Saturday, December 24, 2011

It's a Wonderful Life

Over the next day or so, many people will be watching the classic Christmas film It's a Wonderful Life.  From the wiki: "Released in 1946, the film stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a man whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve brings about the intervention of his guardian angel,Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers). Clarence shows George all the lives he has touched and the contributions he has made to his community."  I think it's important to remember just how much we touch the lives of others, that's true.  But as an atheist, I am often asked "if you don't think there's a divine purpose to your life, why don't you just kill yourself?"  The question is rather silly, and I'd like to take a little time to point out why.  Because it is a wonderful life.

To begin with, life itself, the living things that fill our planet so abundantly, is wonderful.  A recent video from the BBC brings several things together to show this: David Attenborough, some of the great footage from the BBC's nature documentaries, and a jazz classic.

We live in a world full of wonders, and far too many people miss out on just how amazing the presence of the 10 million or so species of life on Earth really is.  In terms of geological time, life appears to be ridiculously easy to make; after the Earth cooled and the Late Heavy Bombardment ended (it wouldn't be fair to count before that), and it was possible for living things to survive, life arose almost an eyeblink later.  Earth stopped being slammed by objects that would have sterilized the surface about 3.9 billion years ago, and the earliest fossils we have of microbe-like objects are 3.5 billion years old.  It took less than half a billion years, probably significantly less, for life to arise once conditions were right.  In fact, life may have arisen before the Late Heavy Bombardment; some scientists theorize that life may have survived deep in the oceans next to volcanic vents, or possibly arisen multiple times and just been wiped out over and over until things calmed down.  Regardless, from the simple replicators that existed on the early Earth, diversification and natural selection immediately began to fill the niches in which life could exist.  Nearly four billion years later, after the loss of 99% of the species that have ever lived, we come to the beautiful world we have today.  Through the transition to an oxygenated atmosphere, ice ages, global warming events, meteorite impacts, and countless other trials, life has persisted.  To believe that life as we know it today was simply "poofed" into existence is to miss out on a beautiful, sweeping story, one which I think Richard Dawkins rightly called The Greatest Show on Earth.

And then, there is our species.  We humans have survived many of the same trials that all life has had to face, and our intelligence and ingenuity have seen us through.  Its likely we've suffered two major population bottlenecks, in which the population could have been reduced to about 50,000 people, or 15,000 people, or even as low as 2,000.  What caused these catastrophes is not entirely known; it could have been a global warming event, or whatever happened to the environment after the eruption of a supervolcano.  But we lived, we moved to warmer or cooler latitudes as needed, we left our ancient home on the African savannah and spread across the globe.  People who were functionally identical to you and me survived an ice age; our species overcame numerous other competing species, such as the Neanderthals, to become the only surviving hominids.  And look at the things we've managed to accomplish.  From a genetic standpoint, we are little more than singing, dancing, mostly hairless apes.  And yet, we've peered back to a moment in time a few million years after the Big Bang.  We've discovered the basic particles and forces that make up everything we see, and figured out that most of the universe, about 99% of the universe, is made of stuff we can't see.  We've gone from rubbing two sticks together to smashing protons into each other at close to the speed of light.  We have flung ourselves and our machines into interplanetary space, sent our robot emissaries to dozens of worlds, and created two spacecraft that are on their way to the stars.  Just this past week, we've found evidence of worlds that may be much like our own, although they're too hot for life, orbiting a star 950 light years away.  The things we've accomplished are truly extraordinary, and they seem to just keep getting better.

Of course, the discoveries we've made about life on Earth tell us that we're newcomers on the scene, that we are merely one species of the 10 million or so on the planet, and that those 10 million are a mere 1% of the species that have ever lived.  Our discoveries about the universe have shown us that not only is our species not the center of everything on Earth, but Earth isn't the center of the Solar System.  Our sun is just another star among 400 billion in our galaxy, tucked away in the boondocks of one of the spiral arms, nowhere near the center of the galaxy.  Our galaxy is one of 100 billion galaxies, and it isn't exceptional in its placement in the universe, or in size, or in shape, or anything.  And all of those galaxies, everything in the universe that we can see, despite its immensity, constitutes about a 1% bit of "pollution" in a universe that is about 30% dark matter and 70% dark energy.  Wipe out not just us, but everything we can see in the universe, and the universe would remain virtually unchanged.  This is not a universe made for us; this is not a universe that cares about us.  This is a universe that wouldn't even notice if our entire species were gone, much less any one member of it.  With that in mind, is there no point to living?  Are the critics of atheism right?

No.  They are not.

Just because we are tiny, that doesn't mean we aren't special.  Just because we are not important to the cosmos, that doesn't mean we aren't important to each other.  Without a "grand plan" into which we fit, we are not without purpose; we simply have only the meaning and purpose that we put into our lives.  We are free to pursue our own goals, to do what we find valuable.  Our species is young, but we show great promise.  If we do not destroy ourselves, we will inevitably venture to the stars, and in so doing avoid the destruction of our planet (which is certain no matter what we do, given enough time; we need to preserve our environment as long as we can, but the sun will destroy us one day).  The universe can probably support life for another 30 billion years; we can do a lot of good in that amount of time.  And if the cosmos doesn't care, so what?  We care.  We are not simply "in" the cosmos, we are part of the cosmos.  We are the universe, and we are a self-aware, intelligent, thinking, feeling part of it.  

During the holidays, we often feel somehow more connected to other people, more aware of the wants and needs of others, their joys and pains.  We do touch each others' lives in very deep, meaningful ways.  We are a species that cares not just about ourselves, and not just about our close relatives, but about the whole species.  We're the first to recognize that we are a species.  We also care about other species, and about our planet, and indeed about the universe.  Very importantly, we are more than our biology; with our ability to change ourselves, to be conscious and aware and intelligent, we have built a society unlike anything else on our planet.  Not only do we have a society, we're getting better at having a society; no matter what anyone might tell you, the truth is that violence has declined, and our empathy, our reason, the "better angels of our nature" are winning out.  But it only works if we keep trying, if we continue to fight for a better world, a decent world, a world where all people can live in freedom and harmony.  In Luke 17:21, it is said "behold, the kingdom of god is within you."  We have the power to bring about great goodness for each other, for everyone; that potential is within us all.  That is what I have to live for, that is why I care, that is why I don't simply give up and die or submit.  And so, with the love of humanity in my thoughts today, I wish you a Merry Christmas and a joyous holiday season.  

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Unbelieving Theist

A little while back, I was having a discussion with a friend of mine who I would consider a "sophisticated believer".  This separates him quite widely from the kinds of people I often have to deal with when talking about religion with Christians; he has moved beyond this kind of thing:
I know I will be laughed at, and I don't care. I have spoken to god on many occasions, during Y2K, during the bombings in London (close to my hometown) and also during Harold Camping's predictions (Which are not far off by the way. Wait another 2 years, he was close but not right on the nose.)
You people make me sick. Do you believe in science because it frees you from the responsibility of loving a higher power? I don't understand, all you do is look for the flaws in everything. God has no flaws, everything that you find that is wrong is merely a manifestation of your own fears in God's existence.
I don't agree with people wanting to hurt or kill you, God will do that himself when it is your time as he will to everyone else. There is nothing saying that science is right and there is nothing saying that the universe wasn't created by god. Evolution is the biggest lie that there is to date, how do you know that some scientists aren't just covering up evidence of god? You don't. You are a hive-mind of lonely individuals that have to resort to destroying the beliefs of others in order to feel happy and feel loved by everyone else that is lonely and destroyers of belief.
For all of the posts on this site about mothers who stand up for their athiest daughters or sons... shame on you! You need to grow up and see that love comes from God as did everything else.
R/Atheism - You are an abomination to society and all that this great, God created world has to offer. Please get rid of this sub-reddit. Thank you.
And so his comments, unlike those of many others, often stick with me.  One in particular has been  floating around in my mind, and it took me a while to understand why.  The reason this comment troubled me is because I think it reveals much about the way the sophisticated believer thinks.  Here's what he said:
[T]he reality is that you are just as religious as I am. Your god is knowledge and you put your faith in the reason of man. Your hope is that man can deliver himself from his own evil, rise above his own failures on his own strength.
Now, part of what this entails is a difference of opinion on what religion is.  I don't agree with the statement; I don't think that I am a religious person, because the word has too much baggage to accurately reflect my beliefs.  Religion involves a unique armoring against criticism that only a supernatural authority can provide.  But from certain sociological perspectives, even if I don't ascribe to them, one could consider me religious; of course, from those same perspectives, many sports fans are religious with regards to their favorite teams, and so are the people of North Korea with regards to their Dear Leader.

But as I considered the comment, I began to think about how my beliefs and his were similar.  And that led to a realization that I'd like to focus on here.  The sophisticated Christian, and the sophisticated theist in general, is just as much of an atheist as I am.  There are several dimensions to this that I'd like to explore.  I'll also point out that, again, this doesn't apply to the vast majority of believers.  They would never make such a comment, thinking that I am as religious as they are, unless they were trying to insult me with accusations of scientism or "worship" of prominent atheists.  This comment shows that the sophisticated believer has thought about what religion means, and that is a very key point.

The simplest and most obvious way in which the sophisticated theist is very much an atheist has a classic formulation.  It comes from Stephen Roberts:
I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.
This is, of course, true of all believers, or at least almost all.  A Christian in theory believes in the same god as a Jew or a Muslim, as they believe in his god, but none of the three follow the same religion; there are quite a few doctrines that separate them.  And none of them believe in the same god as followers of the Bahá'í faith, or the gods of the Hindu pantheon.  They certainly don't believe in Thor or Odin, in Zeus or Athena, in Ra or Isis, or in Xenu or Cthulhu.  The sophisticated believer takes this a step further, because presumably he has at least been exposed to the study of comparative religion.  He not only doesn't believe in these gods, he knows why he doesn't believe in them; he sees the flaws in the religions, he knows that Jainism, for example, hasn't really existed forever but rather has a distinct history, he can see how all of these other gods were created by men and not the other way around.  This of course paves the way to applying the same analysis to his own faith, whether he follows that path or not.

Still, there is a deeper dimension to the sophisticated believer's unbelief.  Very few people who I would consider to be sophisticated, well-educated persons are fundamentalists.  They don't take their holy books literally; they tend to be moderates, and thus end up as "metaphorizers".  This in itself doesn't show their lack of belief.  No, that comes in the very selective decisions of what commands to follow in the holy books.  Again, let us take the Christian example; its what I'm most familiar with.  Many Christians already discard the majority of the divine commands in the Old Testament, although they keep those that suit them, most typically the Ten Commandments.  I don't think there are many people who think that Deuteronomy 25:11-12 is particularly important, for example:
11 If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, 12 you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.
But the sophisticated theist, and indeed most believers, also refuse to follow some important commands given by Jesus.   A key point of Jesus' teachings appears in Matthew 6:34 - "Take no thought for the morrow."  Don't make plans, don't make investments, don't worry about anything else, just follow me right now.  Obviously, this is not a path taken by most believers  In Matthew 19:21-24, and again in Luke 14:33, Jesus makes it clear that one must sell all of his possessions in order to truly be a follower of Christ.  Yet the vast majority of believers, and certainly the sophisticated ones, do not do this.  More interesting still, if we look back to Luke 14:26-33, Jesus commands that his followers hate their family, their friends, and their own life.  The only thing that matters is following him; the only way to do so is to abandon and hate everything else.  The same sentiment appears in Matthew 19:28-29.  Yet most of the Christians I know, and certainly the ones who are thoughtful and intelligent, do care about their families and their own lives.  A more gruesome command comes in Matthew 5:27-30; Jesus commands self-mutilation.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Not only can people be condemned for thoughtcrime, but it is preferable to go without a hand, if that hand led you to sin, than to be stuck with a body part that will condemn you to hell.  As I'm sure many Christians have used various body parts to commit sins, and I don't see them walking around with significant amputations, this command is not really being followed consistently.

So why do sophisticated believers, and indeed most believers in this case, not follow the clear commands of Jesus?  Because those commands are insane, and a rational person would not follow them.  The sophisticated Christian will no doubt have numerous rationalizations for why they don't follow these commands, but note the word "rationalization".  I'm sure that most of them think that Jesus meant something other than what he actually said, but does that make sense when he was speaking to simple, illiterate peasants?  Why wouldn't he be more clear, if nothing else to prevent his followers from being composed solely of destitute, hate-filled cripples?  The point here is that intelligent, thinking people don't follow these commands, which are undoubtedly part of the doctrine of the religion, being found in the holy book and being the commands of Jesus.  1 John 2:3-4 makes it clear that following the commands of Jesus is of critical importance, and yet sophisticated Christians simply don't do these things.

There is, however, a deeper level still on which the sophisticated believer is very much an atheist.  It is revealed in the statement itself, that I, an atheist, am religious.  And it is this particular view of what it means to be religious that separates the sophisticated theist from the rest of the group.  In studying his religion, the educated believer has come to see his faith as something other than merely belief in the words in the books, more than the pronouncements of the holy men.  He sees religion as a practice, not a belief.  If I, as an atheist, can have a religion that rejects the idea of god, rejects the idea of the supernatural, rejects anything that does not spring from the natural world, then religion isn't about god.

I suspect that very few sophisticated believers actually think about this; its a transformation in their thought processes that occurs stealthily, unconsciously.  They still may think that god exists, but their religion isn't about that any more.  Like most things, I think this is the product of education.  Any credulous fool can engage in the practice of theology, but to study it, to have anyone else in the academic community give any credence to the letters behind his name, the advanced theologian must be trained in the methods of reason, of critical thinking.  This is the basis behind apologetics; while nothing new has come out of the field in a long time, it stems from a desire to reconcile the claims made in the holy books, supposedly the word of god, with the inescapable results of actually thinking about those claims in a rational manner.  What the sophisticated believer is left with, once the thinking has been done, are two simple things on which he bases his religion: faith and practice.  And he knows, because he understands how reality works, that his faith consists of no better justification than "I just believe it".  It is fragile, and cannot support much weight, although it may be similar to a pillow in that however hard you punch it, it just goes back to its original shape.  So his religion must stand upon the practice, and does not in any way require the blessing, or even the existence of a god.  This allows him, in all seriousness, to consider the pursuit of knowledge, skeptical inquiry of the universe, rejection of anything supernatural, and a belief merely that the universe acts in a consistent manner, to be just as much of a religion as his own.  He simply fails to look at the other side of that coin: that his beliefs are just as much atheism as mine.

This, by the way supports Dan Dennett's proposition that comparative religion be added to the required curriculum in all schools.  The more people know about religion, the less likely they are to be taken in by the stories and actually follow a religion.  It is an odd thing, but I think that the institutions of higher learning that offer advanced degrees in theology may be some of the greatest allies of atheism.  The graduates of such programs seem to be either atheists themselves, or else so close to atheists as to hardly make a difference.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Atheism DOES Matter

A recent article in the Washington Post from Jacques Berlinerblau proposes to tell the atheist community "How to make atheism matter".  Its pretty clear that Berlinerblau is part of a cadre of "academic atheists" who consider themselves the sole inheritors of a great tradition, and if only everyone would listen to the deep thoughts that they intone, everything would be wonderful.  However, each word he puts down speaks to his vast ignorance of the world at large, and a complete misunderstanding of the fact that atheism already does matter.  It is not, despite his labelling of R. Joseph Hoffmann's whinings as "important", a little idea; it is the god hypothesis that we are fighting against which is small.

First among the problems in this article is Berlinerblau's insistence that scholarly journals are where it's at for atheism.
As head atheist in charge I would first get my priorities straight: The intellectual crisis of atheism is actually far less severe than the political crisis. Pop atheists have certainly made atheism a small idea. Hoffmann himself emerges from the erudite and thoughtful Secular Humanist circle. Alongside that school there exists some truly excellent scholarly research about nonbelief.
In scholarly journals--where far too many religion reporters fear to tread--a completely different understanding of atheism is emerging. Those like Hoffmann who think seriously about their subject matter are routinely debunking popular misconceptions about atheism. Once the media turns its attention to this scholarship, produced by both believers and nonbelievers, atheism becomes a big idea again.
Yes, Jacques, we get it; you've got a serious bromance with Hoffmann.  But you can talk all you want about how everyone keeps ignoring you, when you have deep things to say about the nature of atheism, the questions of how the term can be defined, the impermanence of the self-identification of atheists, etc.  You still miss the biggest, most important point, the one which we here in the trenches have to deal with every day:  There are a bunch of people who still believe in god!  They don't have good reasons for doing so, and they don't care that all they have to go on is faith.

He then goes on to tell atheists what we "really" want, because obviously he knows this better than we do:
My guess, however, is that the majority of American nonbelievers are not bent on abolishing religion. Their (legitimate) gripe is only with the most power-mad and theocratically inclined forms of religion.
Actually, Jacques, if you'd take the time to talk to the majority of non-believers in the country, or even just spend some time hanging out around Reddit and seeing what atheists are talking about, you'd see that we do indeed have serious concerns about theocratic regimes.  But we also see what you miss, namely that the problem is rooted in that god belief they all have.  The focus must be on establishing rational thought, encouraging people not to simply take things on faith and defer to authority, because that is the only way to permanently deal with the problem.  If we put down today's theocrats but leave the religious foundations upon which they draw in place, we will only see new theocrats spring up tomorrow like mushrooms after a rain.

Berlinerblau proceeds to point out that we should be pushing for freedom from religion, and that it is not exclusive with freedom of religion.  This is the only point on which I agree with him, and yet even here he jabs at straw men:
A clever atheist leadership would spend its resources not on billboard advertisements devoted to making the point that your God is a doofus, but to demonstrating that these two freedoms can exist in symbiosis. The key word is freedom. Southern Baptists, after all, want no more to live under a Catholic establishment than Catholics wish to live under a Southern Baptist one.
Is he even aware of the actual billboards that are being put up?  Because that's exactly the point that is typically being made with statements like "Don't believe in god?  Neither do we."  And maybe he's not familiar with one of the leading atheist organizations out there, the Freedom From Religion Foundation.  It wouldn't surprise me if he hadn't heard of them; clearly, he doesn't exactly have his finger on the pulse of the atheist movement.

He then suggests we "widen the tent", accepting more people into the movement.  Let's take a look at what he proposes.
Why must the admission price to American atheism be total nonbelief in God and hatred of all religion? Can’t the movement, at the very least, split the difference?
Why can’t those who have doubts about God but remain affiliated in some way with a religion be included in the big tent? Conversely, why can’t those who have no religion (see below) but some type of spiritual or faith commitment enter the Movement as well? Why can’t skeptics and agnostics join the club? What about heretics and apostates?
Two things come out of this statement, Jacques.  First, you're not familiar with the fact that atheism and agnosticism often go together, and are addressing two different things entirely.  Atheism is a statement about belief, while agnosticism is a statement about knowledge.  I, and many of my fellow atheists, are agnostic atheists.  We don't know with certainty that there is no god, but we lack a belief that the claim "god exists" is true.  Again, something I'd expect an "academic" to be aware of, and evidence that you have no idea what's going on in the atheist community.  We also have a number of skeptics among our ranks; this is because skepticism is also talking about something completely different.  Skeptical inquiry is a way of looking at the world that requires evidence to support a proposition before a truth claim is believed.  Many atheists come to their lack of belief because they are skeptics!  I'm among them; I simply applied skeptical inquiry to the question of god.

Secondly, you're asking a truly ridiculous question here.  Let me summarize what you just said: "Why can't you atheists accept into the atheist community people who still believe in god?"  Because, Jacques, they aren't atheists!  We're perfectly willing to talk to them, in fact we welcome it, but if you still believe in god, you aren't an atheist.  Its kind of in the definition of the word.  Now, we don't all hate religion; that isn't required, simply common.  And we don't all reject the supernatural entirely, although again, its incredibly common, as its a way that people often come to be atheists.  We aren't excluding most of the people you think we're excluding; the demographics just work out that the majority of us agree with each other.  If you'd talk to people, you'd know all of this. For all your talk about debunking stereotypes, you seem to cling to yours quite firmly.

His next point, about knowing how many atheists there actually are, is in part a valid one.  But it ignores the highly important issue of social stigma.  Many people won't "come out" as atheists, even in an anonymous survey.  Its very hard to know exactly how many people are truly atheists.  The "nones" are indeed a growing group, and we do indeed have to acknowledge that the group is more diverse than people who self-identify as atheists.  But Berlinerblau doesn't propose a solution to this issue, so I will: put "atheist" on the surveys.  We're going off the only numbers we have; if those numbers aren't accurate, it isn't really something we can control, because we don't make the surveys!

Finally, we get to what we all probably suspected was coming: the accomodationist bullshit.
And while we are at it, why can’t atheists make common cause with religious moderates? In its first decade of operations new atheism has virtually assured its political irrelevance by acerbically shunning the very religious folks (think mainline Protestants, liberal Catholics, Reform Jews, etc) who are waging their own pitched battles with fundamentalists. “Even mild and moderate religion,” averred Richard Dawkins in the The God Delusion , “helps to provide the climate of faith in which extremism naturally flourishes.”
Evangelicals, it bears noting, achieved many of their greatest political triumphs by entering into what Francis Schaeffer called “co-belligerency” with Roman Catholics and Mormons on issues like abortion, gay marriage, religion in public schools, etc. In other words, leadership put aside seething theological animosities in order to achieve pragmatic political goals.
In so doing, the Christian right successfully managed to curtail both freedom from religion and freedom of religion for countless Americans. The time has come for a strategic atheist defense of both these virtues.
So what you're saying, Jacques, is that we should make a "deal with the devil" because it would be politically expedient.  Yeah, that would be a great idea for a movement that prides itself on honesty and neutral evaluation of the evidence.  And the suggestion completely ignores the fact that the moderates have already for the most part made their alliances.  They may not agree with the fundamentalists on a lot of things, but hey, they can all get together on hating atheists!  Look, there's a pretty good reason we can't ally with the religious moderates; they all believe in god.  They're waffling metaphorizers who cling to faith even when the evidence is against them, and struggle mightily to ensure that no matter what happens, their holy books will always be right.

And they refuse to speak out against the crazies.  I have seen none of these "pitched battles" you mention between fundamentalists and moderates; the only people who get any press when they fight for separation of church and state, or argue against theocracy, or call out a fundamentalist church for their insanity, or insist that the Catholic church do something about their rampant corruption, are atheists.  I'd happily accept a moderate Christian standing by my side denouncing the people trying to get creationism into a school science classroom, but they're never there.  They don't want to be mean to their "fellow Christians", and they certainly don't want to be associated with us "godless heathens".  So they give their tacit support to the crazies by not speaking up, and by continuing to promote the very same holy books from which the wackos draw their ideas.  Dawkins, in the quote you provided, was 100% correct.

Lets face facts; Berlinerblau is writing an article about the atheism movement.  He's ridiculously wrong on almost all points, but he is writing it.  The "nones" are the fastest growing group on the religious surveys, and some of that growth comes from atheists.  The r/atheism subreddit has passed 300,000 members, freethought conventions are growing in popularity and attendance numbers, and most importantly, people are talking about the growing atheist movement, even if only to criticize it as Jacques has done here.  Atheism already does matter.  Berlinerblau is just disappointed that he doesn't.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Why I Am An Atheist, or OMG, PZ Myers Knows My Name!

For those of you who might not be aware, PZ Myers has been running a feature on his Pharyngula blog on "Why I Am An Atheist", made up of user submissions on the topic.  Well, I sent him an e-mail a while back with my own reasoning, and it was posted today!  I've already seen how powerful the Internet can be based on this; someone I knew in college sent me a message on Facebook asking if that was indeed me.  He noted that he had considered submitting a response of his own, but had decided not to simply because PZ has received hundreds of entries for the feature.  I had no idea this person was an atheist; having gone to a Lutheran college, I suspected that atheists were rather rare.

If you aren't yet following Pharyngula, I highly recommend it.  PZ is an amazing writer, and his talks are also quite good.  I'll admit that the first time I heard him, his voice wasn't nearly as gruff as I'd expected, but on further reflection, it just adds to the impact that such a nice guy can be so open and direct in his opposition to religion.  With any luck, I'll get a bit of the "Pharyngula effect", and have a traffic bump to In Awe of Everything. :)  Here's a copy of what I wrote, but go ahead and give PZ the traffic by going there to check out the comments.

Interestingly, one of my friends just pointed me to a question from a pastor he knows, who was asking “why are you not a Christian?” I wrote this up, and felt it would be good to send along.
If you’d like to know why I’m an atheist, its because I am also a skeptic. Atheism is in a way an application of skepticism; I only believe that which has convincing evidence, and there is no convincing evidence for the existence of a divine being. The god proposed by every major religion is a supernatural god; even religions like Buddhism that do not promote a god do promote the supernatural in various ways. But through science, the study of the world around us, the observation of reality, we see absolutely no evidence of the supernatural. Everything fits, everything follows the rules. There is no E that does not equal mc^2, no F that does not have an equivalent MA. The universe appears exactly as it should if the only forces at work were those of the elementary particles of matter responding to the laws of nature. Its possible that there is a god of some kind, but its highly unlikely, and there is no evidence that any god affects reality in any way.
Why I am not a Christian is a little more specific. I was raised as a Christian, going to church every Sunday at the United Church of Christ. But as I grew older, and learned more about the religion I was following, it simply stopped making sense. Every time the Bible, and therefore god, made verifiable statements about the nature of reality, and even most of the time when it made statements of historical fact, it got it wrong. And very importantly, the god being described didn’t actually seem very loving. He demands worship and obedience, he demands that we bow before him, and tells us that we’re sinful creatures that must beg his forgiveness for not being perfect, despite the fact that supposedly he created us. As Richard Dawkins put it in The God Delusion, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” He set the default state for the afterlife as eternal torture; how could a god who willingly sent most of his supposedly beloved children to hell be good? If there is a god, and an afterlife, and that god sits in judgement, then here is how I see it. If god is just and kind, then he will judge me on my works, not whether I believed in him. If god judges me on whether I believed in him without any evidence, then he is not just and kind, and thus isn’t worthy of worship anyway.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Out Challenge for Theists

I posted a version of this challenge earlier on r/atheism, and I decided I wanted to get it out to non-Redditors.  This post is not addressed primarily to atheists, but I know that I may have several readers who believe in god. This idea has been floating around a bit, and I decided to formalize it a little.  Its inspired at least in part by things like the We Are Atheism project and The Out Campaign.

For those of you who are theists, I think that many of you don't really realize what things are like for an atheist.  Atheists are one of the most hated groups in America, and public distrust has been confirmed yet again in the 2011 Values Survey.  The headlines are focusing on things like Mitt Romney's Mormonism and the overall support for a redistribution of wealth, but of interest to me is that 67% of voters would be "uncomfortable or very uncomfortable" with an atheist President.  Being openly an atheist can threaten one's relationships with family and friends (as I've learned, although I've largely been lucky), one's livelihood, one's personal property, and in some cases one's physical safety or even life.  And that's just in the United States.  Even if you visit r/AtheismComingOut, the stories might not really hit home.  So I'd like to propose a challenge.

Come out as an atheist, and pretend to be one for a month.  Simply be an atheist as your public persona.

Now, I'm not asking you to pretend to be a raging, full-on Hitchens-style anti-theist.  I'm not asking you to be "that guy", the one who angrily comments on all of his friends' posts containing the slightest reference to god.  Indeed, that would probably be a bad idea, as it would too easily lend itself to caricature.  Just be openly, unapologetically atheist.  Post the occasional link from an atheist blog or website on your Facebook/G+ feed; don't go to church; tell your friends and family, but don't make a big deal about it.

Feel free to do some research first.  The r/atheism community on Reddit is rapidly approaching 250,000 members, and can serve as a great resource.  I'm proudly a member of that subreddit.  There are a lot of us there who've helped others with coming out, so we know how to do so gently but firmly.  We can help you with a reading list, great videos to watch, useful links, quotes that we like, and generally help you get and stay "in character".  There are thousands of us there, so its not like there's a lack of information.

While you're going through the challenge, tell me about it, or post it to r/atheism.  Let the atheist community know what kind of reaction you receive, how others treat you and if it changes, what consequences (good or bad) result from being an atheist.  I think that both you, and we, may end up surprised at what happens.  You could even turn it into a book deal, a la The Year of Living Biblically, or just become "Internet famous" like the atheist couple that became Mormons as an experiment.

At the end of the month, simply "find your way back to god".  I'm not asking you to make a permanent life change, not unless you really want to.  The point of the challenge isn't to make you question your faith.  If it does end up that way, I wouldn't complain, but that isn't the goal.  As a note, this challenge is not being extended to anyone who is still young and dependent on their family for support.  I wouldn't counsel actual deconverted theists to come out in that situation; I'm certainly not going to recommend it for an experiment.

I'll be honest, I don't expect anyone to take me up on this challenge.  Heck, most atheists wouldn't want to go through it again, and wouldn't wish it on anyone else.  But I think we really need perspective, on both sides.  And as a skeptic, I'm always looking for more data.  The challenge is open.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The White House Responds to Secularists...With Bullshit

I'm normally a quiet person.  I'm not moved to profanity easily.  I am largely in support of, though somewhat disappointed in, our current US administration.  But I just got an e-mail from the White House, as did many other people in a community I share.  And this makes the situation not a usual one.  This comes from Joshua DuBois, Executive Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships:
The separation of church and state outlined in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution is an important founding principle of our nation. Our nation's Bill of Rights guarantees not only that the government cannot establish an official religion, but also guarantees citizens' rights to practice the religion of their choosing or no religion at all.
Throughout our history, people of all faiths – as well as secular Americans – have played an important role in public life. And a robust dialogue about the role of religion in public life is an important part of our public discourse.
While the President strongly supports every American's right to religious freedom and the separation of church and state, that does not mean there's no role for religion in the public square.
When he was a Senator from Illinois, President Obama gave a keynote address at the Call to Renewal conference where he spoke about the important role religion plays in politics and in public life.
"A sense of proportion should also guide those who police the boundaries between church and state. Not every mention of God in public is a breach to the wall of separation - context matters."
That's why President Obama supports the use of the words "under God' in our Pledge of Allegiance and "In God we Trust' on our currency. These phrases represent the important role religion plays in American public life, while we continue to recognize and protect the rights of secular Americans. As the President said in his inaugural address, "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers." We're proud of that heritage, and the strength it brings to our great country.
Fuck this.  Fuck everything about this.  This is complete and total bullshit.  The fact that an "Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships" exists is bullshit.  This is antithetical to the principles upon which our nation was founded.  We are NOT one nation under god.  We do NOT trust in god.

That. Is. Not. America.

I am not unaware of the role that religion has played in our history.  I am also, unlike most people, not unaware that that role has not always, and I would go so far as to say rarely, been a positive one.

The addition of "under god" to the pledge of allegiance took place under McCarthyism, not exactly a shining moment in our history.  Putting "In God We Trust" on our money became law during the same period.  "In God We Trust" became our national motto during the same period.  Not only has this been "one nation under god" for only about 60 years, it became so only to differentiate ourselves from the communist USSR.  Because some people were scared of "Ivan" in the 1950s, I have to live with blatant theism thrown in my face whenever I look at a piece of American currency or hear children being taught to love their country.

I find it hard to express just how much anger I am feeling right now.  I am in no way proud to be American at this moment.  My country, the leaders of my nation, have forgotten the words of Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and so many of the profoundly secular people who were instrumental in the founding of this country.  I think that our leaders have forgotten the Treaty of Tripoli, signed in 1797:
As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen,—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
 The petitions that led to this response from the White House were some of the most supported petitions on the site set up to allow them.  The r/atheism forum of just celebrated passing 200,000 members, a wonderful milestone for a single Internet forum representing any community.  There are millions of atheists in the United States.  Where is the government decree stating that every American has to look at something on a frequent basis stating "In Reason We Trust"?  No god of any type has any part in my life, and no god of any type is supposed to have a part in the governance of my country.  With one e-mail, one page on a website, the White House has let down the American people, and the Constitution of the United States.  Today is a sad day.

Yahwists and the Sequel Hypothesis

So, I'm going to be a little more lighthearted here, and also somewhat speculative.  What can I say, I'm in a mood.  I'm going to make some comparisons here involving the major Abrahamic religions of the world and television shows.  For those of you who are atheists, particularly if you're also somewhat of a geek, you can probably already see where I'm going with this.  Enjoy the ride.  Oh, and warning, TVTropes will ruin your life, but I'm linking to it anyway.  For the rest of you, let me lay this out as clearly as I can.

There are four major religious traditions that descend from the Abrahamic tradition: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism.  Its possible to do serious studies of these traditions, and they've been very important to the history of the world.  But stepping back for a moment, and viewing them as a whole, they follow a very familiar pattern.

Judaism is the "original series" of the Abrahamic religion.  You can see clearly how it drew upon the influences of other religions of its time, but it had some new concepts that made it stand out from the pack.  It took old stories and ideas and interpreted them in unique ways, creating something very new when all was said and done.  Now, that's not to say it was always very high quality work.  The characters weren't always consistent, the stories could get overblown or pedantic, and the editing control was obviously in dire straits.  Occasionally, the moralizing got a little heavy-handed, and when you look at it from a modern perspective, it certainly shows its age; some of the things it includes may have made sense at the time, but today we just cringe at the unfortunate implications.  And the special effects?  Well, they were certainly big, and might have been cool for their time, but in hindsight they're definitely lacking, and the flaws tend to break one's suspension of disbelief.  Still, it must be said that it has some good points, and even today it maintains a faithful following.  It might even be called a cult classic.

Christianity seems to be the "next generation" of Abrahamic religion.  It draws on the same roots as the original series, and takes place in roughly the same universe.  But we've moved forward in time a good bit, and we've got a completely new cast of characters.  The writing is more consistent, although there are a number of places where the sheer silliness of the premise shows through.  The special effects remind us of the kind of things done in the original, often being explicit revisits of those old episodes, but they're more closely grounded to believability, if not entirely possible in the real world.  Only on occasion do they get really cheesy, and even then, they at least are used to draw out strong emotional appeal.  Most importantly, there's a more clear message to the series, one that feels a little more comfortable to modern sensibilities.  It still has some things that make us wince, because it tries as hard as it can to remain true to the timeline of its universe, and some might criticize it for being too optimistic, expecting that the future will be all sunshine and rainbows and we'll all live in peace.  But on close examination, it doesn't really flinch away from hard truths, and is overall a much higher quality work of fiction.  It maintains a large group of fans today, and has spawned several spin-off series that try to interpret the material, with greater or lesser success.

Islam comes next chronologically, and seems to be the "gritty reboot" of the Abrahamic concept.  It makes it clear how much of an influence the previous two series had on its writer, and it tries to remain consistent with the story previously set in place.  But the special effects have been simultaneously amped up and strictly tied to reality, or so the series claims.  Everything is supposed to be purely in the realm of plausibility, as long as you accept that you're living in a universe with rules just slightly different than our own.  What really makes this story different, however, is the underlying message.  It doesn't shy away from hard topics, and makes its stance on difficult modern issues very clear.  This can get uncomfortable at times, because the old harsh morality of the original series is still very much in evidence.  Islam strictly enforces the old rules, adds some more of its own, and deals very honestly with the implications.  Now, to be fair, it made some amazing advances, particularly in the realm of technology.  When it dealt with the universe, there's no denying that it made some brilliant insights, and inspired people who weren't even fans of the show to advance new ideas.  But like so many of these shows, the fanbase got a little too serious about it, and insist that everyone should follow the show.  They take a lot of offense at the suggestion that there might be some flaws in the writing or the effects, because they know that both the show itself and the writing staff are beyond reproach and deserve universal respect and adoration.

So, that covers it, right?  Oh wait, I almost forgot one.  Mormonism.  The "wacky fanfiction" of Abrahamic faith.  Rabid fans of the original series and the next generation, the writers decided that there was only one thing missing from the stories: themselves.  And so the new, unofficial episodes began to be written, but without the reality checks of trained writers, the plotlines soon went way off the rails.  There might be a few gems in there, some stuff that is really quite good, but its overwhelmed by Mary Sue characterization, ridiculous plots that make absolutely no sense, contradictions galore, and a return of the heavy-handed moralizing.  Only now, its clear that the "morals" are designed so that the main characters can get away with pretty much anything they want.  The stories obviously split the fan base; the majority just don't see the appeal, and think that there's no reason to add bad writing to a perfectly good story.  But there's a very vocal, very loyal community who think that these fan fics are the best thing since sliced bread.  They continue to tout its virtues, making excuses and coming up with new stuff all the time.  The leaders of this group are obviously benefiting greatly from the fact that a lot of people like the stories, so there's no reason to accept any criticism.  But they just want to be accepted by the mainline fans, so when they get into discussions with outsiders, they emphasize their similarities and do their best to shove the differences out of the spotlight.  Easiest way to do that?  Pick on the people who don't like any of the shows.  Like me.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Stuff. All Of It. No, Really!

In this post, I'm going to show you what I'm really made of.
Yep, that's it.  In fact, that's what the universe is made of.  Twelve particles of matter, four fundamental forces.  This is what is called the Standard Model of particle physics.  Everything, absolutely everything, with no exceptions, can be broken down at base into these things.  The interactions of these twelve particles and four forces are the cause of absolutely all phenomena.  We are very close to understanding these interactions to a very high degree of accuracy, and we are also close to being able to plug the numbers into a computer and have it start calculating, and have it end up predicting everything within certain levels of probability.  But obviously, I'm more than just quarks and gluons.  I'm a human being, a living thing, and a thing with a mind.  As Carl Sagan put it, the beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together.  So, how did this stuff end up turning into me?

These elementary particles have to come together as composite particles before we can even start to build atoms, which are the smallest pieces of elements.  The nucleus of an atom is made of protons and neutrons, and that nucleus is surrounded by a cloud of electrons.  Yes, its a cloud even in a hydrogen atom, where there is one electron.  Protons and neutrons are made of three quarks each; a proton is two up quarks and a down quark, while a neutron is two downs and an up.  The quarks are held together by one of the four forces, the strong nuclear force (which is also gluons).  The nucleus of a relatively large atom looks a little bit like this:
Now, that's only an approximation, because in reality, all of those particles are in many different places at the same time.  When you look at them, they are only probably going to be in any given place.  These particles are held together by the nuclear force, which is really just the residual bits of the strong force holding the quarks together.  This nucleus, as I noted, is relatively large.  All of the atoms of heavier elements, and by that I mean anything with an atomic number 3 and up, started out as much simpler atoms than this one.  They all looked kind of like this:
That's hydrogen, specifically protium.  It has one proton and one electron, and most of the stuff in the universe still looks like this.  About 75% of the chemical matter in the universe is hydrogen, and about 99.98% of hydrogen is protium.  At one point, you were this.  I was this.  Everything you see was this.  These particles were formed when the universe was born, about 13.7 billion years ago.  So in that sense, you are 13.7 billion years old.  The particles that compose my body are as old as the cosmos.  Obviously, I'm not made of hydrogen.  A big part of me is, because the second most common molecule in the universe is a large percentage of my body.  The most common molecule is of course hydrogen gas, H2.  Helium doesn't form bonds.  The next most common element is oxygen, and since there's a lot of hydrogen and oxygen, they combine to form H2O.  Water.  So I've got a lot of hydrogen in me, but I've got other stuff too.  Obviously, I've just mentioned oxygen.  There's also carbon, iron, and various other elements.  Where did all that come from?  Well, when you put a whole lot of hydrogen together, another force takes over: gravity.  It starts pulling all of the hydrogen into a ball, and crushing it together in the center.  It eventually looks like this:
That's a star, specifically our Sun.  Its emitting a lot of energy, partly in the form of heat and light, because in the middle, gravity is pushing the hydrogen atoms together.  Normally, they're held apart by the electromagnetic force, which is much weaker than the strong nuclear force, but holds up better over distance.  Gravity is much weaker than the electromagnetic force, but its even better at working at a distance, and the more matter you have, the stronger it gets.  When a proto-star gets big enough, the gravity pushes the nuclei close enough that the strong nuclear force beats out electromagnetism, and the atoms snap together in a process called thermonuclear fusion.  The energy the particles release when they fuse is greater than the energy needed to push them together, and the star ignites.  At its core, our Sun and every other star is fusing hydrogen into helium.  Our Sun, amazingly enough, isn't big enough to go on to the next stage when it eventually runs out of hydrogen.  Bigger stars start fusing hydrogen into carbon through the triple-alpha process when they near the end of their lives.  Really big stars go on to fuse lighter elements into iron.  But going any heavier than that stops releasing energy; it takes more energy to fuse the nuclei than they release when it happens.  So what made all the elements heavier than iron?  There are a lot of them.  That process might look a little something like this:
The incredibly huge stars explode when they reach the end of their lives; they've fused everything they can into iron, and something has to give.  Fusion isn't making more energy, but gravity just won't let up.  They release truly apocalyptic amounts of energy in what is called a supernova.  Such a destructive event would wipe out all life in every nearby solar system.  Whole planets would be utterly destroyed, and even other stars might be swept up in the massive explosion.  Supernovae observed from Earth can outshine the entire galaxy in which the star resides.  One explosion outshining hundreds of billions of stars.  But in the midst of all that energy being released, lots of atoms are being slammed together with tremendous force.  And we get supernova nucleosynthesis.  All the heavier elements, everything with an atomic number higher than 56, gets made when the biggest of stars die.  Stars that burned billions of years ago and uncounted light years away died, so that you could be here today reading this article.  On YouTube, philhellenes said it quite well:  Stars must die so that I can live.  I stepped out of a supernova.

And so did you.

So, what am I really made of?  Energy.  Quarks.  Atoms.  Molecules.


I'm pretty awesome.  You are, too.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Why We Believe: The Arsenal of Fear

I've been doing a lot of thinking about why religious people believe the things they do.  Having been religious in the past, I've of course looked at my own reasons for believing.  I think there are two primary groups of believers: the indifferent believers and the conscious believers.  Those who are indifferent are easily explained; they don't really think about their belief, it doesn't affect their lives at all, they just believe in god because they do.  Perhaps they were brought up in a religious household, and indoctrinated into their belief system as children.  But they don't really have reasons for their belief.  What I'm interested in are the conscious believers, the ones who think about their beliefs and hold them for a reason.  And I think I've puzzled out what that reason is, in pretty much all cases.


Now, assuming I have some religious readers, they'll tell me that I'm wrong.  They have all kinds of justification for their belief, plenty of support from their holy book, their own personal experience of the presence of a divine being, and of course for many of them the idea that "God is love."  A loving god wouldn't make you believe out of fear!  But I don't think I'm wrong; I think that as an outside observer, I can see the weapons of religion more clearly than those who have been defeated by those weapons.  And that's what we're dealing with here: weapons.  Religion uses fear as a weapon against the minds of human beings, and not just as a single weapon.  Fear comes in many flavors, and religion has no qualms about using each and every one.

The opening salvo in the religious assault is the Fear of Hell.  This is the initial barrage, it is a direct threat against the enemies of the religion in question.  It tells people, believe what I say, or you will be burned forever. Now, the vast majority of us have been burned at some point in our lives.  A burn hurts like no other wound.  Even when you know that all of your pain receptors are on the surface of the skin, and thus it can't actually hurt anywhere else, a burn feels deeper than other pain.  A bad burn feels like it goes to the bone.  Even the mildest burn is quite painful.  This alone should tell you why religions use fire as a threat, as their most extreme punishment.  Imagine being in a fire, burning worse than you've ever burned, all over your body, forever.  You'll never die, you'll never be released from the pain.  What wouldn't you do to avoid that?

But some people don't fear torture; the religious know that, from the examples of their own martyrs.  Many people, however, may be susceptible to the next weapon in their arsenal, the Fear of Death.  Its a terrifying moment for a child when he or she first encounters death.  Its often not until the teenage years, if not later, that a person truly confronts the idea of their own mortality.  And it is very, very scary.  I exist, and I'd like to put off not existing for as long as possible.  Here, religion steps in and tells you that you don't have to stop existing.  You can live forever; their god can grant you eternal life, if you believe in him and do what he says. Of course, they have to deal with the fact that their believers do actually die, so they promise you life after death.  Something about you lives on, either in an eternal afterlife or in unending rebirths.  The specifics vary, but all the major religions tell you that death is nothing to fear, because it never really happens.

The weaponry is far more extensive, though.  Maybe an enemy doesn't fear their own death, maybe they have something they would die to protect.  To deal with that, religion has learned to wield the Fear of Loss.  Most people have others in their life that they love and care about, people that they like to be with, their friends and family.  Knowing that we ourselves are going to die one day may not be quite as scary as the fact that our loved ones will also die.  They are just as mortal, just as subject to death, and being without them is something we don't like to contemplate.  Here is where the attack from religion becomes insidious.  If your loved ones were believers before their death, then they have eternal life already; if you believe too, you can see them again, and be with them for all eternity.  If they are still alive, but they don't believe, then even if you live forever, you'll still lose them.  Shouldn't you try to convert them, too?  From pets to parents, we all want to be with our loved ones forever, and religion promises to help with the fear that we can't, and in doing so uses that fear against us.

What about right now, though?  All of these weapons have had to do with the future.  Religion can deal with the fears you have today, and the next thing it draws from the armory is the Fear of the Unknown.  We humans, even if we accept that we are amazing creatures, must also accept that we are limited.  We do not know everything about the universe, and for that matter we don't always know what's around the next corner, or what's going to happen in the next five minutes.  Uncertainty scares a lot of people.  Who knows what dangers are lurking in the tall grass?  And we have lots of questions, which can be overwhelming at times.  What am I?  Where did I come from?  Where did everything come from?  Is there a reason I'm here?  Religion offers a balm against these fears; for the dangers of the world that we aren't aware of and can't control, there is at least one all-powerful, all-knowing god looking out for us and protecting us.  And all of those questions can be answered, most likely from the holy book, and by a priest if the book is somehow lacking.  Religion claims to be able to make the unknown known, if not to you, then at least to god.

Finally, religion has one deadly weapon, one final blow against the human mind.  It wields, almost paradoxically, Fear of the Known.  This weapon is a two-pronged attack in itself.  The first part is targeted at those who know a little, and it is based on heaven.  Religion promises us that if we believe, there is an afterlife waiting for us that is glorious, wonderful, perfect.  There is no pain, no suffering, no strife, just pure happiness and contentment.  Heaven is a beautiful place, even if they can't give you specifics.  In comparison, we can look at the real world, and see that it is dull, boring, and most importantly frightening.  Compared to heaven, the real world is a very scary place; religion wants you to yearn for heaven as an escape from this fearful world.  Secondly, for those who know a lot, there's an additional element of fear.  When you see how incredibly big the universe is, or even just the Earth, you feel insignificant and pointless.  Your life will be short compared to the grand sweep of time, and in comparison even to a planet like ours, an individual human almost disappears.  The mind recoils from the vastness, and in that moment, religion springs its trap.  God made all of it, and he made it just for us.  You are important, you are loved, you are special, because god says you are.  You're afraid for good reason, but god can comfort you.

I think that these weapons, the Arsenal of Fear, are at the root of why every single conscious believer follows the dictates of a religion.  Whether they fell to one attack or many, when you dig deep enough, you'll find that religion is based on some form of fear.  Its an impressive armory, a nearly insurmountable force.  Humans are fearful creatures; whether you believe we were created that way or evolved that way, the truth is that today, we are often filled to the brim with fear.  And religion knows that, and it uses that, and it conquers millions by attacking with that fear.

But we aren't always afraid.

We can defend ourselves against the attacks of religion.  We have within us the power to overcome fear, to weather the blows and come out stronger than when the attacks began.  The defense that works best, that is most effective against the Arsenal of Fear, is reason.  Knowledge, rationality, skepticism, the amazing capabilities of our minds; these are what religion seeks to conquer, because religion fears them!  So, how can you fight back against these fears?

First and foremost, look at the commonality among every single weapon.  They all propose something beyond our reach, something that we cannot ever detect.  For the Fear of Hell to work, you have to believe that you will live on after you die; you have to believe in hell.  I'm not afraid of hell, because I know hell doesn't exist.  Even if we assume that we live on after we die, wherever we go, we go there without our atoms.  If I don't have atoms, how can I have nerves to feel fire?  For that matter, how can there even be fire?  Firelight is the light emitted from excited atoms as the electrons change energy states.  If there is fire, then there is electricity, and atoms, and natural laws that we understand.  If there's fire in hell, I can build a fireproof room, and an air conditioner.  The religious will tell you that its not like real fire; it burns your soul (which can feel pain without nerves), and it doesn't need fuel, or oxygen, or atoms.  In short, the fire in hell is magic fire.  I don't believe in magic, so hell isn't scary.

The Fear of Death and the Fear of Loss also depend on an afterlife.  Before religion can help you assuage those fears, it has to convince you that there is an afterlife.  But there's no evidence of that; we can't detect a soul, we can't detect an afterlife, and the religious can't really even tell us what's so good about it.  This also takes care of one half of the Fear of the Known.  When someone promises you heaven, ask them for details.  What am I going to like about it?  Will there be great meals, good TV shows, amazing sex?  Will I even have a body?  Why should I look forward to simply praising god for all eternity?  No one has ever reported back from heaven.  All the evidence points to the fact that when we die, that's it.  Yeah, its still scary.  But it isn't noble to hide from that fear by believing in a reassuring lie.  The best way to face these fears is to life our lives in ways that we enjoy, to make the most of the time we have.  Tell your loved ones you love them, make memories with them and keep those memories as you see fit.

Most importantly, for the Fear of the Unknown and indeed every weapon, religion asks you to believe in god.  Their god is a judge who can send you to hell, who demands your worship, who has infinite power and knowledge.  But what can he actually do?  If god has such power to judge me for my supposed sins, why has he not already struck me down?  Why must he wait until an afterlife that we can't prove exists anyway?  The best evidence most religions have for their supernatural god is the natural world, which is ridiculous.  If god was really all-powerful, we would be able to see some manifestations of that power; things that should be totally impossible should actually happen, with no explanation.  And yet, everything we see appears to follow the invariable laws of nature.  There are no broken rules, no E that does not equal mc^2.  If god is really all-knowing, then why does his book, supposedly either written by him or made at his direction, regardless of what holy book you're talking about, get so much stuff wrong?  Every time the supposed creator of the universe says something that we can independently test, even most of the time when his book records historical fact, it is verifiably incorrect.  The supernatural god proposed by every major religion not only has absolutely no evidence supporting his existence, he also appears to have none of the traits that he is claimed to have.  Its far simpler to say that no such god exists at all.

Without an afterlife, and without a god, religion's Arsenal of Fear is broken.  The weapons are duds, the swords are pitted and dull.  There is nothing to fear from the threats of religion, and nothing religion can do to truly assuage our very real fears about the world.  Fight for your mind, face your fears; you're armed to the teeth, and religion's armory is all flash and no substance.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Today Be A Holiday

Today, the Pastafarians celebrate International Talk Like A Pirate Day.  Its much more fun refuting creationists when you get to include the word "arrr".

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Finding Meaning in the Universe

I haven't found a lot of time lately to write, which is unfortunate.  Thankfully, I've done some writing in the past, and I find myself referencing this particular piece a lot.  I've been hanging out at r/atheism lately, and this question popped up recently:

"My entire teen years were spent on philosophical pondering and being REALLY stressed over what world view I could accept. I would form one, think critically on it until it collapsed, modify it, and repeat the process until I arrived at Atheist. I also did a fair amount of reading, most notably of Sophie’s World, which if you don’t know is a really easy primer for most major philosophers. This wide range of thinking has left me with a bit of a problem.
I am now a condescending bitch.

Now when I read things that have been hailed as “brilliant” or “profound” or “mindblowing” I am left with the reaction of “dude, I knew about this when I was 14.” For example,
-I finally read Watchman this year and was REALLY disappointed. I was hoping for something controversial, thought-inducing, worth all the hype it got. Instead I just responded with “this seems kinda trivial, and Ozymandias’ great fix wouldn’t work anyway because we have world disasters all the time and its never brought about world peace.” 
-When my ex-bf had an existential crisis over the idea of what happens after death I wanted to punch him for being so immature because to me, duh, it’s the same as before you were born. 
-I once heard someone I know to be a fairly devout Protestant say “man, Eastern religions will blow your mind, its stuff that I have never even thought about” and was appalled because when I first learned about Hinduism I was amazed at how much it lined up with conclusions I had drawn myself.
-When I hear theists agonizing over some ambiguous religious doctrine, or how a good diety could let bad things happen I am amazed that they didn’t resolve that question in their mind years ago because it seems so core to any belief in God.
Long story short, philosophy now seems really boring, and almost juvenile, to me largely because I learned so much about it when I was younger. Does anyone else have these side-effects from learning to think critically?"

I realized exactly how this person felt, and I wrote up a response.  I thought I'd share it here.

It sounds like you took an evolutionary approach to your philosophy, which is awesome. You're finding yourself at a point many of us reach, and in which I was sitting myself until not long ago. Nothing looks remarkable any more, everything is dull and boring, because all you have is the real world. And what fun is there in just reality?
In college, I took classes in ethics and religion under Dr. David Belcastro, and I expressed to him the thought that the ultimate point of philosophy was to ask "why". He told me that religion, in all of its various forms, has an answer: "Yes." I've been trying to understand that for about 6 years now, and I think I finally do. Oddly, I found the answer outside of religion entirely.
Read some Carl Sagan, particularly Pale Blue Dot and The Demon-Haunted World, or watch Cosmos. Watch the Symphony of Science videos, or any interviews/lectures with Carl Sagan or Richard Feynman. The universe is a wonderful place, it is remarkable in its vastness and complexity, and is enough in itself to inspire awe and wonder. You're seeking spiritual fulfillment, but religion isn't going to help. That same fulfillment can be found in science, by coming to understand the way the world actually is.
We here on Earth think we're amazing beings. And we are, there's no question about that. But we're also tiny, virtually insignificant on a cosmic scale. Take a look at the Pale Blue Dot picture; really look at it. That tiny speck, a small part of one pixel, is us. All of us. A mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam. Everyone you know, everyone you love, everyone who has ever lived, lived on that tiny point of blue light. That should give you the feeling of humility you need.
Then, look at yourself. Think about the things that are going on inside you, every moment. There are trillions of cells, each one made up of tiny molecular machines, inside every human being. Every cell was built through billions of years of evolution, and look at the amazing result: you. And then realize that as you're thinking this, you're using your brain; a three pound mass of jelly that you could hold in your hands, but that unappealing object is capable of contemplating the vastness of space, capable of contemplating infinity, and capable of contemplating itself contemplating infinity.
Finally, those molecules that make up your body are made of atoms of various types. Every single one that is heavier than hydrogen or helium was synthesized during the death of a star, billions of years ago and light-years away. You, and me, and everyone else, and everything you see, are made of stars. We are connected to the universe in the very deepest manner possible. Dr. Belcastro, in his Introduction to Religion class, focused on religion as reconnecting; that's the root of the word, in fact. Its the same root as "ligament." Religion seeks to connect us to the universe, to show us our place in the cosmos. But religions make up connections, they tell stories that have no evidence but that sound comforting until you see through them. Science has the evidence, and it tells us we really are connected. To each other and to every other living thing through biology, to the Earth through chemistry, and to the rest of the universe on an atomic level. For me, I don't need anything else to look at the world and finally, for the first time in years, really say "wow."