, sparking 212 fires." All in all, I find it easy to understand how a more primitive society would be quick to make assumptions on the divine nature of lightning. In this case, it must be all those heathens in Washington!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Gaming Religion, eh?

I'm no hard core gamer, but I do enjoy video games and can appreciate hard core gamers. I guess that's why one of my favorite web comics is Ctrl+Alt+Del, which stars a couple of hard core gamers. Ethan is a somewhat delusional gamer with an active fantasy life and occasional moments of brilliance (for instance, he built a sentient robot out of an XBox). Lucas is much saner, and while still an avid gamer is more sensible and usually bails his best friend out of the troubles he lands in. It's a funny, well-drawn, and wrll-written comic.

Sometimes, though, two aspects of my life will juxtapose for a while. And for the last couple of weeks, CAD and atheism have done just that, with a storyline full of criticism of the ironies of religion. I'll spare you a dry synopsis of the comic and just give you the ticket right into the beginning of the sequence.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Round Up

My schedule is finally getting back on track -- I might be able to go a night without working until 3 a.m. soon! It's been too long since I've posted though, so I want to do a round up of some good bits since my schedule has decimated my free time.

Religion, Politics, and the End of the World
A debate in four parts between Sam Harris and Chris Hedges. Unedited audio or edited video available here.

Creationism Bullsh!t
Atheist Perspective spotted the always-excellent Penn & Teller doing a Bullsh!t episode on Creationism. This pair is always worth watching and listening to!

The "Is God ... Great?" Debate
Christopher Hitchens and Chris Hedges, one on one. Zombie Time has a video and photo recap of the evening.
OK, let's be frank: Hitchens absolutely mopped the floor with Hedges. It was an embarrassment, really.

Hitchens tends to do that....

Anonymity: Shielf of the Atheist Blogger
vjack describes his struggle with anonymity -- one which I constantly reflect. The post got it's start with Hemant Mehta's criticism of anonymity. Which I also agree with. Hence my own struggle. Much of vjack's reasonings for maintaining anonymity are also my reasonings. In his #3 reason he states:
I believe that my ability to do my job would be jeopardized in many ways by professing my atheism. I would not be fired, but it would become much more difficult to do my job well. I would face increased alienation, a loss of credibility, greater hostility, etc. Because most of my co-workers and many more of my students are Southern Baptists who take their religion very seriously, I simply cannot expect that they would be tolerant of atheism.

This is my primary reason for anonymity -- except that since I work (more or less) as a freelancer, I have little faith (pun intented) that my clients would stick around. Some of my biggest clients are Nazarene. I consider it work politics.

Incidentally, why do you think it is that a large percentage of the atheist blogs that I read are written by teachers? I'm starting to feel left out....

The Sun Revolves Around the Earth
... or so 20% of Americans believe. This is a politically-minded post, but it says a lot about an atheist's position too.

For the democratic process to run properly it necessitates the voter to have some knowledge of what he is voting on. For it to work properly it requires voters to cast their votes based on an educated opinion.


There is a reason why people are fighting so hard to get creationism taught in the public schools along side evolution as a scientific alternative.Like I said, it hit me. And it hit me hard.Americans, on top of not having a clue what a cell is or what radiation is or even that the Earth revolves around the Sun are letting religious leaders dictate to them what to vote on issues that would take knowledge of basic scientific fundamentals, because I am assuming that they are assuming that since these religious leaders are supposedly moral and ethical “authorities” they should be qualified to figure out where we stand on these scientific issues, but who is to say that they even know these basic scientific concepts?

This speaks on many levels about how so many people are uneducated on what atheists even are, and why some people believe in creationism.

It's all about the easy answer. School tells them one thing. It's based on evidence. It makes you think. Some parts deal with math. Some even scarier parts deal with physics and chemistry and other sciences. There are a lot of unknowns. Then the church tells them another thing. It's simple and straightforward. You just have to believe a few things that are clearly stated. It's an absolute, too, if you have enough faith it will answer every single damn question you've got.

So if a person hasn't even been taught enough to know that the earth revolves around the sun, who do you think they're going to be more likely to believe? It's clear there is a bigger problem here, lying under the surface of religion.

Nice photo.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Bumper Stickers, Squirrels, and the NY Times

I'm still trying to un-bury myself from the pile of work our move left me with, but there are a few things worth mentioning.

I saw an unfortunate bumper sticker the other day, on a car decorated with several dozen peace/love/etc. bumper stickers (on all sides). There are many really appalling bumper stickers, and I suppose as far as these things go it could have been a lot worse. What really stuck me about this one, though, was that the heart of the message was in the right place, it was just the reasoning that was flawed.

Don't take life too seriously. It's only temporary.

I agree with the concept of not taking life too seriously (emphasis on the 'too'). But calling life temporary implies, obviously, that there is something else beyond life that is the "real" life. Taken seriously or not, this denigrates the value, beauty, and preciousness of life.

While I don't think that life should be taken too seriously, I do not think it should be taken too cavalierly, either. This is it. This is your life. Don't waste it. It's all you've got! Do good things. Be remembered. Live on forever in the history books and in the memories of your friends and families. Don't be stupid. Don't do stupid things. Better yourself at every opportunity. But have fun while doing it.

Speaking of being a little too cavalier, here's a funny story. We have some new birdfeeders, put up recently after our move. I enjoy watching the birds while I work from my home office, and I keep a pair of binoculars and a bird guide on my desk. We've recently been having a squirrel problem, though -- specifically, he's climbing up and eating all of the bird food.

At first, all I had to do was bang on the glass of our patio-style door between the office and the front yard. Then I would have to open the door a tad and slam it shut. Then I would have to open the screen door. Then step outside and wave my arms. Then take a few steps towards the squirrel. He kept coming back. He finally got used to me trying to keep him away. He got bold.

Yesterday he was happily eating on the other side of the feeder, so all I could see was his tail hanging down. I walked outside. He peeked around the side of the bird feeder and took a look to make sure I was keeping my distance, but quickly resumed eating. I walk a few steps to one side so the bird feeder was more directly between us, and so that if he peeked around again I wouldn't be there anymore. Then I snuck towards the feeder.

I got close enough I could have grabbed his tail if I'd had gloves. I don't know if he really didn't hear me -- I was barefoot on grass -- or if he was just that bold. I guess he wasn't taking life seriously enough. He kept eating. I got my head really close to the bird feeder and peeked around and went "BOOGA BOOGA BOOGA BOOGA!" I was eye to eye with him. Not four inches away. He did a little squirrel version of clutching his heart and peed a little in his fur. Ok, not really, but his eyes just about popped out as he was tripping over his tail trying to get away. Oh, it was brilliant.

He's learned his lesson, though. He is much more content with eating off of the ground now. Although he does occassionally get on the feeder again, he won't eat on the far side of the feeder anymore, and if I step outside he stops everything and doesn't lose eye contact with me until he runs off or I leave.

One quick link before I get back to work -- the NY Times has filled their science page up today with only evolution-related stories. Good on them!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Prayer as a Weapon

In a recent post, vjack describes the act of schoolyard "prayer circles" and how they are used to attack non-fundie children.
The children start calling you names and hurling insults at you. If you happen to be Jewish, you will hear things that would make neo-Nazi's proud. You are a sinner. You are going to burn in a lake of fire. You will rot in hell. They form a circle around you, holding hands to make sure you can't easily escape. They tell you that the only way you can save yourself is to accept Jee-zuhs. They begin praying around you loudly to "save your soul."
I have never been a prayer circle victim, thank reason. My school was full of good ol' southern Baptists, but I doubt there were more than two or three really fundie families in the whole school.

Socially, what exactly are these prayer-circle attacks? Are they some kind of fundie-centric bullying? Some kind of misguided attempt at an intervention? I'm trying to figure out what the childrens' point is. Are they just trying to be mean? Are they trying to convert their target, as if to say, "Hey, all you have to do is say 'yes, I accept jesus' -- it doesn't matter if it's the truth or not -- and you can be mean to the next kid with us!" Does it matter?

Because deep down, all they are really doing is highlighting one of the great inconsistencies of religion -- specifically, of prayer. Theists, at least those that believe in an active, personal god, believe that if you pray to him/her, your prayers will be answered. They are quick to gloss over the 'unanswered' prayers, and point out the 'answered' ones, to maintain evidence that their god really has listened to them. In reality, the answered/unanswered ratio is exactly what you would expect from chance. If you pray for the sun to rise on time tomorrow morning, then your prayer will almost certainly be answered. If you pray for a second moon to appear in the sky tomorrow night, your prayer will almost certainly be ignored.

A good example of this, as noted in Dan Barker's wonderful song, "Nothing Fails Like Prayer," are those who pray for lottery winnings. If god answers prayers, and people pray to win the lottery, then why are the odds for winning the same as are predicted by statistics? A theist might reason that it is because everyone has prayed for their ticket to win, therefore everyone has equal odds for god to have chosen to answer their prayer. So why pray in the first place?

(I should also point out not everyone will have prayed to win, as there would be plenty of atheists and lazy theists with tickets. Prayer suggests a tendency for devout theists to win the lottery, but this is not the case.)

The use of prayer as a weapon in a good illustration of the paradox of conflicting prayers. Imagine two opponents, an attacker and a victim. Both religious. The attacker prays, "God, please help me smite this person!" and the victim prays, "God, save me from this person!" No matter the outcome, one prayer will be answered and one prayer won't be. The victim either gets away or he doesn't -- exactly what would happen without prayer.

So, again, what's the point? Emotionally, I believe it is similar to rooting for a sports team. As long as there are no bets going on, what do you gain from your team winning? You enjoy the victory vicariously, and get bragging rights over your friends and co-workers that rooted for the other team. Prayer offers exactly the same benefits. If your prayer is answered, you get a vicarious high from feeling "the touch of god" in your life. And you get to feel superior to non-believers and the un-saved. It is similar to people that keep rooting for a losing team, knowing that they're bound to win some day, people keep on praying, too, knowing that their prayer is bound to be "answered" some day.

I think this is why it is particularly satisfying for theists to bash non-theists. There is no conflicting prayer. It feels like a victory by default to them -- a sure win.

So, to answer my own question, I think it's just about the bullying. There is no attempt at conversion, because the goal has nothing to do with victim. Just like doing drugs isn't about what's best for the cocaine. The prayer circle attackers are using the victim to achieve an artificial high.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Biblical Truth, or a Propaganda Machine?

Well, it's been a long time since my last post. When I am extremely busy with work, I have to gradually cut out other free-time activities bit by bit. This week was trying to prepare an interactive CDROM for a client in time for a trade show today (just barely made it) and it didn't leave time for much else! It also didn't leave much time for reading all of my blogs, so aside from a few minutes here and there I've just been completely out of the loop. I'm sure PZ has made 800 posts since last I read....

One interesting post I did catch was vjack's article on biblical literalists. A recent Gallup poll revealed that more than 30% of the US population takes the bible literally. I would have liked to have known what percentage of those people have actually read the bible.

Since our recent move, my wife has tried a different church every Sunday, looking for the right one for her and the kids. So far, no luck. "They're all sinners!" she says, referring to a recent sermon that preached how everyone is a bad person and we all have a lot to ask forgiveness for. It was basically a group baptist confession session. Yuck. My wife thought it was YUCK too. Theist or not, if you're smart you know that even if you know people have occassionally doing bad things, it does no good to sit down together and moan about it. What's the point?
You've got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, don't mess with Mister In-Between

But what we thought was really horrifying was a service she told me about from a couple of weeks ago. (boy, it really has been a while since I've blogged) She described the children's sermon like this:
A women kneels down on the floor in the front, inviting all of the children to sit with her. When the children had assembled, she opened a newspaper. "Do you want to read the news?" she said. "Let's see what's happening. Do you want to her about all of the soldiers who were killed in the war?" The kids, confused, weren't sure whether to say yes or no. "How about this one -- a singer gets drunk, and crashes her car into a tree! Do you want to hear about that?" More confusion from the kids. It goes on for a little while, and finally ends with this gem, "Or how about this one -- a man rapes and kills his four-year-old daughter. How many of you are four?" She finally gets to her point, "This is all bad news, isn't it? That's why the bible is called The Good News."
And that was it. It sure is a good thing I wasn't there. I would have intervened long before the woman whipped out her punchline. That woman should be ashamed of herself.

Not to mention the hypocrisy! Has she even read the bible? The Old Testament? I'm still reading it myself, but off the top of my head:
  • every human and animal in the world, save for a few of each, is murdered by an angry and vindictive god
  • Noah gets drunk and naked, then curses his own lineage when one son sees him naked and has his kid tell him to get some clothes on
  • god toys around with Abraham, who was about to kill his only son at god's request
  • Lot protects two of his guests from the townsfolk, and offers his daughters as sex toys instead
  • Lot's daughters get Lot drunk and rape him
  • ten plagues, anyone? Despite the pharoah trying to let the Hebrews go seven times, god kept "hardening his heart" so he could do even more terrible things to the egyptians
  • Moses leads warriors into cities, and demanding that not only are the warriors killed, but also the elderly, the women, and the children
  • Joshua does the same, wiping out all of the men, women, and children of 31 cities
  • Someone is stoned to death for collecting firewood on a Sunday
  • Gideon kills a bunch of his friends because they guessed his riddle, then goes off on more killing rampages
  • One of Gideon's sons kills 68 of his brothers
  • Jephthah swears that if he wins a war, he will slaughter the first thing he sees at home as sacrifice -- which was his daughter
  • Another judge pulls a Lot and sends his concubine out to be ravaged by townsfolk, and when he finds her dead later he cuts her up into twelve pieces and sends them to the each part of the land
Gosh, sounds familiar! Soldiers killed in war? Check! People getting drunk and doing bad things? Check! Rape and murder? Check! (except in the bible it was the daughters that raped the father!) So how is the newspaper so bad compared to the bible?

Which brings me back to my question about the Gallup poll in vjack's article. Despite so many people believing the bible is the literal truth -- how many have actually read it? Here was a woman giving a sermon to other people, a position, one would assume, usually granted to people that are familiar with the material. Instead, it comes across more like war propaganda, especially when it is so obviously false.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Gloriously Huge Universe

Several years ago I was debating the existance of God in an online forum. The debate was pointless, as my opponent was quick to draw arbitrary "micro-evolution, not macro-evolution" lines and resort to the inerrancy of the bible to 'prove' his point of view. He was a young-earther, too. Even though the debate stagnated after a while, there was one topic I had delivered, about which I was never able to extract a response. I posted one picture, and he put a full stop on all efforts he had been making in that direction. It was a nice moment for me. What was the topic, and what was my response?

As I stated, my opponent was a young-earther. I asked how, then, were we able to see light from stars millions of light years away? Did he not believe in the speed of light? No, he responded, the speed of light was fine. But the methods used to measure the distances to the stars were 'unreliable,' and that they were in fact much closer than we had been led to believe. This was when I struck.

Then how, I asked, do you explain the Hubble Deep Field image? I included a link to the hi-res image, and pointed out that, save for a few foreground stars, every glob of light in that image represented an entire galaxy of stars. And, if they were all within 6000 light years of us, how could the individual stars in these galaxies exist, considering they must be much smaller than a star needs to be in order to maintain nuclear fusion, and how would it have enough gravity to withstand being blown up by the nuclear energy?

This was what I couldn't get a response to. There is just something very compelling about a good visual.

The original Hubble Deep Field image (hires version here) was a snapstop of a tiny piece of the sky, like looking through a tiny keyhole. If you were to look up at the night sky, the little window this was taken from would be about the size of a dime -- held 75 feet away. And it showed more than 1,500 entire galaxies. What is really incredible is that the entire universe is like this, in all directions.

The image at the right is a more recent image, the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image (breathtaking hires version here). This image was taken from a section of the sky about 1/10 the diameter of the moon, over an exposure lasting 1,000,000 seconds. It reveals more than 10,000 galaxies. Aside from the foreground stars, these are all entire galaxies with billions of stars each.

It should again be noted that this is typical throughout the sky. That means that, lurking behind the moon, is at least 1,000,000 entire galaxies. And the full moon only takes up about half of 1/1000th of 1% of the full sky (360 degrees, north and south hemisphere), or 1/200,000th of the sky. Which results in roughly 200,000,000,000 galaxies that would be, barring any obstruction, visible from the Hubble telescope at a similar acuity as the HUFD.

Folks, that's one big universe.

The next step is to try to picture how big a galaxy is. A new image from Hubble shows exactly that. It is the highest detailed image of galaxy M81 (Bode's Galaxy, about 12 million light years away, shown left) ever taken. Fabulous hires version here. Yes, every single little pinpoint of light is a star. In the center they are so dense and the galaxy is so thick that they cannot be distinguished from one another. I don't even have to calculate how many stars that is, you can just see for yourself. (I've heard that 150 billion stars is average for a galaxy)

Another neat demonstration of how big the universe is -- by showing how small we are, is here in a series of image. First, the earth compared to the other rocky planets (and Pluto). Then to the rest of the planets. Then to the sun. Then the sun is compared to other normal stars. And finally, to the very largest stars. Earth grows invisible very quickly.

I don't want to write a complete rehash of my last post on nature -- but doesn't it feel just wonderful seeing how big the universe is? How could anyone possibly believe they are "God's chosen people" after seeing how amazingly tiny we are?

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Not in Kansas Anymore

For years it seems like much of the news about Intelligent Design was coming out of Kansas, especially since ID was kicked out of Dover. This is probably because I lived in Kansas at the time, but I've heard it mocked so many times I believe it is safe to say that Kansas had a national, if not international, reputation for being ID-friendly. But now the winds of change have arrived, and Dorothy and her little dog Toto have been picked up and dropped into Kentucky. And as with the travelers to Oz, what they found there was quite a different reality.

Yep, Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis are opening the Creation Museum to the public today. Or, as I've also heard it called, the Fred and Wilma Flintstone Memorial Museum. PZ has collected a good selection of quotes from various newspapers about the opening. Zachary Lynn got a sneap peek and posted his photographs of the museum in a guided online tour that's interesting to look through, if only to see the Robo-Adam and Robo-Eve. (does anyone else think that Eve looks a bit like Alanis Morissette?)

We've probably all heard stories about the museum by now, like images of a Tyrannasaurus Rex grazing in a meadow and eating leafy greens and opening coconuts with six-inch razor sharp teeth, but now there are pictures in the flesh -- and when I say in the 'flesh' I'm talking about the two skinned and bloody goats in a diorama about sacrifice. And Cain standing woefully over the inert Abel, lying bloody on the ground with a bashed in head. I think these gory shock-value images are only peppered here and there to make the 'science' seem more adult and less elementary-school level. In the same way that a producer might insert a few especially brutal or graphic scenes in order to bump a movie into an 'R' rating. Also in the same way that teenagers think that ridiculous amounts of cursing will somehow make them seem more grown up.

Fortunately there is a four-page primer by Lawrence Krauss called "Top 10 Reasons Why the Universe, the Sun, Earth, and Life are NOT 6000 years old". Something I find interesting -- and sad -- is that old-earth people calmly gather facts, data, and arguments that easily blow the young-earth view out of the water. They let the facts choose the truth. But the young-earthers simply make up stories that suit their beliefs, and let the belief choose the truth. I've read Genesis, and there was nothing in there about dinosaurs eating coconuts.

Maybe religious people would be easier to debate with if they actually knew more about their own religion! Stephen Prothero has a book called "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- and Doesn't" (A book that made my wish list on Amazon as soon as I heard about it.) Did you know that less than half of the people polled could identify Genesis as the first book in the bible? More than 10 percent think that Noah's wife as Joan of Arc. And evangelicals don't know a whole lot more about the bible than non-evangelicals. Right or wrong, spreading the word is the important part, eh?

I think that about sums of the Creation Museum, too. All $27 million dollars of it.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Natural World

The long and tiring move is over, and we are finally getting settled in to our new house. It is a log house on two acres with a terrific view right out of the big glass doors to my home office area. We've traded the sounds of traffic and sirens to birds and cows. Indeed, while I frequently listened to music while working, lately I've been keeping the music off and just enjoying the birdsong. When we are out driving, it is not traffic we are weaving around, it is mountains. I can look up at night and see more than twenty stars. Thousands, on clear nights. Our house, at night, actually gets dark! There are no street lights outside the window, just moonlight. In short, we are living in nature, and nature is spectacular.

So why ... ruin it by making up stories about a creator that fiddled around and whipped up the whole thing in six days? That makes it sound so trivial. So mundane. So ... disenchanting. My nature was the product of several billion years of refinement. It has matured, like a fine wine. It is mysterious and wonderful because I don't assume that it happened for a reason, or at the hand of a master designer. Because I don't assume that human beings have lived on this planet but for a fraction of a percent of its existance.

I love driving in rural areas, especially ones that are new to me. I frequently get urges (so far unmet, but one of these days...) to stop the car and run up a hill to an isolated spot. I want to sit down right there, and wonder if any other human being had ever sat down right there before, or was I the first? And to think of all of the animals that had been right there, and what kind of lives had they lived, and sights they had seen. To think of all the strange plants and creatures that had been right there, but have long been extinct. Wouldn't the concept of somebody actually creating that spot ruin that feeling? Wouldn't the unconscionable brevity of the creation story of existence minimize the wonder of the ages past?

We are not the product of evolution, of course. Evolution doesn't work like that -- there is no destination. But we are undeniably part of the same wonderous device that is evolution, and therefore part of the same wonderous machine that is our universe. In the vast set of equations that are silently being perfomed every time two people fall in love, or whenever the weakest antelope falls prey to the lion, or when baby sea turtles fight their way across the beach, or as the tree with the strongest roots survives the storm, or when a butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo...we are part of the system. What is more, we are only particularly special because we are aware of the system, and we are slightly more influential in the system than most of the other creatures on this planet. Which is to say, completely ineffective on a solar scale, much less universal.

In the immortal Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, Douglas Adams (an atheist, thanks to Richard Dawkins) envisioned that the perfect punishment was to be given awareness of how small and insignificant one really was in the universe. I don't believe this would effect many atheists. Myself, I rather like feeling that I am only a tiny part of the universe, because it means there is so much else out there to learn. But for many theists, this might indeed be the perfect torture. After all, theist mythology was born from a world that was very small, from the point of view of its inhabitants, and it hasn't developed as much as it might have since then.

But as humanity and human knowledge has grown, so has our awareness of the world. Believing that the universe was created by one being, let alone within a week, and that all of the animals on the planet could co-exist, much less fit, on a boat for more than a year, is shrinking the amazing universe we live in to an unappreciably small existance. Would the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel be nearly as awe inspiring if it was painted on the head of a pin? No.

The only way to truly appreciate the grandeur and splendour of the universe is by not taking it for granted. By explaining away our existence in just a few of pages in Genesis, we are making up answers to questions that deserve a lot more attention. A lot more ... reverence.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The importance of a face

I've been extremely happy with the amount of atheistic video I've found online recently. In a recent post I commented on the very positive interview of Christopher Hitchens by Lou Dobbs, and YouTube now has another good Hitchens interview, with Anderson Cooper:

Another excellent Hitchens appearance is his debate with Al Sharpton. Sharpton and Hitchens are both wonderful speakers -- but it's interesting to me that Sharpton keeps modifying the definition of religion in order to support his points. His own view of religion might match exactly what he says, but he cannot claim that he represents all religion. It reminds me of the Kansas board of education that tried to redefine 'science' to allow for the teaching of ID.

Bligbi has also collected a good list of longer format videos, such as Dawkins' The Root of All Evil? and the recently viewed-in-america A Brief History of Disbelief. Thank you, Bligbi!

The importance of these videos cannot be understated. As I and other atheists frequently claim, misunderstanding is one of our greatest challenges. People are more likely to try to understand a person when they can see them face to face, rather than just read what they have written. It is easy to take a statement out of context, but not so easy in a video segment. The visual cues of a speakers face, inflection, gestures, etc. gives enough clues to get past trivial misunderstandings. A viewer can see the honesty, passion, and intelligence of a speaker. This opens the floodgates of empathy, and the easier for a viewer to understand the speaker by personally relating to individual statements. And through this, breaking down the misunderstandings that are causing atheists so much grief.

And finally, for a bit of fun:

You scored as Spiritual Atheist. Ah! Some of the coolest people in the world are Spiritual Atheists. Most of them weren't brought up in an organized religion and have very little baggage. They concentrate on making the world a better place and know that death is just another part of life. What comes after, comes after.

Spiritual Atheist


Scientific Atheist


Militant Atheist


Apathetic Atheist




Angry Atheist




What kind of atheist are you?
created with

Friday, May 11, 2007

Travel, Talk, and Holes in the Dike

Travel over the last couple of days has been lovely. None of us had ever seen the southwest, and we've been really enjoying ourselves -- despite the thermometer hitting 108 today. We drove from Kansas City, through Oklahoma, through the Texas panhandle, and into New Mexico on the first day. We stayed in a historic Route 66 motel and had a great time (other than my daughter doing a face-plant on the sidewalk, creating an unsightly set of scrapes and bruises on her face -- just in time for her flower-girl wedding photos!). The next day we finished the ride to Phoenix, and got to take a few side trips.

The first place we stopped at was the Petrified Forest national park and painted desert. We've also stopped at the Red Rocks state park in Sedona, AZ. Both places were well worth a little hike. We slung the kids on our backs and just had a great time. I sometimes feel guilty at how little of this fabulous planet I've seen. After this trip, I feel a bit better.

Another exciting advanced I've made on this trip is regarding religious discussion with my wife. The events I discussed in my last post were like the holes in the proverbial dike. I'm not letting the little Dutch boy stop it back up, though! I'm looking forward to seeing where this will lead.

My wife -- who nearly had enough world religion classes to have received a religion minor in college -- has a very spiritual approach to life. She's reading two books right now -- a [moderately] skeptical book on the existence of the afterlife and reincarnation (yay!), and a Sylvia Brown book (boo! -- but I would never discourage her from enjoying whatever she wants to, of course). And she is absolutely one of the most benign theists you can imagine. But she worries about my soul. She doesn't believe in hell, but she's concerned that when I die [and assuming there was a heaven] that I wouldn't accept it even in death.

This was a simple concern to alleviate, because my non-belief is based on lack of evidence, not rebellion or anger. I wondered how many rebellious or angry atheists she has known, to unknowingly consider me in that group? I think perhaps it is my use of the term 'atheist' instead of 'agnostic.' I think it is a good choice because, although I would accept incontrovertible evidence of god if I was given it, I find the odds of there being a supernatural deity so highly unlikely I feel that I am only an agnostic by slight technicality. On Dawkin's 7-point system, I am a strong 6.

Given this discussion, though, maybe the term 'atheist' is more misleading than I understood? Is it being read not as a belief, but as a position? From my perspective, this is something that I feel should be solved by educating those, like my wife, who do not understand that atheism is based on the principle of reason not denial. But how much weight should we give to our perspective in this matter? Shouldn't we be concerned about the perspective of the larger population? This is another time when I think a new term, like Bright, will do us all a lot of good. The biggest problem we face is misunderstanding. It doesn't have to be a fundamental misunderstanding like thinking that atheists worship the devil. It can sometimes be simply being unaware of where atheist stops and agnostic begins -- and where they overlap.

We also "talked shop" a bit, and discussed some more mundane topics. We discovered we both have a preference for the NSRV bible. I was able to recommend the ESV, and she was able to recommend the NIV. She helped clear up a few of the distinctions between different denominations that I'm still fuzzy on. It was a very productive talk, and although I felt fairly tense when we started I was considerably more comfortable by the end. I'm not sure how she felt about this -- but I am taking the fact that she initiated the most recent discussion (in a very conversation manner!) as a good sign.

Sometimes I feel a little silly for feeling like there is such a wall between us that talking about religion can be such a problem. But I've decided that it's mostly a matter of respect. We both respect each other's beliefs to the point that we are afraid of unintentionally hurting the other's feelings. I'm starting to learn more of her boundaries, and where I've inadvertently crossed them in the past. And I think she's starting to understand where I am on the atheism/agnosticism line. Progress all around.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Traveling, Coke Cans, and Sam Harris

I will be posting when I can over the next two weeks, but it will be very irregular. We'll be travelling all over the country -- a wedding in Phoenix, and then moving to Virginia. I'm really very excited about seeing the west, this will be my first time out that far.

Unfortunately, all of this travelling means that I will most likely be missing the PBS airing of A Brief History of Disbelief. The series will be shown in Virginia before we get there, and in Kansas City after we leave! I hear it's on YouTube also, so that looks like how I will watch it. I will also be missing the televisation of the Comfort/Cameron vs. the Rational Response Squad debate! Augh! I have no doubt that will find it's way on YouTube quickly, too. Here's a preview already:

(there is some language in the 'intro' to the piece, so be warned if you're playing this without headphones in a work environment!)

In the meantime, I've found two write-ups so far of the debate, one from a theist perspective and one from an atheist perspective. They both pretty much agreed that while the Rational Response Squad didn't prove things one way or the other, the Way of the Master team was almost too embarrasing to watch. This from Becky Garrison's article:

Even though the atheists failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that God could not have been the spark that set all of creation, they seem to have nailed this debate when Cameron pulled out the get-out-of-hell card. Simply put, this was “what you believe about God will determine where you spend eternity.” At this point, if I wasn’t covering this event, I would have crawled out of the church in shame.

And this from OsakaGuy on the board, who says Comfort sadly did not come onstage with a banana. Instead, he used a coke can to 'prove' that any design must have had a designer. Wait, that's the "scientific proof" he's been proclaiming? That just goes to show that Comfort has just as fuzzy a notion of what science really is as the Kansas board of education.

Who won the debate? I was under the impression that Ray and Kirk were not going to rely on their bible to prove their god exists scientifically. By that standard they both broke the rules by referring to the bible multiple times, and proved nothing with their argument from design, so they failed. If there were any rational fence sitters out there I would assume they must agree. As for the respective choirs on each side, I'm sure they both thought their side won completely.

I was worried when I first heard about this debate. I knew that Comfort and Cameron weren't smart enough to actually come up with something interesting, but I was worried about the way they would treat the Rational Response Squad. I remembered how Ellen Johnson couldn't get a word in edgewise here CNN appearance, and I was worried that a couple of smooth talking presenters would appear to have an upper hand in this format. I am completely unfamiliar with the RRS. Fortunately, it sounds like this worry was completely unfounded. Not only did the RRS hold up very well, but it sounds like it was moderated well, too.

If only we could get some more moderation on the web. A Load of Bright has stumbled on an out-of-context quote being attributed to Sam Harris:

In a another passage [Sam] Harris goes even further, and reaches a disturbing conclusion that “some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them”. This sounds like exactly the kind of argument put forward by those who ran the Inquisition.

Well, that's a horrible quote all right. Horribly out of context! Check out ALoB article for the full context!

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Confrontation. What is my focus?

My wife just unexpectedly breached our do-not-talk-of-religion taboo. Even though her phrasing was not conducive to dialog -- she was more interested in making a point -- I am very glad to see some discussion maybe starting to happen. It's certainly better than none.

I had just read an article on Afarensis disputing one anti-evolutionist's claim that:

All the hominid fossils we have wouldn't fill a single coffin.
Afarensis handily deals with this misconception, summarizing with:

The Catalogue of Fossil Hominids put out by the British Natural History Museum in 1976 listed over 3900 fossils. I've heard recent estimates in the 10,000 range. In short, DaveScot doesn't know what he is talking about.
I found this amusing and related the story and the summary to my wife. She took it in, and sighed over the original claim. And then she stopped, leaned a bit against the piano behind her, and said, "You know...." That's when it happened. The breach! It wasn't complimentary -- in fact, it was a complaint. But that's really beside the point. It was dialog. Just a bit. But there it was.

She told me that she didn't like how I was always complaining. That all I ever did while "learning to become an atheist" was focus on how stupid intelligent design people were. She admitted that yes, they were in fact stupid (she's a biology major and understands even more of evolution than I do), but she didn't like me talking about it all of the time. She equated it to her constantly talking about how stupid Muslims were, or Jews were for, say, not beliving in Jesus' divinity. "You wouldn't like it if I did that all the time, would you?"

I decided to ignore the "learning to become an atheist" phrasing, even though I found it very insulting on a visceral level that I might explore later. It was probably just a slip of the tongue, probably in lieu of "learning about being an atheist." I was more interested in her use of the word "focus." I started wondering what, exactly, my focus is. Did atheists as a group have a focus, or was there only the focus of each individual atheist? How could I even begin to explain myself if I hadn't determined this distinction yet?

I'm not sure how she took my silence as I contemplated this, but she gave me a few seconds, told me "Think about that," and walked off.

It was not the best dialog I could have hoped for, but as I said it was a breach in our religion taboo and any breach is welcome. Best of all, she left me with something to contemplate.

It wasn't what she had really intended me to contemplate, of course. Her seeming interpretation of my atheism as a series of complaints against anti-evolutionists is simply because evolution is our common ground, so those are the stories and statistics that I relate to her. Specifically, it has been things like the public acceptance of evolution statistics, or gripes about Ken Ham's creation museum. Her analogy is poor because she is comparing the dispute over the scientifically supported concept of evolution with a dispute over an untestable traditional belief. In essense, comparing a dispute over fact with a dispute over opinion.

This is like a math student complaining to an english major that is spreading incorrect answers to math problems. When the math student calls him on the issue, the english major defends himself by saying, "You wouldn't like it if I spent all my time saying how stupid it is to like math, would you?" The correctness of math problems, which can be right or wrong, should not be compared with a preference or interest. Using this kind of correlation in an argument would be a logical fallacy known as a non sequitur. (which translates to "it doesn't follow")

Another aspect to her complaint is that the stories I relate and the complaints I make are usually over individuals, and very rarely regarding entire social/cultural groups. The only time I make comments on groups is when referring to statistical findings -- also very different from disputing traditions. When referring to individuals, I only need to say the words "Fred Phelps" to show that I am not the only one between the two of us that makes complaints of a religious action or belief!

But as I said, it was the term "focus" that really got me thinking. Do atheists, as a group, have a focus? Can we? In contrast, I would assume that a theists' focus could be something like, "follow the wisdom or Jesus," or "save as many souls as possible," or "wipe out the infidels," or "spread Christian love," or even just "live a good life and get to heaven," etc. But since the only real definition of atheism is the lack of any god belief I find that there is a corresponding lack of any atheistically-defined focus. We have no doctrine, therefore we can never have a doctrine-defined-focus. Instead, rather like discovering your own unique meaning of life, individual atheists must determine their own focus. Some examples are Dawkins, who has clearly stated that he hopes The God Delusion will change some minds and reduce the evils stemming from religion. Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor put much of their effort into defending the separation of church and state. The list goes on. But what is my focus?

I would have to say that my primary focus, lately, has been to become as educated an atheist as I can become. This includes becoming versed in god/atheism and evolution/ID arguments, spotting logical fallacies, learning more about the bible, learning more about world religions, and so on. My goal for this is to be able to hold my own in any discussions or debates that may come up, so that my position will never look like a weak one. A secondary focus is to be part of the larger atheist community in order to fill a social gap in my life, to start and contribute to discussions and reflections in order to learn more about myself and other atheists, and to find friends.

What my wife has interpreted as my only focus is actually a side-effect of a distant, third focus. As an atheist and a Bright, I am also acutely interested in truth. The scientist inside of me cringes every time I hear of such ridiculous misconceptions as the 'hominid coffin' statement above. I feel the need to try and counter the spread of such misconceptions and lies with an attempt to spread the truth. If I spend any time complaining about them, it is only my inner scientist trying to bury the lies. It is a reflex -- a gag reflex -- to spit out any garbage that has infected my day.

What is my focus? Knowledge, friendship, and truth. What is yours?

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Taking one for the team

One of the biggest problems we face is misunderstanding. I can't even remember how many times in high school I had to clear up the fact that being an atheist does not mean that I worship the devil. I am particularly fond of reading of reading stories from atheists who deconverted from being very religious. One of my favorites is Primordial Blog, especially Brian's "What the Bible Really Says" posts, and his four part series on being an evangelical faith healer. Lynn's Daughter also has some excellent tips coming from a "recovering evangelical."

Hearing about the lives of Christians (and followers of other religions as well, I just don't hear from as many of them) is interesting, albeit sad, but I like to think I have a better understanding because of it. Hearing about these lives from the perspective of atheists that have deconverted is one method of gaining this perspective, but obviously one must also discuss things with real theists! The is a sisyphean task, though, because of the amount of material. Some people, though, have committed the time and energy to really "take one for the team" and delve into the theist psyche. Or... at least their message boards!

Lya at Escapee from the Meme Machine has done this very thing, and we should all benefit from it. She visited 35 boards over a two month period, and generated some very good data. Her entire post is a must read, but the sections covered are:
  • The 11 most common misconceptions about atheists
  • The 5 most common excuses for having no evidence of the existence of god
  • The 14 most commonly used fallacies
  • The 4 most commonly used bits of known hoaxes/forgeries
  • Some notable outcomes
The most interesting section for me was the 14 most commonly used fallacies. I have been trying to brush up on my logic skills here and there over the last few months, and am especially trying to learn the common fallacies. This is a great list of what to start with. What I was most surprised with were omissions -- the lack of the "atheists worship the devil" misconception that I've personally come across, and the lack of a misunderstood "piltdown man" reference in the most commonly used hoaxes. Of course that's more about evolution but evolution is always a popular topic for theist/atheist debates. (I saw a post from a theist just a few days ago that confused Lucy with the piltdown man, and claiming that Lucy had been determined to be a hoax, and that therefore evolution was false and creationism is true. Of course, anyone that even uses the piltdown man itself against evolution has fallen into a trap -- it was the application of our knowledge of evolution that brought the piltdown man hoax to light, making it a triumph for evolution, instead of a disgrace.)

Thank you Lya for taking the time to do this. I know this must have tried your patience, but you have helped us all.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Lou Dobbs and Christopher Hitchens

I've never watched Lou Dobbs before, but after seeing this clip, I'll just have to give him a try. This almost redeems CNN of the Paula Zahn debacle, in my eyes.

Taking things entirely too far

So.... did everyone celebrate the National Day of Reason? (cleverly held on the same day as the National Day of Prayer, you know) Others appeared to have celebrated the National Day of Being Stupid.

Remember the first "challenge" from the movie Die Hard: With a Vengeance? It involved Bruce Willis standing on the sidewalk in Harlem, wearing a sandwichboard with the phrase "I HATE N*****S" on it. It was like that.

An atheist in South Carolina got beat up and robbed outside of a gym for having another phrase written on his back windshield. Miraculously, it was 8pm before he was beat up. The phrase? "F*** the Skull of Jesus" Rebellious atheist, anyone? I'm really sorry the guy got beat up, and I respect his freedom of speech. But that doesn't mean there aren't some things that are best kept to yourselves. I was really glad to see how objective the cop's report was, though.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Virginia and Censorship

It's official, we've signed on a house in Virginia, and will be moving around the 18th of this month -- very quickly! This is all taking place much faster than we had ever expected, but that's a good thing. I'm looking forward to the new house. Here is the view from the end of the driveway (which will be the view from the office as soon as we clear some trees from the end of the driveway).

I've recently speculated about the atheist population in that area, and by coincidence one of the stories I've read about recently is based at a high school around Roanoke, which is in the next county over from our new house.

Reed Braden innocently lends another atheist Dawkins' book The God Delusion. The friend's father, either not aware or not accepting of his son's atheism, finds the book and confiscates it. He calls Reed threateningly at 11PM, and later demanded from his principle that he be punished 'for "handing out literature" and attempting to convert his already-Atheist son to Atheism.'

Gideons were handing out bibles in the school parking lot a week earlier.

I contacted Reed directly about atheism in southwestern virginia. His report was about what I had expected. They're there, just not visible. Sounds like a good opportunity to start organizing!

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Actually Talking

This weekend I've been visiting my family as I've been house hunting in Virginia. We have found a house we really like, and I'm going to be making an offer tomorrow! The interesting fact? This house used to belong to a Church of the Brethren pastor. They used to hold some of their services and events in the basement. There is an old pew in the basement! How weird! It's a for-sale-by-owner, being sold by the daughter of said pastor (since deceased), and she had specifically kept it off of the listing services so that she could be picky about who buys the house. (we found out by word of mouth) Needless to say, I kept very quiet over being an atheist. This was one of those political closet doors that I didn't mind keeping shut. She sounded like she really wanted to sell us the house, so I would say it was worth it.

Yet, happily, I have really been able to talk about atheism on this trip! My sister, who used to claim agnosticism, turns out to have transitioned into full atheism over the last few years. I'm not certain about her husband, but I suspect he is too. My dad is agnostic, and my mom is pantheistic. We actually had a nice dinner conversation on the problems with religion, and took turns telling and laughing about awful bible stories (Lot's daughters, Jephthah, etc.). I was open to my Mom about writing a blog about atheism, the first person I've talked with about it.

When I was young, I caught an errant tennis ball in my eye. It scratched my cornea a bit and my doctor prescribed three days without opening my eyes to encourage the healing process. So I wore a tight blindfold, and listened to a few books on tape. After three days I ripped off the blindfold, bursting with newfound respect for blind people. I had taken vision for granted for most of my life, but was now truly appreciating it.

That is as close as I can describe the feelings I had while talking about atheism really openly, and in person for the first time since college. It was also the first time I had talked about atheism since striving to become a more educated atheist (familiar with statistics, familiar with more of the bible, familiar with more world religions, etc.). It was refreshing. It just felt great.

I had mentioned before about maybe looking for other atheist groups in the area. Greg and vjack had some good advice, but it is a very conservative area of Virginia so I'm not sure easy it would be to locate atheists. But ... if I did find some people, I would be very tempted to hold some of the groups meetings/events. In the basement. The very same basement that had at one time held church services. Wouldn't that be hilarious?

Friday, April 27, 2007

Posting, Houses, and Lots of Travel

If you've noticed the glaring quiet from me over the last few days, then I apologize. I've been under a dreadful deadline at work -- not everyone can post like P.Z.!

My big news is that we've sold our house! I was going to say "finally" but truth is, it happened a lot faster than we had expected. We had prepared ourselves for several months of waiting after watching a house down the street sit lonely behind its sale sign for about five months. But we sold ours in 2.5 weeks. Not bad! Now for the exciting part, buying a house!

My posting will be fairly sporadic over the next few days as well, as I will be travelling and won't have much internet access. I'm flying out to Virginia early tomorrow, and will take a whirlwind tour through a half dozen houses before making an offer on one. It's a good thing there are some good options available! We'll all be Virginians by May 19th.

Does anyone have any experience with moving and locating atheist groups? We'll be in the southwestern area of Virginia, close to Roanoke and Blacksburg, so I won't have access to all of the nice Richmond and D.C. area groups. But it would be nice to find a few like-minded folks.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Drawing Lines: Good Lies and Bad Lies, Good Truth and Bad Truth

Kirk Cameron is fond of cornering people and making them admit that they are liars, and therefore hellworthy sinners. Sounds like a fun guy at a party. That kind of polemical thinking -- you're either a liar or you're not -- makes it easy to make people feel guilty. But it's not that simple, of course. There are intentionally harmful lies, and there are innocent lies. There are compulsive liars and there are compassionate liars. I do think that honesty is the best policy, but I also think that if someone needs encouragement or hope, a lie might be the kindest thing you can say to them. In other words, there are lies ... and there are lies.

Without all evidence pointing against them, spreading tales of the supernatural is the same as spreading lies. And, like mundane day-to-day lies, ones that are spread about heaven and hell, God and the devil, and creation and ressurection, can be harmful or they can be beneficial. I've always viewed the afterlife as one of those encouraging lies that you tell other people to make them feel better during times of grief (just without the inevitable facing of reality that normally follows). There are plenty of harmful lies also, such as when evangelists guilt people into donating money, or trusting in faith-healing over a doctor's medicine.

Sometimes the same lie can be both to different people. The Secret, for instance, has a foolish, albeit encouraging message. Some people take that message as simple encouragement: if I think positively, I will find more that is positive in life. Others take the concept to harmful levels: if I think positively, I will be able to stop my chemo treatments.

My wife is firmly in the former camp in regards to The Secret. She listens to it, and it seems to help her cope during times of stress and anxiety, but she never takes it too far by relying on the 'power' of The Secret to make something happen. Today I witnessed the perfect example. We just sold our house (signed the paperwork this morning!) and are trying to finalize a loan on the new house for which we're about to make an offer. She is particularly vulnerable to financial stressors, and has been absolutely frantic all morning. She ended up going for a drive, listening to The Secret on audio CD. She called later and, sounding calmer than she had all day, admitted that she was feeling better and more in control.

I have never had a problem with this aspect of religion, in the same way that I have no problem with Santa Claus. If only religion and the supernatural would stay on this side of the line! If only there were a "Yes, Virginia, there is a God" in The Sun, describing the Einsteinian God of awe and amazement at the wonders of the natural world.

But there is a line, and too often the supernatural believers cross it into destructive and hateful results. These are the lies that Kirk Cameron and those like him should be fighting against. In the same way that Sam Harris reasons that the religious moderates unwillingly protect the religious fundamentalists from criticism, the harmless and compassionate lies that religion tells us helps protect the hateful lies from criticism. Atheists decry religion by pointing out discrimination and the obstruction of science, and theists defend religion by pointing to the ideals of afterlife and heaven.

Atheists are not blameless. Despite our desire to spread evidential truth instead of faith, our message can become just as horribly corrupt. Atheist Mama recently shared a story of two contrasting messages of atheism. She overheard one coworker describing atheism to another:
“you know [Kelly], there is no afterlife.” At this, my ears perked up. While I personally might try to not introduce rationalism with death, I’m always interested identifying fellow rationalists. He sounded like a good candidate. “There is no heaven, no hell, no god,” [Ira] continued. A fellow atheist too! I continued to listen, not even pretending to type anymore. “When you die, your body will rot and be eaten by maggots. Life really has no point.” Oh, I thought. He’s a maggot guy.

This dialog upsets the other coworker, who came to Atheist Mama for support:
“My mother raised me as a Catholic,” Kelly continued, “she’d just be so upset to hear something like that.” I nodded again. “Why would he believe something like that?” she asked.

I took a deep breath as I prepared to out myself. “Well, actually, I’m also an atheist. However, I think Ira’s being a bit of a nihilist.” I explained how the lack of an afterlife just makes life sweeter—since we only get to try once, we should do as much with our lives as possible. I explained that, while I didn’t believe there was a prescribed “meaning” of life, we make our own meaning through social compacts and personal values. “Oh,” Kelly said, blinking a few times as she absorbed this. Then she smiled, “That’s really so much nicer. I’m so glad I met you, Amanda,” and wandered off singing a random show-tune I’d never heard before.

It is not that Ira's description was false, it's just that it was an upsetting, harmful truth. You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, right? Atheist Mama's words gained support, while Ira's forged opposition.

So, lets draw our lines, take sides, and make a deal. Theists, why don't you just stick to your "love thy neighbor" and "golden rule" ideas, and stay away from the fire and brimstone and hate and discrimination. And we atheists will stick to the fuller lives and personal values views, and stay away from the maggots.


Monday, April 23, 2007

Appropriated Vocabulary

One day, I will actually go to an atheist/humanist event; for now all I can do is read the recaps. The latest I-wish-I-had-gone event was the New Humanism conference at Harvard. I especially would have liked to have seen Salman Rushdie and Steven Pinker, and perhaps get a chance to say hi to Hemant Mehta. Hemant does have a recap on his site -- and links to another one by Rebecca over at Skepchick. This is the recap I want to discuss. Rebecca brings up a topic I feel very strongly about.

The only conference lowlight I’ll mention is one that may apply overall to the humanist movement, though I’m not sure: it was a disturbing trend of kowtowing to religion. As an example, there was a teleconference with a Southern Baptist convention, during which time Greg, the Humanist Chaplain of Harvard, referred to the planet Earth as “the Creation.” This was repeated in the conference pamphlet. The Creation? This came mere hours after one speaker criticized the way some people redefine “god” to mean “love” or “nature” — why use that language?
That's strike two for Greg Epstein in this regard, by my count. In a recent Associated Press article he was also quoted as using the term "atheist fundamentalists." Others -- albeit mostly in jest -- have referred to Darwin as our messiah, "On the Origin of Species" as our bible, Dawkins as a prophet, evolution as our doctrine, etc. Well, I don't find it very funny.

In many debates, using language that the opposing side is familiar with can be a good way to convey a point. Using their terminology can help relate similar concepts from your own point of view. But when the concepts are in direct opposition, appropriating the wrong vocabulary risks confusing the message. This is especially true with terms we have used to criticize our opponents, such as "fundamentalism."

One of my biggest gripes on this topic is the phrase "belief in evolution," as in, "Chuck doesn't believe in evolution!" There is a perfectly good definition for the word belief that is suitable here: "an opinion or conviction." But it should not be used here. The term "belief in evolution" is too often brought up as contrast to "belief in God," which uses 'belief' in a different way: "a religious tenet or tenets; religious creed or faith."

Yes, there are plenty of theists that are also convinced by evolution. But the theist / atheist conflict is too vocal, with too much misunderstanding and debate about scientific fact vs. theory, the validity of some evidence and the debunking of others, etc. Look at how theism and intelligent design have already tainted the understanding of such basic concepts, like what the word 'theory' means in science. We must avoid vocabularly that can be twisted and used against us.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Firebreathing or Soft-speaking?

It only takes a few minutes with a TV Guide to understand that much of American entertainment revolves around extremist views, violence, and misfortune. From Glenn Beck, to Criminal Minds, to Montel Williams with Sylvia Browne, our entertainment ranges from what awful thing is currently happening, to what awful things might happen, to what awful things have happened to other people. One would think we'd be experts at handling bad situations. But we're not, and that is one of the things that makes us human.

Every now and then a real tragedy happens to real people, and it affects us on a national or even global scale. The Oklahoma City bombing, Columbine, 9/11, the D.C. snipers, the trapped West Virginia miners, and the recent shootings at Virginia Tech are a few American events in the last couple of decades that have stirred our collective hearts and welled our collective tears. Black, white, male, female, gay, straight, democrat, republican, rich, poor, religious, atheist -- our differences are obscured by grief.

Yet our melting pot of unity is marred by the slag of callous punditry and barbed blame from a few outspoken individuals. Perhaps these individuals are so mired in the machinery of public entertainment they have lost the ability to discern the national tragedies from the day-to-day news. Perhaps their heartless, shameless views are the very limits of their contribution to society, and they do not know how else to report on the events. Perhaps they are simply that: heartless. Whatever the reason, there are individuals that use times of tragedy to opportunistically inject hatred and discrimination into the vulnerable hearts of the nation.

In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, we witnessed this unfortunate phenomenon again. Within hours of the massacre, Debbie Schlussel was already blaming the horrors on Muslim terrorists. Jack Thompson and Dr. Phil blamed video games within a similar time period. Ken Ham blamed it on atheism and teaching evolution. Dinesh D'Souza does not specifically blame atheists, but used the tragedy to claim -- without a single supporting fact -- that atheists were not taking part in the mourning, and were not emotionally concerned for the victims. Daylight Atheism has collected a few more examples from the likes of Rod Parsley, Rush Limbaugh, and Grady McMurtry.

What defense do we have? Atheists are feeling, loving, caring human beings. We were also deeply affected by this tragedy. But many of our most prominent voices -- Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc. -- have a reputation for passionate polemics. Not an appropriate tenor for these moments. I do not mean to suggest that these people would not be able to deliver a heartfelt defense, but they would need to overcome their existing reputation to be convincing.

As the entertainment industry demonstrates, the controversial, fire-breathing, extremist voices are the ones that America's attention-deficit public find most entertaining. The more extreme your view and the more controversy you can stir up, the longer you can stretch your fifteen minutes of fame. Who was the last person that became famous for just being nice? Fred Rogers?

Fortunately there are other ways to gain the public ear and still maintain an aura of kindness and goodwill, such as support for a sympathetic cause and philanthropy. Perhaps what we need to do is have outspoken atheists speak about - gasp! - other things. The public needs to understand that being an atheist is not all we are. I believe this is a misunderstanding that has left us particularly vulnerable to attack. But if the public is more aware of us as people, rather than atheists, they would be quicker to sympathize and slower to criticize and blame.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Poor Morality of the Bible vs. Tim and mobie

Comments on one of vjack's latest posts, Christian Bible is Poor Basis of Morality, got pretty interesting. (The post itself is excellent as well!) The post is about 12 hours old, has 68 comments, and is still growing. One theist, Tim, started much of the theistic side of the debate, but others have chimed in, mobie in particular. I wanted to break down some of their comments in this post.
[Tim:] why then did/do science books teach so long that we had evidence of man evolving from apes with all of the models were proven false?

Tim and the evolutionists go back and forth on this one, with the evolutionists eventually deciding that he must be talking about the common misconception that humans evolved from apes, rather than humans and apes evolving from a common ancestor. Tim counters with a vague recollection of a complete ape-man skeleton that was proven false.

This sounds like a Piltdown Man reference to me. It wasn't a complete skeleton -- but it was a hoax. Its exposure did not invalidate any other evolutionary evidence, much like a magician's levitation trick would not invalidate Newton's theory of gravity.
[mobie:] From my standpoint the Bible is not at all contradictory, but even if it were, and even if it were void of real spiritual breath, you have to admit that it is an extraordinary book. Written in several languages over hundreds of years by multiple people, it manages to tell one cohesive story. I'm trying to think about a book in which Jane Austen, Voltaire, Assia Djebar, and vjack each wrote a chapter--would there be one story?

If they were all writing about the same topic (for instance, the history of a specific culture), and were all translated and edited by the same person or group of people, then yes. It would appear to be one story. The bible might be an extraordinary book, but it absolutely was not written as a single book, as was edited together from a larger collection of works by the Council of Nicaea. Also, I couldn't imagine anyone that's read it all calling it 'cohesive.'
[Tim:] If there were no God, there would be no person to question it.

So.... you're saying that God exists, because if he existed, then he created Man just like the bible says, therefore God exists. Despite being circuitous logic, it also falls victim to the "Many Gods" problem. The same statement could be made for Zeus, Odin, etc. So even if it was sound logic, it wouldn't necessarily apply to the God of Abraham. Tim doesn't even try to see possibilities without God. As he says later, "Faith does not allow me to think as such." But to continue....
[Tim:] If heaven and earth passed away and you were standing face to face with God, the Creator, would you repent and ask for forgiveness for not believing or curse Him to His face to spend an eternity in torment?

Tim is confusing the concepts of not believing in God with not liking God. I don't mean to say that there aren't atheists that also just don't like God, but they're not the same thing.
[mobie:] For every scientist who backs evolution, there is another who disproves it.

Ugh. What a misconception. The Intelligent Design movement proudly hawks a list of 700 scientists that don't believe in evolution. Does mobie really think there are only 1,400 scientists in the world? To prove mobie wrong, the NCSE has Project Steve, a list of scientists that affirm evolution. The catch is that only people named Steve (or a derivative) can be on the list -- therefore representing only about 1% of scientists. The list is about 800 members strong now. More scientists than ID has -- and they're all Steves!

I'm going to have to pay more attention to vjack's comments, I hadn't noticed all of this fodder before.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Atheism and Strength of Character

Although my parents did take me to a Unitarian church every few weeks (for social and educational reasons, I assume) until I was eight or nine, a God belief was never demanded of me, and I never grew one. This makes me one of the lucky ones, because I never faced any conflict at home about my atheism. My mother wanted to make sure I had made an educated choice, and we had a friendly discussion once about it, but other than that is never came up.

It doesn't come up now, either, but for slightly different reasons. My wife is accepting of my atheism, even though she doesn't share it. So we rarely bring up our religion. But during the few times we have discussed it, I have leared that she has two main problems with atheism.

First, she thinks it would be very sad to believe that death really is the end, and that there is nothing afterwards. I can't fault her for that, death is very sad. Although, I think that seeing death as non-final is disrespectful to those that have died. If a firefighter dies saving someone's life, they have given the greatest sacrifice. If you think that the firefighter has merely moved on to a better place, how could you fully appreciate the selflessness of their action?

She also wonders how we can handle difficult situations without getting strength from God. This is the one that bothers me. With no God watching my back, I had the chance to develop my own strength. Being an atheist has made me a stronger, less dependent person. In this regard, I have often thought of religion as a crutch. As Jon Nelson says,
The atheist is, or should be, a person with self-confidence and the ability to think freely, without the crutch of religious superstition.

Madelyn Murray O'Hair writes:
We solve our problems ourselves or they are not going to get solved, and you know it and I know it. .... An atheist accepts that he can get no help through prayer but that he must find in himself the inner conviction and strength to meet life, to grapple with it, to subdue it, and to enjoy it.

Dan Harlow, in a post titled You Are Better Than Any God, relates a touching story of his mother and one of her friends. He observes:
Now I’m not saying that Christians (or any other faith) are babies who can’t run their own lives but I do feel that by giving yourself up to a “higher power” you loose faith in yourself and allow others to take advantage of you because you think it’s God’s plan to do so. A person should believe in themselves, own up to their actions and have the courage to run their own lives.

Without God actually existing, the strength people find from him is a placebo effect anyway. It makes me sad that there are people unwilling to recognize their own strength of character, and instead attribute their strengths to God.

They're not giving themselves enough credit. People are better than that.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Return to Pascal's Wager

Rick Warren, in a recent Newsweek covered debate with Sam Harris, sums up his argument with Pascal's Wager:

We're both betting. He's betting his life that he's right. I'm betting my life that Jesus was not a liar. When we die, if he's right, I've lost nothing. If I'm right, he's lost everything. I'm not willing to make that gamble.
Harris himself, in a recent article, goes into many good reasons why you shouldn't give any mind to Pascal's Wager. To quickly sum up his points: 1) it falsely assumes that a life would be led the same way as an atheist or as a believer, 2) it could be applied to any belief system and therefore conflicts with itself, and 3) it assumes that a person can rationally decide what to believe in.

I came across Pascal's Wager when I was seven or eight. I grasped Harris' third point right away. I couldn't understand how a supposedly omnipotent God could be tricked by someone choosing to believe in him for selfish reasons.

Later, I also decided that any God that was only interested in whether or not you believed in Jesus, and not whether or not you led a good life and were respectful, honest, and nice to others, was not a God I wanted to associate with anyway. I think that Christians are so thoroughly steeped in this thinking, that they don't understand how breathtakingly arrogant their God looks like from an outside point of view. It's a divine version of, "Well, that's enough talking about me! Let's talk about you. What do you think of me?"

The biggest problem, though, is that it's just a wager! It has absolutely zero bearing on the truth, so I don't understand why it keeps coming up in debates. It's like saying that making a safer bet (lower odds) in a Casino will encourage the dice to roll in your favor.

Or, let's translate it into something more mundane. Say you are trying to decide whether to cross the street or not. You reason that there could be a car coming at exactly the right moment so that if you stepped into the road it would hit you. Or there might not be, and you might get to cross the road safely.

Pascal's Wager would say that if you believed there was a car, and there wasn't one, it wouldn't matter, you were safe either way. But that if you didn't believe in the car, and there was one, you were dead and lose the wager.

What this example and Pascal's Wager have in common is that neither one takes into account the ability to observe the situation and determine the actual odds. You're not stumped by a Street Crossing Wager every time you're at an intersection, you can observe the traffic and determine if it is safe to cross. Pascal's Wager and the existence of God are the same way. We can observe the complete lack of evidence of God and the success of alternate explainations, and realize that the probability of a God existing is vanishingly small.

Atheists do not play dice with the universe.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

In Times of Crisis

You'd have to be living under one hell of a large rock if you haven't heard about the Virginia Tech shooting lately, so I'll just avoid discussing any details. If you want more, pick your favorite news source and it's currently on the front page. Or you can visit the Wikipedia page, where they have titled the incident the Virginia Tech Massacre.

Tech is around where I grew up. I interned briefly with a professor there during high school, as did my wife. I also spent plenty of time in the research library. Virginia Tech is my father-in-law's alma mater, and is where my mother-in-law is currently working. My wife and my sister each have several friends that currently attend, and I've known several people that graduated from there. Also, I'm only three degrees away from one of the victims. One of my best friends from high school, his friend's best friend was one of the first two victims in the dorm. I know that sounds silly and remote, but it's made a real impact on me. Hearing about this makes me incredibly sad. Not just from the pointless loss of life and unnecessary misery, but from actually having a frame of reference -- something I didn't have with, say, 9/11 or Columbine.

The interesting story here is from my mother-in-law. Their part of Virginia had three inches of snow the night before the shooting, very unusual for this time of year. They lost electricity (they live in an extremely rural area and losing power during a snowstorm isn't very unusual), and a tree fell over their driveway, right outside the garage. They had to get neighbors to come over and help them just so they could leave the house. By the time they got everything cleared out, the shooting was over and they were sending everybody home. My mother-in-law never even got to campus that morning. Of course, she works in the administrative office and would not have been in any danger, but we're all happy that she avoided the whole mess, and had several concerned inquiries about her wellbeing from friends and other family members that day.

Anyway, I was relating this story to a client earlier today. As an atheist, I'm still solidly "in the closet" when it comes to my clients, for political reasons. (Most of my clients are very religious, and many of them operate religion oriented businesses -- like a Christian tree nursery, no kidding!) After hearing about the tree barricading my mother-in-law from work, my client whispers, "It's a miracle!" I'd been expecting this, but still had difficulty holding my tongue. Aside from all of the points I could make about it hardly being a localized snowstorm, and it certainly was not the only tree down, and that having a power outtage is rather unfortunate -- what I take real issue with is this being labelled a miracle.

What I would have said, had this been an indifferent acquaintance, would have been, "It doesn't sound like much of a miracle -- 33 people are dead!" That some theists will praise their own well being, or the well being of specific others, in the face of suffering is one of my biggest pet peeves. Although I must make this very clear, I don't think people realize how callous they are acting when they say these things. I think it is a kind of knee-jerk reaction. I have a little theory on this.

The bible, obviously, is very one-sided. I can't stress how insanely one-sided it is. No tears are shed for the dead first-born of Egypt. When Joshua goes around killing all of the men, women, and children from 31 good-sized cities, there is not a single word said on behalf of the innocent victims. The polarity of these stories is absolute. There are the good guys, and there are the bad guys. Everything is a God/Devil mirror. The 'historic' miracles that Christians are indoctrinated with are all black and white. Only the good guys get the miracles. Only the bad guys suffer.

Theists are taught to look for miracles in real life, but unlike the examples they have learned from, real life is not polemical. This leads to failure to acknowledge the other side of events. I don't believe for a moment that theists couldn't see the other side if they tried. It's just that they were never encouraged to see the other side.

There are also those that purposefully ignore the plight of the sufferers. I'm talking about those like the Westboro Baptist Church, who plan on picketing the funerals of the Tech victims. These theists, I believe, take the scriptural reference miracles way too seriously. They attribute the same 'crimes' of, say, the firstborn of Egypt, or the Midianite women, to those that suffer in the face of events they consider modern day miracles (or, to look at it from the other side, those that suffer punishments). The suffering is caused by sin, or the devil.

We should be proud, as atheists, to have such clarity of thought that victims are not clouded from our point of view. It is sad enough that so many lives are wasted because people believe a better one is coming, but to know that many live their lives through the foggy lens of indoctrination is truly heartbreaking.