Sunday, December 30, 2007

Raising a free-thinker in a Christian environment

Because my son is only six months old, I didn't think I would have to confront this issue for at least a few years. But a couple weeks with my immediate and extended family has made me realize that I need to figure out my game plan quickly. I'll explain the urgency a bit later, but first let me set up the dilemma.

The issue I speak of is how to raise a child to be a free-thinker. And by that, I mean equip him to make his own decisions about religion (and everything else). This was brought to the front of my mind by Greta Christina, one of my favorite bloggers.

The first question raised is how to teach a child critical thinking--assuming that you view this as a necessary tool, which I do--without teaching them to be non-religious. To an atheist like myself this seems impossible, because I see critical thinking as necessarily leading to atheism. In fact, if your decision-making process is purely rational, you cannot come to the conclusion that god exists. Belief in any god requires a leap of faith, something I absolutely do not understand, but understand that it exists for other people.

So then I have to ask myself whether I should provide faith as a legitimate alternative to rational thinking. My basic instinct screams no, and I don't really see a reason to ignore that instinct. If I teach my son to think critically and he chooses blind faith instead, I can live with that. But I cannot bring myself to teach him that faith is a legitimate way of forming beliefs. For one, I wouldn't know how to teach faith. I plan on writing a more detailed post about this, but basically, I have never had faith and cannot even conceive it.

Even if I did, how do you teach faith? Even religious parents don't teach faith, they teach that God created the universe, Jesus died for our sins, etc. They teach these things as fact. It is only after children have learned these things as fact that they are asked to "believe" that they are true.

And herein lies the twist of my personal situation. In an ideal world, I would teach my son to think critically with no reference to religion at all. Once he possessed the ability to think critically and make at least semi-independant decisions, I would introduce him to all the religions of the world, explain why people believe in them, and explain why I do not believe in any of them. I would not "preach" atheism, but I sure wouldn't hide my beliefs.

The problem is that my world is anything but ideal. I realized this when I went home for the holidays. The children in my family are indoctrinated with Christian teachings early and frequently. It disturbs me and kind of sickens me, to be honest. But I'm not the type to interfere with how my aunts, uncles and cousins raise their children except when a relative makes a blatant anti-gay or homophobic remark, which I cannot sit by quietly and ignore. For the most part though, I just stay out of it.

What really troubles me is that they don't keep these teachings within their own family. They pray aloud for my son to "develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ," give him Christian-themed toys, and preach Christianity to all the children in the family as soon as they understand language (even before they understand language in a lot of cases). This is highly disturbing to me, but it does not anger me because I understand where they're coming from. They sincerely believe that all non-Christians will burn in Hell for eternity. In fact, I'm pretty sure that most of them are completely unaware that I am an atheist, since they don't talk to me about religion at all. My parents hide that fact, and I don't flaunt it, mostly because I don't want them trying to convert me. I know they do it out of love, but that doesn't make it any less troublesome.

So while I would like to completely shelter my son from religion until he is old enough to make his own decisions and think critically, this will most likely be impossible. My family is very important to me, so I'm not going to run away from them. I will ask family members to refrain from teaching my son religion (at the risk of being alienated by some of them) but I don't know if even that will keep them away. Remember, in their eyes, eternal torture in Hell is at stake.

Thus I will inevitabely face a two-year-old asking me something along the lines of "Daddy, why don't we go to church?" or even scarier, "Daddy, did Jesus die on the cross because I'm bad?"

How do I respond to these questions without attacking Christianity? Especially if my family continues to pound doctrine into his mind any time I turn my head. Of course, he will take his father's word over his aunt's, or grandma's, or anyone else's. But one of my biggest problems with religion is that it takes advantage of childrens' tendency to take adults' word as unquestionable fact. I do not want to do the same thing with the opposite message. That said, I have a responsibility to protect my son from other peoples' doctrine. So the more my family teaches him Christianity, the more I am really forced to counter it, and the more my son will become ingrained with godlessness.

Of course, I will not flatly say "Sorry, God doesn't exist. Grandma's wrong." I will try my best to explain the reasoning behind my answer, but children that young don't understand reason. To protect my son from being indoctrinated while he is too young to know any better, I will be forced to tell him the truth, rather than let him discover it on his own. As a result, I will be indoctrinating him when he is too young to know any better. This makes me uneasy, but I feel like I am left with no other option.

This is my dilemma.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Monsters in the closet

Well, I thought I was too tired to write an entry tonight, but sometimes I get an idea in my head and just have to write it out.

This has nothing to do with Christmas, because I really don't care all that much about that debate. Not that it's not an important one; I'm just not passionate about joining the discussion because I just end up wishing that Bill O'Reilly would be imprisoned for his public hate speech.

So I'm not discussing Christmas. I want to talk about religious experiences. This is generally the fallback defense for religion when reason fails: "Well you can't understand it, but I have felt God's presence." It essentially ends the discussion, because no one wants to hear that their mind is playing tricks on them.

For the time being, I'm not going to get into the technical psychology of religious experiences. There are people out there who can do that better than me. I just want to share my own experience that many people would call a supernatural occurence.

First, let me point you to a good post about transcendent joy from an atheist's perspective over at Daylight Atheism.

My experience is considerably less pleasant.

As a young child, I always had a wild imagination that leaned toward a scared paranoia when I was trying to fall asleep. I would think that Bigfoot was circling our house (and one time even could have sworn that I saw him) or that the coyotes outside were going to go insane and attack me by jumping through my window. I was never scared of anything inside my room like the standard monsters under the bed, but I knew that a window and a wall would not be enough protection if some large beast from the outside decided to feed on my flesh.

But the most terrifying experience of my life came about two years ago when I was living in a studio apartment in Milwaukee.

For as long as I can remember I have had recurring battles with insomnia. I don't mean pulling two all-nighters in a row during finals, but actually going upwards of a week without sleeping. For those of you lucky enough to have never experienced long-term sleep deprivation, it is not a fun thing to go through. After about 72 hours of sleeplessness, you absolutely cannot trust your own mind.

On this particular night, I was somewhere around hour 100 of sleeplessness and desperate for some sleep, so I lay down in my bed even though I had no confidence in my ability to fall asleep. After about an hour in the dark it started raining outside. When I looked at the rain splashing against the windows, I saw hundreds of faces forming and melting away with anguished expressions. I was frightened and decided to look away, but I could not convince my body to stay turned away. Without my conscious permission, my head would turn back to the window and continue to watch the tortured rain souls.
So I did what any person does in a scary situation: I hid under the covers. At this point, I absolutely felt the presence of another person in the apartment. I didn't know where this person was exactly, but was absolutely convinced that there was another living being in my apartment. I was as convinced of this as I was of gravity.

In perhaps the bravest moment of my life, I convinced myself to look from underneath the covers...and of course, I saw an empty room and no physical sign of anyone or anything else being in the room. I also saw that the deadbolt on my door was locked. I could reasonably conclude that I was alone.

But my reason was unable to conquer my fear. In fact, I became increasingly more frightened. I was still 100% convinced that there was someone else in my apartment. Not only that, but I was equally confident that this person was the most evil person in the universe, with absolute contempt for other human life. This person was not just going to kill me, but torture me in the most painful ways possible.

I don't remember exactly when I regained my reason, but it was suspended for the duration of the night. For approximately six hours I lay motionless in my bed. I was literally paralyzed by fear. I kept telling my arms and legs to move, but they wouldn't flinch. I tried looking around the room, but my eyes would not move from the ceiling. I lay there waiting to be brutually tortured by this being, and had no question in my mind that it would happen.

Until today, it never occurred to me that I had what many people call a "supernatural experience." I grew up in churches hearing conversion stories about people who reached a low point in their life, had an encounter with Satan himself, and was saved by God. When this experience happened to me I was in a pretty bad situation. I had recently discovered that my girlfriend had been cheating on me, which I didn't take well, and I spent a lot of time drinking and getting into fights.

I could have easily interpreted that terrible night as an encounter with Satan, demons, or a general, capital-E Evil. I could have decided that I had allowed myself to fall away from God with all this atheism talk. I questioned God's existence, and He left me for a short while to show me what it would really be like if He didn't exist.

Doesn't that make a nice story? I would have congregations crying and saying "Praise Jesus!" and holding my story as proof of God's existence and power. I could give a rousing speech to teens about the dangers of questioning God's existence. Hell, with a story like that, I could have become a pastor.

But until today--some two years later--those thoughts never entered my mind. It didn't cross my mind because I had enough of an understanding of psychology and neuro-biology to know that sleep deprevation can turn your mind against you. Thoughts of demons and evil never crossed my mind because I had a discussion with a psychology professor who described insomnia as "a motherfucker of a disease," and explained exactly how something like this could happen.

The people I know who say they have a personal relationship with God need these kinds of experiences to keep their faith. Well, actually, they rely more on the positive "supernatural" experiences, but supernatural nonetheless. And many people will fast or deprive themselves of sleep to "open themselves to God's message." Of course, when you deprive yourself of food and/or sleep, your brain does not function properly. Reason becomes hindered, and you begin believing things are there when they are not.

Even when there is no form of deprivation, our brains are not entirely trustworthy. We see design where there is none, we see faces where there are none, etc. This is a topic I am currently studying in more depth, so I will be able to provide more credentialled opinions in a few months. But I do know that our minds occasionally play tricks on us, and depriving yourself of essentials such as food and sleep can stimulate and amplify these illussions. Sometimes this can be a transcending, wonderful feeling.

For me, it was the most terrifying night of my life.

Holiday break

I just had a second of free time (for the first time in at least a week) and wanted to quickly mention that this is not a dead blog. For the few people out there that have discovered my blog in its infancy, and the fewer still that enjoy reading it, this is just a promise that I haven't fallen into the second-month death trap of a young blog. I've just been ridiculously busy celebrating the day's victory over night (one of the original reasons for the season).

In fact, I've been having some interesting discussions with my brother, a fellow free thinker who is not quite an atheist...yet. I also finally got a copy of Sam Harris' "The End of Religion." And of course, I've been spending a lot of time around my very religious family. All of this should make for some interesting posts when I return. And I should return in a couple days.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

What did sharks eat before original sin?

Most christians that believe in the Genesis account of a six-day creation believe that there was no death before original sin. Of course, we are left with the ridiculous picture of lions munching on apples, velociraptors enjoying a nice salad and sharks eating seaweed. While we can all agree that this is a pretty silly mental image, there are people who actually believe this. I don't see anywhere in the first three chapters of Genesis that explicitly says there was no death before original sin, but I can see how you would get the picture:

Then God said, "I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food." And it was so. - Genesis 1:29

Whether the Bible necessitates that there was no death of any kind before original sin is beside the point for now, though, because the fact is that most christians believe that this is the case.

The problem is that if all animals were originally vegetarians, then the "amazing design" that people claim to see in animals is quite pointless. Sharks are amazingly "designed" to hunt and kill. Christians claim this amazing ability as proof that the universe is designed. And sharks certainly aren't the only creatures that have an amazing ability to kill. Cheetahs are perfectly built to catch gazelles, although gazelles are equally built to escape cheetahs. Alligators, tigers, hawks and snakes are all built to hunt their prey. Mice, monkeys, clown fish and deer are all built to avoid becoming another creature's next meal.

If the original creation was one without death, then why did god design creatures to compete with each other? Perhaps he saw what was coming, and wanted to make sure the animals were prepared. You could make this argument, if you were willing to admit that god is unjust and humans have no free will. Because if this were the case, then god created humans to disobey him. He didn't create them with free will, and they happened to fuck things up. Before he created man, he created animals that were good and ready for a world of limited resources. So in order for his amazing design to work, he needed a world filled with death and competition. He brought man into this supposively perfect world in order to be his patsy. He said "don't eat this fruit, or else..." knowing damn well that we would eat the fruit. Once we fucked things up, he could blame all the evil in the world on our sin. We never had a chance.

But let's say you want to take another route. Go back to the beginning of the argument and concede that animals killed each other before original sin. After all, the Bible doesn't explicitly say that there was no death (at least not that I can find. If anyone knows of a verse that directly makes that statement, please share).

Well if every event must have a cause (the backbone of the ID argument), and we can witness that organisms are in direct conflict with each other, then wouldn't that suggest multiple, battling creators? One creator created cheetahs, and made them fast enough to hunt gazelle. But the creator that made gazelles also made gazelles very fast so that they could escape from cheetahs. Both creators did a very good job, but the two creations are in constant battle with each other; sometimes the gazelle gets away and sometimes it doesn't. There would need to be a seperate creator for every organism that is battling for the prescious resources.

If everything was created by a single god, then he designed his creation to destroy itself. Which means he created a world that had conflict from the beginning. This is probably why christians are insistent that the pre-sin world was one without death or conflict. Because from conflict comes death, sickness and poverty. So quite blaming butt sex for all the misery in the world. If god created the world, he created a world where all of these evils were unavoidable.

Its rare to have a discussion with a christian without them saying that the design in the world is obvious, or that the misery in the world are the result of sin, or that god created a perfect world in six days, or some other related nonsense. Well from now on, I'm countering these claims with a seemingly innocent question.

What did sharks eat before original sin?

Why do smart people believe in god?

Part of being a free-thinker is being able to admit when you don't have the answer. In fact, this is absolutely critical to being a free-thinker. I have met a lot of people who claim to be free-thinkers, but have a strong opinion on every topic, even when they don't really know much about the topic.

I have slowly been developing the ability to admit when I don't have the answer. Ask anyone who has known me in the past, and they will tell you that this is quite a change.

I am still very argumentative on topics that I have developed a strong opinion on, such as gay rights, abortion, most social programs, etc. In fact, I have become even more bullheaded in some of these areas now that my opinions are the result of a lot of research, discussion and reflection, instead of blindly mimicking the opinion of someone else.

But for crying out loud, I'm only 23 and certainly do not have all the answers. I have, like maybe, .001% of the answers. Some people assume that my strong atheism is a sign that I think I know everything (the tired argument that atheists are all arrogant pricks). The truth is that it really doesn't take all that much research, discussion and reflection to realize that there is almost certainly no god. All it takes is a willingness to question everything you've ever held to be true.

So here's the question that I am trying to figure out: Why do smart people believe in god?

A large number of atheists understand the absurdity of such a belief, and make the blanket assumption that all theists are irrational, gullible and generally kind of dumb. But the truth is that I know some very smart people (people much smarter than me) that believe in a god. Now, sure, most of them just never think about it all that much. But you're still left with some very smart people taking the existence of a god on faith, with no evidence. It doesn't seem like something a smart person would do. These people would be skeptical about reports of aliens or bigfoot until sufficient evidence was produced, but do not question the existence of god.

My initial suspicion is that belief in a spiritual world is hard-wired into our brains. We are naturally dualists, after all. Even when we fully understand that our feelings, personalities and individualities are just a bunch of neurons firing off in our brain, we still maintain a feeling that there is something more to us: a certain "me"-ness (more commonly known as a "soul"). Especially when we are young, we have a tendency to believe in ghosts, angels and souls, because of our natural dualism. Combine this with our natural inclination to blindly believe whatever our parents tell us when we are young, and it becomes hard to shake the theism that dominates our culture.

That's about all I have so far, but the point I'm trying to make is that we cannot dismiss theism as something for idiots to believe, because there are a lot of very intelligent people that are theists. There is something that makes it extremely difficult to shake. Why was I able to question, and eventually dismiss, the existence of god while other people that are equally or more intelligent than me are not able to ask those same questions? To atheists, the notion of god is absurd, but why is it so hard for theists to see the absurdity? Hopefully I will have a more concrete answer soon.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Religion claims another victim

Anyone who says that religion does nothing but help people ignore stories like this one. A 14-year-old boy refused a blood transfusion that could have saved his life, because blood transfusions are banned by the Jehovah's Witness faith. A Washington judge ruled that he had the right to refuse treatment, and the child died of leukemia.

When an adult wants to make some ridiculous decision based on religion they have that right, as long as it hurts no one but themselves. But no 14-year-old in the world has enough perspective or independence to make such critical decisions.

So let this be a reminder that whether it is a newborn baby boy getting his most precious organ partially chopped off (I'm proud to say that my son has everything in tact) or it is simply telling children that their non-christian friends are going to hell, the greatest victims of religion are children. Somebody please think of the children!

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Sex Appeal

The great thing about being a free thinker is that you never have to accept anything, 'because that's the way it is.' Accepting things without reason is for children (they have to accept that you can't take toasters into the bathtub). Once we mature and develop a reasonable perspective of the world, we should begin asking some pretty difficult 'why?' questions.

And with that, I give you Richard Dawkins' article questioning, but not necessarily debunking, the value of sexual fidelity.

This is one of those areas that a) fuel the fire for theists who claim that Atheism leads to immorality (of course, so does our acceptance of homosexuality), and b) is a direct clash between reason and emotion, for most people.

While I value reason more than most people, I do not consider it to be the only factor in decision making. Whether we like it or not, our emotions play a role in everything. More often than not, sexually "cheating" on your partner is wrong simply because it hurts your partner. Where that painful jealousy comes from is an interesting topic. Is it possible to eliminate all sexual jealousy? (It would take a long time, if at all possible) If it was possible, would it lead to a better world? (I think that it would, considering how much violence and hatred is the result of sexual jealousy). The suggestion that Dawkins' article makes is that sexual jealousy is irrational.

It would be hard to argue otherwise, but some forms of irrationality are just as important to humanity as rationality; think prisoner's dilemma. Whether sexual jealousy is an irrationality that is useful or harmful is still up for debate, in my eyes.

One final point on this topic is the way that movies and TV shows can manipulate the way we feel about fidelity. We see several undesirable characters who are undesirable because they are cheating on their girlfriends, but just as often (probably more often) we see desirable characters who are desirable because they are cheating on their significant other, or because they spark a romantic relationship with someone already in a relationship. Take Wedding Crashers, just because it's a movie most people have seen. The entire love story aspect of the movie has us cheering for Owen Wilson to "steal" Rachel McAdams from her fiance. This isn't a suggestion that Hollywood is trying to brainwash us into thinking that sexual infidelity is okay, because Hollywood goes both ways. The point is that when we watch movies, we want the two people that treat each other right to end up together, regardless of who's married or committed to who.

What you will rarely see outside of low-budget indie films are desirable characters who maintain multiple loving relationships. One movie that comes to mind is "Y Tu Mama Tambien," which is (obviously) a foreign film, so maybe that says something.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The great religious cop outs

I was recently watching (or rather, re-watching) Richard Dawkins' speech in Lynchburg, Virginia. Of course, in the Q&A segmant Dawkins faced many of the knee-jerk reactions that Christians have to any Atheistic argument.

The first one I'd like to address--because it is one I personally run into all the time--is the "What if you're wrong?" argument, if you want to even call it an argument (you shouldn't). Anyone who has read or heard Dawkins knows his response to this question: What if you're wrong about Allah, Baal, Thor or the Flying Spaghetti Monster? If only that were enough to convince them.

Since this was a Q&A, and not a debate, the girl never actually got the chance to respond to this question (even if she did, she seemed too intimidated by Dawkins to do so). But I have used this rhetorical question to turn the tables on many Christians who ask the "What if you're wrong?" question. The typical response is that most of those religions don't have a hell, so the consequences of being wrong about Christianity is much worse. That's actually pretty good logic, if you're convinced that there's a supreme being but have no way of knowing which religion is right. If I'm hedging my bets, go with the religion that has the worst punishment. Nevermind which religion, if any of them, makes sense. Even if you're 99% sure that Christianity is wrong, the 1% chance of you spending eternity in excruciating pain is enough to scare you into devoting this life to the Christian god. This logic kept me trapped in the prison of Christianity for a good four or five years between high school and college.

This is what makes Christianity such a hard religiong to take down. A lot of people are just too scared of Hell to even consider questioning god's existence. Remember, the one sin that the New Testament clearly deems unforgivable is "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit." I don't know if questioning god's existence is blasphemy, but it certainly toes the line. It certainly seems that questioning the Holy Spirit's existence would be blasphemy, and the Holy Spirit is a part of the Trinity, which is god...That's a tough one, so why take the chance?

The answer: you're one physical life, whether it be five years or 105 years, is something that should be treasured. It should not be considered a prelude to a better life. But I'll leave that topic alone, for now.

The other challenge to Richard Dawkins and Atheists everywhere is the favorite cop out of Christians, because it makes any further debate impossible. The idea usally attacked is the Ultimate Boeing 747 argument. The attack goes something like this: "You can't use the laws of nature to disprove God, because God is above the laws of nature." Dawkins response is simply, "Well isn't that too easy?" I'm sure some Christian out there, somewhere, will say that Dawkins could not answer the question. And they'd be right, because it's an absurd question. This allows you to say whatever you want about God, with no possibility to refute your claims.

More importantly, this is yet another example of misplacing the burden of proof. You say that all our knowledge about how the world works cannot be used to disprove the existence of god. Then it certainly cannot be used to prove the existence of god. And since the burden of proof is on the person that claims something exists...point for Atheism.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Why "Merry Christmas" doesn't bother me

Now that Thanksgiving has passed, I allow myself to listen to Christmas music, decorate the house and begin discussing Christmas-related topics. This year is really my first Christmas as an "outed" atheist, and apparantly there is some expectation for me to reject the supposive christian holiday. At the very least, I should limit my Christmas music catalogue to songs about snow and Santa and grimmace every time someone whishes me a merry Christmas.

Now, I applaud most efforts to maintain seperation of church and state. Mentions of God should not be in our Pledge of Allegiance or on our decreasingly valuable currency. The Ten Commandments should not be in front of any courthouse, and prayer should be kept out of the public schools. Those are all reasonable attempts to keep church and state seperate. But banning the phrase "Merry Christmas" is not.

I ask this question in all seriousness, because I know a lot of atheists feel this way, but how do you figure uttering "Merry Christmas" is promoting Christianity or harming anyone in any way?

The origins of Christmas are debatable, but we at least know that the holiday is a combination of religious and non-religious tradition, so it's not purely a christian holiday. But even if it was, "Merry Christmas" has become so commonplace that it should not hold or evoke any kind of religious meaning. When someone sneezes and you say "Bless you," are you trying to keep the person's soul from escaping? When you say "Knock on wood," is it because you believe the trees to be gods, or to thank leprechauns for your good luck, or keeping the devil from hearing you? (just some of the possible origins).

If I woke up tomorrow and the papers read "Everyone denounces faith, realizes there is no god" I would probably do some kind of dance and song, but Christmas would go off without a hitch, with a lot of the religious aspects included, because we hang onto traditions from our human history for quite some time, regardless of their origin. Christmas has never been about some baby in a manger, except to those who try very hard to force that part of Christmas into Christmas. While atheists are crying for the removal of "Merry Christmas" christians are trying very hard to "Put Christ back in Christmas." Preachers around the country warn and rewarn their congregations to "remember what Christmas is all about." But it's too late, because the kids are thinking about the presents they're going to get, the adults are thinking about the relatives they have to put up with, or how they have to shovel the driveway when they get home, or how Best Buy better take back that "Jingle All the Way" DVD your great aunt got you even though you don't have the receipt. But it's all worth it because you love the time off from work, or hot chocolate with marshmallows, or sitting by a fireplace, or Robert Goulet's Christmas album, or watching your kids open gifts. You certainly do not put up with it because you love to celebrate some Jew being born some 2000 years ago.

So I'm asking my fellow atheists to stop griping about the christian aspect of Christmas. The debate not only emphasizes exactly what you're trying to get rid of, it gives christians another reason to feel like they are persecuted in a country where they are the 90% majority. So go ahead and enjoy Christmas and don't worry about what some people think it's about.

Also, make sure you throw a killer Festivus party. Because airing grievances is a great way to counteract the bullshit you have to put up with during the holidays, like your parents trying to convert you.

Editor's Note: This does not mean that I am in favor of a christian Christmas, just that I believe certain things (like "Merry Christmas" and the word "Christmas" in general) have become so indoctrinated into our culture that they no longer carry religious meaning. It's okay to celebrate Christmas in an entirely non-religious manner.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Myths about Atheism: Everything got here by chance

When someone wants to criticize evolution, the deceptive (and wrong) simplification they use is something alonge the lines of, "So you believe that we're just here by chance? That's not only absurd, it's depressing."

Anytime someone uses this line, ask them how they learned evolution works. Chances are, they never learned how evolution worked. Personally, I grew up in a conservative christian home and did not learn anything about evolutionary process, just that evolution was a crazy theory taught by people trying to destroy christianity. In college when some of my friends found out that I didn't believe in evolution, they began pestering me to explain why I didn't believe it. That's when I realized that I knew nothing about evolution. In retrospect, I'm kind of embarassed that I exposed my ignorance and was bullheaded enough to argue against evolution, even though I had no clue how evolution worked. I was under the common misconception that evolution went something like this: Amoeba (poof!)--> fish (poof!)--> frog (poof!)--> cat (poof!)--> monkey (poof!)--> human.

When that's your understanding of how evolution supposedly works, of course you're going to think it's crazy. And you're going to say something about a tornado in a junkyard building a boeing 747. And you're going to say that we can't just be here by chance.

But if you understand the basics of evolution (something that I am able to teach a 14-year-old in less than five minutes), you understand that "chance" has little to nothing to do with evolution. Here is a one-page explanation of mutation and natural selection. Simple, huh? And yet so beautifully complicated. Now leave the "chance" talk in Vegas where it belongs.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Myths about Atheism: Atheists have no source of morals

The easiest way to disspell this myth is to borrow the argument of Richard Dawkins. The Bible commands that people who collect sticks on Sunday should be stoned to death, so we better hope that we don't get our morals from the Bible. Of course, the Christian response is that all those ridiculous commandments were in the Old Testament, which was nullified by the New Testament. But this is not the case for Jews, who still follow the law of the Old Testament...or at least, most of it. So why aren't Jews stoning each other for gathering wood on the Sabbath? After all, that's what the Bible commands. They don't do it because they know it's wrong, regardless of what the Bible says.

The point is that our morals come from something more innate than a book written thousands of years ago. After all, a man who has never read the Bible or heard of Jesus knows that it's wrong to hurt another person. And to suggest that my atheism allows me to rape and pillage without remorse is absurd.

So where do our morals come from? This is an area of particular interest to me, because it's obvious that we all have some kind of inborn sense of justice and fairness. The simplistic fairy-tale answer from Christians is that some thousands of years ago, a woman was tricked by a snake into eating a piece of fruit, and that created an inherent knowledge of good and evil in all of us. And the knowledge of good and evil in itself is a sin.

Like so many biblical one-sentance answers given by Christians, the truth is much more complicated and much more interesting. One of the best books I've read on this topic is Matt Ridley's "The Origin of Virtue." The book explains how if we were to make decisions based purely on logic and self-interest we would never be able to function as a society, and probably would have driven ourselves into extinction a long, long time ago. So our sense of virtue is necessary to the development of modern society, and it is necessary to our survival. So in short, our source of morals is evolutionary.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Myths about Atheism: There is definitely no god.

Saying that an atheist believes there is no god is not as accurate as saying that atheists don't believe there is a god. No atheist I've ever met has said that they are 100 percent sure that there is no god. The number is usually something like 99.9+ percent, which is as sure as we can be of anything. Atheists always leave open the possibility that they are wrong, if some evidence were given that proved the contrary. So when Christian Joe tells me, "You're just as convinced that there is no god as I am that there is a god"...well, Christian Joe is wrong. I am convinced beyond any reasonable doubt that there is no god. He is convinced beyond any doubt that there is a god. Any new information I take in, I take for its value in respect to other information that I have. Any new information that Christian Joe takes in, he takes in for its value in respect to the assumption that there is a god. If any information suggests that there is not a god, it must be faulty. Christians are actually very good at explaining away the most common signs that there is no god.

Bad things happen to good people, and vice versa: This life is not what matters...You will be rewarded in heaven...God is testing us...those things are actually the work of Satan, which God allows to a certain extent

We now know that we got here by evolution: God started and guided evolution...evolution is a hoax promoted by Satan

I don't feel the presence of a god: There is a sin in your life that you have to get rid of...God is testing your faith...You're not really a Christian

The list goes on, but the point is that these are all pretty good reasons if you operate under the blind assumption that god exists and the Bible is his infallible word.

As an atheist, I do not operate under the assumption that there is no god. I have found no reason to believe there is a god, but am continually open to any proof that does not require you to first assume there is a god.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

An Argument Against an Argument Against the Atheists

Now that people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have written best-seller books exposing the flaws and harms of religion, the religious are responding. One of these defenses is What's So Great About Christianity by Dinesh D'Souza. I have not read the book, but Albert Mohler has written an article praising it, so I'm going to assume that the clips he took out of it are supposed to be among the most convincing.

Of course, there really are no arguments here, but here's what Mohler highlighted:

"This is not a time for Christians to turn the other cheek. Rather, it is a time to drive the moneychangers out of the temple. The atheists no longer want to be tolerated. They want to monopolize the public square and to expel Christians from it. They want political questions like abortion to be divorced from religious and moral claims. They want to control school curricula so they can promote a secular ideology and undermine Christianity. They want to discredit the factual claims of religion, and they want to convince the rest of society that Christianity is not only mistaken but also evil. They blame religion for the crimes of history and for the ongoing conflicts in the world today. In short, they want to make religion – and especially the Christian religion – disappear from the face of the earth."

D'Souza is right in saying that atheists want to expel christians from the public square in the sense that we don't want schools teaching religion, but to say that religious-free curricula is undermining christianity is to admit that in order for Christianity to flourish, children must be indoctrinated with it when they are young and moldable. One way that atheists certainly do not want to expel Christians from the public square is by silencing them. I am confident that I speak for virtually all atheists when I say that a free market of ideas is vital to all public discourse. Where we have a problem is when non-facts are taught as facts to young children. We also have a problem with a faith-based religion that is not held by everyone influencing policy decisions. We have a problem with a Commander in Chief claiming he gets his orders directly from god.

And then there's this line: "They want to discredit the factual claims of religion, and they want to convince the rest of society that Christianity is not only mistaken but also evil."

I assume "factual claims of religion" means the "fact" that god exists, that he created the universe and other such non-facts. And how exactly are these evil atheists trying to discredit facts? Since we use simple logic and proven science, are you saying that atheists are lying, or that the science is faulty? I'm sure she goes into that at some point, and I will try to find a clip, but for now I can agree with this much: "[Atheists] want to discredit the claims of religion." The second part of this statment is also one word away from being true. Christianity is not only mistaken, but detrimental, or harmful, or bad. But certainly not evil. Evil is a religious word (and more recently, a political world) that any atheist I know would not use. It implies some kind of supernatural, spiritual force that drives people or things to do bad things. I do not believe that houses are evil, that books are evil or that religions are evil. It's just not the right word.

Next part of this quote: "They blame religion for the crimes of history and for the ongoing conflicts in the world today."

If someone can argue that the Crusades were not motivated by religion, or that the people who flew planes into the World Trade Center were not motivated by religion, lay it on me. I would love to hear someone make that argument.

Oh, but wait. That clip was just the beginning of D'Souza's profile of the atheist. He proceeds to one of my favorite argument stoppers: when you say a I know that you really mean b, so I'm going to argue against b. Here it is:

"My conclusion is that contrary to popular belief, atheism is not primarily an intellectual revolt, it is a moral revolt. Atheists don't find God invisible so much as objectionable. They aren't adjusting their desires to the truth, but rather the truth to fit their desires. This is something we can all identify with. It is a temptation even for believers. We want to be saved as long as we are not saved from our sins. We are quite willing to be saved from a whole host of social evils, from poverty to disease to war. But we want to leave untouched the personal evils, such as selfishness and lechery and pride. We need spiritual healing, but we do not want it. Like a supervisory parent, God gets in our way. This is the perennial appeal of atheism: it gets rid of the stern fellow with the long beard and liberates us for the pleasures of sin and depravity. The atheist seeks to get rid of moral judgment by getting rid of the judge."

If this is true, atheists are the dumbest people on this planet. The logic of one of these atheists would be something like this: I know that God exists because it's self-evident. I know that if I have sex outside of marriage I am going to hell, because the Bible says so. But there's this naked person in my bed and I really want to have sex with him/her. I guess I'll just deny that God exists (even though, deep down, I know He does) and then I'll be okay.
Anyway, this an absurd notion that we want to explain away god so that we're free to do all the naughty things we want to do. And the "personal evils" that we apparantly can't resist are the proverbial icing on the cake. Specifically pride.

So let me briefly explain why christianity is inherently prideful, and atheism is inherently humbling.
Christians believe that the god of the universe created the entire universe especially for humans. Not only that, but he is intensly interested in having an individual relationship with each one of us. When we agree to this relationship, he is always on call, helps heal our loved ones when they get sick (sometimes) and is always watching us. Of course, if we sin, god is upset. Imagine that! I can affect the god of the universe by drinking too much, or by going to see "The Golden Compass." And then there's the whole idea of an afterlife. There must be an afterlife, because I cannot imagine a universe without me. So when I die, I'm going to go hang out with god, in a place that he personally prepared for me. I'm that important.
Atheists believe that each individual is a blip within a blip within a blip within a the history of time. It is impossible to be prideful when you admit that you are but one person of billions, living on one planet of billions, in one universe of billions, possibly in one dimension of billions. Not only that, but you're 60-80 years of existence is absolutely insignificant in the eternity of time.
Probably the most common reaction I get from people who find out I'm an atheist is that I am being arrogant in rejecting god. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In the end, the only thing D'Souza seems to get right about atheists is that they don't believe in a god.

The social effects of god

The Christian faith is a burden to everyone in this country, and I'm not talking about people knocking on your door and handing you religious tracts. Christianity instills certain philosophies that are detrimental to our society. Here are the top five:

1.There is a “creator” that intended things to be a certain way.
This belief has been the backbone of just about every type of bigotry and discrimination in our history.
We used it to justify slavery:
(Titus 2:9-10, NIV) “Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.”
Also see: 1 Peter 2:18, 1 Timothy 6:1-2, Ephesians 6:5-8, Luke 12:46-47

We used it to justify sexism:
(1 Corinthians 11:3) “Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” (emphasis mine)
Also see: 1 Corinthians 11:7–9, Colossians 3:18, Titus 2:3-5, and come on…do you really need that much proof that the Bible is sexist?

Today, we use it to justify our homophobia:
(Romans 1:26-27) “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.”

We used the Bible to justify slavery, but eventually realized that it was unjustifiable. We used the Bible to justify sexism, but eventually realized that it was unjustifiable. Today we are using the Bible to justify our fear of homosexuality. Isn’t that ridiculous? This is the third time around and we still haven’t figured out that the Bible is a bad source for social morals.
The ban on gay marriage is the only modern-day example I can think of where the defense is purely religious. Any kind of argument for “protecting the sanctity of marriage,” or “protecting against the threat to family” are just fancy-fuck ways of saying “God says homosexuality is wrong.” It is absolutely absurd that in this day and age we are still oppressing a group of people because of their sexual preference.

2.Every man is an island
The Bible teaches that we can all have a personal relationship with god, that god created this world specifically for us, and he cares immensely about every aspect of every individual’s life.
This belief is detrimental in a few ways. First off, simply, it gives us the idea that humans are special among all other animals (because god created animals to satisfy our need to control something). Now I have no problem with eating meat, an issue I will explain at some point, but I am against cruelty to animals because they do have certain rights as fellow inhabitants of this planet. And if you haven’t heard, chimpanzees are actually more evolved than humans. I assume this is because they don’t believe in sky fairies (rimshot).
Aside from animal right’s issues, the idea of an individual relationship with god creates an incredible ego. My favorite claim about atheism is that it is arrogant, but I can’t think of anything more arrogant than believing that the god of the universe created the planet especially for me. Not only that, but if I don’t believe in him, he’s going to be upset somehow. This emphasis on our individual importance downplays our responsibility toward the human species and the planet. People don’t feel a responsibility to help other people unless they are going to get something in return, even if that something is an eternal reward in heaven. Because I will admit that a lot of good gets done because Christians are told that they have to do good deeds if they want to be happy in the afterlife (I remember one youth pastor telling us that the more good deeds you built up in your lifetime, the bigger your mansion would be in heaven). But the need for individual good deeds means that there is no motivation to push for social programs that help the needy. After all, if I willingly donate my money to charity, that will look a lot better in god’s eyes than if I endure a higher tax rate so that we can run programs for the needy. I will get into this further when I explain why I love paying taxes.

3.If you don’t agree with me, go to hell (literally).
I am aware that there are a great deal of “progressive Christians” that don’t believe in hell, but that’s because those people realize the absurdity of a “loving” god sending people to eternal suffering. The Christian religion teaches hell, and it was the idea of hell that single-handedly kept me from questioning my faith for 20 years.
If you believe that people who disagree with you about religion are doomed to eternal damnation, how are you supposed to be any less humble about your more trivial opinions like who should be your state’s senator. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying Christianity is the sole cause of the nastiness in politics, but it sure doesn’t help.
People who say Christians and non-Christians have to learn how to get along are ignoring this key aspect of their religion. You can’t really show a mutual respect for a person that you believe is going to hell. And if you have any ounce of compassion, you can’t stop trying to convert them. There are few things less enjoyable to me than someone incessantly trying to convert me.

4.I’m right, period. There is no room for negotiation.
Christians are taught that they are infallibly right. They are so confident in their faith that they deny logic and science to maintain their beliefs. Like the idea of hell, I strongly believe that the no-negotiation mindset of Christians translates into other aspects of their lives. Again, if you are not willing to negotiate on religion, it will be harder to negotiate on other issues. In my personal experience, Christians tend to be much more stubborn than atheists. In a less personal experience, look at the issues of abortion, teen sex and drug use. These are all things we are trying to prevent (no matter what Ann Coulter says, no one is trying to get 13-year-olds to have sex and no one is a fan of abortion) but the solutions require us to compromise. Christians cannot negotiate and say “maybe we should focus on educating kids about safe sex so that they’re not in situations where they would get an abortion.” No, their stronghold position is kids should be taught abstinence and abortions should be outlawed. Of course, the lack of proper sexual education leads to more unwanted pregnancies (not to mention STIs) and more abortions. And sure we could cut down the number of abortions by making it illegal, but we would see a huge spike in unsafe “back-alley” abortions that lead to the girl’s deaths.
Well I’m not going to get into all of that right now, but I assure you I will in the near future. The point here is that Christianity promotes bullheaded stubbornness. Just look at our president.

5.This life isn’t important.
In my mind, this is the worst ideology taken from the religious teachings. Not only does it lead people to fly planes into buildings, or generally not value our wonderful gift of life, but it also leads us to downplay the importance of human life in general. That’s right. The same Christians that try to outlaw abortion in the name of “protecting human life” follow a religion that teaches that our lives are very unimportant, and praises people who die for their beliefs.
As always, if this was simply a matter of Christians missing out on their only shot at life, I wouldn’t be so adamant about it. But the idea that there is an afterlife is the root of so many social problems, and they have been since we kicked the Brits out. It’s especially been harmful to the black community. Slaves were told that they would be rewarded in the afterlife, which suppressed a lot of potential uprisings. I always find unsettling the image of slaves and slave owners attending the same church service. Today, several black people are content to watch their community suffer both self-inflicted and government-inflicted social woes because as long as they believe in god, they have a better life coming. Of course, the complacency within the black community doesn’t compare to the complacency from outsiders. We feel no urgency to help our fellow countrymen and fellow human beings, because this life is supposedly temporary.
This skewed view of what is important is the butt of many jokes. I particularly remember the South Park episode where Christian missionaries give bibles to starving Africans. It would be a lot funnier if it weren’t so true. Christians focus on saving peoples’ souls, and only secondarily do they even consider providing them with food, shelter or any of the other things that could make this life more pleasant for them. As a child I attended many holiday meals at homeless shelters where they suckered the hungry heathens in with food and heat. Then they spent the entire night preaching to them. Of course, those people would be hungry again the next day when it wasn’t Christmas, but the people left feeling like they had provided them with something much more valuable than food. They had given them eternal life! How sad.
The other aspect of this is the death penalty. Now personally, I will admit that I do not have a strong opinion on the death penalty, though I lean toward being against it because taking someone’s only life seems to fall under “cruel and unusual.” But Christians have less of a problem with it because when you die you go up some escalator into the clouds where god himself plays judge and decides your eternal faith. If this were true, then killing someone would be the fairest of punishments, whether their crime was triple homicide or running a red light. After all, if there is an infallible god just waiting around to judge our dead, what’s more fair than that? Luckily we don’t actually follow that logic, but it is a problem nonetheless.