Tag Archive: atheism

September 22 2011

Mister Terrific #1

Mr. Terrific is one of those characters that few people know about, but has been around for a long time (in one form or another). He also has a lot of very interesting character traits that appeal to me.

He’s black, he’s a genius, and he’s a scientist. And if you ask me, there aren’t nearly enough role models, especially black ones, showing kids that science is cool and being smart is ok. There’s Neil deGrasse Tyson, and…I can’t think of anyone else.

Another thing I like is that he’s an atheist. He doesn’t hide it, the writers don’t hide it, and they don’t make a big deal about it. Granted, his reasoning for being an atheist sounds like something a theist would come up with (and probably is), but I can let that slide.

The comic also isn’t afraid to address social issues, like race relations, class relations, and politics. That could give the series some unique opportunities, if the writers don’t shy away from them.

This may be the only case where DC took a realistic costume and made it into a spandex suit, rather than the other way around. It works fine, but I really miss the jacket.

Verdict: Surprisingly good. Looking forward to more.

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July 27 2010

Essential books for atheists, skeptics, freethinkers, or whatever

This is something I’ve been meaning to put together for a while, but I was inspired to finally do it by the American Freethought podcast. They put out a list of essential books, with the results taken from numerous important atheists/skeptics/freethinkers/whatevers. Their list is good, but there’s a lot of stuff on there that I have no interest in, or I think is overrated. (On the Origin of Species is an important book historically, but there are far better books on evolution for you to read, with up-to-date science.)

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August 16 2009

Why would life be meaningless without an afterlife?

This is something I just don’t understand. I’ve heard it said numerous times (and recently from a friend of mine) that without an afterlife, life is pointless and/or meaningless. To which I respond, “huh?”

I guess the argument is that, if the afterlife doesn’t exist, then your experiences in life are meaningless because your soul won’t live on forever. But that’s like saying that you shouldn’t bother to paint your house because it’s just going to be torn down some day, or you shouldn’t send someone an e-mail because it’ll eventually get deleted. Continue Reading

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July 6 2009

Who doesn’t like Communism and Atheism?

A couple months ago, the Atheist Talk radio show (by Minnesota Atheists) aired an episode where their guest was Sunsara Taylor, a member of the Communist Party here in the US. It was really interesting, if for no other reason than because I don’t think I’ve ever heard an actual communist speak their mind, explain their platform, and defend their position. That’s just something you almost never see, even decades after the Cold War.

However, they recently had an episode which featured biologist Massimo Pigliucci, who came on the show specifically to rebut many of Taylor’s claims. And what he has to say is just as fascinating, if not moreso, although that may just be personal bias.

Anyway, I just wanted to post links to these two episodes to get people to listen to them, since they are so interesting.

If anyone was wondering, my own political views are essentially liberal, with a bit of libertarianism and a dash of socialism. Yea, I know that doesn’t make sense.

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May 14 2009

Recommended Podcasts

I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts while at my computer (especially while playing WoW) and also on my MP3 player in the car, and when out for a walk, and whenever I have the time. I listen to a LOT of podcasts, and I’m always looking for more. Here are my favorites, and if you know of any others that I’d probably like, please post a link.

What the hell is a podcast?

It’s like radio, but on a computer. Most podcasts are published via an RSS feed that links to the files on the podcaster’s server. You can just download them manually if you want, but there are programs out there that will let you subscribe to the podcast feed and automatically download new episodes when they become available. The program I use is MediaMonkey, which is probably the greatest audio program ever. Other people use iTunes, though I don’t know why. I think WinAmp can handle podcasts too, and I’m sure there are others. Anyway, on with the show.

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March 4 2009

Richard Dawkins returns

Richard Dawkins, biologist, retired Oxford professor, writer, and the most well-known atheist in the world, is back in Minnesota to do a lecture at the U of M. That’s today, so obviously I’m not writing this to break the news. In fact, I’ll be there tonight; I bought my ticket the day it was announced. I’ll also probably write about it here in the next few days.

But anyway, I wanted to point to an interview he did just this morning on MPR (Minnesota Public Radio, the local branch of NPR) that I think was pretty good.

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One thing I’ve noticed about Dawkins, and I’ve heard/watched many of his interviews, debates, and discussions online, is that he sounds almost exactly the same regardless of his mood. He often sounds irritated, and he may very well be, but I think that’s mostly just the way he talks. He’s also very careful with what he says, and for good reason: there are lots of people out there who are looking for him to slip up somehow so they can take his words out of context.

I think the best way to hear the “real” Dawkins is to listen to his audiobooks. I’ve read both The God Delusion and The Ancestor’s Tale, and both via audiobook, and he’s much more relaxed in those. You get a much better sense of the wonder he feels about science, and he doesn’t come off as the angry fundamentalist atheist that many of his opponents seem to think he is.

Of course, what he’s talking about goes against what many people believe, and Dawkins doesn’t sugar-coat anything.

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February 25 2009

Debatable Tactics

Blow2Debating is like boxing: you wail on your opponent until they cough up blood. Figuratively.

I went to a debate between Dan Barker (whom I wrote about briefly a couple days ago) and Dinesh D’Souza last night, in Willey Hall at the University of Minnesota (Minneapolis campus). The topic was “Can We Be Good Without God”, which I’m a little surprised is still a subject of debate at all.

My simple answer to that question? Of course; we do it every day. It’s just that many of us don’t realize it. What that question is really asking is, can we be good without a belief in a god. Specifically, the Christian version of God, although the debate wasn’t limited only to that. Dan took the affirmative position (yes we can be good), and Dinesh took the contrary position (no, we can’t).

Dan started out by trying to show why the Bible isn’t a reliable source of morality, and how most people ignore its immoral passages, proving that morality exists outside and independent of religion. However, I think he glossed over a few too many things, and may have made some assumptions he shouldn’t have. For one, I think too often he assumed that his audience was more familiar with the Bible than they actually were. Ironically, it seemed like the atheists in the audience knew exactly what he was talking about and which passages he was referring to, because many of us actually read the Bible and not just follow the current feel-good pop version of Christianity that basically ignores the Bible and focuses on Jesus as the ultimate invisible friend.

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January 24 2009

Meeting Dan Barker

DSC00842My signed copy of Dan Barker’s book “Godless”. Yes, my real name is Bryan (for those of you who don’t know). 

Last Sunday, I went to a Minnesota Atheists meeting, where Dan Barker (Co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, author of the book “Godless”, and former evangelist) was giving a talk.

But before I talk about that, I want to talk about why that’s such a big deal for me.

One of my deepest, darkest secrets (besides being an atheist) is that I’ve been struggling with social anxiety disorder for the past several years, probably longer. It’s not something that I ever talk about, and only a handful of people even know that it’s a problem for me. Most people just think I’m shy and awkward, which of course is also true.

This problem is something I’ve wanted to write about on this blog for a long time, but it’s been very difficult for me (and you’ll find out exactly why if you continue reading). In fact, one of the big reasons why I started this blog was to help me work through my own “issues”. Staying silent hasn’t worked for me, so maybe getting things out in the open will.

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December 10 2008

Merry _ _ _ _ _ mas

1196856652_fChoose your poison.

If you haven’t noticed by now, the “Holiday Season” is upon us once again. Bleh.

I don’t pay much attention to right-wing “news” sources, but apparently they’re once again blowing the “War on Christmas” horn, to rally the faithful against the rampaging atheist hordes. Never mind the fact that the atheist hordes are such a small part of the population, or that they’re most likely armed with library books and cappuccinos.

I think fellow non-believing Minnesotan PZ Myers said it best: “The war on Christmas is over. We won.” Some time in recent history, perhaps even in the past decade, Christmas went beyond its Christian origins and became something that everyone can celebrate, like Halloween. It has become less about the birth of Jesus, and more about getting together with friends and family members and share gifts, or even just enjoy their company.

For Christians, it’s naturally still about Jesus, and that’s perfectly ok. No matter what Bill O’Reilly says, nobody* wants to stop you from going to church or putting an angel on your tree or putting one of those little manger scenes on your table (in fact, I’m tempted to do it myself, because they’re pretty neat). In fact, feel free to put a big inflatable light-up Jesus on your front lawn if you want. It’s your property.

But issues arise when these things are set up in public places, and this is where the disagreements (and the only fuel for the War On Christmas fire) appear. Some government and public facilities allow local Christian groups to set up manger scenes on their property during Christmas (and 10 Commandments displays year round, but let’s not bring that up right now), and when the atheists, secularists, Church/State separationists, and non-Christian religious groups make an issue of it, they’re labeled as bad guys.

Once again, it comes down to the First Amendment and how you interpret the Establishment Clause. I personally (and other Church/State separation supporters) support the interpretation by Justice Souter: “government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion“. Yes, Christians are the majority in the US, but to favor any religious group over others necessarily restricts the freedoms of people who aren’t part of that group. And that’s bad.

Generally, there are two ways of dealing with the issue of religious displays on public land: either everyone gets to put one up, or nobody does. If you allow a manger scene from the Christians, you have to allow a menorah from the Jews, various Winter Solstice displays from numerous other religions, a bust of L. Ron Hubbard from the Scientologists, a bust of the Flying Spaghetti Monster from the Pastafarians, a disrespectful deliberately inciteful sign from the atheists** (see below), and who knows how many others. Eventually, you may run out of room for displays, you have to deal with vandalism and theft, people will no doubt complain about the placement of the displays…sounds like way more work than it’s worth. I recommend just not allowing religious displays on public ground at all.

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October 7 2008

Addressing the religious claims of a guy I’ve never heard of

james-macmillan_1002045c "James MacMillan said that that embracing spirituality is now one of the most radical and counter-cultural moves a musician can make." Kinda like having eggs for breakfast is a radical and counter-cultural move.

A friend of mine, whose religious views are basically exactly opposite to my own, but whom I nevertheless have a lot of respect for, recently posted this story on Facebook. I tried to think of a way to come up with something to say about the story in less than 3 paragraphs so it would fit in Facebook’s comment field, but I finally realized that there was far more that needed to be said.

I have no idea who this MacMillan guy is, but what he’s saying needs to be addressed. This kind of intollerant thinking needs to be confronted as soon and as often as possible, because inevitably somebody will believe it.

The best way for me to comment on this article is to just cut-and-paste it here, and address its contents paragraph by paragraph.

James MacMillan, one of the conductors of the BBC Philharmonic orchestra, claimed in a speech last night that the "ignorance-fueled" hostility to faith shown by "metropolitan arts, cultural and media elites" risks making society bland and uniform.

First, the most obvious: hostility to faith. He’s probably not talking about religion in general, but the one that he believes in.

He also accused pop culture of inhibiting musical curiosity in the young and leading to greater conformity.

No arguments there.

MacMillan, regarded as the pre-eminent Scottish composer of his generation, added that embracing spirituality is now one of the most radical and counter-cultural moves a musician can make.

So, doing what most other people are already doing is radical and counter-cultural? I think he’s got this backwards.

In a lecture at the Royal Institute of British Architects to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Sandford St Martin Trust, a charity which promotes radio and television programmes about religion, he said: "The ignorance-fuelled hostility to religion, widespread among secular liberal elites, is in danger of colouring society’s value-free ‘neutrality’ in ways that are both bland and naïve.

This guy’s lashing out at a boogeyman that doesn’t exist.

Something that this guy doesn’t seem to understand is that atheists don’t just wake up one day and say "gosh, I hate God and Jesus and I’m going to make everyone else hate them too". Atheists, by and large (there are exceptions to every rule, of course) have simply come to the conclusion that God does not exist, after years of considering the idea. And when an atheist says "God does not exist", that’s basically a short way to say "there’s no compelling evidence that God exists, and I see no reason for him to exist." Most atheists were brought up in one religion or another, and have chosen to stop believing that their religion is true by examining their religion, and other religions, carefully. If there’s one thing that atheists are not, it’s ignorant. In some ways, we want to be proven wrong, and if anybody could do so, we’d gladly convert.

I also find it interesting, and telling, that he’s using the term "elites". First, what’s bad about being elite? Would you want an average doctor, or an elite doctor? An average president, or an elite president?

"They are also impractical, unattractive and, I suggest, oppressive. A true sense of difference, in which a genuine pluralism could thrive, is under threat of being reduced to a lowest common denominator of uniformity and conformity, where any non-secular contribution will automatically be regarded as socially divisive by definition."

Most atheists don’t want to stamp out religion, just as most Christians don’t want to overthrow the Constitution and replace it with literal Biblical law. It’s hard to even address such ridiculous fantasies.

MacMillan said surveys have shown only one in five people who work in TV consider themselves as religious, compared with seven out of 10 among the general public.

"If this is the case with the TV industry, you can be sure it is the same for the metropolitan arts, cultural and media elites," he said. "These are people who speak only to themselves and have convinced each other that the rest of the country thinks just like them. They are wrong."

This guy sounds like a conspiracy theorist. He saw a relatively unrelated poll and is connecting it to other branches of society. There isn’t a cabal of elite liberal atheists running the media, making sure that religion is stricken from everything the public sees. Besides, people watch, listen to, and read what they want to. Nothing can ever change that.

However, the composer, who is Roman Catholic, claimed that atheists have not succeeded in "beating religion into a pulp".

Nor do we intend to. We criticize religion, certainly. But we do so as a way to learn more about it, and to get people to think about religion more, rather than just accept it blindly. The worst thing you can do to a mind is not use it. Besides, if a religion can’t stand up to criticism, what good is it?

"The campaigning atheists, as opposed to the live-and-let-live variety, are raising their voices because they recognise that they are losing; the project to establish a narrow secular orthodoxy is failing."

That’s an interesting phrase: "campaigning atheists". Usually it’s "militant atheists" or "angry atheists". He prefers the quiet, do-nothing atheist over the uppity ones who won’t let religion walk all over them. Atheists aren’t trying to establish a "narrow secular orthodoxy", we’re trying to keep religious zealots from making a religious theocracy out of our secular society.

Secular doesn’t mean "Godless", it means "non-specific in regards to religion".

I can’t speak for the UK (which is where MacMillan is from) but here in America, our government and constitution were set up specifically so that no religion is favored over any other. Despite the revisionist history being spouted by many in the Religious Right these days (including John McCain), the Founding Fathers were staunch secularists, and the fact that no religion-specific statements are found in any of our founding documents was not an accident.

The First Amendment guarantees the separation of Church and State, because we don’t want a theocratic government (that’s why people came to America to begin with: to escape religious persecution) and we don’t want the government interfering with religion.

Some religion has snuck into government (such as the Pledge of Allegiance, which I’ve previously written about), but it’s unconstitutional, and people who are concerned about maintaining a secu
lar society that is fair to all people have been working to overturn such things for decades.

He added that the religious must carry on expressing their beliefs in the face of growing opposition.

Go for it. There are few things that atheists agree about, but freedom of speech is almost always one of those things. Just don’t be surprised if we argue with you if we feel you’re mistaken about something. It’s your job to be informed about what you believe.

"A smug ignorance, a gross oversimplification and caricature that serves as an analytical understanding of religion, is the common intellectual currency. The bridge has to be built by Christians and others being firm in resisting increasingly aggressive attempts to still their voices."

Again, an imagined conspiracy. And I wonder why he thinks that the atheist viewpoint of religion is an "oversimplification and caricature" when there have been thousands of books written over the centuries examining every aspect of religion. I recently attempted to read Daniel Dennett’s "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon", and he spends the first 95 pages examining the question "Should we study religion scientifically?" Atheists certainly aren’t guilty of oversimplifying religion. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that religious people often DO oversimplify religion.

He concluded by saying that our lives will become meaningless unless the "mists of contemporary banality" are penetrated and the idea of the sacred is restored.

This is basically the idea that atheists lead bland, pointless lives. Ho hum. If anyone actually believes that, I recommend reading "50 reasons people give for believing in a god" by Guy P. Harrison (which I reviewed just today).

"I believe it is God’s divine spark which kindles the musical imagination now, as it has always done, and reminds us, in an increasingly dehumanised world, of what it means to be human."

There doesn’t seem to be any difference in imagination for those who are religious versus those who aren’t. So either God favors the religious and non-religious equally in terms of imagination, or imagination is "distributed" equally, regardless of religion.

 

MacMillan’s thinking is rather intolerant, and shows an apparent hatred and obvious ignorance of those who do not think as he does. But I feel like I’ve already said enough, and to say more would just be beating a dead horse. So I’ll close with a quote.

Some believers accuse skeptics of having nothing left but a dull, cold scientific world. I am left with only art, music, literature, theater, the magnificence of nature, mathematics, the human spirit, sex, the cosmos, friendship, history, science, imagination, dreams, oceans, mountains, love and the wonder of birth. That’ll do me."
          – Lynne Kelly

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October 6 2008

Book Review: “50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God” by Guy P. Harrison

I couldn’t find a good image on the net to steal, so I just tossed my copy in the scanner. I do plan to actually buy the book someday.

This is the book I wish everybody on the planet would read. Or at least my friends and family.

The best thing about this book is that it conveys the reasoning behind atheism without being even remotely condescending toward believers. It wasn’t written to convert people, or prove who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s just trying to inform.

Not only does the book inform you about atheism and, being a book with a “western world” mindset, Christianity, but it also delves into many other world religions, some of which I’ve never even heard of. Harrison seems to have led a fascinating life so far, traveling the world and seeing many different types of people and cultures, and he gladly shares some of his stories and experiences while at the same time using them to illustrate the idea he’s trying to convey in a given chapter.

The format of the book is ideal for this sort of topic. Each of the titular 50 reasons is given its own chapter, and each chapter can be read on its own, without having read any of the previous chapters. The chapters are, on average, about 7 pages long. This means that each chapter covers its intended topic thoroughly without going overboard with unnecessary prose or over-elaborate explanations.

No matter what you believe, this book will give you a lot to think about.

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September 14 2008

To the library!

centralThis doesn’t even LOOK like Minnesota…

I used to buy a lot of books, which I’d almost always read just once and then put on my shelf. Having a full bookcase makes me feel smart, even if most of them say “Star Wars” on the spine. However, when I went broke, I realized how much of a waste it was to buy books, and eventually remembered that I could always go to the local library for most of the books I want, like I did when I was a kid.

My local library system (the Ramsey County Public Library) has a pretty good selection (including comics, to my surprise) but their collection of atheist and religion-critical books is unfortunately limited to the big names (Dawkins, Dennet, Hitchens, etc.) and they don’t have any of the interesting-sounding books I’ve heard about on Point of Inquiry. (Seems like I add a new book to my “To Read” list every time I listen to a new episode.) For a while, I thought I’d have to buy the books if I wanted to read them (or even download them on the internet) but then I decided to think bigger. There’s a bigger library!

 

So today, I wandered out into the rain, drove into downtown St. Paul, and eventually stumbled, dripping, into the Central Library for the first time, about 20 minutes before they closed. An employee set up my Ramsey County library card to work with their system (awesome, I don’t have to carry around another card in my wallet) and I immediately came to the Non-Fiction section, where I picked up 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God by Guy P. Harrison, and Irreligion by John Allen Paulos. I was looking for something by Robert M. Price, but I didn’t find any in the limited time I had.

The Central Library is amazing. It’s one of those huge, old stone buildings with thick walls and dark wooden shelves. There are pillars and arches, and elaborately decorated ceilings. It feels like the kind of library you only see in movies, and except for the computers and barcodes and handicap accessibility, it doesn’t look like it has changed at all since it was opened, in 1917. I only got to see a small part of it because I got there as they were closing, but next time I’ll be sure to give myself lots of time to gawk.

The history of the library is also pretty interesting, and includes some pretty familiar names in Minnesota history – people who now have counties named after them. It was surprising and sad to hear that the previous St. Paul Public Library burned to the ground, taking 158,000 books with it.

Anyway, I’ll definitely be spending more time at that library in the future. I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to check it out.

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September 7 2008

Searching for Douglas

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Lately I’ve been taking walks at the local nature center. It’s free, it’s within walking distance (I still drive though), there are very few people (and usually none on the unpaved trails), and it’s so nice and peaceful that I can sometimes even stop being a nervous wreck.

I carry my MP3 player (the classic iRiver H120) so I can listen to audiobooks and podcasts as I walk, and I’ve recently been listening to The God Delusion. There was a part where Dawkins mentioned an interview with Douglas Adams, where Adams explained why he called himself a “radical atheist” and mentioned that part of the reason why he became an atheist in the first place was that he read two of Dawkins’ books.

Dawkins also mentioned that this interview was reprinted in The Salmon of Doubt, a collection of Adams’ miscellaneous magazine articles, interviews, and even the first couple chapters of his last, unfinished book. That got me thinking. I’d purchased Salmon of Doubt back when it first came out in 2002, and at the time I probably read the interview without thinking about it much (I was still a semi-believer). I suddenly had an urge to dig it out and read it again.

Since I moved out for college, all of my books have been stored in large Rubbermaid containers. I’ve got at least 4 of them, and they’re all full of books, textbooks, and comics. They’re all in my garage right now (I’m leaving them in the boxes until I move again) and they’re all stacked underneath other huge boxes full of other stuff. But I really wanted to find that book, so I went digging.

Well, after going through all those books, I didn’t find it. I’ve got several boxes filled with miscellaneous crap, but I didn’t feel like going through all those. I did find my copy of Last Chance To See, which I’m going to start reading instead.

But…I really wanted to read that interview. So I looked it up on Amazon, and thanks to the “Look Inside” feature, was able to read the first couple pages, and I eventually found my way to the interview’s source publication’s web site, American Atheist magazine. They still have the text of the interview online, even after all this time. (They mention that Disney and Jay Roach are working on the HHGTTG movie, with the goal of having it out in 2000.)

I read all of Douglas Adams’ books in high school. At the time, I just thought he was a clever and funny writer, and his books were some of my favorites. (And actually, most of the books I read in high school are still some of my favorites.) But as I get older, his books mean a lot more to me, and the fact that he was an atheist makes them even more relevant to me now. I go back and read them, and I see a lot of stuff that I missed back in high school; lots of witty criticisms and commentaries on topics I knew little about back then.

I read my 812-page copy of the Hitchhiker’s Trilogy once every couple years, but I haven’t gone back to read any of his other books since high school. It’s actually been over a decade since I read the Dirk Gently books or Last Chance to See! I’m sure they’ll seem almost new to me next time.

(I was going to write about the time I actually got to meet Douglas, but it’s getting late and this post is getting long, and it’ll make a pretty good post on its own at a later date.)

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September 6 2008

A poll on the differences between atheists & Christians

Yesterday, I found Sam Harris’ web site, and I’ve been going through it reading all the articles. As I mentioned (or at least alluded to) in my review of his book “Letter to a Christian Nation”, I think he’s a great author, and he seems able to explain even hard-to-understand issues in ways that everyone can follow. One of the best articles I’ve read explaining atheism to the religious (besides Harris’ actual books) is “10 Myths – and 10 Truths – About Atheism“.

But what I really want to point out in this post are the results of a survey he conducted in preparation for an experiment to examine the brains of atheists and Christians using fMRI, which should be quite interesting when it’s completed.

Following the 3 links at the bottom of the page will lead you to graphs showing the results of the poll, which are quite fascinating. Some statements, such as “I am in very good physical health” show pretty much no difference between atheists and Christians (or at least, their opinions of themselves). However, some show some very telling differences, such as the graph that shows political stances – atheists are mostly liberal, while Christians are mostly conservative. Not a big surprise, but it’s interesting to see just how true it is.

The first link’s graphs are a mix between statements that both groups think the same on, and statements that they differ on. The second link is almost entirely statements that both groups agree on, like “I’m worried about the state of the world” or “I am very honest with myself”. The third covers religious beliefs, and there’s where the huge differences come in. Most of the graphs display most atheists on the far side of an issue, while most Christians come in on the far opposite side of the graph. These are questions like “it’s important to raise children with a belief in God”

If you’re a graph junkie like me, you’ll probably spend at least half an hour going through this stuff.

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August 31 2008

Bevans the Atheist – Why I don’t believe in Christianity

Series: Bevans The Atheist

  1. Introduction
  2. Why I don’t believe in Religion
  3. Why I don’t believe in Christianity
  4. Why I don’t believe in God (coming soon)

NOTE: I’m currently re-writing this post. I don’t think I’ve adequately explained my true feelings on this matter.

If you read my previous posts in this series, you may have noticed that I’m basically explaining my belief system backwards, because I feel like that’s the best way to explain it. Or maybe I’m saving the really good stuff for the end. The root question of religion is whether or not there is a god/gods, and that will be covered in my next post in this series. Then there’s the “what’s he like” question, which is covered by specific religions, which I’ll be addressing in this post. Then there’s the “how do we know that X religion is right” question, which I at least partially addressed in my previous post in this series. That’s kinda confusing, isn’t it? Oh well. On with the show.

This is probably going to make a lot of people very angry.

People who accept some form of Christianity believe certain things that set it apart from other religions. Some of the most important are:

  1. God created the universe.
  2. Jesus is the son of God (or he is God…or something).
  3. Jesus is the savior of mankind.
  4. Jesus died to redeem our sins.
  5. Jesus came back from the dead.
  6. Jesus is coming back someday, and he’s totally gonna fuck us up.
  7. The Bible is friggin’ awesome.

I’m going to save #1 for my next post, because it’s a big’un.

Let’s start with #7. Christians believe many things about the Bible, like:

  1. It’s literally true.
  2. It’s figuratively true.
  3. It’s a guide to leading a better life.

Those are huge simplifications, and I’m not even covering all the angles, but I want to stay brief and readable here; if this gets too long, I’ll have to distribute this post in paperback form. (That’s a joke of course – there is no limit to how much you can write in a digital format.)

Well, we know that the Bible isn’t literally true; at least not the whole thing. Genesis is obviously completely wrong. We’ve discovered things like evolution and the big bang and archaeology and stuff. This fact shouldn’t shock you. Also, there are countless contradictions and errors.

So is it figuratively true? Well, that’s an extremely vague way to put it. I guess you could say that such an indefinable idea can be applied to the Bible. There are so many different stories in the Bible that you can read that you’ll inevitably come across one that makes you say “gee, that’s kinda like _____” and it can help you in your everyday life. But the same can be said of other ancient texts, or the Iliad, or the works of Shakespeare, or the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or the 4th season of King of Queens (if there even was a 4th season) or whatever you have sitting on your coffee table.

So, does the Bible really help you lead a better life? Again, it basically comes down to which text you choose to guide you. There’s certainly a lot of good stuff in there, like “love thy neighbor as thyself” and all that. But there’s also a lot of horrible, insane stuff in there. Even ignoring the entire Old Testament, for every inspiring passage, there’s one that makes me wonder why the book has sold as well as it has. There are far more reasonable, well-written, and helpful books out there that can help you lead a better life.

To better understand the Bible, I strongly urge you to check out the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible.

Now, let’s examine the elephant in the room: Jesus.

Pretty much everything we know (or think we know) about Jesus comes from the Bible. And as we’ve established, the Bible is full of contradiction and error. Not only was the New Testament written decades after Jesus’ death and supposed resurrection, but it has been translated, mistranslated, reinterpreted, and rewritten numerous times over the centuries. For example, the idea that Mary was a virgin comes as a result of a mistranslation in the King James Bible. The word for “young woman” was mistaken for the word for “virgin”.

You know, I’m having a really hard time putting my thoughts into words here. I’ve read, watched, and listened to a lot of fascinating info on the origins of the Bible and the story of Jesus for my entire adult life, and there’s a whole lot of very compelling reasons to doubt it all, but putting dozens of sources together into cohesive sentences here is…daunting.

Well, to pull myself out of the corner that I’ve written myself into here, I’ll instead focus on what I DO believe about who Jesus was.

I don’t have a problem with assuming that he did exist. But his story has been so distorted over the years – adapted to fit the prophecies, merged with other savior stories, and so on – that it’s probably impossible to know who he really was. My guess is that he was just one of many charismatic philosophers of the time, and he happened to draw a bigger crowd than the others. He had a lot of good things to say, and a lot of people liked him. He upset the status quo, and was executed as a result. No miracles, no magic, no resurrection, no coming apocalypse (except that which we create for ourselves). To me, he’s a historical figure like Shakespeare or Homer (why do I keep going back to those two?) in that there are doubts about whether they even existed.

Maybe he believed that he was really the son of God. If so, he was unfortunately deluded, because (as I’ll explain in my next post in this series) there’s no such thing. All in all, he seems like he was a good guy, so I hate to have to take him down a few pegs like this. My ingrained Christian indoctrination is making this topic very uncomfortable.

If, right now, you’re thinking “that was all crap!”, I pretty much agree with you. In this post, I tried to succinctly explain my true feelings about Christianity, and I failed miserably. But I’ve laid down a framework, and I’ll be coming back to this post to revise and add to it as I am able. Really, there’s so much to talk about on this subject that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get everything written out definitively.

I also wanted to point out why I’m not providing any links to my sources for what I’m saying here. For one, I don’t feel like it. I’d wind up spending way too much time tracking down my sources and linking them here. And really, would it matter if I did? I’m not trying to convince anyone here; I’m trying to say why I’ve come to the conclusions that I have.

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August 28 2008

The Pledge

I’m putting off writing a big Church/State separation history post by writing a bunch of small ones. (The previous one is here.)
During the past few years (perhaps even longer than that), there has been a lot of argument about whether or not we should require kids to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in school, and it inevitably comes up once or twice during election “season” (when did 3 years become a season?) although I haven’t seen it pop up yet.

Requiring kids to recite the Pledge seems pretty harmless on the surface, but many people have forgotten what it really means, sort of like how most people have forgotten that “Ring Around the Rosey” is a poem about the plagues. (EDIT: No it’s not.)

First, let’s look at the name. Pledge of Allegiance. It’s an oath of loyalty, a vow to faithfully serve. Such a vow is not something to be taken lightly. So…why do we make kids say this every morning?

When I was a kid, I had no idea what half the words in the Pledge even meant. I heard words like pledge, allegiance, republic, witchistans, indivisible, liberty, justice, and had no idea what their meanings were (one of them turned out to be three words), and didn’t even have the faintest notion of the solemnity and importance of such words. It was just something I was expected to memorize in school and recite back with everyone else in my class. (Actually, I was one of those kids who didn’t like to speak up in class, so I usually just mouthed along with everyone else.)

Pledging your allegiance to a person, or group, or nation, is a powerful act that should only be undertaken by those who fully understand what they’re doing. So why the hell are we forcing children to take it, when they’re too young to know what they’re doing, or even to understand the words they’re speaking? And why require it at all? A pledge is something you should only take willingly, and a forced pledge isn’t a pledge at all.

Well, I’ve gotten this far, and I could stop now and be able to say that I’ve argued my case pretty well. However, I haven’t even mentioned the huge controversy surrounding just two words in the pledge, which seem to be far more central to the national argument than the issues I’ve just covered. And those two words are: “under God“.

Those two words loom forebodingly over what is an otherwise pretty good pledge. Anybody who’s familiar with the US Constitution (and who isn’t trying to push their own agenda) can tell you that requiring any US citizen to recite something that prescribes anything even remotely religious violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. So why did we adopt such a pledge?

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August 25 2008

Why I don’t like the term “Brights”

brights Finally, an atheist organization with a decent logo.

Before I embraced my atheism, I had never heard the term “Bright” used in reference to an atheist. So, that’s probably a good sign that I need to describe what it is before I describe why I’m opposed to it.

Bright” is a term used by some very prolific people in the atheist movement (such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett) as a euphemism for “atheist”. The idea is to mimic the way that the homosexual community redefined the word “gay” to paint them in a more favorable light.

I can certainly see the reasoning behind this. When many believers use the word “atheist”, they’re thinking of morally bankrupt, god-hating, hell-bound degenerates. However, changing the name isn’t going to stop this. Look at the word “gay”. People who hate gays infuse the word with their hatred and negativity, and would do so no matter what word they used.

And then there’s the fact that “brights” as a term could be easily confused as something meant to be insulting to all non-brights. After all, the word “bright” is frequently used to describe someone who’s smart. Are we trying to say that we’re smarter than the believers?

I’m not opposed to the movement itself, which seems to have at its center the goal of improving the public’s opinion of atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, secularists, humanists, and the non-religious. They’re trying to do what most other atheists are trying to do. I just don’t think this is the way to do it.

The only way we’re going to overcome the negativity is to confront it head-on. If you find someone saying hateful, untrue things about atheists, tell them they’re wrong, and explain why. It’s natural for humans to react negatively to what they don’t understand, and most people feel the way they do about atheists because they’ve never met one.

This is why things like the OUT Campaign are so necessary. There are millions of non-believers out there, but there are so many of us still in hiding (myself included) that people think we’re just a lunatic fringe. When the general public can look at the atheist next door and see that we’re just as normal and moral as they are, the negativity directed at us due to ignorance will dissipate, and we’ll be able to more effectively interact and shape the world.

The term “bright” needs to go away. It would be nice if Dawkins and Dennett and some of the other supporters would just say “hey, we thought this was a good idea, but we’ll all be better off if we just improve our current titles”.

I highly recommend just reading the Wikipedia article. Honestly, what’s written there on the subject is far more articulate than what I’ve written here.

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August 17 2008

Book Review: “Letter to a Christian Nation” by Sam Harris

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This is one of the first atheism-oriented books I read once I realized that I was probably an atheist and that it was ok to read books on the subject to learn more. If I remember correctly, it was #4, after The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (great), God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens (I couldn’t get into it, even though I really liked his writing), and Harris’ own The End of Faith (mostly pretty good).

This book was written as a direct response to the criticism Harris received from The End of Faith. It’s written directly to “Christian America”, and attempts to address the biggest issues and apparent omissions from his previous book. As a result, it reads more like a conversation than a lecture, which really helps.

Though I enjoyed The End of Faith, I found Letter to a Christian Nation to be much easier to read, to understand, and to recommend to others. Harris addresses specific questions that you commonly hear when theists are questioning the atheist point of view (as they should, even though they rarely apply similar questioning to their own religion), and in a calm, matter-of-fact way.

In fact, this book seems more mellow and casual when compared to The End of Faith. This helps it a great deal, because the book can’t be as easily dismissed as the angry ranting of a “militant atheist” (a term which seems to refer to any atheist who doesn’t just sit down, shut up, and let the Christians do what they want).

The best part is that it’s short. It’s only 144 pages long (or 2 hours in audiobook form), which makes it much easier to digest for the common reader. Harris doesn’t ramble or tell unnecessary anecdotes or quote other books very often. He specifically focuses on Christianity (as if the title of the book wasn’t a big clue) in order to tailor this book to the general public. If you want to read his opinions on other religions, he covers them at great length (especially Islam) in The End of Faith.

I listened to the audiobook version on my MP3 player, which I think is a great way to go. (I’ll address my inability to actually read non-fiction in a future post.) The narrator is very good, and either believes the material he’s speaking, or he’s an excellent actor. His calm voice lacks any venom that could distort what Harris is really trying to say.

(I was just thinking…it must be hard finding book narrators who don’t have a problem with narrating an atheist book. It’s probably a good thing that they’ve never done an audiobook of Mein Kampf, because anybody who takes that job is going to come out of it sounding like a nazi. They’d have to get someone who can in no way be mistaken for a nazi, like Morgan Freeman or Woody Allen.)

The best thing about this book is that it’s actually something you can give to your believer friends to help them understand why you can’t believe in God. It specifically addresses the common Christian throughout its pages. Will it convert them? Probably not, unless they’re already on the fence. And true believers won’t be swayed by any of the arguments Harris makes, of course. But most rational believers will probably come away with a better understanding of who atheists really are, and they’ll probably never look at their own religion the same way again.

On a slightly unrelated note, I find it hilarious that someone wrote a book called The End of Reason in response to Harris’ The End of Faith. Guess they didn’t give much thought to that title, did they?

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