Tag Archive: Christianity

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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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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February 11 2009

Correlation isn’t causation, but…

I saw an interesting chart today.

Gallup recently released the results of a poll they conducted, in which they asked people how important religion is in their lives. The results are pretty interesting.

I was pretty surprised that the USA is listed as “less religious”, but I guess that shows just how extreme many other countries are. I’m sure we’re at the high end of “less religious” anyway.

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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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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 17 2008

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


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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