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.