Monday, February 10, 2014

A mission for non-believers

I've been wondering if there's something more we non-believers should be doing than just arguing with the faithful. While that might help in our goal of being recognized as fully entitled citizens along with all the believers, it's always seemed to me that we should have a higher, more noble, practical goal.

I think we should be the leaders in debunking bullshit. We're all about evidence and logic, right? Shouldn't we be out there leading the charge against the vaccination and climate-change deniers, the ancient astronaut and UFO purveyors? It seems to me we'd do a lot more service to our fellow man by calling bullshit on pseudoscience, chiropractors, new age woo-woo, truthers, birthers and all brands of conspiracy theorists than trying to tell born-again idiots for the zillionth time that the burden of proof is on them.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

My answers to "13 Questions Every Christian Must Eventually Ask Themselves"

My thanks to my Twitter acquaintance @naum (Naum Trifanoff) for introducing me, through his tumbler blog, AZSPOT, to Stephen Mattson. Stephen is a Christian writer whose blog at is subtitled "Inspiration. Faith. Christian Culture. Writing." I've been impressed by his willingness to take on difficult topics and ask questions that are unusual in a lot of Christian writing, and also to engage rationally with a non-believer like me. 

Today, I saw that he posted this list of "13 Questions Every Christian Must Eventually Ask Themselves". I found the post refreshing for its candor and challenge to the faithful, but also a bit disappointing because questions like these are usually expected to inspire yet more circuitous apologetics and tortuous rationalizations, to deny the the simplest and most obvious answer, that gods are figments of the human imagination. That's the proverbial elephant in the room, you might say.

I thought I'd provide this non-believer's point of view here and link it from a comment on Steven's blog. You should fully read each of his questions first, by the way, to fully understand my answers.

1. What is salvation?

Salvation is an imaginary cure to an imaginary disease, sin. The promise of a life of eternal bliss after death, or more to the point the escape from an eternity of suffering is not unique to Christianity, except in the decorative details. The human brain, being able to apprehend its own mortality, wishfully invents imaginary methods to escape death. I find this to be the best and most obvious explanation. All the other questions about permanency, predestination, etc. are irrelevant unless you believe the primary assertion in the first place. Contrary to the last sentence, salvation is only complicated if you believe it exists.

2. Do I own my faith?

Every baby is born an atheist. For the vast majority of people, they were indoctrinated in the faith of their family or the prevailing faith of the place they grew up. Even the most bible-believing Christian would probably have been a Muslim or Hindu except for an accident of birth.

3. Can I trust the Bible?

Not any more than any other holy book and a lot less than, say, a high school chemistry or history book. It was written by people with an agenda translated from translations and heavily edited and "harmonized" over the centuries to remove even more inconsistencies than it currently contains.

4. How do Biblical texts apply to modern society?

The Bible is a historical Iron Age anthology of myths with perhaps a sprinkling of semi-accurate anecdotes.  Attempting to apply the Bible to modern day civilization is usually an exercise in picking out passages that justify, in some indirect or painfully convoluted manner what you think you ought to do anyway.

5. Who is God?

"A million different people have a million different definitions of God", you say. Isn't the most obvious explanation for this that God is an imaginary concept that every person constructs from their own mind, guided by an arbitrarily chosen set of dogmatically asserted qualities? If God were real, there'd be only one basic definition, wouldn't there?

6. Why does God allow bad things to happen?

The simplest explanation is that the universe has no intent, no purpose, no knowledge. It just is. And volcanoes explode and lightning strikes and storms destroy with no malice aforethought. They don't know we're here and they don't care. On the plus side, the universe carries no grudges, it's not out to get us.

7. Why is God so morbidly violent in the Old Testament?

Because when the Old Testament was written people were barely civilized and barbaric, so the deity they invented merely fits in with the times. 

8. How does free will affect my faith?

Leaving aside the general philosophical question of free will, all of the issues you bring up about the implications with respect to faith exist only because of the inherent incongruities of a supposed perfect God and an observed imperfect world. If, instead, you consider that the universe is simply the way it is without apparent reason or purpose and without an omnipotent and omniscient controlling deity, all these perplexities and conundrums simply evaporate. They are only artifacts of the base problem of trying to fit the square peg of a perfect deity into the round hole of reality.

9. How can you believe in something that can’t be scientifically proven?

I'd suggest a better way to ask this is, "How can you believe in something for which there is no evidence?"(1) I think people pretend or force themselves to believe because they've been told they'll go to hell or they're a bad person if they don't. In other words, what they really believe in is belief, as Dan Dennett puts it.

10. What make Christianity different than any other religion?

Basically nothing except for the choice of wallpaper and drapes, the trappings, the inconsequential details. In the most important attribute of being true, it's just like all the others, there's no evidence to support it being true.

11. How has my faith been influenced?

We don't have different arithmetics or different physics depending on where we were born or what religion we are. They aren't "filtered" as you put it. If there really was a God and He spoke to people and the Bible really was true, how could what anyone believes be different than anyone else?

12. Am I using my faith to serve another agenda?

Nothing further from me necessary. You nailed it.

13. What is the point of following Christ?

I only wish more self-described Christians actually followed Christ's example and simply left the "believing" bit behind. We'd all be a lot better off. It's what you do that counts, not what you believe. 


(1) Strictly speaking, only mathematicians "prove" things. Natural scientists only have provisional explanations for natural phenomena that have not been disproven by experiment or supplanted by simpler, more comprehensive explanations.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Is praying "doing something"?

On Twitter and Facebook, I've been seeing many requests for prayers and returned promises to pray for loved ones or really anyone caught in Superstorm Sandy's path. One of my fellow non-believing friends, however, took strong issue with her town's First Selectman asking people to pray that another Nor'easter forecast for next week will fizzle or turn out to sea. My friend said, "People tried that for Sandy." I think her point was that public officials should be preparing in the real world if a storm does come, and encouraging their citizens to do the same, rather than seeking divine intervention, which was clearly not forthcoming for Sandy.

As usually happens on Twitter, other comments followed, including this one from me: "Praying is something you do to make yourself feel good without actually having to do anything real." This elicited a short exchange of tweets with others about whether prayer was actually "doing something". One believer friend said, "Understand your points of view, but consider myself religious & praying to me doesn't mean no action."

I wanted to clarify my opinion and some facts here and hope that my believing friends will understand more precisely what I'm trying to say. I think it has to do with what people mean when they say, "doing something." Are they referring to the simple act of engaging in an activity, as in "are you doing something tonight"? Or, do they mean having an effect on a real world situation, as in "doing something about childhood obesity"?

In the first sense of simply engaging in an activity, praying is clearly doing something. You're thinking, you may be uttering words, kneeling, using Rosary beads, or whatever. But in the sense of having an effect on the real world, an objective, honest look at the facts reveals there's absolutely no evidence or reason to think that that prayer works. If it did, the world would be much, much different place.

Now, my believer friend might ask, "If I tell my friend that I'm praying for him and that makes him feel better, haven't I had an effect on the real world?" Well, yes and no. I can tell someone I'm going to pray or did pray for him and make him feel better, but it's the real world act of telling him that made him feel better. He'd feel better regardless of whether I prayed for him or not.

To understand my view on this, I would ask my believer friend to engage in the following thought experiment. Imagine yourself in a strange foreign land where mowing one's lawn is regarded as a supplication to a divine being. A member of this society, upon hearing you'll be flying on soon, says, "I shall dedicate tomorrow's mowing to your safe travels." How would you feel about that statement and that person? Clearly, his mowing of the lawn can't have any possible effect on your airplane, its flight crew, or the weather through which you're traveling. It's quite ridiculous, but what do you do? He considers this a sincere gesture and would probably take offense if you laughed or pointed out its patent foolishness. Being a guest in this society, you'd probably be diplomatic and politely thank him. After all, what's the harm if he believes that?

If it were only him or if all he did was wish you well while cutting the lawn, I'd agree that there wouldn't be any harm. But suppose that in that odd society a majority believe to varying degrees in the efficacy of lawn  mowing to cure cancer, end teen-age pregnancy and ensure spousal fidelity, not to mention winning this week's football game. The less fervent vocalize the belief pretty mechanically without really thinking much about it, more or less just to fit in. The more radical among them sponsor legislation to divert funds from science research toward promotion of lawn mowing and claim that only True Lawn Mowers should be allowed to hold public office. And therein lies the problem. Moderation gives cover to extremism. Believing, even half-heartedly, that the "doing something" of praying actually has an effect, always risks diverting us from "doing something" that actually does have an effect.

Thursday, September 20, 2012 object of irrational reverence or obsessive devotion

From the Merriam-Webster online dictionary comes this:

Definition of FETISH

a : an object (as a small stone carving of an animal) believed to have magical power to protect or aid its owner;broadly : a material object regarded with superstitious or extravagant trust or reverence
b : an object of irrational reverence or obsessive devotion :prepossession
c : an object or bodily part whose real or fantasied presence is psychologically necessary for sexual gratification and that is an object of fixation to the extent that it may interfere with complete sexual expression
: a rite or cult of fetish worshipers

Consider in particular definition 1b, please: "an object of irrational reverence or obsessive devotion".

America, or at least a certain segment of Americans have what can only be described as just such an irrational, obsessive devotion to an inanimate object, namely the American Flag. They insist that everyone must adhere to the particular meaning, significance and treatment of the flag that they do. They act as if they own the copyright to the flag and can dictate to others the manner in which it can be displayed, used or handled according to their subjective assessment of what is right and wrong. They are "offended" when someone appropriates the flag image or even pieces of it for a purpose they deem "incorrect" even though their rules are arbitrary and inconsistent.

Today, there was a lot of conservative feather ruffling about this image from the Obama campaign.

But how many times have you seen an image like this used in advertising or clothing actually worn on the beach or elsewhere? Why isn't this the object of conservative wrath?

It's stock material for Presidents' Day car dealer ads. And consider the New England Patriots players and cheerleaders uniforms.

And a host of other appropriated flag symbols...

America's pastime, no?

Commercial co-opting of the flag! Picket them!

This is the topper to me. Exactly what all the fuss is about with Obama "branding" the flag.

We're not only going to stuff this flag in the oven, we're going to EAT IT!

How many Katy Perry concerts were protested? Uh.. none?

Ironic since Lincoln was a Republican. :)

Wonder how many trucks you see this on that are festooned with other uber patriotic paraphernalia?

And finally, of course...

Looks like it's supposed to be the stripes on a waving flag to me. But of course, that's just my subjective opinion. Unfortunately, my subjective opinion is apparently not as official as others.

Here's the thing. Nobody owns the flag. Nobody gets to dictate what's an "appropriate" or "inappropriate" use for it. My idea of appropriate may be different from yours.  In light of all the interpretations and uses of the flag I've just shown that draw nary a raised eyebrow, it's clear the complaining is about who has done the interpreting, not the result.

If it were an orange, or a statue, a rock or a pair of pliers that people were so ritualistically treating, we'd suspect they were perhaps obsessive-compulsives. If it were a high-heeled shoe, a whip or a latex body suit, we'd call them kinky. But because the inanimate object of their fixation is the flag, we're supposed to defer respectfully to their arbitrary and lopsided subjectivity about who uses it and how.

It seems to me there are a lot of real, substantive issues to talk about in this campaign that are more weighty than a perceived slight to the hyper-sensitive flag lobby. I mean seriously, y'all, it's not like it's a video about Mohammed or anything.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

"How did things ever get so far?"

Last night I had the unpleasant experience of getting involved in a religious flame war with some long-time twitter friends. One I think is still talking to me, and while I hope the others will cool off and reconsider at some point, I'm afraid that may not happen any time soon.

While I'm sort of doubtful now whether any of them will read this, I hope they do because I want to take the time to lay out what I think sans the emotional extremes of last night.

It all started when I heard two of them lamenting this post "Did God Help Gabby Douglas Win?". They were upset that someone found fault with the 16 year old indulging in the practice made famous by another loudly Christian athlete, Tim Tebow, of issuing the obligatory series of proclamations of faith and thanks to Jesus and God for winning. In the Salon post, author Mary Elizabeth Williams writes,
As a Christian myself (albeit one of those really freaky papist kinds), I’ve often wondered what it is about Christians like Douglas that unnerves me so. The closest I’ve been able to figure it is that Douglas and her ilk seem to espouse a faith based on what is commonly referred to as “The God of Parking Spaces.” It’s the deity that grants wishes to those who ask nicely. Douglas is a girl who has described God as the figure who’s “waking me up every morning and keeping me safe in the gym every day.”She told People Thursday, “I was on the bus and it was raining and I thought, ‘It’s going to be a great day.’ My mom used to tell me when I was little, ‘When it rains, it’s God’s manifestation, a big day’s waiting to happen.’ I texted my mom, ‘It’s raining. You know what that means.’” It means that Russian girl is going down, I guess.
It was at this point that I piped up and said, "Guys, it's the Tebow effect. Public displays of faith are like public displays of affection. They should be private." The discussion went predictably downhill from there. A guy for whom I've always had a lot of affection for his wit, tolerance and candor was soon calling me every thing from smarmy to bitch. As Don Corleone said, "How did things ever get so far? I don't know. It's so unfortunate, so unnecessary."

So I want to at least make my position clear and hopefully erase any misunderstandings that may have lead to my friend taking such huge personal offense.

Here's my main complaint. Within certain faiths, in the US it's most notably Evangelical Christian denominations, it's apparently customary when speaking to a group to include an obligatory profession of one's faith as though one were on stage at church. With some notable exceptions, I have no issue with this total perfusion approach to religion as long as they keep it inside their own group. If you want to take the opportunity to testify at your next prayer meeting or in conversation with a fellow parishioner at your local Christian hardware store, be my guest. It's when this practice finds its way into public discourse that I start to have problems.

People who adhere to these particular strains of religion seem to have lost sight of the fact that making unsolicited, gratuitous public demonstrations of faith is inappropriate and simply bad manners. It's as though they have no appreciation or consideration that not everyone believes or behaves the same way they do. This practice, in my opinion, crosses the line into passive-aggressive proselytizing. As such it exploits and abuses the public common and takes advantage of other people's consideration and tolerance.

They don't seem to get that it makes other people uncomfortable, sort of like the discomfort and annoyance you feel when someone at a cocktail party feels it's ok to press their business card in your hand and give you their sales pitch at what is supposed to be a social function. I didn't ask you, I don't care, it's inappropriate, it's none of my business, I'm not interested, please go away.

Preemptively throwing your religious beliefs in people's faces without anyone ever asking is presumptuous, impolite and most importantly injects a highly subjective and explosive element into what might otherwise be a calm, objective and civil discussion. When I was growing up, the first rule of tolerance was to keep your opinions to yourself unless someone asked. Now it seems the rule is, shoot your mouth off first and let others complain, then accuse them of "intolerance".

And before I'm accused of being just as provocative and inconsiderate, let me point out that I didn't start this flame war. It's people like Tim Tebow, who's an adult and should have a little more wisdom and sensitivity who always fire the first shot, who take the opportunity to turn a post-game press conference into a prayer meeting. I'll give Gabby Douglas a pass because she's young and may just not know better. But someone ought to tell her that while that kind of thing may play well at her church, a press conference is not a pulpit.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Make-Believe Belief

I think a lot of people say they believe in God because they think they are supposed to, not because they really do. Many times, it comes out as a half-hearted mumble like, "I don't go to church, but y'know, I believe in God and stuff."

There's a lot of cultural pressure in the US to keep making believe you believe. It's perceived as the norm, the socially acceptable default position. Such a perfunctory declaration like the one above means, I think, that the person making it is uncomfortable and would really rather not talk about it anymore. What they mean is, "Look, I'm saying what I'm supposed to say, now please stop asking questions." 

The fact is, in this country, saying you don't believe can cause you a lot of problems; with your family, your friends, even at work and with police and government in many places, even though religious discrimination is patently against the law.

Really, for a lot of people, religion plays very little part in their day-to-day lives most of the time. They may go to church on Easter or Christmas, but the rest of the year they can't be bothered. Even for people who do attend church regularly and believe with a bit more conviction, they live most of their lives as we atheists do. They use reason and evidence to make decisions about their lives. They go to doctors, they buy insurance. They're properly skeptical about marketing claims, used car salesmen, things like UFOs and ouija boards, the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus, and of course about every other religion except theirs. But when it comes to their own religion, they dutifully parrot back the appropriate platitude, perhaps with some kind of within-the-rules qualifications.

I think many people go through life as perfunctory or make-believe believers because they don't want to be perceived as (gasp) atheists who have a very bad, but largely fabricated and undeserved reputation, a caricature, if you will. This caricature was created and tuned over the years by the leaders of faiths to keep people coming to church, paying their tithes and keeping them in business and employed.

People frequently seem genuinely surprised when I tell them I'm an atheist. They usually don't say it, but I can tell they're thinking, "But he seems so nice." That's because they have never met a real, live atheist-and this is important-that they knew was an atheist. As I've pointed out, being an "out" atheist has definite downsides, especially in certain highly religious parts of the country. People who don't believe don't generally talk about it, because even the actual existence of an atheist is considered "offensive" to the faithful.

So religion has managed to get this kind of perpetual motion machine going where they construct a strawman atheist that they imbue with all kinds of mean and evil qualities and then tell their flock the tale, selecting appropriate scriptural references to back it up. Of course, very few people jump at the chance to be vilified, so they don't identify as atheists. They may even go so far as to play the make-believe belief game just to be able to get on with their lives. So, since nobody will admit to even questioning their belief, never mind being an atheist, the faithful flock never actually have to confront the cognitive dissonance that the nice guy who fixes their car, or the doctor that makes them well, or the kind teacher that teaches their kids algebra is a non-believer. So the caricature is never challenged, so non-believers stay in the closet, and so on ad infinitum. 

The misinformation propagated about atheists is manifest in ways that range from the truly vitriolic and mean-spirited to the comically naive. There are many very nice people who, having never met an out atheist, harbor the most outrageous beliefs about atheism that you can tell stick in their craw when they actually have to say it in front of someone who doesn't shrink from the apellation.

So if you don't believe, it's important to say so because it makes the prejudiced confront their cognitive dissonance and at the same time shows the perfunctory or make-believe believers that it's ok to not believe and that perfectly normal and nice people that they know and like and trust are good without gods. It's what Daniel Dennett calls "breaking the spell" and a big part of that spell is its attendant voodoo doll character of the atheist. It's not true and it never has been. So go forth and identify, brothers and sisters!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

A note to creationists

Dear Deluded,

As much as your sleazy and disingenuous attempts to harness the government to insert your narrow religion into science classes annoys me, I sleep well at night knowing,

A. The facts are all on my side.

B. Eventually, as sure as the Earth orbits the sun, your tiresome whining and baseless beliefs will be relegated to the scrap heap of abandoned superstition and dogma along with geocentrism, phlogiston and alchemy. It's just a matter of time and the clock never stops ticking.

Every equation solved, every phenomenon explained, every fossil found, every theoretical prediction experimentally confirmed throws another spadeful of dirt on your ideological coffin.

Resistance to Knowledge and Reality is Futile. You will be assimilated.