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.