Tag Archive: religion

April 24 2011

The savior of humanity

Long ago, a powerful being came to Earth, destined to be humanity’s savior. He was raised by his parents to be ethical and good. As an adult, he used his power and charisma to bring hope to all those he encountered. He led by example, he helped those in need. He attracted powerful enemies. He was killed, but rose from the grave. He watches over humanity from on high, as humanity gazes up at him in awe and wonder.

I am, of course, talking about Superman.

Happy Easter! I swear I’ll write more posts soon.

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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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April 24 2010

Abortion: where do you draw the line?

I’ll start this out by saying that I’m in favor of abortion rights. I’m pro-choice. I’ll spare you my reasoning, because you’ve probably heard it all before, and who the hell wants to hear it again?

But one question I’ve always wondered is: where do you draw the line? When is it too late to perform an abortion? When does an embryo become a human?

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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 8 2009

Communication Breakdown

Kingston_Phoneboxes

It’s hard to talk to people about supernatural or paranormal claims, especially when you’re a Skeptic with a capital S. People think you’re just closed to anything that doesn’t fit into a strict naturalistic worldview, which just isn’t true. I like to say that I’ll believe in anything, literally anything, as long as it’s backed up by evidence. That doesn’t usually help though.

I think part of the problem is just in how we divide the world around us, by definition. Everybody agrees that the natural world exists (and if they don’t, run!) but people also divide things into two other categories, mentioned above, so they think that reality is split into the natural, the supernatural, and the paranormal (possibly others, but I’m going to focus on these three). The natural, of course, is everything around us that can be studied and explained by science. The supernatural is the spiritual world, the realm of religion and mysticism. The paranormal is stuff like psychic powers, aliens, cryptids, and ghosts.

However, terms like “supernatural” and “paranormal” are unnecessary. They just complicate things, don’t actually define anything, and give many claims more credence than they deserve. It’s time we stopped using them.

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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 21 2009

Choosing death: should Daniel Hauser be allowed to die?

Many of you out there have probably heard about the case of Daniel Hauser, a 13-year-old who was recently ordered to receive chemotherapy for his cancer, instead of sticking to “alternative” treatments like a special diet, vitamins, and ionized water. At the moment of this writing, he and his mother are on the run to avoid the chemo and deal with the cancer their own way. (Look at me! I’m writing something that’s actually current! This must be what being a journalist feels like!)

I could focus on criticizing their choice of treatment, but I’m not going to (beyond this paragraph). It should be obvious to most of us that this family has bought into some crazy, dangerous nonsense. This is a perfect example of why “alternative medicine” is dangerous: not because most of it is completely worthless, but because it causes people to forego real, scientifically-proven medical treatments.

The bigger issue here is whether it’s ok for the government to step in and choose someone’s medical treatment, and how far we as a society should allow someone’s faith and beliefs to go, and whether society as a whole has any say at all. Essentially, the question is: should we let Daniel Hauser die?

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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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April 22 2009

Book Review Quickies #1

I read a lot of books, and if I have the time or inclination, and if a book is good enough or relevant to this blog, I like to write reviews for them. However, my time is not infinite, and I have a big backlog of books to review. So rather than just let my mental list get longer and longer until I forget what’s on it, I decided to just do some “quickie” reviews, to urge others to check these books out.

In this edition:

  • Trick or Treatment: The Undeniable Facts About Alternative Medicine
    by Dr. Edzard Ernst & Simon Singh
  • How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science
    by Michael Shermer

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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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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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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 20 2008

Why John McCain must not become president

untitled

This reminds me of some other president…except he used peace signs instead of the thumbs-up.

A lot of people think that this is just another presidential race, with the winner getting to bring their own particular ideas and policies to the table, but that little else will change. But that’s not true. At least, not for one of the two big-party candidates running.

If John McCain is elected president, he will directly or indirectly subvert or dismantle key elements of this country that have made it great, and we’ll come out of his presidency even worse off than we are now. Here are several reasons why, and hopefully at least one of them will convince you to vote for someone else.

 

Four More Years

Most people agree that Bush is a horrible president who has damaged this country in uncountable ways. His shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later style has made the USA a joke to some countries, and many others now look at us as a huge threat to them.

McCain has been trying to distance himself from Bush, understandably. He’s been running on a platform of change since he was nominated, though everything I’ve heard from him has sounded like more Bush policies.

But these aren’t just Bush policies. These are Republican policies. No president can get anything done without his party backing him. Bush’s advisors, cabinet members, and other policymakers are from the Republican party, and as a whole, they’re the ones who have been pushing the ideas that have been ruining this country for the past 8 years.

But McCain says he’s going to change things. How? Where is he going to get his staff? From the Republican party, of course. Most of the people who will be prominent in his administration will be people who were part of Bush’s administration, or at least the ones who haven’t resigned in disgrace or aged too much. And where’s he going to get his policies? It’s common knowledge that McCain has voted in line with Bush 95% of the time.

Four more years of Republican presidency means four more years of Republican policies driving us further into the ground.

 

Deregulation

Look, I’m not going to pretend that I understand how the economy works. In fact, I’m hesitant to even address the issue, because I’m quite possibly wrong, and I’m probably not even able to articulate my true feelings adequately. But I’m going to put what I think out there anyway, and if I’m wrong, I hope someone will correct me, and I’ll rewrite this section. I’ll try to keep this general.

It’s becoming painfully clear that letting businesses do whatever the hell they want is a pretty bad idea. Even before this huge economic downturn came about, it was obviously a problem. Look at Enron. Look at WorldCom. 8 of the 10 biggest bankruptcies in US history have happened in the past 10 years. But let’s not just look at the failures. Let’s look at the current state of business.

What are your choices for high-speed internet service? In my area, you can get Cable through Comcast, or DSL through Qwest. Those are my only options, and last time I checked, Qwest didn’t even offer DSL in my area. So my choice is Comcast or dial-up. And recently, when Comcast was filtering all BitTorrent network traffic, what was my option? Could I "vote with my feet" and switch services? No. My choice is to take what Comcast gives me.

This sort of monopolization is rampant in the telecommunications industry. Look at all the cell phone companies that have been gobbled up by larger companies – you may not even realize they’re gone. AT&T was ruled a monopoly in the 80’s and split up, but its various chunks have re-congealed like a T-1000, and now AT&T is even bigger than it once was, AND it’s in the cell phone industry now. This topic is starting to get away from me, so I’ll reign it in. I do recommend that you learn about how the cell phone industry works in other countries; what we have in the US is pretty archaic.

Letting the Free Market run free seems like a good idea – let market forces take care of everything. But everything can be tainted and subverted by greed. Huge companies can make huge profits for their shareholders, but inevitably they’re forced to make "business decisions" that affect millions of people. Huge companies can stifle innovation and emerging markets, as well as individual freedoms, with a simple policy change, like Comcast’s BitTorrent policy. (Fortunately, the FCC stepped in and told Comcast that they couldn’t limit certain types of traffic like that.) Without competition, growth stagnates, and companies bloat.

The problem with John McCain and the Republican party is that they don’t see the need for regulation in business. They think that the Free Market will take care of everything. McCain has firmly supported deregulation in the past, though lately he’s come to see that regulation CAN be a good thing, thanks to the tanking of our mostly-unregulated economy. But I don’t think that philosophy will last long enough for him, and it certainly won’t last long enough for the party.

We definitely shouldn’t over-regulate the economy and business. Too much regulation is just as damaging as no regulation. But taking steps to ensure that all markets have healthy amounts of competition and oversight is essential to the well-being of this country and its economy. It also seems that the Republicans are still clinging to economic policies that just don’t work, or don’t work very well. Supply-Side Economics (or "trickle-down" as it’s most commonly known) is a system that unfairly favors the rich, and its benefits to the general public seem pretty negligible. But McCain and the Republicans keep pushing this lousy idea, and I can’t help but wonder if they’re doing it because of their perverse worship of Ronald Reagan, or just because they like it when the rich get richer.

I don’t want this to seem like I’m saying that Republican policies caused our current financial problems. But they’ve certainly contributed. (So have Democrat policies.)

 

The Christian Right

This is a touchy subject. If I say the wrong thing, I could make some people think I’m some evil atheist liberal who wants to outlaw religion. But only half of that is true: I’m not evil, and I don’t want to outlaw religion.

It’s interesting that the party that claims to want as little government as possible is also allied with the fundamentalist Christian Right, which is arguably the biggest group working towards restricting and regulating what we can and can’t do in America today. They want to break down the constitutional separation of Church and State, and they want to impose their interpretation of biblical scripture on the entire country.

I don’t want to get too deep into this subject, because it’s a HUGE subject. It’s hard to separate the Christian Right from normal Christianity. Indeed, the Christian Right believe that they ARE normal Christianity. They’re not, but they ARE powerful, and they’re formidable. If you want to learn more about what they’re all about, I strongly recommend the book American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America by Chris Hedges. Think Taliban.

In the words of Susan B. Anthony, "I distrust
those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires."

 

Sarah Palin

Speaking of religious nutjobs, here’s Sarah Palin. Holy crap. I don’t even know where to start.

Looking at Palin’s actions and policies, I see someone who just doesn’t give a flying fuck about the First Amendment. (I feel like I’ve been linking to that page a lot lately.) She’s a Christian Right extremist, and she’s been working for years to push her fundamentalist views on her state, and will continue to do so to the entire country if she’s given more power. And if she became President (the chance that McCain could die while in office is quite significant) the result would be…well, I shudder to think of it. It’s not just that she’s a fundy wingnut. She doesn’t even understand that evolution is real and creationism is nonsense; she wants both taught in science classes. Cripes.

Also, the most important part: she’s absolutely unqualified. Her foreign policy experience is nonexistent. She can’t explain her policies without first memorizing them verbatim or reading them from cuecards. She’s the female version of Bush.

If I had written this post 2 months ago like I intended (I’ve been working on it for about a month now) I would’ve wondered what reason McCain had for choosing her, and I probably would’ve commented on his judgement. But in the past couple weeks, the reason has become all too clear: Sarah Palin is doing his dirty work. She can (and does) suggest that Obama is a terrorist, or that he’s a Muslim, and distract people from the real issues (which the McCain campaign is weak on) and she can stoke the fires of hate and fear like a pro. By choosing Palin, McCain can keep his hands clean and distance himself from her disgusting tactics. It’s amazing to see what a party will do when they’re losing.

 

Judges & Abortion

There’s a very good chance that the next president will have to appoint at least one judge on the Supreme Court in the next 4 years. Currently, the court is balanced between 4 liberals, 4 conservatives, and 1 swing voter. However, if one of the non-conservatives retires or dies (which is considered to be most likely) and is replaced by another Conservative like McCain has said he’d do, it could have some pretty serious repercussions for our rights and way of life.

The Christian Right has been trying to get Roe vs. Wade overturned for decades, and there’s a very real chance that that’ll happen if we get another conservative on the bench. Why is this such an important issue? After all, I used to think it was just a red herring issue being used to divide the country (it is).

If Roe vs. Wade is overturned, it will give lawmakers across the country the opportunity to outlaw abortion. This is a very real and serious issue for many reasons. For one, it lets the government take away a little part of your freedom and dictate what a woman can or can’t do to her own body. Apparently, the anti-government bent of conservativism doesn’t apply in this case.

Look, nobody likes abortion. It should be a non-issue. We need to redefine the way we look at sex as a society. We need much better pregnancy-prevention education in this country; abstinence-only education doesn’t work (illustrated best, and most ironically, by Sarah Palin’s own daughter) and in order to prevent unwanted pregnancies, we need to push birth control, not wishful thinking.

So, back to abortion. Why should we keep abortion legal? Well, did making drugs illegal stop drug use? Of course not. In other countries, where abortion IS illegal, it still happens. If you want an abortion, you can get one, and the conditions are probably pretty unsafe. Or, there’s the old coat hanger method.

You can either keep abortion legal and safe, or make abortion illegal and unsafe. Stop abortion with birth control.

 

Energy

We all know that the world will one day run out of oil. Estimates of when that will happen vary quite a bit, but it’s probably going to be within my lifetime. So why the hell should we spend MORE money on oil and its associated infrastructure if we know it’s going to run out soon?

Running out of oil is going to be painful for our country, and the entire world. Eventually, we’re going to have to switch to something else. But a conversion at such an enormous scale is going to take decades, and cost a lot of money. The longer we put it off, the harder and more expensive it’s going to be. So why does it make sense to spend more money on oil? Where’s the wisdom in sticking with more of the same? (That may be a much better title for this post.) We can throw our money at oil, or we can throw our money at alternative energy sources.

The plan that seems to make the most sense to me is for the government to provide incentives for car manufacturers to switch to battery powered cars. This will allow us to use a variety of methods to generate the electricity to power those cars (and homes, and other stuff). Then, the government gives incentives for the production of electricity via sources like wind, solar, nuclear, water, geothermal, and other renewable sources. No single method is going to replace oil; certain parts of the country are better at generating power via certain sources than others.

Money is tight right now, and the government probably can’t fund both alternative energy and oil-based energy. We know which one we’ll be using in the future, and which one is running out. This seems like a no-brainer.

 

A note regarding Barack Obama

This post was written to show why a John McCain presidency would be harmful to America. It was not written to compare/contrast his policies with those of his opponent. Personally, I will be voting for Obama, and I think he’ll be a pretty good president. But that doesn’t mean I agree with all of his policies. It also doesn’t mean that I don’t agree with any of McCain’s policies. McCain does have some good policies, and Obama does have some bad ones. Policy differences are a matter of personal preference, and if that was all that was at stake here, I wouldn’t have bothered to write this post.

I’m not saying you should vote for Obama. Go ahead and vote for Ron Paul, or Bob Barr, or Ralph Nader, or Homer Simpson, or whatever. But for the good of this country, don’t vote for John McCain.

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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 21 2008

Sam Harris vs. Sarah Palin (and, what I’m up to)

I feel like I haven’t been posting much lately. Probably because I haven’t. I could offer up excuses like “I’ve been really busy with work” or “it’s the end of the quarter and all my classes have final projects I’ve had to work on” or even “I’ve been racing rams in WoW so I can get a subscription to the Brew of the Month Club”.

I’ve been working on two pretty big articles for this blog, actually. The first is a pretty thorough examination of the Quinquae Viae, which are St. Thomas Aquinas’ five proofs for the existence of God. The second is simply titled “Why John McCain must not become president”, and you can probably guess what that’s about. But those are both pretty detailed articles, and hopefully I’ll have the time to finish at least one of them in the next couple days.

In the mean time, I strongly urge you to read this article from Newsweek, published on their web site just yesterday. It’s written by Sam Harris, and he talks about why elitism is considered a bad thing in politics, and specifically how it relates to the simple-minded Sarah Palin, who makes Bush look like a rational and scientific person.

One especially nauseating thing spoiling this otherwise brilliant article is the headline that Newsweek gave it (“When Atheists Attack”), which basically tells people that these are the opinions of a damn dirty liberal atheist who thinks he’s better than you, and are therefore not worthy of your consideration. Once again, sensationalism trumps quality journalism.

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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 18 2008

The 21-gram soul

Ah, the mainstream media doing what it does best: reporting science.

This is a pretty interesting concept.

As the story goes, a doctor named Duncan MacDougall proved that the soul exists because he found that people weigh less (about 21 grams) after they die than they did just before death. These results were reported in the New York Times numerous times after the study was performed…in 1907.

I guess science reporting was as crappy 100 years ago as it is now. But, rather than just dismiss this out of hand as we probably should, let’s analyze it a bit.

First, it’s pretty lazy logical thinking to assume that, even if there IS a difference in weight, that it automatically means that it’s the result of the soul leaving the body. It’s only 21 grams (or 3/4 of an ounce), so we’re not talking about a whole lot of weight. I’m no doctor, but I can think of a few ways that this could be attributed to something besides a phenomenon that has never been proven to exist.

  1. Breath leaving the body. Contrary to popular belief, air DOES have weight, though it’s very low. When a person dies, their lungs deflate, and a lot of air is expelled from the body. I wouldn’t even bring this up, except for the fact that the missing weight is only 21 grams. It also goes hand-in-hand with my next idea:
  2. Moisture leaving the body. Your breath has moisture in it, after all. Just breathe on a piece of glass and it’ll fog up. When the breath leaves the body, it takes some moisture with it. I’m guessing that the moisture is probably heavier than the actual air.
  3. Snopes has what I think is the most reasonable explanation, from the American Medicine journal:

    “…MacDougall…failed to take into account the sudden rise in body temperature at death when the blood stops being air-cooled via its circulation through the lungs….[The] sweating and moisture evaporation caused by this rise in body temperature would account both for the drop in the men’s weight and the dogs’ failure to register one.”

    More on the dogs later.
    (I feel like a real reporter or something. I just used a quote from a medical journal.)

  4. Were such large scales in 1907 even able to measure with such accuracy? Maybe I’m underestimating the technology of the time. MacDougall says in his paper that his “scales were sensitive to two-tenths of an ounce”. That doesn’t seem accurate enough to me, especially considering how difficult it must be to balance a body on what must be a pretty large scale.

Anyway, we’re still talking about 21 grams here.

Let’s examine the study itself now. Was the study well done? What was the sample size?

Six. He weighed six people before and after they died. This is nowhere near a sufficient sample size for any scientific or medical study. Except that two of the six subjects weren’t able to be weighed, so really it’s just four people in this study. Only one of the 4 actually lost 3/4 of an ounce, and the others were far less exact. This study is quite a mess.

Ok, I think I’ve beaten this into the ground. However, MacDougall still may have stumbled upon something here. Maybe somebody has duplicated his results over the years. Well, I did do some limited searching for similar studies, and I didn’t find any evidence that supports MacDougall’s claims, although that doesn’t mean that the evidence isn’t out there. In fact, I did find one study that showed that the body actually increased in weight after death, but it was a pretty lousy study too, and they were weighing sheep.

You know, these days it would be very easy to perform our own scientific study of this “phenomenon”. Some modern hospital beds have built-in scales and automatic monitoring that could easily detect this weight loss, if it’s happening. It should be fairly easy to look at the weight logs of a few thousand people who died in a hospital equipped with these beds and figure out if they’re losing any weight when they die.

Of course, even if you established that they do, you still need to establish that it’s linked to the soul leaving the body, and to do that you would first need to prove that the soul actually exists. Good luck with that, and remember Occam’s Razor.

On a related note, I just sent this subject in to Skeptoid as a suggestion for a future episode. I’d love to hear Dunning’s take on it, but I’m sure he’s got much more important stories to tackle.

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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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August 12 2008

It seemed like a good idea, at first… (the Boy Scout coin)

I was listening to Atheist Talk this morning, and their guest, Lori Lipman Brown, brought up an issue that I had assumed was settled, for good or bad.

The issue is the minting of a special coin to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Boy Scouts of America. The bill was introduced months ago, but apparently it’s being held up due to lobbying by people like Brown.

I want to tell you exactly why the hell I’m opposed to this bill, but first I need to talk about my history in Boy Scouts.

For most of my childhood, I was involved in Scouting. I started in Tiger Cubs when I was really young (I don’t even remember when that was…6 or 7 probably) and then moved up to Cub Scouts, working my way up the ranks until I entered Boy Scouts. I went on nearly every camping trip, I made a lot of friends, and learned a lot of important stuff. As I got older, I took on certain leadership roles in my troop, and held the position of Scribe, Patrol Leader, Assistant Senior Patrol Leader, and eventually even Senior Patrol Leader (the non-adult leader of the troop). I earned at least a dozen and a half merit badges and got to the rank of Life Scout (which is one step down from Eagle), and even became a member of the Order of the Arrow before I succumbed to being a teenager and lost interest.

So it’s with great sorrow that I say that I can no longer support the Boy Scouts. And here’s why:

The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God. In the first part of the Scout Oath or Promise the member declares, ‘On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law.’ The recognition of God as the ruling and leading power in the universe and the grateful acknowledgment of His favors and blessings are necessary to the best type of citizenship and are wholesome precepts in the education of the growing members." (source)

Religion has always been a part of Boy Scouts, of course. And I always just tried to ignore those parts as much as I could when I was a member. However, the unstated premise here is: no atheists or agnostics. Interestingly, they don’t seem to care which religion you practice, just as long as you believe in God (or, presumably, gods). It’s worth pointing out that 62% of all units (troops, packs, etc.) are sponsored by religious groups, the largest being the Mormons, Methodists, and Roman Catholics.

Then there’s this:

"Boy Scouts of America believes that homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the obligations in the Scout Oath and Scout Law to be morally straight and clean in thought, word, and deed. The conduct of youth members must be in compliance with the Scout Oath and Law, and membership in Boy Scouts of America is contingent upon the willingness to accept Scouting’s values and beliefs." (source)

So, they discriminate against atheists, agnostics, AND homosexuals.

I could point out that they also don’t allow female members, but then it IS called the BOY Scouts. And besides, seeing female leaders, camp counselors, and even the occasional scout wasn’t that uncommon in my time.

And I should also point out that not all scout groups are discriminatory. In fact, most of them aren’t. Most are led by people who live by the morals that they teach and know to treat all people with respect and dignity, no matter what the official position of the organization is. And I think that eventually, the whole organization will change its stance on these discriminating issues. However, right now, the official position of the BSA is to discriminate against atheists, agnostics, and homosexuals.

Now, for some Libertarianism: I believe that any privately-funded organization is fully within their rights to discriminate against whomever they wish. I don’t have to like it. However, the BSA is NOT a private organization. Which brings us back to the coin. Remember the coin?

According to the bills, they intend to mint 350,000 of these coins and sell them for $10 per coin, with all of the profits going directly to the BSA. That’s $3.5 million going to a religious organization with discriminatory policies and practices. Why don’t we just send the Pope a check?

This bill is clearly in violation of the First Amendment and Church/State separation. The government should/must not fund religious organizations, no matter how much good they do. And it certainly shouldn’t fund organizations that discriminate against ANYONE. Indeed, this bill seems to be a very sneaky way to support religion, disguised as a way to honor one of this country’s most beloved organizations.

Just for the hell of it, here’s what I think the BSA needs to do:

  1. Stop discriminating against atheists and agnostics. Stop discriminating against homosexuals (and bisexuals and all that). Stop discriminating against females. In fact, just stop discriminating against anyone.
  2. Modify your programs to allow for alternate paths for the nonreligious. For example, where advancement regulations currently require a scout to attend their church/temple/mosque and discuss what they saw with a leader, allow them to visit a secular center or read a secular book, watch a secular documentary or TV program, or something like that. It’s kinda hard to say what exactly, since atheists don’t have churches.
    In fact, even better: require kids to attend a church AND a temple AND a mosque AND a secular…thingy, and so on. Having kids learn about different cultures is one of the most worthwhile things the BSA could do.
  3. Stop with all this "you need God to be moral" nonsense. You don’t. This is definitely a topic that needs its own post, but I did post an article I found recently that is a good start.
    How about replacing "reverent" in the Scout Law with "moral"? It seems to me that the inclusion of "reverent" instead of "moral" indicates that you think that they are one and the same. However, how is it moral to discriminate against someone else? Again, a topic for another day.

I really hope the BSA shapes up. My memories of my time as a scout are some of the happiest I have, and it makes me sad that I can no longer recommend it as it is today.

I also recommend an episode of Penn & Teller’s show Bullshit (season 4, episode 1), which tackles the boy scout/church & state issue specifically (though not the coin bill).

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August 10 2008

The Dawkins Belief Scale

As I’ve been writing, it seems to me that it’s a good idea to explain a “tool” I’ll be using at certain points to describe degrees of theistic belief, or lack thereof.

In his book “The God Delusion” (which I highly recommend), Richard Dawkins lays out a 7-point scale that defines degrees of agnosticism, from 100% belief to 100% non-belief.  In this case, I’m going to cut-and-paste a slightly easier to understand version adapted by Christopher Sisk on his web site.

  1. Strong Theist: I do not question the existence of God, I KNOW he exists.
  2. De-facto Theist: I cannot know for certain but I strongly believe in God and I live my life on the assumption that he is there.
  3. Weak Theist: I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.
  4. Pure Agnostic: God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.
  5. Weak Atheist: I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be skeptical.
  6. De-facto Atheist: I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable and I live my life under the assumption that he is not there.
  7. Strong Atheist: I am 100% sure that there is no God.

I consider myself to be a 6: De-facto Atheist. Dawkins himself claims to be 6-7. Personally, I think 7 is just being unreasonable, at least right now. It’s true that there’s no proof that God exists, but there’s also no proof that God doesn’t exist, and unfortunately there never will be, because it’s impossible to prove that something doesn’t exist (if something doesn’t exist, it can’t exactly leave evidence of its nonexistence). And, a #1 is just insane. Those people are delusional.

Anyway, I’ll be referring to this scale in future posts, because it’s a lot easier to just point to a number on a chart and say “that one” than try to define a degree of belief in relation to other degrees of belief

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July 31 2008

Divorce rates, by religion

I recently listened to a group’s conversation regarding divorce rates among different religious groups. They were of the opinion that divorce was rampant among atheists due to their "godless and immoral" nature, and that it was much better among Christians. It occurred to me that this sort of ignorance may be more widespread than I previously realized, so I just wanted to throw a little hard data at the issue. Naturally, I doubt that evidence will help make much of a difference (does it ever?) but it doesn’t hurt to try.

First, why do I choose to link to this site above all others? After all, there’s plenty of census data available online. Here’s why:

  1. This is (as far as I can tell) the most recent data on the subject.
  2. It’s the most commonly-cited data on the subject on the internet right now.
  3. The Barna Group "conducts primary research, produces media resources pertaining to spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries".

So what does the study find? That atheists and agnostics have divorce rates which are equal to slightly lower than those of various Christian denominations.

The author mentions the fact that atheists/agnostics have lower rates of marriage and higher rates of cohabitation, which may skew the results slightly. That’s probably true (I haven’t researched this claim, but it sounds likely) but we should also remember that this isn’t exactly an unbiased source. Quite frankly, I’m surprised that atheists came off as well as they did.

This study is by no means definitive proof on the subject, one way or the other. But it’s certainly an indicator of how things really are. Based on this data, I would speculate that religion isn’t as large of an element in divorce rates as most people think, and that the increases are the result of changes in societal opinions. I’m not currently making a judgement on whether this is good or bad, mind you. Maybe I will in a future post.

One more thing to point out: this study states that the divorce rate is 33%, and that’s pretty consistent to some other studies I’ve perused on the subject. The common myth is that 50% of all marriages end in divorce, which clearly is not true.

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