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.

Is Atheiphobic a Word?

My library is expanding nicely! My copy of I Sold my Soul on eBay came in today, so I'll get to that as soon as I finish The God Delusion. I've also recently purchased The Varieties of Scientific Experience and found Breaking the Spell last night in a half-price bookstore.

Other's aren't quite so appreciative of all of this reading material. Don Feder, author of Who's Afraid of the Religious Right, has a new article published in USA Today, called Atheism isn't the final word. I'm going to desconstruct this a little, directed at Don:

Oh, for the days when one could safely stroll into a bookstore without tripping over the latest atheist title.
Aren't book stock and bestseller lists based on demand, not supply? You should direct this criticism to the patrons that are actually buying these titles.
Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., has become the first member of Congress to announce that he doesn't believe in God. He's probably just looking for a book deal.
Can you say "petty?" Also, irrelevant. Stark's statement has nothing to do with atheist advocacy. He wasn't advocating anything.
Why the sudden outpouring of atheist advocacy? Perhaps it's a way for the cultural left to assert itself in the face of the religious right.
You put this directly after the Pete Stark announcement. How does one non-religious person in over 500 lead to a cultural assertion? How many Christian books come out every year? How much funding do Christian organizations have compared to atheist ones? According to polls, half of Americans don't even know a single atheist. We're just wanting to be heard.
Let the godless write their books and the faithful answer them. The disillusionment with religion that dominated British intellectual circles after World War I helped to shape the great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.
And today, Britain is around 40% non-believers. C.S. Lewis was a good author, but hardly an indicator of trends.
In the USA - the most science-oriented society in history - Christian bookstores, radio stations and TV programming proliferate.
We're maybe (arguably) the most science-dependent, but science-oriented? Give me a break. Nearly 30% of the US thinks the sun goes around the earth. Just because we use computers doesn't mean we know how to program them. Just because we happily use the products of science doesn't mean most people know a lick about it.

Also, we're back to demand again. The proliferation of Christian media is mostly reflective of the statistical weight Christians have among book readers, radio listeners, and TV watchers. It has nothing to do with science in society.

I thought you said that bookstores were crowded with atheist books, anyway?
It seems as though a hunger for the Creator is imprinted on the human heart.
No, that would be DNA. You know, that molecule you believe in when it's used to zealously convict a criminal to death row, but that you don't believe in when it shows the evolutionary similarities between humans and apes.
What would a world without God look like? Well, for one, morality becomes, if not impossible, exceedingly difficult.
What about morality that isn't expressed in the bible? I don't think the bible has anything to say about doctor/patient priviledge, yet I've never met a doctor that didn't think it was immoral to discuss other patients with you. What about owning slaves? Oh, wait, that's endorsed by the bible! Yep, there's no way humans could ever learn morality on their own....
"Thou shalt not kill" loses much of its force when reduced from commandment to a suggestion.
If the only thing keeping you from killing people are a few verses from a book many thousands of years old, then remind me to avoid meeting you in a dark alley. It's a lot easier to forget a few old verses than it is to ignore the common sense, decency, social responsibility, and respect for other human beings that I and every other atheist I've ever met possess.
A universe that isn't God-centered becomes ego-centered.
I guess if your ego is big enough to believe that a creator of the Universe personally loves you and pays attention to you and listens to your prayers, then you already think you're at the center of the universe. It also means that your universe if very, very small.
People come to see choices through the prism of self: what promotes the individual's well-being and happiness. Such a worldview does not naturally lead to benevolence or self-sacrifice.
Have you never heard of "if you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours?" What about "two heads are better than one?" There are many benefits to being concerned about others and happily cooperating with others. This is not just seen in humans. Females of many species help take care of other female's babies, despite not directly promoting their own well-being and happiness. Chimpanzees have been seen sacrificing their own life by jumping into a moat to try to save a fellow chimp, despite not being able to swim. An experiment with monkeys shows that when food was only available after pushing a button that delivers a painful electrical shock to another monkey, they would starve for days to avoid hurting the other monkey.
An affirmation of God can lead to the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount and the Declaration of Independence.
Wasn't the Declaration of Independence written to free a people that had escaped from religious oppression?
In terms of morality, a denial of God leads nowhere.
What about the Constitution?
There are no secularist counterparts to Pope John Paul II, Mother Teresa, William Wilberforce (the evangelical responsible for abolition of the British slave trade), Martin Luther King Jr., or the Christians - from France to Poland - who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.

Daniel Morgan already pointed out that Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have given $30 billion to charity. I would also like to add Elisabeth Cady Stanton, a leading figure in the women's rights movement.
Yet, the worst horrors of the modern era were perpetrated by godless political creeds.

This doesn't mean that the horrors were done in the name of atheism. The horrors from religion was done in the name of religion.
There is no irrefutable evidence for God's existence or non-existence. But, if you look closely, his footprints can be discerned in the sands of time.

You're making the claim, you back it up. We don't have to prove God's non-existence just like we don't have to prove Odin's non-existence, or Vaisnavi's.
Jews introduced the world to monotheism. They also were the first people to perceive history as linear- an unfolding story moving toward a conclusion. Is it a coincidence that this tiny, originally nomadic people generated the ideas that shaped the Western world, including equality, human rights and a responsibility to our fellow man?

Let's see how they did. Equality: by allowing slavery? Human rights: by permitting you to sell your daughter? Or by stoning your wife if she said she was a virgin when you married, wasn't, and it bothered you? Responsibility to our fellow man: by mauling other people's children because they called you bald? Or by killing people that collect firewood on Sunday?
Atheists are free to disbelieve and to try to propagate their disbelief in books and other intellectual forums. But saying the debate is over doesn't make it so. A bit of humility might make their case more convincing. Then again, humility is itself a religious concept.
The religious concept is to waste humility before something invisible, untouchable, and untestable, and then be righteous and demanding of special priveledge to the detriment of people they consider less deserving. I admit, don't share that type of humility.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Pope Sends Bear to Children

An article from Reuters tells that an unidentified Italian sends Pope Benedict a huge stuffed toy bear as a birthday present. The Pope remarked that it was a "beautiful specimen" and sent it on to Rome's Bambino Gesu (Baby Jesus) children's hospital.

Where it came to life and mauled 42 children!!

Ok, just kidding. I couldn't resist.

Atheism is Just One Aspect, is Christianity?

For all that I talk about and identify with atheism, it is just one aspect of a larger set of my beliefs and ethics. The same can be said for most, if not all, of the atheists that I've met or read their blogs/articles/books. However the larger set is labeled it must, by definition, come before atheism in our personal taxonomy of beliefs. For instance, atheism does not describe the fact that I don't believe in fairies, mummy's curses, or The Secret. Yet my disbelief of these things, as with my disbelief in any divine being, are all aspects of the same set of beliefs/disbeliefs.

The label that I prefer for this larger set is Bright. As defined on the Bright's website:

What is a bright?

  • A bright is a person who has a naturalistic worldview
  • A bright's worldview is free of supernatural and mystical elements
  • The ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic worldview
What I like about the term Bright in particular is that it is also a movement, so it is also speaks about a desire and a goal. You can read more about the Brights' reason and purpose on their webpage. With this definition, atheism is clearly a subset of beliefs, stemming from a worldview that is free of the supernatural.

vjack has recently examined the topic, declaring Secular Humanist First, Atheist Second in a well thought out post. I had just one quibble:
If you ask me why I am an atheist, the core of any response I will give you is that my application of reason and science gives me no reason whatsoever to accept the theistic belief claim (i.e., that any sort of god or gods exist). But why do I believe that reason and science are valid ways of acquiring knowledge while blind faith is not? This takes us to secular humanism.
I don't think you can compare faith and reason as methods of acquiring knowledge on even ground, regardless of anyone's beliefs. The difference is that faith cannot acquire knowledge from new data, while reason and science can. Faith can gain new insights from analysis of existing information, or can gain tangential historical information from archaeological discoveries, but they can't create circumstances that can generate new data -- what science does with experimentation. There are new discoveries such as the Dead Sea Scrolls that are clearly not tangential, but these are still pre-recorded information. They have simply been rediscovered.

Science also gains information from continued analysis of old data, and from archaeological discoveries (as well as paleontological, geological, and astronomical glimpses into the past). But it also creates new knowledge and new data that can lead to whole new fields of study -- think of all of the new science like nanotechnology and quantum chromodynamics that weren't around 100 years ago.

This leads me back to the concept of atheism being just one aspect of a larger set of beliefs. Can the same be said of Christianity? No, for the most part I don't think it can. (I will limit my discussion here to Christianity because I am not familiar with enough religions to categorically make this claim.) For all of the fuss that Christian fundamentalists make over how their moral guidelines are taken straight from the bible, this should be obvious. This is also revealed in the points I just made about the acquirement of new knowledge.

Because Christianity is limitated to existing material, and can not acquire new data, modern Christianity is a closed system. (I specify 'modern' Christianity because early Christianity was rife with religious imports, and it borrowed material from other religions during its period of establishment.) Therefore, it must, according to its own tenets, have generated its ethics and the structure of its beliefs internally. Anything else, and they are on the slipperly slope of admitting that their religion was created by man.

But what about ethics and beliefs outside of Christianity, like dragons, leprechauns, and Sylvia Brown? Obviously the bible has nothing specific to say about Sylvia Brown, although the fact that she's a Christian seems to be enough to convince people that she falls within the realm of Christian beliefs. The bible does mention dragons, although it's more a subject of translation. That doesn't stop some people from saying that when the bible mentions dragons it is referring to dinosaurs, that St. George's Dragon was a dinosaur, etc.

What about leprechauns, fairies, the loch ness monster, and other myths and fables? Doesn't belief in a supernatural deity automatically license the possibility of other supernatural claims? I don't think that believing in God means that you automatically believe in zombies (except for Jesus and all of those other prophets that rose out of the grave when Jesus did), but believing in one supernatural thing makes it easy to believe in others. In this aspect the specifics do come down to personal belief -- which is backed up, post hoc style, by the established existence of the supernatural. In this way, Christianity does not declare these to be truths, but allows them.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Atheist Day!?

A NoGodBlog post from a couple of days ago (4/13) mentioned that it was Atheist Day! I had no idea there was one (that wasn't a joke). I can't find much information about it, but the post indicates that it is due to it being Madelyn Murray O'Hair's and Thomas Jefferson's birthday. Ok, so that's a neat concept -- Thomas Jefferson is one of my favorite atheists people that don't believe in a personal God. I'll try to remember this one next year.

Some theists call April 1st National Atheist's Day. Get it? It's a pun on April Fool's day and the biblical version "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God." (Psalm 14:1)

There is also the National Day of Reason, the 1st Thurs. in May every year. That is one I will definitely be celebrating this year! It's meant to coincide with the National Day of Prayer. And if any theists get the idea that it's not respectful to land our day right on top of their, just remind them that they landed Easter right on top of Eostre, and Christmas almost right on top of Winter Solstice.

I think having a National Day of Reason is good, but I would like to see a little more connection being made between the day and the atheists behind it. If nobody understands that reason=atheism, then the publicity of having a holiday for us isn't really going to do any good.

Friday, April 13, 2007

A split in the atheist community? A false and harmful concept.

(this began as a comment to a vjack post at Atheist Revolution)

A recent Associated Press article, Atheists Split Over Message, discusses a perceived split in the atheist community. Not in their convictions and rejection of religious belief and dogma, mind you, but merely in how strongly they advocate it. It's unrelated to atheism. It's like saying that there is a split among math students because some of them are more interested in doing problems on the blackboard than others. The so-called split is not actually relevant to math. It is regarding a tangential quality.

This kind of publicity is potentially harmful. Any group that has had as much trouble getting organized as we are having does not needs headlines like Atheists Split being thrown about.

First off, it's a distraction. We're all atheists, and how much we want to promote atheism or how opposed we are to theism doesn't change this. Creating the illusion of some kind of non-religious Great Schism could in fact be harmful for all of us, as it weakens the conviction of our position in the minds of outsiders. "Why should we listen to them, they can't even decide what they think amongst themselves!" In our math class example, the reputation of the class might weaken if rumor of a split among the students hinted at the possibility that not all of the students were interested in math.

Secondly, it suggests a false dichotomy. There are some atheists like Harris and Dawkins that are extremely vocal, passionate and on the offense with wide audiences. Others, like me, are vocal and passionate with more moderate views and in a much smaller forum. Others don't even mention their atheism to their family. Many are in between two of these points. It is unfair to call us split because what we really have is a spectrum. In our imaginary math class, the inclination of each student to go up to the blackboard covers a spectrum of preferences. Some students will always be the first ones up, others will volunteer only if additional students are needed, others try to avoid eye contact with the teacher so as to not be asked.

And finally, it paves the way for easy mischaracterization. I think most atheists would agree that Dawkins and Harris are clearly at one end of the spectrum. But if you characterize a spectrum as a split between two extremes, you are mischaracterizing the vast majority of the points that lie in between. It would be easier for religious leaders, for instance, to turn followers against atheism by citing particularly harsh phrases from Dawkins' and Harris' material. "Atheists are disrespectful. They consider God a 'psychotic delinquent!'" (a description from The God Delusion) Taking one last look at our ficticious math class, imagine the teacher showing off to a colleague: "My students are very willing to participate. They hop right up to do problems on the board!" That characterization is not representative of the entire class.

The article also uses the dread labels fundamentalist and militant. The concepts of "fundamentalist" atheists and "militant" atheists just set us up for a straw man attack. The labels don't make sense, but once applied it's easy for theists to make straw man arguments like, "There are militant atheists. Terrorists are militant. All atheists should be locked up because they are dangerous."

If you ask me, if there's a 'split' among atheists today, it's between those that realize how important our struggle is, and those who don't. Call them "passionate atheists" and "passive atheists." There is no inner conflict, so it's not divisive. It's just that some of them feel a conflict with the theists and some don't.

T-Rex: The King that Ruled the Roost

Tyrannosaurus rex, the tyrant lizard king, was one of the largest known land predators of all time. Yet a recent protein analysis has linked the ferocious Trex to the humble modern day chicken. Talk about a blow to your ego! A 7.5 ton, 43-foot long, 13-inch-tooth-wielding beast one era, a backyard clucker in another.

As far as evidence goes, this give a lot of weight to the theory that some dinosaurs are related to modern day birds. While this sounds like great news for evolutionists, don't be surprised if you hear a few creationists/IDers that think this story supports their point of view.
The new finding will be viewed skeptically, admitted one of the researchers involved in the two studies. “It’s very, very, very controversial because most people have gone on record saying there’s an absolute time limit to anything that’s protein or DNA,” said Mary Schweitzer, a molecular paleontologist at
North Carolina State University.
How long do you think it will take for people to start using this concept to try and lend weight to young earth theory? I can hear it now, "The existence of those proteins proves that the fossils aren't as old as scientists think they are."

Except that making this claim means that they are validating the other science behind the discovery! Such as the antibody and mass spectrometer tests that verified the material was collagen, and the amino acid sequencing tests that verified that the material was not just "another molecule mimicking the protein and giving off a similar signal."

These are similar to the very DNA tests that reveal links between modern day humans and their ape-like evolutionary predecessors. You can't really say the science is meaningful to one case and meaningless to another. Investigation of the DNA record is one of the greatest opportunities we have to work with evolution experimentally.

So if you hear anybody trying to use this line of thought, just ask them if they've realized they are in fact supporting evidence for evolution.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut is gone. So it goes.

Kurt Vonnegut's charmingly dark humor first caught my attention in high school. I devoured the meager selection of his books that the tiny town library offered, and most of them remain in my list of favorites. These works were simultaneously poignant, haunting, funny, sarcastic, witty, visionary, and philosophic. They spoke of true horrors of the past, possible horrors of the future, and imaginary horrors of the present, and presented them all with a mix of humor and portent.

He died earlier today. A man of creative invention and critical thinking, he died of brain injuries. So it goes.

Kurt Vonnegut briefly studied at my own alma mater, the University of Chicago. He spoke on campus once during my own time there, and I was lucky enough to attend. I have a signed copy of his last novel, Timequake. Below his signature he drew a picture of an asshole. He was a pessimist.

He was also an atheist -- arguably one of the more publicly popular atheists of our time. In this aspect, we have indeed lost one of our own. As with many things in his life, he seems to have viewed his humanist beliefs with sarcastic humor:
I spoke at a Humanist Association memorial service for Dr. Asimov a few years back. I said, “Isaac is up in Heaven now.” That was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists. I rolled them in the aisles. . . . When I myself am dead, God forbid, I hope some wag will say about me, “He’s up in Heaven now.”
Vonnegut inserted some of his humanist views into his 1963 novel Cat's Cradle. One character invents a new religion known as Bokononism, which decrees that it is man himself that is sacred. (Too bad the scientologists didn't pick up on that one.) As commentary, his stories are as relevant today as ever. The Ice Nine world-destroying device in Cat's Cradle becomes biochemical weapons, or the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran. The firestorms in Germany become the roadside bombs in Iraq. Michael Crichton said this of Vonnegut in 1969:
A Vonnegut book is not cute or precious. It is literally awful, for Vonnegut is one of the few writers able to lift the lid of the garbage can, and dispassionately examine the contents. . . . The ultimate difficulty with Vonnegut is precisely this: that he refuses to say who is wrong. . . . He ascribes no blame, sets no penalties. His commentary on the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King is the same as his comment on all other deaths: “So it goes,” he says and nothing more.
In Stranger in Strange Land, Heinlein says:

An artist can look at a pretty girl and see the old woman she will become. A better artist can look at an old woman and see the pretty girl that she used to be. But a great artist — a master — and that is what Auguste Rodin was — can look at an old woman, portray her exactly as she is… and force the viewer to see the pretty girl she used to be.
Vonnegut's writings, by this yardstick, were the work of a great artist. He told these stories exactly as they were, clearly and blamelessly. But he was able to force the reader to see the problems, and their causes. He will be missed dearly.

Kurt is up in Heaven now.

"that was from the devil"

Ok, a short post for once. I just wanted to relate a story I found amusing and to present a challenge!

Background: this was the first time all five us (me, wife, sister-in-law, kiddo#1, kiddo#2) had been able to have a meal at the table together in several nights, due to food poisoning and much subsequent nastiness afflicting my wife and both kiddos. The other four sing (or mumble, or coo -- depending on age) a little blessing at the table most nights, that begins and ends with "the Lord's been good to us"
Others: [singing] ... and the Lord's been good to us!
Me: Except for that food poisoning thing.
Sister-in-law: That was from the devil.
Not roll-on-the-floor funny I know, but I have always found the Christian ability to invoke the devil as the antagonist in any situation fairly amusing. I don't know if anybody has named this phenomenon yet, but if not then I propose naming it the Dichotomy of Attribution.

I did not react to this statement at the time, thereby resuming our taboo against discussing religion at the table. (as evidenced by my wife furiously ignoring my comment) Although in other circumstances, this would be my answer:

So, either God was powerless to stop the devil, God is not omniscient and didn't know, or God allowed it through inaction. Which is it?
My challenge to you is to come up to a short response in 25 words or less. (Be civil. No name-calling.) I'm looking forward to hearing other responses!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Positive Atheism and the Humanist Symposium

It's easy to get mired down in the negativity. Many polls show depressingly few atheists in the U.S.. Others show that more than 50% think that churches and religious groups should have more power to influence government policy. Still others show that atheists are the least trusted social group in America. Many people confuse atheism with satanism, terrorism, etc. So many people are afraid to "come out" as an atheist that it's called "the other closet."

In response to these facts it's easy to see why many atheists write hateful, angry comments about Christians and other theists. We are sometimes too quick to call them "stupid," "delusional," and "ignorant." The theists that have picked up on this are starting to call us "fundamentalist" atheists or even "militant" atheists. Many posts on atheist blogs are rants and ridicules. Many of these wind up on blog carnivals like Carnival of the Godless. And for many of us, they make for great reading and we start to feel better about ourselves.

But there is another way to feel better about ourselves. Instead of feeling better by making the theists seem lower, why not feel better by making ourselves seem higher? Instead of denigrate, encourage! There are a lot of positive views out there, but we could always use more.

When I started this blog, I had imagined that most of my posts would be rants. But when I started looking around at other blogs, I found I particularly enjoyed reading the more upbeat -- or at least even-tempered -- posts like those at Daylight Atheism and Friendly Atheist. I also love to read deconversion stories. I find them inspiring, like reading of a great victory despite greater odds. I've tried to inject some more inspiring and encouraging thoughts into my own blog. I don't think I'll ever cut out rants entirely, but I like to think I have a pretty good attitude and I try to avoid name calling.

It has worked great for me. When I started this blog I was deeply depressed. (I had been ever since the Paula Zahn debacle) Soon after starting this, and writing inside the atheist community I hadn't previously known was there, my mood brightened incredibly. So regardless of how others have taken it, this blog has certainly made one person feel a lot better.

Others have noticed this too. Adam from Daylight Atheism is starting a new blog carnival for us happy heathens called The Humanist Symposium.
Rather than general posts on atheism and religion, the purpose of the Humanist Symposium will be specifically to defend and uphold atheism as a positive worldview of morality, reason and purpose, a desirable and attractive alternative to belief systems based on religion.
I think this is a tremendous idea and am looking forward to reading it, writing posts for it, maybe even eventually hosting it. Thank you, Adam, for encouraging the encouragement.

Please spread the word!

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Accepting Atheist Identity and Gaining Strength

The NYTimes website recently ran an inspiring article called Accepting Gay Identity, and Gaining Strength. In it, I found many parallels to the tribulations of being an atheist in the American "Christian Nation." I am certainly not the first to see this connection. Atheism is sometimes described as the other closet. The Brights is a movement whose purpose is to adopt the strategy of the homosexual community to gain a positive presence by appropriation of the word "gay" as a label with positive connotations.

Both groups have readily identifiable issues that, from a legal standpoint alone, has cast these two groups as being "controversial." The primary issues the public has connected to atheists are a collection of first-amendment and church/state separation issues such as prayer in public schools, and removing "in God we trust" on our currency and "under God" in the pledge. The homosexual issues revolve around family, such as gay marriage and adoption and their corresponding rights.

Despite having issues of greater personal severity, the gay community has gained some social acceptance in the last 30 years (although not much legally). In the 1978-2007 period, a series of Gallup polls showed that the percentage of Americans who would vote for a homosexual president rose from 26% to 55%. Atheist statistics remained fairly stagnant over the same period, growing from 40% to only 45%.

The atheist community should take note. We can learn from the gay rights movement -- as Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell realized when they started the brights movement. We can not only learn what to do as a community, but we can learn what the sense of community can mean to the individuals within it, and how it can help them. Atheists that are wanting to come out have a wealth of gay anecdotes that can tell them exactly what to expect. This is where the NYTimes article's parallels are most useful.

The article begins by introducing a younger Zach O'Connor, before he came out. Zach was afraid of discovery. He was in denial. He even asked girls on dates in order to convince others -- and himself -- that he was straight. Sound familiar? Many atheists feel the same way, before coming out. We are afraid of negative reactions from our family and friends. We might have trouble admitting atheism to ourselves long after we stop believing in God/Allah/etc. Some of us even still attend church in order to fit in and appear as theistic as most of our peers. Many of us shy away from the term 'atheist' despite being non-religious. For both groups, these feelings and questions create negative pressures on life. Zach began doing poorly in school, and was quick to lose his temper. He didn't have many friends.

What I found so inspiring about the article was the story of acceptance that followed. Zach finally admitted his homosexuality to himself, and told his parents. The fireworks he expected to follow were non-existent. Nobody else in his family was gay, but they still completely accepted Zach.
"With all our faults," Mr. O'Connor says, "we're in this together."
Zach began meeting with a gay youth group. He was teased and mocked by some school bullies at first, but quickly gained ground socially. His grades improved and he made more friends -- even male friends. One classmate even used Zach as the subject of a class essay on heroes.

Atheists see many of the same social stigmas as homosexuals. The same school bullies that teased and mocked Zach would probably tease and mock an atheist. But Zach's classmate should not be the only one to view Zach as a hero. Atheists should feel the same way. Are you still in the closet, maybe even in denial to yourself? Are you afraid of what might happen if you came out? Zach's story is an inspiration to anybody that is afraid of discrimination.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Atheists Win High-Profile Debate? - Part II

A recent debate, held in the Methodist Central Hall in London, covered the motion "We'd be better off without religion." The arguments were presented by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Professor A. C. Grayling vs. Nigel Spivey, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, and Professor Roger Scruton. It had originally been given positive coverage by the atheist crowd because of a 'winning' vote taken after the debate -- 1,205 for, and 778 against. My opinion on the matter was that the numbers were meaningless without comparitive statistics.

Now, another article covering the debate has been released by the Telegraph, and has offered more insight into these numbers. Specifically, it provides votes from the audience from before the debate. Before: 826 for, 681 against, and 364 don't knows. After: 1,205 for, 778 against, and 103 don't knows. Time to analyze!

The first thing that stood out is that the totals don't match. There were 1,871 votes before the debate, and 2,086 after. This might mean that there were more than 200 walk-ins, leading to a larger audience at the end. Or it might mean that the passionate debate had stirred more of the audience to vote afterware. Or something else entirely, or all of the above. So let's look at these as percentages. Before: 44.1% for, 36.3% against, 19.5% don't know. After: 57.7% for, 37.3% against, and 4.9% don't know.

Both for and against votes gained ground! The theistic point of view by 1%, the atheistic point of view by 13.6%. The "don't knows" dropped by 14.6%. This means that both sides were being very persuasive. The fact that the theistic view netted a gain (ignoring any side-switchers we don't know about) means that this isn't the big atheist victory we were hoping for. Because in my opinion a big victory would be theistic converts.

But since the atheistic point of view gained more ground, I will say that it's a small victory for atheists. Convincing those corresponding to the agnostic viewpoint still means putting more numbers into the atheist crowd.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Einstein & Faith has a new article up that investigates Einstein's position in regards to religious faith. It is an issue that requires investigation, because Einstein frequently used God metaphorically, such as in the famouse phrase, "God does not play dice." Many people take this literally, and will argue with atheists by pointing out that Einstein believed in God.

He didn't -- at least not Abraham's God. He believed in Spinoza's God -- a style of pantheism. Einstein wasn't shy about invoking the word "God" to represent his beliefs, though. It's caused no end of confusion -- to the point where Dawkins has to spend time in The God Delusion to define what he called the Einsteinian God.

The Time article doesn't take the same position that Dawkins does -- at least to my reading. It describes Einstein as angry at being called an atheist.

But throughout his life, Einstein was consistent in rejecting the charge that he was an atheist. "There are people who say there is no God," he told a friend. "But what makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views." And unlike Sigmund Freud or Bertrand Russell or George Bernard Shaw, Einstein never felt the urge to denigrate those who believed in God; instead, he tended to denigrate atheists. "What separates me from most so-called atheists is a feeling of utter humility toward the unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos," he explained.
That is not how I read those quotes at all. Just because he didn't denigrate those who believed in God doesn't mean he didn't have atheist views. It seems to me that Einstein only wanted to distance himself from a certain type of atheist. In the same way that I want to distance myself from certain types of atheists. It's true, some of them are just offensive and I don't like them representing me. I don't like it when atheists try to give religious labels to 'our' things -- like saying that Darwin is our saint, Dawkins and Harris are our prophets, and The Origin of Species is our bible. I hate that. And I just think it sounds like Einstein has the same feelings towards atheists that think they know all of the answers to the universe.

I find the whole article seemed to have been written in a religious slant, as if it were defending Einstein as a religious person. Instead the article mostly just tried to explain what he did believe, as if to emphasize the fact that he believed something. It even omitted (innocently or otherwise) what many atheists consider to be the defining quote about Einstein's religious views:

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.
If the article had mentioned that quote, it would have had a harder time coming to these wishy-washy conclusions on Einstein:

Around the time he turned 50, he began to articulate more clearly--in various essays, interviews and letters--his deepening appreciation of his belief in God, although a rather impersonal version of one.
For some people, miracles serve as evidence of God's existence. For Einstein it was the absence of miracles that reflected divine providence.
It feels like the article is trying to paint Einstein's beliefs as an interpretation of God, not as an atheist that is fascinated by the mysteries of the universe. The author is about to publish a biography of Einstein. I think I'll pass.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The Geek-Atheism Corollary

Is there a relationship between being a geek and being an atheist? An article at Shuzak/ has looked at this. First, I want to appropriate their definition of "geek" which I found good except for one large problem:
They are the people that collect information almost compulsively and nurture deep understandings of very obscure branches of knowledge. .... They find great joy in learning a new thing, to extending our knowledge and sharing knowledge with another that can appreciate it.
Yes, I believe geeks are compulsive information fiends. The joy geeks find in knowledge is undeniable. But it does not necessarily mean they are intelligent. I love crossword puzzles, even though I'm horrible at them. The joy I get from these puzzles doesn't guarantee me the ability to solve them. In the same way, a love to learn does not guarantee the tools to use the gained information intelligently or the have the deep understandings the article refers to.

Unfortunately, I found the rest of the article to be just as hit-and-miss as this definition. The article makes 5 points:

  1. Geeks are different and tend to look beyond mainstream ideas, including religion.
  2. Geeks do not need religion as a social interaction.
  3. Geeks are awed by the complexity of the universe and dismiss the idea of a creator as overly simplistic.
  4. Geeks think logically, which leads to a bias towards logical conclusions instead of faith-based conclusions.
  5. Higher intelligence leads to a desire to disprove ideas they cannot make sense of.
This starts out well but starts to misfire quickly. The first two points I agree with and will not comment on. But I find the last three points full of flawed reasoning, flawed assumptions, and flawed observations.

I should point out that I do agree with the premise that for many people a strong geekiness can lead to atheism. I think this is simply due to the use of the same analytical thinking used to absorb (successfully or otherwise) large amounts of information. That said, I definitely have problems with this articles arguments:

The Complexity of the Universe:
One of the claims from Intelligent Design proponents is that "irreducible complexity" is a sign that a designer was necessary. Typical examples that IDers point to are the mammalian eye and the bacterial flagellum. They are such complex interactions of many elements, say the IDers, that intermediary steps with some of these elements only partially developed are not possible. Therefore a designer must have taken control. ID opponents point out that the mysteries of the eye and flagellum development have already been unwound, and that a series of simple evolutionary steps is easily accountable. Compare this to what the article says:

From the delicate and intricate dance of subatomic particles to the raging of stars thousands of times larger than our earth, the complexity and beauty of the universe awe many of those geeks who have looked deeply into physics. It might make sense to think that many such geeks simply find something as simple as a creator an overly simplistic explanation for something so elegant.
It almost sounds like they're defending Intelligent Design, doesn't it? Scientists aim for the simple, not the complex -- such as the grand unified theory. The beauty of E=mc2 and F=ma are not ones of complexity, but of simplicity. Scientists believe that the simpler the answer, the more likely it is to be correct. Hence the success of evolution! I believe the author of the above statement is confusing complexity with scale. The universe is huge, but scientists believe that it runs on simple laws and interactions with simple particles.

On the other hand, I don't find the idea of a creator to be a simple one. An omnipotent, omniscient, eternal god that was able to create the universe and everything in it in six days must be more complicated than anything he or she has created. Just because theists don't try to explain the existence of their god doesn't mean that their creator is simple.

Logical Conclusions and Bias:
While it is true, as the article states, that scientists and geeks rely (or, at least, tend to rely) on logic rather than faith, I have trouble with its conclusion. Here is what the article says:

Because they are intelligent, they believe that their approach to problems is right. Religion has no place in science. Most of what we know is gathered from reading, watching and hearing various mediums. Since we choose what to read, watch, or hear, all three of these faculties are fundamentally biased. Since geeks have a strong bias towards logic, the end result is a disbelief in a higher power, which relies on faith.
I don't think atheism has anything to do with being biased. The author's argument is that logic leads to bias against illogical thought, which leads to atheism. I do think logic and critical thinking can lead to atheism, by not by way of a bias. The critical thinking leads directly to the conclusion that there is not enough evidence to support a god. This is almost like saying that a mathematician produces correct answers because he is biased against answers that are not produced by a problem's solution. It's not a bias, it's a conclusion.

Contentious Intelligence:
This argument claimed that being more intelligent leads to a greater desire to argue with those around you. There are two goals when arguing a topic. One is to prove the other person wrong, the other is to play devil's advocate in order to more fully investigate an idea. Coming from a college where I got to hear a lot of brilliant people debate, I can say from experience that intelligence does in fact lead to argument, usually of the second variety. But this article seems to adhere to the first variety: proving others wrong. From this article, it sounds like the act of proving someone wrong is akin to feeding your intelligence, which leads to geeks debating theists about their established beliefs. I have two problems with this.

The quickest and most reliable way to be rewarded for intelligence is to prove someone else wrong (critical thinking). Such a strategy gives you an immediate result and also establishes a sense of superior intelligence. Being constructive is much less rewarding. .... This leads many intelligent people to spend time attempting to disprove many established ideas that do not make sense to them.
The idea that critical thinking is only more satisfying when used to disprove other ideas rather than constructively build new ones is a nothing more than schadenfreudian snobbery. There are the occasional scientific revolution now and then, but most of the time scientists are happy expounding on others ideas, not destroying them. Isaac Newton famously said, "If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."

But the more problematic claim is that it is an atheist's goal is to disprove established ideas. The purpose of an atheist's logic is not to disprove a higher power -- it's to reveal that there isn't any evidence supporting a higher power. You can't prove the nonexistance of anything. As Dawkins says, you can't prove beyond a doubt that there aren't fairies in the bottom of the garden. I can't prove beyond a doubt that a 6,000 year old invisible dragon isn't sitting right next to me. Bertrand Russell's famous case for this was that you can't prove without a doubt that a teapot isn't orbiting Mars right now. There is no proof supporting it, but you can't disprove it either. (The authors' article does mention this later in the argument -- but why didn't they realize the fault in this claim I don't know.)

This is the position atheists must take with theists. Fantastic claims require fantastic evidence, and we all need to remember that atheism is the default, neutral position. The belief in a higher power is the fantastic claim, and that is what requires fantastic evidence. It is not on our shoulders to disprove anything, but it is on theirs to prove it.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Misleading Polls: Nearly half of all atheists believe in God!

I've recently looked at my views on what atheists are and what we aren't. I was specifically speaking about three labels: Religion, Belief, and Fundamentalism. (atheist "fundamentalism," by the way, is a concept that is stirring some internal debate recently) I concluded that "fundamentalism" could not be applied to atheism because it implied a spectrum of adherence to our defining principle: that we do not believe in God.

According to Newsweek, nearly half (or more) of atheists and agnostics do believe there is a spectrum. (Or maybe -- just maybe -- it's a shoddy poll that we take with a grain of salt.)

Question #12 in the poll asks what people belief when it comes to human creation/evolution. Here are the responses given by those that defined themselves as agnostic or atheist:

God had no part in the evolution of humans from lower life forms: 45%
God guided the process of evolution of humans from lower life forms: 27%
God created humans pretty much in the present form sometime in the last 10,000 years: 13%
Other/Don't know: 15%

Well, this is a little surprising. According to this poll, 40% of all agnostics and atheists believe that God created humans in one way or another. Would you be surprised if you found out that 40% of all members of the Democratic Party were Republicans? Me too. Would you be surprised in you found out that 40% of the population of Maine lived outside of Maine? Sure. Would you be surprised if 40% of photographers had never used a camera before? Yup. I think if the pollers had actually looked at this information, they would have begun to question the accuracy of their poll.

But the problems don't stop there. Can you see the problem with the phrasing of the question? I paraphrased it above, but here is the exact 'atheist answer':

Humans developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process.
The question doesn't even allow for the possible non-existance of God. It states that there is a God, but he just didn't happen to guide evolution. I suppose that makes this the 'deist answer.' Atheism simply isn't represented here. Does this remind anyone else of the Paula Zahn lets-talk-about-atheists-while-they're-not-here-to-defend-themselves episode? How are we supposed to answer that in a way that doesn't make it sound like we just don't know?

This is like presenting followers of Judaism with the question, "Which represents your point of view: when Jesus the son of God was resurrected and joined his Father in heaved he was: a) dead for exactly three days, and was lifted upwards through the clouds; b) dead for exactly three days, and disappeared in a flash of light; c) dead for an unknown period of time, and either flew upwards or disappeared wholly; or d) other/don't know." It's a loaded question. None of the answers match our point of view.

Fortunately there are plenty of other polls to look at. ARIS data from 2001 (with a data set 50 times larger than the Newsweek poll, I might add) used the term "no religion" to group atheists, agnostics, humanists, secularists, and "no religion" respondants. This group came in with an impressive 14.1%! Even better, it nearly doubled from 8.2% in 1990 -- just 11 years!

ARIS also showed that some US states had as many as 25% of its population declare "no religion." Washington state was in the lead with the 25% number -- imagine living in a state with 1 out of every 4 people an atheist! USA Today has an interactive flash map of this data that shows the religious breakdown state-by-state. I never would have realized that "no religion" (me) outnumbered Baptist (my wife) in Kansas! In fact, in many states, "no religion" comes in second.

Another interesting tidbit in the ARIS data shows some validation to my observation that more people are switching to atheism that away from it. In the 2001 data, it shows that "no religion" had the highest of 22 groups of people that Switched In (in sheer number), and was the third highest in net gain (percentage). In sheer numbers, it's gaining members about six times as fast as it's losing them. (p. 25 in the PDF, p. 24 in the report)

The Pew Research Center, in a recent study, showed 12% of Americans as secular (which they define as atheist, agnostic, or no religion). This is up 4% in just the last 20 years. The same poll also shows slight downward trends over the last five years to the statement "I never doubt the existence of God."

Religious Tolerance summarizes the results of a USA Today/Gallup poll in Jan. 2002:

Almost half of American adults appear to be alienated from organized religion. If current trends continue, most adults will not call themselves religious within a few years.
I think we can safely and happily ignore the Newsweek poll.