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Monthly Archives: December 2011

Who are we?

It’s interesting to see what kinds of sites link to this blog. Most referrals come from blogrolls or my facebook page, but there are a few of the sites that share our thoughts on what it is to be atheist:

Censorship in America
Rare diseases
Alternative religions (multiple sites)

So what is atheism? A censored minority? A rare disease? An alternate religion?

 
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Posted by on December 30, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Proof

 

Let’s say that tomorrow, the world is presented with definitive, inarguable proof that God exists. Which would be the largest faith community to recognize and affirm His existence?

Atheists.

On average, anyway. Because if God happened to be exactly manifest in the form that one particular denomination believed, that denomination would immediately point to the proof and triumphantly declare that they were right all along. Now, most people of any faith willingly agree that no faith has it absolutely right. But even if there were one that was 100% correct. Let’s say it was the Ba’hai.

Would all the people of faith, the other billions of non-Ba’hai, admit that they were wrong? Absolutely not. Ask a believer now, and their likely answer will be “it’s a ridiculous question, because it’s not true. I’ve never even heard of the Hi faith, how could it be real?”

We’ve addressed this arrogant fallacy before, that while people of faith say that God is Supreme, they also tend to believe that it is their faith in God which proves his existence, thus suggesting that man did in fact create God, but the reason I bring it up now: if every non-Ba’hai in the world generally agrees that they’re full of shit, and every non-Mormon in the world agrees that they’re full of shit, and every non-wiccan agrees that they’re full of shit, then why do Judeo-Christians have any reason to believe that they’ve got the inside track? The answer is simply that they don’t. But just as all non-Ba’hai feel safe that they can dismiss the teachings of Bahaullah without fear of going to Hell (which the Ba’hai would agree with. So, win-win), so too do all the world’s Jews who refuse to recognize Jesus as the messiah, and all the Christians who refuse to recognize Muhammad. Elvis exposed the hypocrisy of institutional religion when he wore the star of David, cross, and chai on one big necklace, saying he didn’t “want to miss out on heaven due to a technicality.” Houses of worship put a great deal of effort into turning people away from Elvis’s philosophy: there is no room for multiple interpretations. You believe in our faith, and none others. Or, as God put it:

Thou shalt have no other gods before Me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them; for I, the LORD thy God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me.Exodus 20

The atheist argument to those who don’t respect it as a belief system is that everyone is mostly atheist. There have been a hundred religions in history, give or take… a Christian, by not having any other gods before him, pronounce that they are atheist to 99% of the world’s religions. Atheists don’t believe in Mount Olympus, and neither do Christians. Atheists don’t believe we came from teardrops, and neither do Christians. Atheists don’t believe that there is one omnipotent God, and neither do Buddhists, or pagans, or animists, or the cavemen, or North Koreans, or ancient Greeks, or Persians, or any other non-monotheist faith in history. And of the monotheist faiths, Christians are atheist towards Allah, Muslims are atheist towards Jehovah, and Ba’hai are atheist towards the Trinity.

But there is a difference between a true atheist, and a person of faith who is “atheist to all other religions.” That difference is that people of faith are absolutely certain that all other faiths are wrong. Most are so convinced that they’re so obviously the only correct ones that they love to ask atheists: “okay, you say you don’t believe in Hell. What if you’re wrong?” The expected answer being, okay, I’ll believe in Hell, just in case it actually exists, and therefore by believing in it I won’t go there. Aside from the paradoxical nature of that logic, if atheists were so easily swayed, they wouldn’t be atheists. They’d be in a Kool-aid cult.

The fact is that most atheists have a very good reason for not believing in God: they’ve never seen him. They’ve never seen any evidence of him. Every single thing that religious people claim is the work of God has been very clearly and unambiguously explained through human reasoning, or is still questioned. There is not a single thing that people of faith have been able to point to and say “that. For as long as that exists, there can be no doubt that God exists.” Many have tried, as we discussed last week, but none have succeeded.

But the second one comes up, atheists will promptly say, out loud, that we were wrong. Obviously, such a time has not come, but there have been countless instances where rationalists have let go of at least part of their beliefs. We atheists used to believe that the Earth was a large, flat disc that the sun revolved around. We have since admitted we were wrong. We then believed that you could sail west from Spain and land in India. We have since admitted we were wrong. We then believed that caucasians and blacks were two separate races, independent of each other both in quality and in soul. We have since admitted we were wrong. We then believed that any time an egg was fertilized in a woman’s body, barring some horrible tragedy that egg was virtually guaranteed to mature into a child. We have since admitted we were wrong. We then believed that homosexuality, pornography, and drug addiction were contagious maladies that could be spread and would infect us and drive us insane. We have since admitted we were wrong.

So a Christian, not paying attention, may gloat, “well, you seem to be wrong about a lot of things. Seems reasonable that you might be wrong about God.” Actually, we’re not wrong about any of those things. Because the second we realized they were wrong, we moved on. In fact, if you ask around, the only people who still believe any of those things… are religious. They have tied their belief in God to all sorts of beliefs that have nothing to do with where we came come or why we’re here.

They’ve forgotten their original quest of trying to understand the world around them and become obsessed with fighting moral wars and bolstering their numbers. They’ve become so obsessed with the minutia, things that matter to people and nothing else, things that are so ensconced not in natural law but in social order, that they no longer recognize the reality in front of them if it endangers any of the beliefs that they would be damned for eternity if they disavowed. They would deny their own God if he was standing right in front of them, if their self-interested pastors said He wasn’t what the church represents.

True atheists have no such reservation. We have all the knowledge that has accumulated over the centuries pointing to the nonexistence of God. But if He were to appear tomorrow, we would welcome him with open arms, and we would admit we were wrong. Then our children would learn what we pass on to them, about our round earth, about racial equality, about biology, about tolerance, and about God, and our children would be right about all those things.

Yet there would still be the millions upon millions who ignored the coming of the Lord and insisted that he was a fraud, a blasphemy. Like how pagans view Jews, how Jews view Christians, how Christians view Muslims, how Muslims view Ba’hai. All of them, literally arguing about nothing. At least they don’t still think the world is flat.

 
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Posted by on December 29, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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From Descartes to Darwin

Darwin was wrong. So was Jesus. And Einstein. And Plato. And that weird dude from 7-11 that you told gave you the wrong change but he insisted that donuts were no longer on sale. Maybe not about that specific issue, but he was at least partially at fault. You were wrong, too. It’s nothing to be afraid of… in fact, quite the opposite. We cannot allow fear of being wrong to dissuade us from offering up ideas. And similarly, we have to ignore anyone who tries to shut us up because what we said wasn’t spot-on accurate. Christians should understand this concept quite readily. After all, their favorite authors have things like this to answer to:

“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, she must be silent.” Timothy 2:12
“Happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us / He who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” Psalm 137
“Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel.” 1 Peter 2:18

Christians have a lot to answer for if they fail to recognize that a document can be imperfect. They seem to be less excited, however, about providing any kind of leniency to Charles Darwin. First off, we have to consider why nonbelievers are beholden to Charles Darwin at all. My theory—and I could be wrong—is that religious folk can’t wrap their head around the concept that atheists don’t take their marching orders from a single individual. I’m not talking about God—even within the monotheistic faiths they make the claim that God is not a single individual. I’m talking about Jesus. Mohammed. David. Siddhartha. Zarathustra. Kim Il-Sung. Religions are formed by cultures, by hundreds of years of development, but are often credited to a single individual.

To fit that custom, many are tempted to consider atheists followers of Darwinism. The fact of the matter, though, is that nobody thought Darwin was on to anything even when he was alive. He wasn’t persecuted like Jesus or Peter were, his contemporaries just thought he was wrong. He was also late to the party—exactly fifty years before Origin of the Species was published, French Zoologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck published Zoological Philosophy, which amongst other things scientifically proved that the theory of evolution by mutation was bullshit. Lamarck’s main theory was much simpler: if the only food is ten feet above the ground, the long-necked giraffe will eat and the short-necked giraffe will die, and that’s why the world doesn’t have any short-necked giraffes. Lamarck’s ideas, what we now refer to as “survival of the fittest,” were absolutely right, but they weren’t sexy. And as we’ve discussed before, for philosophy to survive, it has to be sexy. It also failed to answer the important question: where did the long-necked giraffe come from in the first place, if not from God?

Lemarck was too French to suggest that any of this was possible without God. French weren’t too big on being not Catholic. One of the great pioneers of atheist thought, Descartes, was French, and spent his entire life fighting off accusations that he was anything other than Roman Catholic. In fact, while we all know his most famous line, the cogito, few know the context in which he said it. “I think, therefore I am,” was Descartes defense against those who accused him of denying the existence of God. His argument:

If we cannot believe in God, we can not be sure of anything at all. But I am sure of at least one thing: I exist. I am.

In other words, there must be a God, or we wouldn’t even be here. This, from the founder of modern rationalism. Such is the religious pressure of the land of Jean d’Arc.

England, however, was much more secular, as happens when your state religion is based off an old King’s desire to get with his booty call, and there were many influential philosophers, writers, and scientists who made incredible discoveries free of the pressure of conforming to dogma. One of the most important was Alfred Russel Wallace, a hard working biologist who had been able to show a clear connection between animals and the place they lived, leading to the conclusion that animals who were a natural fit for their own environment survived, while animals who were a poor fit for their environment died. It was simple, obvious, and irrefutable. But it wasn’t sexy.

No, the sexy came from a rich, young adventurer with mad mutton chops by the name of Charles R. Darwin.

Charles Darwin, or as I like to call him, Chuck D, didn’t spend quite as much time proving his theories as Alfred Wallace, and his theories were not as sound as Lamarckism, but they were sexy. Lamarck’s world was that of rimmed glasses and pocket protectors. It wasn’t cool to be a Lamarckist. But Darwin talked about things like turtles crossing the Atlantic, and mutant butterflies outsmarting their monstrous prey. Darwin’s world was that of X-men and underdogs. Sex-y. Unfortunately, Darwin didn’t really have all the data he needed to support his theory, but he had to get published quickly or Alfred Wallace would beat him to the punch, so he released Origin of the Species, and history was made.

His discoveries were all the rage in the 1860s, when Darwin was the old, long-bearded man that we all think of today, and his thoughts inspired an entire generation of young biologists, attracted to the idea that any of us could sprout wings at any moment, or that every time a lizard had children, any one of them could be a dragon. Of course, that’s bullshit, and we all know it, but it’s sexy. It’s fun to think about.

The fact of the matter, though, is that Darwin’s theories were only popular for about forty years, until Mendel was able to prove the existence of genetics. From that point on, we realized that Darwin’s idea of transmutation and traveling turtles was, essentially, wrong, and while the theory of evolution is often credited to his name, he was by no means the first person to come up with the idea, and in fact there were contemporaries of his that were even more on base but just didn’t have his business sense, and ultimately, Darwin’s work was obsolete in less than a single generation.

And this is what sets rationalists and fundamentalists apart. Rationalists aren’t looking for someone to follow. They aren’t looking for a club to join so that other people will know they’re going to heaven. They’re just concerned with the Truth. And in our search for the truth, we’re always coming up with new ideas and new theories, and challenging the ones we already have. Sometimes, as with Descartes, we have to consider the context in which their beliefs are expressed. Other times, as with Darwin, we have to take what we can from it and use that as a launchpad to move on to more accurate and useful theories down the road.

When Christian fundamentalists mock the concept of Darwinism, dismissing the idea that monkeys are turning into humans, they’re absolutely correct. The idea that a monkey will spontaneously mutate into a thinking human being is the primitive mindset of people hundreds of years ago, the kind of idea that people would enjoy for thirty years or so before they grow up and start searching for more serious answers.

That’s why, despite their popularity 150 years ago, there just aren’t a whole lot of serious Darwinists around anymore. Because we rationalists kind of think that believing something that someone professed generations ago which has since been roundly disproven is, well, stupid. It’s what we’ve been trying to tell you people for years.

 
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Posted by on December 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Religious Windows

Hey, here’s a good question—

Bonwell—I’m enjoying your new blog, but why do you call it “secular” when the entire thing is about Atheism? And what does “centered” have to do with it?

Good questions, which I’ll answer in reverse order. The “centered” part of my blog name is in reference to the Overton Window. The idea of the Overton Window is that while a society may consider some ideas “far left” or “far right,” what they’re referring to is what their society considers extreme. In the United States, government-run health care is considered “far left,” but for virtually all of Europe it’s considered the least someone could do… even the idea of insurance-based healthcare is freakishly right-wing to them. We consider it “far right” to suggest that certain moral principles or behaviors be mandated by law, but there are many Asian countries who would consider a simple legal mandate to be far too liberal, preferring instead to suppress any form of communication that would even suggest deviant behavior.

The Overton Window is used to great effect by religious folk in the United States. You can easily find a news item on any given day (especially Christmas week) which tries to suggest that simply allowing to someone to live a life free of religion is an offensive, repulsive idea that itself suppresses other people’s freedom of religion. Glenn Beck has written a wonderful fiction about what would happen if the Overton Window shifted to the far left, and has written plenty of non-fiction about what would happen if it shifted to the far right.

Even when Christianity is not referenced directly, its teachings are often a given in the public discourse. “There’s nothing wrong with being gay,” many argue, “but everyone can agree that sodomy is morally reprehensible.” Well, who says? Where did the word ‘sodomy’ come from? The book of Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament. The argument begins with “sodomy, being one of the acts of Sodom, which God struck down,” and goes from there. Without making any statements in either way of my opinion of homosexuality (yet), let’s focus on this point: our social discourse defaults to Christian morality as the default and works from there. Christianity is a conservative religion, literally—its teachings are entirely based on the values of people who lived 2000-6000 years ago, and any updates to that ethos are considered blasphemy, or worse. By setting Christianity as the default, we’re shifting the window to cover only religious conservative ideas, where any form of new thought is considered offensively radical. That is where the “centered” part of the blog name comes in—we want to shift the window of discourse back to the middle of the spectrum.

As for the “secular” part: I’m an atheist, it’s true. I also go to church. I’ve gone every week for the last month, in fact. I won’t say which one because denominations are a purely Christian obsession and I’m not Christian, but I’ve attended services at churches ranging from Unitarian to Baptist to Bible Missionary to Orthodox. I’ve also been to Muslim seminars, had lunch with the Hare Krishnas, and walked through the halls of a Mormon temple. I held my daughter at her Christening, which I insisted she go through. I pray, although as an atheist I refer to it as “wishing.” As in, I wish I could have that job. I wish I had more time to write. I wish I were a famous celebrity. It brings me the same comfort as praying brings to a Christian, and since prayers are (or should be done) behind closed doors, where nobody can hear them, my wishes have the same ultimate effect. I am atheist not because I have not been exposed to religions, but because I have been exposed to so many that I realize how much of it is myth and legends.

Also, even the most extreme atheists do not flatly dismiss the notion of God. Richard Dawkins says that on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being a religious zealot and 7 being the absolute, unwavering non-belief of any higher power, he’s a six. Bill Maher states that he follows the church of “I don’t know.” Atheists live their lives with the presumption that there is no higher power above them (one of the many reasons why they don’t call themselves agnostic), but very, very few of them straight out say that the existence of God is impossible. It’s an issue I covered in week two of this blog, and one I’ll return to next week and beyond.

It’s not in my interest to attack religion. It is in my interest to explore truth. There is not a single issue I can cover where there is not at least one Christian denomination who agrees with me. I want to foster a society where people are free to think, to explore, to find new things, be it a new planet, a new state of consciousness, or simply to explore the beauty of sound. Those things are impossible if we refuse to accept new beliefs, or if we base everything we learn on what we’ve already been told.

If there ever is a religion which accepts reality over preconceived notions, I would be the first to join, but I think that idea defies the very concept of religion itself. And thus, whatever I may personally believe, I will continue to push for us all to live in a secular world.

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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The Good Atheist

People forget that the Good Samaritan in the bible was a dirty heathen. That was Jesus’ whole point—as far as his people were concerned, Samaritans had no reason to be good, but they were anyway.

Now, one could argue that Samaritans were at the very least monotheists, but that wasn’t exactly how the Hebrews viewed them, and that certainly wasn’t how the Christians viewed them, what with them practically wiping out the Samaritan race in the sixth century or so. Samaritans at the time of Jesus were viewed essentially the same as Muslims are viewed now. So imagine how the following conversation would go these days:

A lawyer asked the preacher, “the bible says to love others as we love ourselves. But which others?

Replied the preacher, “as you walk down the streets of New York early in the morning, you are mugged, beaten, and left for dead in an alley. A priest comes by on his way to open the church, but rather than help you, he crosses to the other side of the street. Then comes a rabbi, but he too crossed to the other side. But then comes a muslim, who sees you and takes pity on you. He cleans and bandages your wounds. He puts you in the back of his car, drives you to the hospital, and checks you in. He puts down two hundred dollars and tells the nurse, ‘Please treat this man right away. Here is my number—if this man is unable to pay, call me and I will cover his bills.’ Which of those three men is your neighbor?”

The lawyer says, “the one who had mercy on me.”

The preacher says, “then you should do the same for him.”

Feasibly, the modern Christian would have many things to say about the story. No doubt, many Christians would immediately say “that story is offensive! To suggest that a priest would not help someone that he found on the road. This story proves that you hate Christians, and you’re just trying to make them look bad.” It’s safe to say that plenty of people reacted to Jesus’s story the exact same way. But that was the story that Jesus told.

But the second thing a modern Christian might say is, “okay, a Muslim might help, sure, but not an atheist.” Don’t think I’m being cynical, and don’t think I’m attacking Christians. Studies support this claim, that Christians do not believe that atheists have morals. They believe that it is their religion which gives them their morality. It stands to reason, then, that without religion, people must not be moral.

Yet, people who disavow religion become no more or less criminal than they were before they converted to atheism (however, many nonreligious people who are criminals do become more civil when they convert to Christianity, but it’s important to ask the question: “converted from what?” Usually, they have converted from a lifestyle of gang warfare and family abuse). Virtually all prominent atheists have been addressed with the famous question—”if you don’t believe in God or Hell, what’s to stop you from killing someone if you know you can get away with it?

First, as seven million Americans will tell you, threat of punishment alone is really not that much of a deterrent for people to do wrong. There’s certainly a gray area where people are conflicted on whether they’ll do the wrong thing, and their religion may give them some guidance, but religion doesn’t serve as any better of a deterrent than laws, and nobody claiming that all religious people are virtuous should be taken seriously. Steven Weinberg takes it a step further: “With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

So being religious doesn’t really inspire all that much morality in people. However, atheism does. Ask yourself this: if someone’s job is on the line, and they suddenly start working harder and doing a better job, do you think to yourself, “wow, I never realized that this person had such a deep-seated work ethic?” Of course not. You think to yourself, “so that’s what it takes to get this person off their ass.” If you tell them that their job is safe and they start slacking, they’re lazy. You have to threaten their job to get them to work.

That’s how atheists view this argument that Christians cannot be moral without religion. We don’t think of Christians as moral for fearing God; we think they’re so inherently lazy in life that they need a boss to get on their ass to do the right thing.

The good atheist is a truly good person, because they’re good despite the fact that they don’t have to be. If you do evil, there will be no punishment. If you help no one, there will be no Hell. And yet, it is expected that you do good in this world. Many of the most devoted environmentalists are atheists. The founders of modern democracy professed a nonbelief in God. Many of the most universally charitable organizations are secular or humanist: Red Cross, United Way, Peace Corps, etc. while religiously motivated groups like Boy Scouts of America, The Catholic Church, and Rescue Missions at the very least require a show of fealty of their benefactors, and at worst will flatly refuse to help people in need who are outside of their religious circle.

And in exchange for their good deeds, the atheist gets nothing. No heaven, no afterlife, no golden camels. There isn’t even a mythology among atheists where anyone has been rewarded for their good deeds. On the contrary—if someone is rewarded, the ‘goodness’ of their deeds is thrown in doubt (such as happened to the Presidents of secular charity United Way on several occasions). So what you have is a group of people who are expected to sacrifice themselves to the benefit of others, to the benefit of the Earth, and even to the benefit of generations that don’t even exist yet, and they are expected to do so without any congratulations, any rewards, or any fringe benefits of any kind. But they have to do it anyway.

Now that’s a true test of faith.

 
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Posted by on December 7, 2011 in Uncategorized