Saturday, March 31, 2007

Jolt with my Java: Revised

Mojoey reported on a disturbing message at Starbucks -- on one of their coffee cups! The Starbucks the way i see it program, which prints messages submitted from their customers on the sides of their coffee cups, is now accepting messages from religious groups, and Mojoey happened upon message #224, from Dr. Jonathan Wells, a Discovery Institute supporter:

Darwinism's impact on traditional social values has not been as benign as its advocates would like us to believe. Despite the efforts of its modern defenders to distance themselves from its baleful social consequences, Darwinism's connection with eugenics, abortion and racism is a matter of historical record. And the record is not pretty.
-- Dr. Jonathan Wells
Biologist and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design.
Reading that, I realized how easy it would be to swap out a few words and arrive at the following statement: (the modified words are italicized)

Christianity's impact on traditional social values has not been as benign as its advocates would like us to believe. Despite the efforts of its modern defenders to distance themselves from its baleful social consequences, Christianity's connection with wars, witch-hunts and discrimination is a matter of historical record. And the record is not pretty.
Anybody else want to make a version?

Friday, March 30, 2007

Hey God, Don't Hurt Yourself

As some may or may not know, I have started reading the bible. (So that I can hold my own in a debate if bible trivia comes up.) I cruised through Genesis and Exodus pretty quickly, and have waded through the mire that is Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Things got better with Joshua, and I'm reading Judges right now.

And I just had to share what has to be the most ridiculous miracle of all time (at least, I hope so). It takes place in the story of Gideon. Here is Judges 6:36-40, Modern King James Version

36 And Gideon said to God, If You will save Israel by my hand, as You have said, 37 behold, I will put a fleece of wool in the grain-floor. And if the dew is on the fleece only, and dry upon all the ground, then I shall know that You will save Israel by my hand, as You have said. 38 And it was so. For he rose up early in the morning and gathered the fleece together, and wrung the dew out of the fleece, a bowl full of water.
39 And Gideon said to God, Let not Your anger be hot against me, and I will speak but this once. I pray You, let me test but this once with the fleece. Let it now be dry only upon the fleece, and upon all the ground let there be dew. 40 And God did so that night. For it was dry upon the fleece only, and there was dew on all the ground.

Don't hurt yourself, God. I know you have to take breaks every now and then, but is this really the same god who blew life into Adam by doing CPR through his nose? First off, you're taking orders here. This isn't the Burning Bush God that said to Moses, "Surprise! Your staff is a snake now! Surprise! Your arm is leprous now!" You're all out of the "lets rain fire and hail from the sky at the same time!" miracles. No, by this point in the bible you're all out of creative ideas, and just sitting back and opening the 1-900-PROPHET request line. (three goat sacrifices for the first minute, a turtle dove for every additional minute)

Some of these prophets are a little more creative than others, like when Joshua asked you to stop the sun and moon in the sky. But please, if you get a dumb one, take it upon yourself to add that little zing that says, "I am that I am! And I am totally awesome!"

I would have thought that the same god that created the naked molerat, quantum mechanics, the Grand Tetons, and the IRS could come up with something a little more unusual, mysterious, beautiful, or evil than a piece of wet wool.

Atheists Win High-Profile Debate?

Hitchens, Grayling, and Dawkings vs. Spivey, Scruton, and Neuberger. The debate was, "would we be better off without religion," sponsored by intelligence2 in Westminster Hall, London. I wish I could have attended! You can read James Randerson's summary for more details, but here is a great quote:

How sweet, [Dawkins] wondered, would Haydn's Evolution Oratorio or Beethoven's Mesozoic Symphony have sounded?

Besides, said Mr Hitchens, there is ample beauty in nature without the need to believe in myth. "Take a look through the Hubble telescope and look at the beauty and majesty of what you will see," he said, "And you want to exchange that for the burning bush?"

What I want to focus on is the debate victory. An audience vote afterwards revealed a win for the atheist panel, with 1,205 votes for, 778 against. (60.7%) Sounds great, right? Big atheist win! Except that without information on the makeup of the audience, these numbers ring hollow. I'm more interested in knowing how many theists admitted the atheists victorious -- or vice versa.

What if the audience was 61% atheist? In politics, that vote would be known as "along party lines." What if the audience was 80% atheist? That means that some of the atheists thought that the theists had won the debate, and that certainly wouldn't feel like a victory. If the audience demographic corresponded to the public statistics -- which in England is around 33% atheist, according to a BBC poll -- then that's very encouraging. But I have a hunch that the debate audience had a higher percentage, as a Dawkins appearance would no doubt attract a lot of atheists.

But to end on a high note, here is a quote from Dawkins, relating the aftermath of a debate he held against the Archbishop of York. Atheists can relax in this victory, as this time it was confirmed by a clergyman:

I once had a public debate with the then Archbishop of York, and The Observer quoted the verdict of one disconsolate clergyman as he left the hall: "That was easy to sum up - Lions 10, Christians nil."

Thursday, March 29, 2007

What Atheism Is and Isn't

The term "fundamentalist atheist" is starting to irk me. Says the pot to the kettle: you're black. But I've heard this enough that I wanted to write out what I think atheism/atheists can and can not be described as. This is all my opinion of course, and everyone is entitled to their own. There is no Southern Atheist Convention that requires atheists to follow a certain doctrine or they get kicked out. (and still, some theists call us "closed-minded")

Is Atheism a Religion?
Atheism does not hold any religious beliefs, and does not adhere to any religious doctrines. So no, atheism is not a Religion (capital 'r') in the classic sense. Atheism isn't a set of beliefs, it's a lack of beliefs. It's the default state. All infants are atheists because they haven't learned otherwise. It's only after introducing beliefs to the child that it will become a member of a religion. If the child is never taught religious beliefs, they would remain an atheist.

Still, I think that atheism is a religion (lowercase 'r') as a demographic set. If there was a survey that asked me "What is your religion?" I would answer "atheism." It is a valid label for the demographic group I belong to. As a label, atheism is a religion in the same way that zero is a number. Zero has no value, but it is still a number.

Is Atheism a Belief?
No. Atheism is the position of having no beliefs. While an atheist could declare their position to be "I believe there is no God" (sometimes referred to as strong atheism), describing the lack of something should not be confused with an actual belief. This is simply because there is nothing there to believe. Imagine two explorers charting a never-before-seen, uninhabited island. One says to the other, "What race do the people belong to?" The second explorer says, "There are no people. It's uninhabited." The first one nods and replies, "They must be indigenous, then." This is ridiculous because the lack of people can not be described as a type of people.

Is there such a thing as a Fundamentalist Atheist?
No. The vast majority of definitions available for the term Fundamentalism reveal its overwhelming connection to religion and the bible. These definitions use phrases like "movement in American Protestantism," "infallibility of the bible," "religious movement," "opposition to secularism," "adherence to the theology of..." The only secular definition I could find was strict adherence to any set of basic ideas or principles.

Now, atheists do have a basic principle: we do not believe in a divine being. But it is not something that can be adhered to, strictly or otherwise, because it is a defining principle. There is no spectrum of adherence to this principle among atheists. (thought when applied to people in general, of course, you get the theist/agnostic/atheist spectrum) It is the equivalent of a theist's belief in a god as their defining principle. You can't call every Christian that believes in God a fundamentalist, because that belief is one of their defining principles.

Want more? Atheist Revolution recently had a great post (one of the inspirations for this one) where he has tried to investigate Atheist Extremism. Two of the terms he (? I think vjack is a he....) looks at are "fundamentalist atheist" and "militant atheist."
In a nutshell, religious fundamentalism is about adherence to a particular doctrine, atheism has no doctrine, and therefore, there can be no fundamentalist atheism.

The Uncredible Hallq looked at fundamentalist atheism and militant atheism fairly recently as well. He decides that it is used by theists who either want to slam atheists, or are using the term to mean "hard core."
But outside slamming atheists, fundamentalism has always mainly applied to people who believe their given holy book is infallible. Sometimes, this is taken to the point of people becoming convinced that "God exists because the Bible says so" is a good argument.

And finally, I will direct you to The One With Aldacron, who agrees with The Uncredible Hallq that the term is used as a replacement for "hard core" or, as The One phrases it, "hardline."
The term “atheist fundamentalist” is an oxymoron. Fundamentalism arises from faith. Atheists have no faith. So there is no such thing as an atheist fundamentalist. There are some militant atheists out there who love to provoke confrontations with the religious. But I think they are rare. Hardline atheists are those who stand up for atheism and denounce religion for what it is.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Faith Healing

Brian over at Primordial Blog has just concluded his excellent four part series on faith healing. (one two three four). Brian was a fundamentalist before his deconversion, and spent some time faith healing himself. Reading about this from an inside perspective is illuminating. The failures of faith healing sound like they were an influential element in his deconversion.

Another good faith healing story is this YouTube video, where James "The Amazing" Randi debunks the TV Faith healer Peter Popoff.

I've also seen this story on a few TV specials. Popoff was using a wireless earpiece and was getting his information from his wife, who was reading them off of prayer cards. Honestly, did it never occur to these people, "Wow, he just told me exactly what I wrote on my prayer card fifteen minutes ago! What a coincidence!"

An amusing anecdote related to the Randi/Popoff case was how Randi first publicly played the evidential tape. It was on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Randi made sure the show manager didn't tell Carson about the tape, just so he could see Carson's face when he played it! There was apparently an expletive that had to be edited out for the broadcast.

Daylight Atheism also has a good article investigating faith healing. These faith healers are nothing more than con artists. The only question seems to be whether or not any of them believe in themselves. In the case of Popoff, clearly no. But I've heard that many faith-healing recipients do briefly convince themselves that they are healed. If the faith healer only sees them when they believe they are healed, maybe he really can believe in himself. It's an enforced delusion.

Unfortunately, as the Primoridal Blog series shows, most people who come to realize that they aren't cured after all, blame themselves. They decide that God had taken aware the healing out of spite, because they didn't have enough faith. Some are even estranged by friends, under the conclusion that they must be harboring secret evils. So now it's a self-reinforcing delusion. It's not evidence that God doesn't exist, because he does exist, so it must be something else.

Anthony Thomas's documentary A Question of Miracles (which I would like to see, if anyone knows how to find it on DVD) included some follow-up with people healed by faith-healer Benny Hinn. One of which was a brain tumor patient, who died a couple of months after being "healed." The parents were later interviewed:

As the couple discuss their child's succumbing to the tumors, no allusion of any measure is expressed of Hinn being culpable of perpetuating false hope. The couple sees themselves, not Hinn, as a possible cause that their son did not receive a healing. The father suggests his son's death may be a result of generational curses or sin of either himself or his father. When the HBO interviewer asked where he arrived at such a notion, the father responded, "Pastor Benny."

Now it isn't just a self-reinforced delusion. This is an actively enforced scam! It sounds like Benny Hinn might be another 'faith healer' that doesn't necessarily believe in himself. Another note: this is after they pledge several thousand dollars to Benny Hinn.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Hello, Atheist Blogroll!

I'm happy to report that I've been added to Mojoey's Atheist Blogroll, a huge resource of material from atheists wanting to share their views and news. If you've come to Atheist Self from the Atheist Blogroll: welcome!

Reinforced Ignorance

I grew up in a very small factory town in southwest Virginia. It is a very poor area, and for the first half of the 20th century most of the population worked for one of the several large furniture factories in town. In the way that some towns revolve around mining, this town revolved around the factories. As such, the factories had a great deal of local political power.

Add to this the fact that this town is an independent city -- not part of a larger county -- and you can imagine how small and poor the school system was. The story I heard growing up is that the factory owners, who were also the city politicians, intentionally maintained low standards and poor funds to the school system. The idea was that if a student was not educated, they would be more likely to work for the factory themselves after finishing school -- if not even earlier, after dropping out.

They were breeding ignorance for their own advantage.

This was every bit as cruel as it sounds, but many religious powers in the world continue to do the exact same thing. The Creationism / Creation Science / Intelligent Design / Whatever-it-will-be-called-next movement has been trying to paint evolution as a controversial "just-a-theory" for decades. They want warning stickers placed on textbooks, creationist malarky to be given equal treatment, and have even gone so far as to glue textbook pages together to hide offending material.

But these religious zombie masters go even further than just stripping people of their educational potential. They are actively pumping their sheep full of misinformation. I discussed the Creation Museum disaster yesterday, but it certainly doesn't end there. We've all heard about Conservapedia, too. We've also heard about the child abuse recorded in the documentary Jesus Camp, whose own website proudly makes it sound like a bile-inducing horror film:

Jesus Camp follows a group of young children to Pastor Becky Fisher's "Kids on Fire Summer Camp," where kids are taught to become dedicated Christian soldiers in God's army and are schooled in how to take back America for Christ. The film is a first-ever look into an intense training ground that recruits born-again Christian children to become an active part of America's political future.

"army" ... "training ground" ... "recruits" ... In other words, it's the Christian version of a radical Madrasah school!

There are a couple of YouTube videos that were referenced on Dawkins' site earlier today that really horrified me. The level of ignorance these videos are trying to spread makes my head spin.

The first one really drives home an opinion I've long had -- Creationists just don't understand long periods of time. This guy thinks that a jar of peanut butter will -- according to his straw-man version of evolution -- occassionally spawn new life? Let's ignore the fact that the chemical composition of peanut butter is far different than the chemical environment of early earth. He is saying the equivalent of, just because none of the lottery tickets I've bought ever won anything, winning lottery tickets must not exist. How many times do you buy peanut butter in your lifetime? 100 times? 200 times? How does that possibly compare to a billion billion billion molecules interacting with each other every second for a billion years?

The second one is labelled "The atheist's nightmare" and that's true. Except the banana isn't the nightmare, it's the guy holding it that scares me. I'd like to hear what this guy has to say about brazil nuts. Or coconuts. Or pineapples.

Mouse Vision, the Creation Museum, and the God FAQ

It's been a few days now since my last post. My wife and both kids were suffering food poisoning all weekend, and you would not believe what all I've had to clean up in the last couple of days. Kiddo #2, my poor darling daughter, had it worst of all. She threw up about 18 times -- and I won't even mention what came out the other end, except to say that it coated myself, my wife, and our bed. Everyone is doing much better now, though, and I'm expecting a completely normal day tomorrow.

Ahem..... Now that that's over with....

I found a bit of science news particularly fascinating last Friday. Humans (most of us, at least) have what is called trichromatic vision. In other words, we have three different types of cone cells in our eyes which receive different sections of our visible spectrum. Each type of receptor can differentiate between about 100 different shades, so all told the human eye can differentiate between about 1,000,000 colors. Humans and other primates are fairly unique among mammals in our trichromatic vision. (Although, some women are tetrachromates, and can see about 100,000,000 colors!)

Mice, on the other hand, are dichromates. Until now! Scientists have produced a genetically modified mouse that has trichromatic vision. On the surface, this is just pretty cool. But if you look deeper, there are two fascinating elements of this study that show how simple the evolutionary process was to get from di- to trichromatic vision.

The first thing is that the process only involved introducing a single human gene into a mouse chromosome. Just one gene. The second is that the mouse was able to interpret data from the extra receptor. Which means that the brain doesn't need to evolve at all in order to interpret the extra data.

The evolution of the eye is a hot topic in the Intelligent Design / Evolution farce. ID people claim that the eye is an example of irreducible complexity. Yet here is a tremendous example of how simple an evolutionary advance in the development of an eye can be. Instead of being irreducibly complex, here is an evolutionary step that is almost irreducibly simple. Just one gene! (Humans are thought to have about 35,000 genes total) It also has no dependencies, it's just beautifully simple.

(Here is a diagram that shows the visual difference between di- and trichromatic vision.)

That was the good news. Now for the bad news. I just heard about the new Creation Museum that will be opening this June in Cincinnati. I've always thought of museums as the very pinnacle of science. I grew up in Virginia, and when I think museum, I think Smithsonian. The Creation Museum is cunningly designed to sap intelligence right out of people. There are exhibits like "Life on the Ark: A real Survivor story." and "T. rex: The Terror that Adam's sin unleashed!" and how T. rex was a vegetarian in the Garden of Eden.

What's really scary is that this is a $27 Million project. And it apparently looks pretty sharp. This is scary because of how many people might actually fall for this. I'm glad my kids aren't going to school in Cincinatti, it's just going to be a matter of time before some "teach the controversy!" school board decides that this "museum" is a good field-trip destination.

Couldn't they think of anything better to do with $27 Million? What about feeding kids in third-world countries? What about providing jobs for the unemployed in the US? They had to go and build a shrine of ignorance?

Well, here's something to cheer you up. The Official God FAQ -- it contains detailed, accurate answers to every important question that has ever been asked about God. Yet it has condensed it all down into a very accessible, easy-to-reference collections of answers. Definitely worth reading, memorizing, and quoting often.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Where is that Christian Love?

LouseThe Gainesville press has a good article on the recent free hugs event at the University of Florida. They set up a table in Turlington Plaza, where sidewalk bible-thumpers tend to preach fire and brimstone. One such thumper, Frank Zaccaro, was approached by the atheists and offered a hug. He jumped backwards, shouting, "No, I don't want that!"

Oooh! Atheist cooties!

This is just yet another example of that wonderful Christian Love I keep hearing about. When will honest bumper stickers going to come out, that say, Jesus Loves Me. Not You. Or the honest bracelets that say, Who Would Jesus Hate?

Theists have a well-developed blind eye. They can ignore the darndest things! A tornado rips through a trailer park, killing one family and sparing another. Does the (religious) surviving family question God for killing their neighbors? Probably not. If they're like most survivors, they thank God for letting them live! No blame. All praise. I wish my job worked like that.

One of my bigger pet peeves is when atheists are accused of not having any morals. Now which morals would those be? The ones from the bible -- where you are instructed to kill your children if they don't respect you? How about killing wives that aren't virgins? Or not touching women for a week after they menstruate, until she sacrifices two birds? But ok, enough about bronze age behavior. What about present day?

I really only have to give one example. Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church picketed Mr. Rogers' funeral! Mr. Rogers! The nicest guy in the entire universe!

Need more? Well, we have pastors that sexually abuse their own children and fondle six year old girls' privates. If you get your morals from the bible, pastors are therefore the experts at moral values, right? It must be even more so in the Catholic church, where priests are thought to have a hotline directly to God, as they are able to speak on behalf of God to forgive sins, etc. Surely God would have said something to them about the estimated 1,400 cases of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests in the US in the last 22 years.

Christian Love is a big enough problem that there are groups like Stop Baptist Predators, and Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Most of us aren't facing this kind of problem -- my condolences if you are. Most of use see the Frank Zaccaros of the world. Stardust has been toying with talking with a theist (that goes by "Big Sucker"!) on a Gods4Suckers thread. He's (or She's?) relatively harmless, but a good example of what we face on a regular basis.

atheists always make me laugh. can’t ever make up their mind about evolution. .... atheists don’t pay attention to REAL science (law of biogenesis), just conjecture with no PROOF. ... Nietzsche believed that blacks and jews were subhuman….great guy.

Just ignorant taunts. Though, for being relatively harmless, he's still trying to be a thorn in our paw. (yet too mis-informed to really make me want to respond! Take a look at the full post to see the unbridled ignorance.)

Unfortunately we also see a lot of middle ground. Poor PossumMomma had a bitter response to her thread on a newspaper blog site -- looking for fellow atheists in Austin. As she put it, she "attracted a few fundies." Here is a sample:
PM- I don't care where you go. Just get the hell out of here. This is gods town and you can take your family with you. We dont need are kind mixing with your kind. I read your blog. Same bullshit. Different libral. Tolerance is overated.
- Dick

How beautiful, that Christian love is.

It's so bad, in fact, that even theists joke about it. So to wrap up this long post, here's a funny story.

We had an amusing line from kiddo #1 tonight at the dinner table. He's a couple of months shy of his third birthday, very talkative, and quick to repeat whatever we say -- in the possessive two-year-old style. We were discussing a children's book, Rolly Poly Olie, which is about a robot built of circular shapes.

Auntie: In one story, new neighbors move in, and they're all robots made of square shapes. They...
Mom: Burn a cross in their yard?
Auntie: No [snicker] it's sweet. They learn about discrimination.
Kiddo #1: I want to burn a cross in the yard!
[ much laughter from all ]

We're still learing to watch what we say!

Apparently, so are the theists.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Stark, New Atheism, and Religion on the Defense

Pete Stark, as many of us now know, is the highest elected official to acknowledge a non-theistic view. I wrote a post when I first heard the news of the coming-out, when it was still an unknown Congressperson, but I haven't written anything about it since. I was waiting to see what the reaction would be....

Which was almost disappointing! The biggest fuss I heard was from the Christian Seniors organization, who went on to talk about child-strangling liberals. But for the most part, it was all neutral and positive reactions. Voters (in his district) seem unfazed. Some news articles praised Stark. Most were neutral. I even read news articles from Christian news organizations. The Christian Broadcasting network had two mentions -- a news report titled Atheist Congressman Honored, and a snippet in the Christian World News Religion Roundup -- both were straight unbiased reporting, with no opinions or inserted response at all. BeliefNet also had a completely unbiased report. I did find an opinion piece on, but it turned the story against the $1,000 payout (by the Secular Coalition for America for the nomination), and not the coming out!

I can't believe it. I never thought we'd get away with an atheist Congressperson without some serious backlash. Maybe we really will be seeing more atheists coming out.

The part of Congressman Stark's announcement that I found most interesting was his connection with Unitarianism. I have written in the past that a nontheist politician would suffer from not having religious group to back them. Unitarianism is a clever loophole in my theory! Stark has found a way to be atheist and be part of a group.

Hemant at FriendlyAtheist had a good article last week on the isolation that most atheists face -- or impose on themselves. He points out that well-known Christians are usually associated with their organizations. There aren't single lonely voices in big Christian names. Charismatic leaders and large followings are a symbiotic relationship. The leaders' charisma brings in followers, which makes the leader more powerful and able to reach more would-be followers.

The big atheists, though -- like Dawkins, and Harris -- are isolated voices, and lack a similar mutually-beneficial environment.

Hemant points out that there are a growing number of secular groups, but even the biggest are tiny compared to any religious organizations, and their leaders are relatively obscure. Definitely not household names. The problem, while it does involve the relative sizes of the religious vs. secular populations, also lies with the way atheists are organized. Or... aren't organized.

But despite our nebulous lack of organization, I think we're really starting to be seen as a growing threat. Think back a few months in US politics. Barak Obama was first being seen as a possible presidential candidate, which of course was the cue for all of the slimeball political groups out there to start hurling their slime. At one point, Obama was accused of attending a radical Madrassa school as a child. This was not true, but it did reveal that the Republicans considered Obama to be a real threat, which made me quite happy.

Do theists see atheism as a threat? Maybe not on the streetcorner, but I think theists are starting to realize that atheism is growing strong in the online arena. Online, theists are starting to get on the defensive. Unable to come up with anything truly innovative, they are instead flattering us with imitation.

They think Wikipedia is too liberal? They make Conservapedia.

Too many atheists on YouTube? They make GodTube.

Heathens are laughing at their MySpace pages? They make HisHolySpace.

I'm waiting for HolyDigg next. Scratch that, I just found Gospelshout.

I find this encouraging! Disgusting, but encouraging.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

new feed address

On the odd chance you're reading this odd blog through an odd feed reader, or maybe even a normal feed reader, please update/resubscribe the feed url. I've just signed up on FeedBurner so I can get stats on all two of my readers! You can use the Feed link on the top right, or if you're using Firefox or IE7, you can just click the RSS icon. If you want the direct url, it is:

Not using a feed reader? I recommend Google's online reader. That's what I use on all 67 of the blogs I subscribe to. It will suck the free time right out of your day! Or, maybe it's the 67 blogs that do that. I'm not sure.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Religious Indoctrination and Children's Television

What are Saturday morning cartoons full of? Aside from the occassional bout of good 'ol toon violence, they're mostly full of commercials targetting children. Loads of them. Overall, in America, the average child sees 40,000 commercials annually.

The problem, especially with young children, is that they don't have a good grasp on what is truth and what is exaggeration -- or just plain fiction. In other words, children don't have that crucial "grain of salt" we adults take our advertisement with, until they're about ten years old. Younger than that, and they're easy and susceptable targets for the advertisement's message. If they see a commercial that tells them that all the cool kids have a Voltfire Extra Super-duty Cargo Train Robot Commander, they want one too. Young children are so vulnerable that some countries outlaw television advertising to children altogether.

Yet the vast majority of families in the US take advantage of their children in exactly the same way. Religious Indoctrination starts long before children have any hope of weighing the truth of what they are being exposed to. It amazes me to think of all the wars, all the deaths, all the suffering, and all of the hate that has resulted from the corruption of vulnerable children.

CARU, the Children's Advertising Review Unit has posted guidelines for what is and isn't suitable in children's ads. It's too bad nobody uses these guidelines for religious indoctrination, as it clearly voilates them. Read these segments from section 2b Product Presentation and Claims in their guidelines, and imagine it's talking about religious indoctrination:

To avoid deceptive and/or inappropriate advertising to children involving product presentations and claims:

1. Copy, sound and visual presentations should not mislead children about product or performance characteristics.

2. The presentation should not mislead children about benefits from use of the product. Such benefits may include, but are not limited to, the acquisition of strength, status, popularity, growth, proficiency and intelligence.

3. Claims should not unduly exploit a child's imagination. ... it should not create unattainable performance expectations nor exploit the younger child's difficulty in distinguishing between the real and the fanciful.

4. Advertisements should demonstrate the performance and use of a product in a way that can be duplicated by a child for whom the product is intended.

5. The advertisement should not mislead children about what is included in the initial purchase.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Please support Gore's message to Congress

Gore will be testifying before the US Congress on Wed. March 21st. Show your support by signing this message to Congress.

Famous Atheists

Remember Debbie Schlussel, the Ann Coulter wannabe that made such a ruckus on her Paula Zahn appearance? (part 1 ... part 2) Here are a couple of her gems, taken from her blog:

Look at famous atheists and what happened to them. Adam Gadahn a/k/a Azzam Al-Amriki--now a top Al-Qaeda video "personality"--was raised by his hippie Jewish father and equally bizarre gentile mother as an atheist. And look how he turned out.

I don't mind receiving the atheist hate mail, since I know that in a few years, many of these same people will either be Muslim extremists (redundant) or helping the country fall further in its fight against the creep of Islamic imposition on America . . . or both.

Can't you just feel how safe -- and superior -- that shell of ignorance makes her feel?

To be honest, I can see how it really can be difficult for an atheist fearing person to come up with good examples of atheists. Atheism isn't very obvious. If you're black, then anybody that can get a good look at you will probably be able to tell that you're black. Sometimes Jewish (as a race, not a religion) and homosexual people can be identified from visual clues or behavioral mannerisms. Everybody's heard of "gay-dar" right? But what about atheists?

Most belief-defined groups, by nature, lack visual indicators. You might have some luck spotting Hare Krishnas and Amish, but even those visual indicators are far from reliable. Other belief groups are even less so. If somebody looks Jewish (race), they might be Jewish (religion), but that's not always the case. And if somebody looks middle eastern, they might be Islamic, but that's not always the case either. Just like a Jew (religion) might not look Jewish (race), or a Muslim might not look middle eastern. So in America, by default, people assume you are one of the statistical majority: Christian. Not because you look particularly Christian. Just because most people are, and you don't look otherwise.

On one hand, this is particularly vexing for atheists that want to find other atheists. When you're a statistical minority, and you can't tell who else is in your minority, it can feel even smaller than it really is. But it also makes it difficult for theists to know who the atheists really are! And in Debbie's case, she could have used some better examples.

If you're ever talking with somebody that obviously has no idea how many wonderful examples of atheists there really are, here are a couple of resources that can give you plenty of ammo! is a good place to not only find names of famous atheists and agnostics, but also to read the quotes that reveal/prove those titles. When I'm feeling down, I like to visit this page and realize that I am indeed in good company.

I also just found this YouTube clip that helps defend atheists by pointing out many great atheists of past and present, as well as their contributions to the world. Enjoy!

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Trickle-Up Atheism

Atheism is only going to grow from here on out. Don't get the idea from my last post that I don't think we are on the move. We are. One day in the next hundred years, the average American will look around at the few, small religious groups left, and see nothing but cults. I don't think there will be a big fight to the finish, I just think that people are getting smarter, and getting smart leads to stronger reasoning skills and fewer irrational beliefs. The Institute for Humanist Studies reports that the number of nonreligious 18-25 year olds has risen from 11% to 20% in the last 20 years. Look at these other, encouraging findings:
Late last year, a Harris Poll, for the Financial Times, conducted a large survey on religious beliefs in France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Spain and the U.S. The U.S. was the most religious country, with 73 percent of respondents describing themselves as believers in "any form of God or any type of supreme being." (This figure is lower than many other surveys, but the totals include 6 percent who prefer not to say and 3 percent who don't know -- categories that other surveys often drop from their results.)

Italy wasn't far behind the U.S., with 62 percent believing in a god. In the other countries, believers in God are the minority: 48 percent of Spaniards, 41 percent of Germans, 35 percent of Britons and just 27 percent of the French believe in any form of a supreme being.

I don't think we need to make this a heated exchange. We should be the parent that calms the child down from an irrational temper tantrum with calm, reasonable words -- not by losing our own temper and bullying the fight out of them. The more rational thought we inspire into those that are already on the slippery slope, the more we are greasing up the slope.

Sam Harris has a new article in the LA Times today, in which he describes the spectrum of the religious as concentric circles of diminishing reasonableness. The moderate and liberal believers are the outer rings, and are standing between us and the maniacal fundamentalists and suicide bombers in the middle. Their existance protects and excuses the fundamentalists.

If we start with the moderates and liberals, even by ignoring the fundamentalists altogether, we are still eroding their support. The more religious liberals we get sliding down the slope, the more will deconvert into free thinkers. The stronger our numbers, the weaker theirs. Without the support of these liberals, and then the moderates, fundamentalists will eventually just go POOF in a cloud of logic.

I think this is a much more reasonable approach than going straight for the big fish. If we started with the fundamentalists, they would have a good chance of aligning all the fence-sitters against us. With a trickle-up approach, we can reduce their numbers first, and then tackle their strongest members with stronger numbers ourselves.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

debate: our lot in life?

I haven't revealed my atheism to anybody in a long time now. I'm "out" even though I have certain limitations. I won't go past saying "I'm not very religious" to my clients, and I'll just grin-and-bear-it to any of those fool "Do ya have the fear o' God in ya, boy?" questions I get from my wife's extended family. I don't see these as betraying my moral honor. It's just politics.

Going backward, I didn't even have a big "coming out" to anyone in college. My university, or at least the students that I knew, seemed to be about 40% atheist, 30% catholic, 10% muslim, and 20% various protestant varieties, wiccan, buddhist, etc. Nobody even blinked an eye at atheism there. This doesn't surprise me. In Mensa Magazine in 2002, Paul Bell published a meta-analysis of 43 different studies over the last 80 years. 39 of them (over 90%) found an inverse proportion between how much education a person has, versus how likely they are to hold any religious beliefs.

High school was very different. I was in the Bible Belt (a term coined by an atheist!) and shared a school with plenty of fundamentalists. I remember sometimes debating the existance of God -- and even the historical truth of the Noachian flood! -- during class.

Memory of those debates sticks in my mind like the memories of a good meal. And the debates that I know are still to come, like a party scheduled in the near future. Like I said, it's been a while since I've "come out" to anybody. I'm yearning for a good debate.

I feel that debate is the atheist's lot in life. It's usually not a vicious "You're gonna go to hell!" / "You're an insignificant speck in the universe!" debate. Much of the time it's almost more of an interview -- the point being to satisfy the curiosity of someone that has maybe never met an atheist before. We get a chance to clear up that atheists aren't devil worshippers, and point out a few problems we have with religion. Maybe point out a few famous atheists they might recognize, so they won't think we're all Al-Qaeda terrorists. It's sometimes only a debate in the sense that you are on two different sides of a very high fence, and are discussing the property lines. Not about moving it, just about the line itself.

Until we're more prevalent, we're a curiosity. In the current religious climate (at least, in the U.S.), we especially need to satisfy that curiosity in a way that makes us appear harmless. For these casual debate/discussions, I don't think our goal should be deconversion, but indifference.

I loved Hemant's story about his appearance on the christian talk show. What really struck me was this part:

One Christian audience member came up to me afterwards and said I had changed his views on atheists – we weren’t so bad after all – which was one of the nicest things I could’ve heard. That was sweet.

I think that's what we should be going for right now. Make it known that we are not devil worshippers. We're not devoid of morals. We're not the bad guys. We're just not anything to get your magic underwear in knots over.

And maybe, just maybe, we can get them to start thinking a little more on their own.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Hold that Parkinson's study, there are Gays out there!

Another juicy link from Pharyngula! PZ discusses an article by an evangelical named Dr. Albert Mohler, who is a president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and hosts The Albert Mohler radio program.

His bio mentions that calls him the "reigning intellectual of the evangelical movement in the U.S.," from this article. It isn't about Mohler so much as it is an interview with him about missionary work in Iraq. In it, he states his view that "America is not a Christian nation; it's a mission field." In other words, it's not a Christian nation yet, but he's working on it. Great.

Mohler's new article discusses homosexuality and whether or not it can be screened before birth, and potentially "fixed" with hormone treatment

If a biological basis is found, and if a prenatal test is then developed, and if a successful treatment to reverse the sexual orientation to heterosexual is ever developed, we would support its use as we should unapologetically support the use of any appropriate means to avoid sexual temptation and the inevitable effects of sin.

So hold on just a second there, you're willing to experiment and develop prenatal therapy on fetuses for the goal of reducing "homosexual sins" but you think that trying to cure spinal cord injuries or Parkinson's disease with stem cell research threatens human dignity itself?

If a human embryo can be turned into mere material for medical research, every human life is discounted.

Where does he draw the line? Are human embryos more precious than fetuses? He criticizes the concept of "designer babies" but argues:

How can they now complain if women decide to abort fetuses identified as homosexual?

Is homosexuality worse than paralysis or Parkinson's disease? Mohler's website contains plenty of comments about the 'evils' of homosexuality:

We must talk honestly about what homosexuality is, and why God has condemned this sin as an abomination in His sight. Courage is far too rare in many Christian circles. This explains the surrender of so many denominations, seminaries, and churches to the homosexual agenda.

If the evangelicals are looking for a "gay gene," we should be looking for the "evangelical nutjob gene." Or maybe the "gullibility to religious dogma gene." They want to fix fetuses to get rid of the "homosexual agenda?" Fine, but let's do it by getting rid of genes that lead to hateful intolerance.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Religious Violence and the Ghost of Authority

Kill the Afterlife brought my attention to a study by the University of Michigan. The researchers compared the aggressiveness of students from two universities, Brigham Young (99% of which believed in God and the Bible) and Vrije Universiteit (in Amsterdam) (50% believe in God, 27% believe in the Bible). The aggressive behavior was measured after the students were read an obscure, but violent, passage from the bible. Half (from each school) were told it was a bible verse, and half that it was from a parchment found in an archaeological dig. Half of each group was also read this passage:

"The Lord commanded Israel to take arms against their brothers and chasten them before the LORD."

The result was more aggression from students that had known the obscure passage was from the bible, and more aggression from students that had been read the biblical call to arms. Both universities saw similar results, even among Vrije's non-believers.

Two questions came up immediately in my thoughts. First, why were non-believers swayed by the biblical sources? I can think of a couple of possibilities. To start with, who's to say that the students that were godless at the time of the study didn't grow up in a church environment? 'Atheist' doesn't mean you weren't indoctrinated into religion as a child.

The strength of a belief in something can carry even further than the belief itself. Here is a thought experiment: imagine the strictest teacher you've ever had, approaching you years after they ever had any real authority over you. They level their eyes at you and bark out your name in that familiar way. "We need to take a trip to the principle's office right now." Even though the phrase "principle's office" has no real meaning in your life now, your pulse might quicken anyway. I know mine would. It is a learned response to a specific stimulus, reappearing like an immune response to a long-absent disease.

In the same way, a response to biblical authority -- if you have ever had it -- can recur even if you no longer believe it has a divine authority.

But there is also the social impact that religion has on everybody, even atheists. As an atheist, can you really say that when you walk into a church, it feels like any other building you've ever been in? No, it feels different. There are strong associations that society, as a whole, grants to these buildings. Maybe if atheists and theists were on slightly more even ground, that might not be the case. But in the US, at least, theists outnumber us greatly. Their religion has an effect on us similar to how rapids might effect a small midstream pebble. The pebble is very different from the larger rocks in the river, but the same water that is tossed and turned by the larger rocks can toss and turn the pebble.

One obvious analogy to this is how atheists are being oppressed with dollar bills and pledges that hold reverent a god that we do not accept. We're caught in the currents of religion. This happens on emotional levels too. One of the bigger problems facing atheism today is the fact that we atheists are too accepting of our fate. Why did it take us 50 years to take the religious pledge of allegiance to the Supreme Court? We spent so much time just going with the flow that we now look like we're "on the offensive" simply because we finally decided we were tired of being drug along by the populist current.

The second interesting question that I had was a matter of causality. This study hasn't had time to be corroborated, so it's just one set of data. One study I remember hearing about in the 90s showed that couples that live together before marriage are more likely to get divorced. But does this mean that living together before marriage can lead to divorce, or that the people that tend towards divorce also tend towards living together before marriage. Or maybe there is a third element altogether, that is independently causing the first two?

This study might show that a belief in God can lead to more aggressive behavior. Or it might mean that aggressive people tend to be religious! There is no way of knowing without further study, and there are no guarantees even then. There is plenty of evidence of both in this world. The Old Testiment reads like a Rambo movie. And there are plenty of criminals that "find God" in prison. Maybe these concepts just naturally gravitate to each other.

Either way, I want to see more research about this. I would love to see this repeated with enough data sets that one could make a map of religion/aggression hot zones.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Congress -- more nontheists or not?

In response to my previous post, where I mention the upcoming announcement of a nontheist in Congress, Naomi from God is for Suckers! mentioned that she expected there could be more that are just staying in the closet. Naomi has a great post on GifS that discusses the religious anomalies in Congress. I started off writing a responding comment, but I thought it was interesting enough for a full post.

Congress is no stranger to statistical anomalies. After all, there are only 16 female senators out of 100 people. But Naomi's post also shows interesting differences in religious preference in Congress vs. the real world. For instance, the Jewish representation in Congress is more than six times larger than what is seen in the nationwide statistics. The Episcopalian representation is more than four times normal, and Presbyterian representation is three times normal. While the 'unaffiliated' statistic is nearly 13 times smaller than the national percentage.

Well, all those boosted groups had to get their numbers from somewhere.

But why so few from the 'unaffiliated' group? I think it's group psychology. If someone running for Congress says they are Catholic, all the Catholics at the polls will at least be able to say, "That candidate is one of us!" This gives the candidate extra compassion for their faults, and greater empathy for their drives. No matter what group the candidate falls into, there is probably going to some kind of boost among their religious brethren.

But what if a candidate is listed as 'unaffiliated'? That, almost by definition, means they are in no group at all. True, they might find some boost among those that also consider themselves unaffiliated, but that's a group that is lacking an official title. It's the same difference as between a Club and a group of friends. Remember your childhood -- what was the first thing that happened after a group of friends starts a club? Come up with a name, of course! Without looking into this any further, it would almost seem more beneficial for a candidate to use a label like Atheist, Agnostic, Pantheist, or Humanist -- as long as it's not the nebulous 'unaffiliated.'

But there are also supergroups. Naomi's list can also be read as 'affiliated' vs 'unaffiliated' -- with an imbalance of 98.9% against! Different denominations can be divisive amongst themselves, but they all have a god, and that's a pretty thick line to draw in the sand. Group psychology will also create outcasts. 'Unaffiliated' can technically mean "religious, but without preference of a particular denomination." 'Atheist' just flat out puts you in the doghouse.

So, back to the question -- are there more nontheists in Congress? I've seen various statistics but they seem to center around 1%-3% of the US population actively calls themselves atheist. So for a group of 535 Americans, one could expect for somewhere between 5 and 16 of them to be atheist. Not just nontheist, but Atheist with a capital 'A.'

I'm about as sure that there aren't 16 atheists in Congress as I am that there is not a god.

Oh, part of it is just me being cynical and feeling isolated and unrepresented. But I also think that the same group psychology that would result in unity or discrimination in a vote, would also reveal itself in the grooming of a candidate that happens before the vote. If a candidate could somehow go from an unknown to a honest contender without any public support, things might be different. But there are a lot of people that go into a candidacy, and someone needs a lot of group support before running for office.

Julia Sweeney, Congress, and an XBox

Earlier today I found a link to a short video clip of Julia Sweeney performing a portion of her Letting Go of God show for the TED conference. I had heard an interview with Julia on the Freethought Radio podcast, but had never heard any of her show. It was terrific! I found out that her entire show was also available on Audible.

As it happens, my wife recently started a subscription to Audible (in order to download The Secret as audiobook -- more on that later, I promise). So a few clicks later and I had purchased the Letting Go of God audiobook/reading. I'm nearly halfway through and have been really enjoying it.

Another exciting bit of news from today is that a (not yet identified) congressman is going to come out of The Other Closet in an announcement next Monday, to become the first openly nontheistic congressman. Jesse Ventura has made comments that might indicate that he is also a nontheist, but from Governor to Congressman is a step in the right direction. I can't wait to find out who this is.

And finally, on a personal note, I won an XBox 360 today! I'm not a huge gamer, even though I've been enjoying my Wii. I always figured a 360 (and certainly a PS3) were out the realm of possibility just from a price perspective. But hey, if they're just gonna give me one.... I submitted a few of my PowerShell scripts to Microsoft for a promotional contest they were holding. There would be a drawing in each of several categories, with the prizes ranging from an XBox 360 (core) for each category, to any of several TShirt prizes.

The contest was over in December, and the expected announcement date came and went in mid-January, and I didn't hear anything and their website hasn't been updated since the contest was over. So I'd given up weeks ago. But I got FOUR emails from Microsoft today, and I had won the top prize for one category, and the TShirt prize in three others! Wow!

I've never won 'the big prize' in anything before, and I've never won anything in a drawing, period. This is very exciting!

Sunday, March 4, 2007

My Atheist Self

All blogs have their beginning. Even blogs that don't live past the first post start somewhere. So, despite the longevity of this blog being a complete unknown, here I go.

With atheist blogs in particular, the traditional first post is the "giving up God" story or the "coming out" story. Almost in the same way that the first issue of every superhero comic must deal with that hero's story of origin. Are we the real life superheros? I look at my kids, and I know that one of these days they're going to realize that there are two sides to religion. You don't have to believe. And if they choose the rational truth over the anesthetic lies, then yes. I will feel like a real life superhero.

My own atheism probably didn't inspire anybody. My parents raised me in a Unitarian Universalist church, although they were very non-specific about their religion. More recently, I've determined that my father is an agnostic and my mother is a pantheist. They both very supportive of me being a full-out atheist.

There was never really a time in my life that I wasn't an atheist. But I would say that there were three pivotal moments that led me to realize that is what I was.

The first moment was one day when I was four (I think it was about four). Some kids at school (I went to a Montessori preschool for a couple of years before I started first grade, and this was during Montessori) had mentioned God, and I had no idea what they were talking about. I asked my parents about it, and my dad responded with, "Well, some people believe...." It was the "some people" that caught my attention. It meant that it was optional. It was not required. It wasn't universal.

A couple of years later, another piece of the puzzle fell into place. I read a lot, and was an advanced reader for my age. One of my favorite books was D'Aulaires Book of Greek Myths. What really interested me was that nobody believed in Zeus anymore. At some point, people had stopped believing in the Greek gods, and started believing in God. So, what religion was next? Religion appeared to be evolving along with civilization. Which meant that it was only 'true' relative to the time of its believers. Which meant that mankind generations in the future might not -- or probably won't -- believe in the religion we have today.

At this point I was solidly atheist, although I was really hesitant to ever say so in front of anybody but my parents. But I was definitely not happy about this God thing. I remember once refusing to join the soccer team at the Boys Club because the membership form included an oath to God. I threw a childish temper tantrum at the time, but I wish I could go back and give that kid a big pat on the back just for the principle of it. I hope my kids will be aware enough to know how wrong it is to force an eight year old to sign an oath to God before they can be part of the team.

About the only public show of atheism I had in me at this point was that I refused to say the pledge of allegiance. And in certain settings, to not bow my head or close my eyes during a group prayer. It wasn't until fifth grade that I started telling my friends -- only when they asked, mind you -- that I was agnostic. I felt that 'agnostic' softened the blow. I still flabbergasted the other bible-belt children, but I wasn't too far from fitting in that they really excluded me. (At least, not for my religion. I was enough of a geek even then that they probably figured my religion was just one more oddity.)

The third and final moment happened during late high school. I was finally growing some self-confidence, and it was manifesting in my being more open about my beliefs. I was even occasionally bold enough to debate other students about the existence of God. I was THE science geek of my grade, which gave me a pretty good foundation of knowledge to pull from, for a high-schooler. But what happened that really made a difference to me, is that I switched from calling myself an agnostic to calling myself an atheist. I had known for some time that I was using the term agnostic to avoid the really scary discrimination and distrust that comes with the term atheist. But now I was ready to do something about it. I decided -- once-and-for-all, as it were -- that I would no longer be so meek as to lie about who and what I was just because I was afraid of the response of other people.

This was huge. My self confidence went through the roof, and I began what a theist would call a spiritual journey. I suppose I should call it a rational journey. I really began to explore the notion of being atheist. And I became proud of it. College only bolstered this. My college was probably 30%-40% atheist, which helped me feel like one of the crowd. (it was maybe another 30%-40% catholic, and the rest scattered among a wide variety of denominations).

Unfortunately, these days I am finding myself much more withdrawn. I feel more limitations. I have clients. Family. I am more aware -- and more incensed -- over issues such as God in our pledge, the separation of church and state, and polls that determine atheists to be the least trusted minority. I'm feeling much more oppressed than I did six or seven years ago. I feel like a minority. I am also feeling very much alone. I work at home, and rarely leave the house. I need a way to speak to others like me. I need to find my voice and become that self-confident atheist once again.

So while I am keeping my atheism very low key to strangers and clients, I am also trying to find a way to speak to others as an atheist. Which is this blog. This is my Atheist Self.