Tag Archive: secularism

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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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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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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