13 August 2012

Farewell, My Friends

With only fifteen posts in the previous two years combined and zero posts this year, I believe that I've said everything substantial I have to say about religion and supernaturalism. For this reason, I'm indefinitely discontinuing this blog in order to focus on other pursuits. Although I have decided not to renew the custom domain, all the previous entries and other content will remain here on Blogspot for the foreseeable future. As part of this process, I've disassociated my Twitter account from this blog, deleted my tweets, and posted most of those relating to religion here to preserve for posterity:

Atheism
  • Atheism means never getting to say, “I told you so.”
  • Only atheists can experience true privacy. It's impossible to live in freedom when a divine judge monitors your every thought and action.
  • Atheists interpret the Bible more literally because we don't need to explain away difficult passages as metaphorical like believers do.
Apostasy
  • I didn't “lose my faith.” I acquired a purely naturalistic worldview.
  • It's fine to pray for my conversion, but it's rude to tell me about it. A believer wouldn't want me to say, “I hope you become an atheist.”
  • Instead of abandoning the Bible Belt to religious conservatives, I prefer to stay and make it just a little more secular and progressive.
  • Sometimes I try to imagine how I would react to current events if I were still a devout Catholic. It's increasingly difficult to do.
  • I hide every FB status about God or prayer. It really annoys me that there's no good way to counter them without seeming like a total jerk.
Christianity
  • I love that a rapture prediction by a fringe group has generated mainstream lampooning of religious belief. It gets people thinking!
  • What believers can learn from 5/21/2011: Don't make falsifiable claims. Saying Jesus will return "sometime" means you're never proven wrong.
  • Half of all Evangelical Christian leaders polled say one can be good without God! http://bit.ly/lKtCQg
  • The Gospels' fantastic claims are mostly just unverifiable. The Book of Mormon's claims, on the other hand, are often demonstrably false.
  • Whom did God deceive? The people at Fatima who saw the sun dance, or the billions everywhere else who didn't? http://bit.ly/15c0p9 
Hell
  • We must actively oppose any religion or group which teaches that anyone deserves to suffer in hell, especially for merely disbelieving.
  • No one deserves to burn in hell forever. No one's crimes are infinite. No one should receive infinite punishment. Not even Osama bin Laden.
  • Believers think atheists should take their religion's threats about hell seriously. But how many take other religions' threats seriously?
  • Many believers have "spiritual" reasons for belief. That's fine, but how can they think I'm damned to hell for not having the same feelings?
  • People who believe in hell are like zombies. Their brains are infected with an evil idea, one which hijacks their compassion to spread fear. We hate the virus itself and fear the infected, especially in large groups, but we shouldn’t hate them because it’s not really their fault. They honestly believe it’s good to warn others about the danger, and they were infected without their consent by another of the infected. Belief in hell is rarely fatal, is curable with large doses of reason, and children can be inoculated with carefully controlled exposure.
Humanism / Community
  • Humanism means thinking with your brain and loving with your heart. It really is that simple.
  • I don't feel comfortable with local social groups. Atheists seem too anti-religious; UUs seem too pro-religious. Perhaps I'm just too picky.
  • I'm too scientific, too critical, and too literal to ever participate in even the most liberal, most open religious movement, such as UUism.
  • I don't identify as “cultural Christian” for the simple reason that I dislike the culture. It causes problems rather than solving them.
  • If only religions promote ethics and community, people will continue to associate these with faith. We need more secular voices to speak up.
  • The nonreligious could use a new umbrella term. "The Brights" had a good idea but absolutely terrible execution. Any suggestions?
Jesus
  • “Real men love Jesus”? No, real men and women doubt Jesus.
  • People who reject the divinity of Jesus but still consider him a great moral teacher frustrate me. There are thousands of better teachers.
  • Jesus was not a philosopher. Philosophers make arguments and present reasons for their conclusions. Jesus only commanded from authority.
Philosophy
  • The idea of no longer existing can be depressing, but it's consoling when you've had enough of life and are ready to retire from living.
  • Atheist provides viable definition of "supernatural": mental phenomena which don't arise from non-mental phenomena. http://bit.ly/fT5Fi
Theism
  • Religion isn't the belief that God exists; it's the belief that he tells you what to do. (Paraphrase of Christopher Hitchens.) 
  • Religion is part of human nature? Maybe, but so are optical illusions. http://bit.ly/iGYOZi
  • Religion is for those who want answers so badly that they don't care whether the answers are right or wrong. 
  • I understand the desire to believe in heaven, even if it's not real, but I'm concerned about the problems it causes to believers and others.
  • I'm not sure anyone truly believes in an omnimax deity. All theists act like their gods are imperfect. It is an imperfect world after all.
  • Everyone would do well to distinguish “God's word” from “what someone else says is God's word.” To doubt is only to question the latter. 
  • Believers who truly value humility should refrain from claiming to know anything about the divine. There's nothing humble about certainty.
  • To "learn about one's faith" is very odd phrase. It suggests that one is taught what to think rather than how to think. Maybe that's correct.
  • Why exactly is "sky daddy" considered offensive whereas "heavenly father" is respectful? Why do certain synonyms bother believers so much?
  • And why do some churches refer to themselves as "family worship centers"? Is it supposed to make them seem more modern or relevant?
Secularism
  • Specialty license plates are an unnecessary source of church-state conflict. Just buy a bumper sticker and donate money directly to charity.
  • “In Zeus We Trust.” This is how the US national motto sounds to us atheists. Meaningless at best. Exclusionary at worst. Simply a bad idea.
  • Removing “under God” from the US pledge of allegiance is a good idea, but it would be much better to simply scrap it entirely.
  • US society disdains both taking religion seriously and rejecting it entirely. One is expected to believe but not let it affect one's life.
  • Happy Bunny Day! Here's to secularizing rather than fighting or ignoring the western spring festival. Enjoy your candy and colored eggs!
I'd like to thank all the readers and commenters for their interest over the past six years. If anyone wants to contact me for any reason, the e-mail address in the sidebar will continue to be forwarded to my primary e-mail account. Farewell, my friends!

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11 December 2011

Life is Meaningful Here and Now

Believers, especially those who make their faith the cornerstone of their lives, have a tendency to think that life without God is meaningless. They claim that, in an atheistic world, living would be absurd and that nothing would matter at all. They sometimes even view atheism as an irresistible cause for despair and a reason to commit suicide. The consequence of this opinion is that it can discourage those with serious doubts from pursuing them for fear of where they will lead. But I believe that it’s a terrible mistake to think that belief in God is necessary to find meaning in life, and I believe that theism no more helps answer existential questions than it helps answer scientific ones.

If God’s existence can have meaning without other beings, then so can our existence have meaning without other beings. But if other beings are indeed required for meaning, then we have other people and don’t necessarily need God for that purpose. Alternatively, if God assigns our otherwise meaningless lives meaning with his plans, then so can we can with our own plans. People find meaning in their familial roles, in their friendships, in their careers, in art, in science, in politics, in their hobbies, and in many other aspects of their lives, including in their religions. But not only does meaning need not be assigned from on high, it really cannot be, for one has to adopt God’s plans as one’s own for them to be meaningful. Meaning isn’t objective, existing in the abstract, independent of persons. Rather, in order for something to be meaningful, it has to mean something to someone. If my life has meaning, then it’s because it means something to me. The plans of another being, even my alleged creator, are irrelevant unless I make them my own. And whether the plans originate from one’s creator, another person, or from oneself is also irrelevant as long as they ultimately become my own. It is we who give our own lives meaning, though we rarely ever do so consciously. The non-existence of God negates only one potential source of meaning for us, leaving us a great number of other excellent candidates.

But believers often argue that, without God, our existence will eventually come to an end, and that at least from our perspective, it will be like we never even existed, so nothing we do in life matters. But if something cannot simply matter here and now for its own sake, then it cannot matter because of some future here and now or even an unlimited series of future heres and nows because they all in turn would depend on points even further in the future, ad infinitum. If nothing matters, then an eternity of nothing doesn’t help and so belief in God doesn’t help.

Theism doesn’t provide meaning to life. All it does is push the problem back, either to another being or to a future you, neither of whom are any more prepared to answer it than the present you. There is room for a lot of debate about whether life has meaning, but believers should understand that belief in God doesn’t make the difficult questions simply disappear. In fact, believers already address them implicitly, and if they were to discard their faith, they would probably feel the same about the meaningfulness of their lives as when the believed. Atheists aren’t miserable people constantly considering suicide, and for good reason: life is worth living for its own sake, here and now.

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22 November 2011

I am a secular

With relatively little formal organization and a strong tendency toward independent thought, the nonreligious use many different labels to describe themselves. Many of us have adopted more than one label, vary our usage according to the situation, and consciously change our preferences over time. I’m certainly no exception to this pattern. Today, I would like to state that I have decided to adopt secular as my preferred personal label and to explain my reasons by comparing it to terms which I have used previously and which still accurately describe me.

atheist
+ general meaning is always understood
– precise meaning is often misunderstood (≠ certainty that gods don’t exist)
– does not communicate whether belief in absence or absence of belief
– says nothing about belief in supernatural in general
– says nothing about whether one is religious or spiritual

naturalist
+ communicates disbelief in all supernatural without emphasis on gods
– meaning is often misunderstood (≠ nudist, ≠ nature lover, ≠ scientist)
– does not communicate whether belief in absence or absence of belief
– says nothing about whether one is religious or spiritual

humanist
+ positive principles are more than rejection of supernaturalism
– positive principles are unremarkable in modern western society
– meaning is often misunderstood (≠ worship humanity, ≠ speciesist)
– often seems like an ideology rather than a simple description
– says nothing about whether one is religious or spiritual

freethinker
+ communicates an approach to claims rather than a particular belief
– used almost exclusively by atheists, so above distinction is lost
– meaning is generally not understood, requiring explanation
– says nothing about whether one is religious or spiritual

secular
+ meaning is usually understood
+ says nothing about belief or disbelief in anything
+ says that one is neither religious nor spiritual
+ greatest potential as umbrella term
– noun form is currently somewhat awkward

First, I acknowledge that whether a particular feature of a label is considered positive or negative is largely subjective, and thus I only claim to present my own opinion.

Second, I acknowledge that extending the meaning of secular from “not religious” to “neither religious nor spiritual” and using it as a noun rather than merely as an adjective are both somewhat novel, but I contend that these are reasonable extensions without obvious substitutes and that neither is unprecedented. In addition, the noun form can be avoided in most circumstances by using the adjective form instead, for example, by saying, “I’m secular,” just like someone might say, “I’m Hindu” or “I’m Buddhist.”

Third, I strongly prefer not to capitalize the term secular since it indicates the absence of an ideology and capitalizing it would suggest otherwise. Typographical conventions dictate that I nevertheless capitalize it the title, but I have chosen to ignore this rule in this instance—precisely because the title is so prominent—in order to avoid any potential confusion regarding my opinion on this matter.

Fourth, I want to distinguish a secular from a secularist: a secular is one who is neither religious nor spiritual whereas a secularist is one who believes the government should be neutral toward religion. This distinction mirrors the Christian/Christianist and Muslim/Islamist distinctions which have become increasingly familiar. In my estimation, almost all seculars are secularists, but most secularists are not seculars. In contrast, it’s almost impossible to imagine a Christianist who isn’t a Christian or a Islamist who isn’t a Muslim. This clearly speaks to the inherent fairness of secularism.

Fifth, I want to emphasize that I’m not rejecting any of the other labels on my list; I simply think calling myself a secular conveys just the right amount of relevant information when the topic of religion arises and provides me with a clear self-identity without committing me to any particular belief, principle, or ideology.

So until further notice, I am a secular first and foremost. It seems quite appropriate that I have finally landed on the same term that I chose when naming this blog over five years ago and largely for the same reasons!

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21 November 2011

An Old Friend's Divergent Path

Yesterday I was feeling bored and decided to browse through some old files on my computer from back when I was a devout Catholic and to check out some websites that I used to visit at that time. I had the idea to look up an old online friend of mine, my first online friend in fact, and to see what he’s been up to in the years since we last spoke. It was quite interesting to compare how our paths have diverged.

I first encountered Mr. Mario Derksen of Coral Springs, Florida, on the Prodigy religion message boards sometime around 1994, when my family first got internet access. He was very active in apologetics threads, primarily debating with Protestants, and I soon joined these discussions armed with what I had read in the new catechism. Mario and I became allies on the message boards, and we began to e-mail each other regularly. Mario recommended the first apologetics book I ever read and watching him debate encouraged me to learn more. At some point, Mario set up and operated his own apologetics website where he published and organized his own materials, and I did the same, though on a much smaller scale. We remained in contact for years, but my interest in apologetics ended when my scrupulosity and doubts caused a personal crisis, and we eventually lost touch about ten years ago.

In order to find Mario, I first tried to visit his old website, Catholic Insight, but the domain is no longer registered, and it seems that he has discontinued it rather than simply moved it. I then tried to load an archived copy of the site, but archiving has been disabled. Next, I simply searched for his name. Most of the results are his contributions to various apologetics websites from about a decade ago. For a moment, it seemed that he had just disappeared off the face of the internet. Then I found some information indicating that Mario, who was already an indult Catholic when I knew him, had moved further into religious extremism.

In particular, I read an excerpt of an announcement by Mario from his website that had been posted elsewhere that he had become a sedevacantist, that is, one who denies the validity of the recent popes and claims the papal throne is currently empty. Sedevacantists typically assert that the Catholic Church largely abandoned its infallible claim to exclusivity of salvation during the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, making the alleged popes since then heretics. Conclavists move one step further and take it upon themselves to elect a new pope to fill the vacant seat, often from among a small circle of like-minded family and friends. I was disappointed not to find the full text of his announcement, but I noted with interest that he had published it in August 2004, while I was in the midst of my intense deconversion to atheism.

I continued searching for anything from the last seven years. I found more excerpts of and responses to his arguments for sedevacantism from around that time but little else. Finally, I found his website devoted to a hundred-page letter to a bishop regarding an ordination controversy by a Vietnamese sedevacantist bishop in France in 1981. The site includes audio files from a presentation by Mario on the subject given earlier this year, indicating that he has maintained his basic position since 2004. I had been hoping that he had quietly followed the trail of logic out of the church completely like me rather than around and around into ever smaller reactionary circles on its outskirts. Mario is certainly a very intelligent man—I largely agree with his conclusion that the popes changed their teachings on religious liberty during the twentieth century—and I know he could see through the entire ecclesiastical charade if he simply had sufficient motivation. Scrupulosity was an absolute nightmare for me, but I suspect I would still be a Catholic if it hadn’t prompted me to question absolutely everything and everyone and that I wouldn't be nearly as happy as I am today if I hadn't left. Our views could hardly be more different today, but I wish him all the best and hope he's doing well.

At the beginning of his audio presentation on his website about the ordination controversy, Mario mentions three things he shares in common with Benedict XVI. In this spirit, I’d like to mention three things I share in common with Mario: We’re the same age. We both grew up in Florida. And neither of us today thinks that Benedict XVI speaks with any authority.

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29 May 2011

Positive & Negative Conceptions of God

Although I’ve always known that most believers sincerely love God or at least have very positive feelings toward him, I’ve recently come to realize how much I’ve failed to appreciate this fact when dealing with others, and I suspect my own feelings about God have clouded my perceptions. That is to say, I think my negative view has prevented me from understanding how precious their beliefs are to them, and I would do well to remind myself that most people don’t share my opinion, no matter how justified I think it is.

While I was certainly a devout believer before my deconversion, I can’t say that I ever really loved God. As a child, I was completely uninterested in religion, and when I became interested as a teenager, it was primarily because I was worried about avoiding hell. I didn’t care nearly as much about serving God for his own sake, bringing him glory, building a relationship with him, or even entering heaven when I died. From the beginning, my view of God was heavily influenced by my fear of eternal damnation, and this fear intensified during my struggle with scrupulosity, eventually transforming into frustration, anger, and even hatred during my last few months as a believer. Most Christians love God for creating them, blessing them, and “saving” them from hell; I, on the other hand, could never bring myself—no matter how hard I tried—to love a being who threatened to burn me in a lake of fire if I didn’t meet his demands, especially his demands that I completely repress my sexuality and suppress my doubts. For this reason, though my deconversion itself was emotionally draining, I emerged from the experience happier than ever. I didn’t feel like I had lost anything except my unfounded fears. It sounds strange for someone who built his entire worldview and identity around religion to say, but my belief in God was simply never important to my happiness; it was instead mainly a source of worry and anxiety. Sure, the prospect of living forever in paradise and the promise of having one’s viewpoint vindicated to all humankind after death were certainly nice consolations, but they never came anywhere close to negating the misery of having hellfire constantly hanging over my head. Once I stopping believing in God, I was happy the divine blackmailer was gone, and I didn’t want to see him ever return.

Now when I deal with believers, I frequently forget how their view of God radically differs from my own. If I present arguments against their religion, they’re generally unreceptive because they want God to exist. They’re not going to consider the possibility that they’re mistaken unless they absolutely have to. Their faith is a source of hope and joy for them rather than a source of fear and sorrow, as it was for me. God is often the most important person in their life, as it were. To those who sincerely love God and especially those who have never even seriously contemplated the possibility that he doesn’t exist, merely expressing my atheistic viewpoint is akin to suggesting that the parents who raised them were actually paid actors who never really loved them, as in The Truman Show. It’s no wonder they react so negatively toward atheists, especially atheists who directly challenge their beliefs and sometimes even insult their beloved heavenly father. Followers of other religions may worship other gods, but none of them really explicitly deny that the Abrahamic god exists and thus deny the validity of their special relationship with him. This is why the highest level of contempt from believers is reserved for atheists. Of course, it doesn't at all excuse their mistreatment of us atheists, but it does help us understand it.

This is not at all a new insight, but it’s especially important for me in particular to bear in mind when thinking about or discussing religion. It’s so easy for me to forget that very few people, even other atheists, have such negative emotional reactions to the mere mention of God. Not only does it bring to mind irrational belief without evidence, it conjures an image of the deity who killed Egyptian babies, who ordered the genocide of the Canaanites, who damns billions of unbelievers to hell, and especially who made my life such misery for so many years. Whereas some nontheists are attracted to deism or pantheism as a way to salvage belief in God when their traditional conception is dismantled, I want nothing to do with the idea at all. Instead of an emotional attachment to it from past positive experiences, I have an aversion due to my past negative experiences. I think it’s noteworthy, however, that this aversion doesn’t extend to every aspect of religion. In fact, I’m sometimes drawn to the idea of a humanistic and potentially naturalistic religion like Unitarian Universalism. I rather like the idea of frequent, regular meetings of a community united in their values, if not beliefs, to discuss ethical, social, and personal issues and enjoy each other’s friendship. I know that if I ever wanted to join such a community, I would need to overcome my distaste for the idea of God, at least as a metaphor, and appreciate that it means so much to so many people because they conceive of it so differently.

Even if I never join such a community, it’s still a good idea for me to attempt to rid myself of such emotional baggage, for my own sake and for the sake of understanding others. I stopped believing in God years ago, and now it’s time for me to stop loathing the idea of God itself, by disassociating it from the idea of hell, which I will always rightly hate. Perhaps I can approximate the mental state of most believers by imagining a universalist god who never even considered creating hell and who will welcome absolutely everyone into heaven. Such a deity would still be vulnerable to criticism from the Problem of Evil, but it's so much easier for me to have less negative feelings about this concept. It's an interesting mental exercise, and I hope it will help me improve my interactions with believers.

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24 April 2011

Now on Twitter!

I've been using Twitter for a few months now to gather news from various non-theistic, political, and entertainment sources, but I haven't really used it to post my own material until very recently. Yesterday I decided to associate my account with this blog since my tweets generally concern similar topics, and it only makes sense to have them reinforce each other.

While I'll provide a link to each new post here, most of the content on the Twitter account will be unique to that medium, so even regular readers may be interested in checking it out. Not only will it contain thoughts on irreligion too short to warrant a full blog post, I also intend to discuss ethics and politics with some regularity. Most of my sentiments on these topics can be expressed in strings of 140 characters or less, so Twitter is a more appropriate forum for them. And since tweeting takes much less time than blogging, I can post much more frequently than I do here. I'm hopeful it will even generate new ideas for blog entries. So here's to tweeting!

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22 April 2011

The Eroding Wall of Separation

As a secular American, the Establishment Clause is my favorite part of the United States Constitution. It originally operated to prevent direct federal funding of churches and the formal establishment of any Christian denomination—or even Christianity in general—as the official national religion. With time and further legal developments, courts have come to interpret it to mean that government at all levels should remain neutral toward religion, neither promoting nor discouraging it. While over the past decade the federal judiciary has weakened the substance of this rule and especially the means to enforce it, government neutrality toward religion remains an important and accepted legal principle. But I’m happy that the Establishment Clause has existed since the beginning, for I believe that such a law could not be passed today.

If I understand history correctly, it seems that American Christians at the end of the 18th century were much more sectarian than they are now. That is, they identified rather strongly with their particular denominations and largely rejected ecumenism. They wanted the government to sanction their own denomination and opposed the government sanctioning others. I imagine that most citizens probably didn’t think the Establishment Clause would entail total neutrality, and if the federal government wouldn’t make their own church the official national church, then they were satisfied that at least no other church received this status. And since almost all states had official churches at this time, there was no need for a national church.

American Christians today are rather different. Many of them change denominations, especially within Protestantism but also to and from Catholicism, some identify as “non-denominational,” and they all generally identify much less than with their individual churches than their ancestors did. Far fewer of them have negative opinions of other denominations or even non-Christian religions, with some even having favorable opinions of all other religions, especially when contrasted with atheism. This last sentiment is sometimes expressed as, “I don’t care where you worship, as long as you go somewhere.” While this may be relatively open-minded, it’s especially dangerous for church-state separation. Another problem is that historically disfavored minority denominations such as the Baptists have almost totally forgotten their former commitment to secular government now that the threat of another denomination becoming established has long disappeared and they have become a major group themselves, especially here in the southeast.

If the Establishment Clause, with its long history and secure position—requiring a constitutional amendment to repeal—didn’t already exist, I think a law establishing general Christianity as the official national religion would be a real possibility. At the very least, it seems that most Americans would not oppose a law which allowed government to favor religion in general, as long as it didn’t discriminate between faiths. I believe the existence of faith-based initiatives for over a decade supports this view. The average American thinks religion is good and doesn’t necessarily object to the government actively promoting it as a whole. I find this disturbing.

In the absence of a constitutional amendment, major changes to the law can still come through the Supreme Court. I fear a majority of the justices will eventually agree with the popular sentiment and simply overturn the precedent requiring neutrality toward religion altogether. It’s worrisome, but all I can do is vote for presidential candidates who are less likely to appoint theocrats to the federal bench and to support organizations that promote secular government. I suggest we all do the same in order to hold up the wall of separation between church and state.

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An Evil Deity Cannot Be Trusted

While there are many well known objections to Pascal’s Wager, in a recent e-mail discussion with a reader I formulated a simple argument which I don’t remember ever having encountered and which I would like to share here: A deity who causes any of its creatures to suffer eternal torment is necessarily evil, and thus we cannot trust such a deity to honor its promises regarding salvation. Therefore, we have no reason to believe that practicing any religion in order to enter its heaven and avoid its hell will be more successful than not practicing it. It’s better to practice virtue as informed by our reason and not worry about unsubstantiated threats from unknown gods.

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31 December 2010

Herding Cats?

It's said that organizing atheists is like herding cats. We're implicitly compared to believers, who have acknowledged leaders, authoritative texts, and formal organizations. The reason usually advanced to account for this phenomenon is that we atheists are generally rather individualistic and thus reluctant to follow someone else's lead on such matters. But there's another reason which I've never seen presented in the context of explaining the herding-cats idea: atheism is much too broad a concept under which to seek to organize. The proper comparison is not to individual religious sects but to theists as a whole.

If we randomly put a dozen people who don't believe in any gods in a room, then they're no less likely to reach an agreement on any given issue than if we randomly put a dozen people who do believe in gods in a room. A representative sampling of a dozen of the world's theists would include four Christians (two Catholics, one Orthodox, one Protestant), three Muslims (two Sunnis, one Shiite), two Hindus, a (theistic) Buddhist, a Taoist, and an Animist. I rather doubt they would agree to much at all, since they don't even agree on the basic definition and identity of the gods. In fact, the random group of atheists might even be more likely to reach agreements since many atheists have great respect for science, which provides an objective way to establish underlying facts, since appeals to faith would be roundly rejected, and since atheists have no prejudices against other atheists who don't believe differently than they do. The task of organizing atheists seems significantly different from this perspective.

I'm not expressing an opinion about whether atheists should attempt to organize. Atheists—as distinguished from the much larger group of the non-religious—number very few in many parts of the world, including my own, so there may be wisdom in trying to gather as many people under the umbrella as reasonably possible. My point is only that organization works best when it's structured around a specific set of beliefs and not a general belief or disbelief. Only with that in mind can one make real comparisons between groups.

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09 December 2010

Go to Mass or Go to Hell

The Catholic Church teaches that its members must attend mass on Sundays and all other holy days of obligation under pain of mortal sin. This means that if they purposely miss mass, they commit a mortal sin and, as with all mortal sins, if they then fail to repent of and confess this before they die, God will condemn them to hell for all eternity. If you choose to sleep in, to stay home and read a book, to have a picnic with your family in the park, to do anything but sit, stand, kneel and—most important—hand over your money in church for an hour each week, then you risk frying in a lake of fire for your grievous transgression. While I understand the pragmatic benefits the Catholic Church reaps from people who still take this threat seriously and begrudgingly shuffle off to mass each week when they would otherwise actually enjoy their alleged day of rest to the fullest, it makes little sense from a theological perspective.

Why would God threaten believers with punishment for failure to attend mass? The most plausible justification, at least initially, is that he wants to encourage them to attend, in the same way that a parent punishes a child who skips school. The problem is that God inflicts a punishment identical to the harm to be avoided in the first place! We can presume that God wants believers to attend mass with the ultimate goal of saving their souls from damnation; the danger in not attending mass regularly is that one may stop believing and/or commit acts which are inherently wrong such as murder, theft or adultery and end up in hell. But threatening believers with the potential danger is absurd, as it unnecessarily increases the danger which believers face, giving them an easier and more certain avenue to hell. (Of course, hell itself is already infinitely unjust. Of course, God himself created the original danger. I’m just showing how it’s absurdity upon absurdity.) It would be as though the state executed drivers who failed to use their seat belts. That’ll show them to be more careful next time! Never mind that there’s no next time, either for the executed or the damned, and that they would have been perfectly fine without either punishment.

Of course, if God has purely selfish motives for demanding his believers worship him every week, we might have a different analysis. One might think that God, for every person he tosses into the everlasting flames, loses an infinity of worship from this person, but St. Thomas Aquinas argued the saved in heaven will delight in the suffering of the damned, so perhaps God’s interests are served no matter what. Then why go the whole charade of earthly existence? I would say that perhaps the drama is interesting, but God already knows how it’s going to end anyway. What’s the point of playing it out? It’s impossible to avoid absurd conclusions when one postulates an infinite being, and throwing in infinite rewards and infinite punishments doesn’t help. My intention here was just to point out one additional absurdity peculiar to Catholicism.

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29 November 2010

Enduring Injustice

Many religions teach an afterlife in which all wrongs are righted and every sacrifice duly recognized and applauded. The virtuous will be rewarded, and the wicked will be punished. No one will get away with anything, no matter how great or how small, and no one will be unappreciated or forgotten. Everything is made right, and everything lost is restored. Such a vision appeals to anyone who has ever suffered unrectified injustice during life, and that includes everyone of us to varying degrees. But anyone who believes in such an afterlife will never fully appreciate the idea of injustice. They will never know what it means to accept the reality of an unfair and uncaring world because they will always have someone to make everything all right in the end. As believers, they will never experience a major aspect of what it means to be human.

Personally I’ve never suffered any great injustices in life. I’ve never been a victim of crime worse than some relatively minor property crimes. No one has ever taken pains to humiliate me publicly. I’ve never had any family or friends murdered. With that said, I have received my share of slights, rudeness, unfair treatment, economic exploitation, as well as all the vicarious injustices of family, friends, and society at large. It’s fairly easy to dismiss each small injustice, but it’s more difficult to accept that there’s no guarantee that any of the people over the course of a lifetime who hurt you will ever feel bad about it. It’s even more difficult to accept that mass-murderers and large-scale swindlers sometimes avoid receiving their just desserts, that their victims will never be brought back to life or have their life savings returned. I think it takes a certain amount of maturity to come to terms with this reality, and the proper response is not to rely on baseless hopes of future justice but to strip ourselves of an expectation of justice. We have no guarantee justice will ever be done, and it’s precisely for this reason that we must work hard to achieve it as much as we can in the short time we have. This disillusionment about the world is a kind of virtue and as such provides its own bittersweet reward, the ability to remain somewhat more calm and rational in the face of great injustice.

One response to the Problem of Evil is that God allows suffering so that we can develop certain virtues such as compassion, sacrifice, and humility. I find it remarkable that, with an afterlife as described above, he necessarily denies us the opportunity to experience enduring injustice and thus develop the virtue of resignation and detachment. Of course, any afterlife at all denies us the opportunity to accept the reality of a finite existence and grapple with the extinction of our consciousness. Neither of these observations are direct criticisms of this proposed theodicy, but they do indicate that God would have had to choose which virtues to cultivate in us to the exclusion of others. It seems very odd for God to create a universe in which only atheists can develop certain virtues and still condemn them to hell.

Image: vichie81 | FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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06 October 2010

God is Worse than Kim Jong-il

In my international human rights course, we've spent a lot of time discussing North Korea, both because it presents the most egregious examples of current human rights violations and because our professor has a special research interest in the topic, his family having fled Korea during the war and he having also taught in South Korea. The professor recently recounted a familiar story about foreign doctors entering the country, curing people of their ailments, and the healed immediately thanking and praising the dear leader before his portrait for helping them and curing them, despite his totalitarian and ruthless regime most likely being the direct cause of their suffering in the first place. Everyone in the class rightly considered the situation ridiculous and sad. My mind, both then and when I first heard the story years ago, immediately made the comparison between how many people in other countries would have turned to their gods in exactly the same way after the medical treatment and how it's equally ridiculous and sad.

I honestly believe that an omnimax deity who fails to help his creatures and who sends any of them to hell would be infinitely more evil than Kim Jong-il. Even leaving aside the eternity of hell which really trumps everything else, God could distribute food and medicine to the populace without any effort whatsoever whereas the North Korean government at least has to arrange to let humanitarian relief organizations enter the country to do the same. Indeed, God could miraculously heal everyone of every lament, but he never does. All the excuses that theists make on God's behalf could be equally well applied to Kim Jong-il—he knows better than we do, it's for the greater good, we have to trust in him despite all appearances. It was depressing to see documentary footage in class of North Koreans escaping into China and constantly talking about how they trusted in God to help them. It's very understandable under the circumstances of extreme hardship, extreme ignorance, and extreme fear, but it's still disheartening to see them exchange a real dictator for an even worse fictional one, one who ultimately let them down when they were captured and returned to North Korea to be imprisoned in death camps.

The only point that God has in his favor is that he doesn't actually exist. This certainly excuses his failure to help people. It also means he cannot inflict any of the suffering which he allegedly threatens; only people's belief in him can, and that level of suffering is relatively minor, especially in nations which don't take religion especially seriously. My experience with scrupulosity, while the most serious suffering of my life, is nothing compared to starvation, imprisonment, and torture. Life—or more accurately existence—in North Korea, however, would in turn be nothing compared to eternal hell, if it were real.

I'm sure that many theists feel revulsion at the comparison of the God to Kim Jong-il, but they've never provided adequate responses to the Problem of Evil or to the Problem of Hell, so I feel entirely justified in making it. This is why I blog: to say things that simply need to be said.

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10 September 2010

Noble Objectives and Deficient Methods

In my legal philosophy course this week, the professor asked us what we thought of religion in general. Although I’ve discussed my views on other religious questions in earlier classes, I didn’t respond to this particular query. I did, however, formulate an answer that expresses my simultaneous interest in and rejection of religion, whose precise terms I had never previously used: I think the objectives of believers are mostly noble, but the methods they use are deficient with respect to some of their objectives and additionally cause unintended harm to themselves and to others.

Although the list of reasons people believe in and practice religion is potentially endless, I believe I’ve identified a fair number of noble or at least unobjectionable things people seek in religion:

  • knowledge of…
    • where we’ve come from
    • where we’re going
    • why we’re here
    • how we should act
    • nature of reality
  • hope for…
    • existence beyond death
    • ultimate justice
  • identity
  • community
  • quiet contemplation
  • emotional experiences
  • escape from the mundane
Of course, there are also a number of less noble things people seek in religion such as power, respect, money or sex, but this is true of business, politics, sports, acting and music, as well as many other areas of human activity. The only point is that one can have neutral or even good reasons for considering religion.

Just as people’s objectives in religion vary, so do their methods. But here are some very common unreliable methods people use to achieve their objectives:
  • blind faith
  • unquestioned trust in authority (text, person, tradition, etc.)
  • emotion and intuition
  • dogmatism
These methods are sometimes effective in achieving the last five items on the list but not knowledge or (justified) hope. That is, stirring one’s emotions with song is certainly a useful way to escape the mundane, but it’s not a legitimate tool for establishing the truth of supernatural claims. In the same way, dogmatism can help build orthodoxy and thus a sense of community, but it doesn’t help anyone understand our origins if it limits acceptance of scientific inquiry. Believers may object to my classification of these methods as unreliable on the ground that their faith, trust or emotion corresponds to the voice of a deity, but my point here is not to explain in detail why I think they’re mistaken but merely to state my general view of religion. Let’s just say I don’t think anyone has a justified claim to have access to the mind of any disembodied spirit. Some believers may also respond that they’re open to the voice of science and reason as a source of knowledge. This is true, but to the extent they receive such information, it’s not from their religious leaders or sacred texts; it’s from scientists and philosophers. I certainly don’t object to that. Others may say that they’re not interested in actual knowledge or that they’re satisfied with any hope at all in the face of great injustice and certain death. This may be true of them, but not of me; I prefer the best approximation of the truth available, not simply what is accessible or comforting. I just don’t think any of the listed methods are valid avenues to knowledge, and I’m not willing to sacrifice knowledge in order to achieve any of the other objectives on this list, as offered by many, if not most, religious groups.

My personal view of any given approach to spirituality strongly correlates negatively with its reliance on faith, authority and dogmatism rather than skepticism, reason and progressivism. I hold a very negative opinion of religious fundamentalism, tied to a rigid interpretation of a static text, and a much more positive opinion of liberal religions such as Unitarian Universalism, in which individuals are actively encouraged to question and to think for themselves. I’m still too much of individualist, however, to belong even to a UU congregation, so it seems I’m on my own seeking the bottom part of the list of objectives. At least I have science to help me with the first!

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16 May 2010

The Importance of Atheism

Atheism is nothing more than not believing in deities, so I often question why I devote so much time and energy to mere disbelief. The activities are mostly devoid of positive content, consisting mostly of critical thinking applied to this one very controversial topic, and therefore almost entirely reactive toward religion rather than creative. And when I try to be constructive, as when I focus on Humanism rather than just atheism, I still concentrate heavily on the atheistic aspects rather than on the purely secular aspects. I’ve come up with a few possible explanations for this phenomenon.

Atheists, especially explicit atheists, are a rather small minority worldwide, even smaller in the United States, and smaller still in the southeastern part of this country. What’s more, theists make their presence known through churches and a thousand other ways that atheists generally don’t, for vocal atheists are the smallest minority yet. Indeed, many atheists have no interest whatsoever in their atheism and even consider expressing one’s atheism, except perhaps upon direct questioning, to be inappropriate, in bad taste or simply ridiculous. Given this extreme minority status and the constant reminders of it, it’s not surprising that I sometimes feel slightly insecure in my position despite feeling such confidence whenever I actually examine the arguments on both sides. In fact, this dichotomy explains the situation almost on its own.

When I think about how as an atheist I believe the rest of the world is not only mistaken but very badly mistaken, I feel the need to remind myself why I think this and to make sure I’m not the one who’s mistaken. And although I don’t get many opportunities to have sincere, honest and good faith discussions with believers on the topic of religion, that’s why it’s something I really love to do when I can. Whenever there are two sides to a debate, which is essentially always, I don’t feel comfortable dismissing the other side unless I know exactly why they’re mistaken and can present specific errors in their thinking. I want to show them these errors, in exactly the same way I would like others to show me mine rather than simply dismissing me as an idiot. Dismissing others and disengaging from the debate is generally unconducive to the search for truth.

There’s an additional reason stemming from my past not only as a believer but as a scrupulous believer, deathly afraid of hell. Although I haven’t really felt anxious about the possibility of being wrong about Christianity in over five years, the indoctrination certainly left an indelible mark on my psyche that will probably remain until I die. I’ve never for even the briefest moment feared that Islam was true and that Allah would send me to hell, so I know the only reason I’ve ever feared Christianity was true is because it’s part of my past and part of my culture. But whenever I see a new book at bookstores claiming to justify belief in God or Jesus, I immediately feel a little bit of anxiety at the possibility that I’ve somehow overlooked something. I know this reaction isn’t rational, especially since it’s emotional and almost reflexive, and I sometimes calm myself by picking it up, thumbing through it, and seeing that it’s the same arguments theists have been making for centuries. It's notable, however, that I've never felt the urge to do this regarding other religions.

Sometimes I feel like I really should fully dismiss all belief in the supernatural, completely disengage from all discussion about atheism, and focus my energies elsewhere. But atheism is an important hobby for me and sometimes reduces anxiety, though disengaging may be more effective, for all I know. And someone needs to help fly the banner of atheism, as it were, so that religious doubters have somewhere to turn for help. I’m very happy all the people who helped me on my road to deconversion didn’t just decide to focus their attention on something “constructive” after they personally decided religion was false and instead actually took the time to express their atheism and their reasons for disbelief. Without them, I would very likely either still be a very miserable scrupulant with no life or a suicide. Atheism, not Humanism or any other positive philosophy, has been very constructive in my life and made me very happy comparatively, and I want to help offer other people that option if that’s what they need.

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13 May 2010

Vestigial Prayer

In religions whose gods are less than perfect, the purpose of petitionary prayer is simple and clear: People ask their gods for something because otherwise they might not grant it to them. If the gods are not omniscient or even forgetful, people need to inform them or remind them of what they need. If the gods are not omnibenevolent, people need to beg the gods repeatedly so they will grant them favors. If the gods are not omnipotent, maybe they can’t do anything unless enough people ask long enough and sincerely enough to grant them power. In this context, asking makes sense.

In religions whose gods are perfect, such as the Abrahamic traditions, however, the purpose of petitionary prayer is totally unclear. An omnimax deity knows exactly what his creatures need, cannot forget it, has the ability to give it to them, and loves them perfectly such that he always wants to give it to them. Furthermore, as infinitely perfect, such a god’s will cannot be changed. In this context, asking makes no sense. Of course, the Abrahamic tradition hasn’t always been monotheistic, much less believed their god was omnimax, so it appears that petitionary prayer may be a vestige from this earlier time since it’s completely incompatible with its theology over the past couple of millennia.

It baffles me to understand how billions of Jews, Christians and Muslims have spent their entire lives engaging in, thinking, preaching and writing about petitionary prayer without realizing its absurdity in light of their beliefs. The logic involved is extraordinarily simple. I suppose at least some have recognized the problem, but it’s a tiny minority, and most of them probably still use the actual form of petitionary prayer with a different purpose in mind. If one believes his gods are perfect, it’s irrational to ask them for anything, ever. It also baffles me to realize that this issue didn’t cause me more trouble than it did before my deconversion. The truth is that I was probably too afraid of being sent to hell for doubting and tried not to question it, even though I could never understand it. At least I now understand why I couldn’t: it just doesn’t make sense.

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Afraid of Nothing

It’s been almost exactly five months since my last post. There’s no special reason for this; I just haven’t had much to say on the topics of religion and irreligion so far this year. I still receive occasional comments on my prior posts, and there’s one particular type of feedback that draws me back in and makes me want to write more. It comes from former or current scrupulants who tell me that my blog has helped them in their suffering and given them hope. As a former scrupulant, I can identify with their struggles from my own experience, and I’m certainly much more aware of their plight than most others. The vast majority of scrupulants avoid anything questioning their faith, at least during most their time in that condition, but the few who do when the time is right, like me, truly benefit from hearing someone address their exact concerns and show them the path to mental freedom. I don’t know how to reach this target audience better, but they’re certainly a major part of my desire to write more and provide them with more resources if and when they find my blog.

Scrupulosity is not a disease. It’s a perfectly rational reaction to the threat of eternal damnation. The solution is to realize the threat is false. There is nothing to fear.

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14 December 2009

Comforting Others in Pain

In the face of suffering, believers almost have always something they can say to others: they can say, first, that they're praying for them, and, second, that everything will be alright in the end. Nonbelievers can't honestly say either of these. The closest we can get is that we're thinking about them, which can raise their spirits but not give them hope it'll actually help their problem, and that their suffering will eventually end at death, which really only helps those with terminal conditions and those afraid of hell. There's really not much you can say in the face of harsh reality that doesn't involve asking them to toughen up and accept their plight.

I've been thinking about this recently because I have a classmate who's suffered both a divorce and a diagnosis of cancer within the past half year. (What's worse for him is that his ex-wife is now with another classmate of ours.) He's really nice, honest and hardworking, and I like and respect him. On Facebook, his status updates about his treatment and various difficulties always receive many comments about people praying for him and promising him that it'll be alright in the end. I honestly add that we've missed him and hope to see him again soon, and I do hope all the comments make him feel better, but my inability to say anything more just got me thinking on this topic.

Sometimes I think it'd easier if I again believed that everything will eventually be perfect in the afterlife, but I'd probably again fear the prospect of eternal torment for failure to live a good enough life. If I had a choice between somehow honestly believing that life will never end but that there was even the tiniest chance I would end up in hell, and believing that my life will end forever at death, then I would certainly choose the latter. I'd sacrifice a very, very high probability of eternal pleasure to avoid even a very, very low chance of eternal pain. Of course we can't honestly choose our beliefs, and even seemingly perfectly innocent self-deception can have unpredictable negative consequences, if not for me, then for others. I hope that I can remain as intellectually honest throughout my life as I resolve to be today.

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11 December 2009

Secularist Fantasy

During the summer, I participated in an online United States government simulation. Many players choose to use characters with views quite distinct from their own, but my character was essentially a puppet for me. As a member of the House of Representatives, I authored and sponsored the two following pieces of legislation. The first one is about the Pledge of Allegiance.

Pledge Neutrality Restoration Resolution

Whereas the Pledge of Allegiance contained no reference to any deity before 1954,

Whereas an increasing minority of Americans do not profess belief in any deity and an even larger number claim no association with any religion,

Whereas non-religious citizens are as much an integral part of our nation as are religious citizens,

Whereas the government exists to serve all people of the nation and should favor neither religion nor irreligion,

Whereas the pledge should unite rather than divide,

Whereas the phrase “under God” creates division by referencing a religious belief not shared by all citizens and necessarily excludes non-believers,

Whereas believers can understand how unbelievers feel by imagining the pledge saying “without God” instead of “under God,”

Whereas most American children are encouraged to recite the pledge every day at school regardless of their own beliefs,

Whereas many American adults are encouraged to recite the pledge on occasion regardless of their own beliefs,

Whereas refraining from favoring religion is distinct from favoring irreligion,

Whereas the removal of the phrase “under God” would restore the pledge's neutrality toward religion,

BE IT RESOLVED
The Pledge of Allegiance be restored to its pre-1954 formulation: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
The second one is about the national motto.
Motto Neutrality Restoration Resolution

Whereas E Pluribus Unum has been a de facto motto of the United States since 1776,

Whereas In God We Trust has been the de jure motto of the United States only since 1956,

Whereas E Pluribus Unum contains no reference to any deity and In God We Trust does,

Whereas an increasing minority of Americans do not profess belief in any deity and an even larger number claim no association with any religion,

Whereas non-religious citizens are as much an integral part of our nation as are religious citizens,

Whereas the government exists to serve all people of the nation and should favor neither religion nor irreligion,

Whereas the motto should unite rather than divide,

Whereas the motto In God We Trust creates division by referencing a religious belief not shared by all citizens and necessarily excludes non-believers,

Whereas believers can understand how unbelievers feel by imagining the motto being In God We Disbelieve instead of In God We Trust,

Whereas In God We Trust is a false statement because many Americans neither believe nor trust in supernatural beings,

Whereas refraining from favoring religion is distinct from favoring irreligion,

Whereas the replacement of In God We Trust with E Pluribus Unum would restore the motto's neutrality toward religion,

BE IT RESOLVED
E Pluribus Unum be declared the official motto of the United States, and the use of In God We Trust be discontinued wherever possible, including but not limited to on United States currency and coinage.
Since the simulation is rather realistic, both of the resolutions were easily defeated in committee. But they were fun to write, so I'm sharing them here. I'd love to see something like these submitted to the real House or Senate hopper one day, but I'm not holding my breath.

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27 November 2009

So Much to Celebrate

Although I intend to continue celebrating Humanlight, Festivus and the winter solstice itself, I also intend to celebrate a secular Christmas without any qualms whatsoever. It's a very natural time of year for a cheerful and festive holiday, the winter solstice has been celebrated in almost every culture throughout history, it's the dominant holiday in my own culture, it's already mostly non-Christian anyway, and it's fun! Abstaining from the festivities accomplishes nothing unless you get special pleasure from making a symbolic gesture that nobody else cares about. Maybe some do, but I don't. I want to enjoy it! If any Christian objects to an non-Christian celebrating a secular Christmas, then I encourage them to support abolishing it as a federal holiday. If that ever happens, I'll think about it. I won't promise them anything more.

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17 November 2009

Becoming Human

I've never posted about science in the media, but I've really enjoyed NOVA's new documentary series on PBS about human evolution entitled Becoming Human, and I want to share it with my readers. It's shown in three parts, with the third part airing tonight. It's also available online.

The most interesting thing I learned from the first part is the theory that the necessity of adapting to rapid climate change in east Africa several millions of years ago initiated the brain growth that eventually lead to our large brains today. From the second part, I learned that bipedalism is more energy efficient than quadripedism but that large brains require a lot more energy than small ones. I was also truly fascinated by the theory that we lost our body hair so we could sweat to stay cool, allowing us to run much longer in the midday sun than most animals, thus enabling us to chase larger, faster, and stronger prey to absolute exhaustion and kill them with only the most primitive technology. (The meat in turn provided the energy for our large brains that plants couldn't.) The filmmakers even showed modern Bushmen employing this strategy to hunt a kudu! They chased it for four hours, the kudu suffered from heat stroke and just stopped moving, and the hunters got close and killed it with spears. I thought it was amazing.

I'm looking forward to part three, but I'll have to watch it online like I did the first two parts. I intend to share my comments here afterward. Check it out!

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06 November 2009

The Evolution of Marriage

I'm sick of hearing the argument that same-sex couples shouldn't seek full marriage rights and should be satisfied with civil unions since marriage is a religious concept. It's not. Marriage is a social arrangement which has evolved throughout history, just as societies as a whole have evolved, and we need to recognize that.

Marriage can receive legal sanction, religious sanction, both or neither. Here in the United States, I think most couples receive both, a large number receive only legal, but very few receive neither or only religious. I'm not aware of any mainstream religious group here whose members don't regularly obtain legal marriage licenses in addition to holding their religious ceremonies. Adherents of most faiths are explicitly required to present the license to the officiant in order for the ceremony to proceed! If religious leaders who claim that marriage is a purely religious concept were honest, they would insist their members refuse to obtain marriage licenses from the government. In reality, they recognize the numerous benefits of legal marriage for their members, but they have no difficulty simultaneously seeking to deny those benefits to others. It's hypocrisy, pure and simple.

Of course, same-sex couples have been seeking, and have obtained within some groups, the opportunity to hold a religious wedding ceremony, but that's not what the same-sex marriage debate in this country is about. It's only about the legal sanction which carries with it a large number of legal rights. But since same-sex marriages are indeed being performed by legally recognized religious groups, and if religion can make marriage valid, then to deny the couples married in those groups a legal marriage license would be a violation of religious liberty. I suppose critics would say those other faiths and their weddings are invalid, but this just makes their bigotry clearer.

Sometimes I hear a proposal to legally convert all marriages to civil unions and let people have whatever religious ceremony they want afterward. But that's just playing with words, and it would cause more harm than good. It would be as if the Fourteenth Amendment had made everyone “legal residents” because some people had religious objections to applying the term “citizen” to former slaves. Such a drastic change would also certainly increase the volume of complaints from people that their marriage had been destroyed. We've had civil marriage for a long time, and abandoning it now would not be productive.

When my wife and I got married almost a year ago, it was an very simple ceremony at the courthouse without any mention of the supernatural. Our commitment to love one another was certainly the most important aspect, but the legal recognition was necessary for immigration purposes. I'm thankful that religious conservatives have at least left us opposite-sex atheist couples alone, but I'm willing to fight against them on the behalf of others when I can.

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31 October 2009

Atheist Blogroll

After more than three and half years of posting, I've finally joined Mojoey's Atheist Blogroll. You can find it in the sidebar. Please consider checking it out.

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29 October 2009

Not Meant to Be / All for the Best

Though it's possible for an atheist to express the sentiment that “it wasn't meant to be,” I think it's mostly something believers say since it implies that someone directs everything that happens to us and thus controls of our lives. If you think about it, it's usually nothing more than an excuse not to analyze your past conduct for mistakes to determine what you need to change to reach your goal next time. The last time I heard this said, I pointed out that the result could indeed have been quite different if the parties had followed a different course of action. This was met with blank stares and a comment equating to sour grapes.

I have similar objections to the sentiment that “it's all for the best.” No, really, it's not. Or at least, we don't know so. Life might indeed be better with fewer tragedies. It's probably not better that your family member or friend died in an accident. It's absolutely true that some good things only happened because some bad things happened before them, but we don't know whether something even better could have happened if they hadn't. Life is too unpredictable for us to know what is ultimately for the best. We just have to make the best choices we can, given our knowledge and abilities, and take responsibility for the consequences.

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Truly Good without God

I understand the recent billboard campaign promoting the idea that people can be “good without God” doesn't target fundamentalists, but I want to mention why I think it won't really have any effect on them whatsoever. No amount of personal virtue or charitable activity could ever convince most of them that you can live an ethical life without their religion. Beyond the issue of belief, which the campaign attempts to address directly, conservative believers have a very specific idea of what it means to be a good person. This includes refraining for all sorts of normal sexual activity, regularly attending and financially supporting a church in the community, and subscribing to and voting according to a conservative political ideology, at least on certain social issues. For some of them, it also means never drinking, smoking or dancing. Unless you act just like them in these matters, you'll never be good in their eyes. At most, you'll be slightly more tolerable.

The problem is that we can't honestly say that we act like strong believers even though we don't believe. We instead have to convince them the way we act isn't immoral because their objections to our lives have nothing to do with actual morality. That's a difficult task but a worthy one.

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03 October 2009

The Invention of Religion

Last night my wife and I watched Ricky Gervais' new film, The Invention of Lying. It's set in an alternate universe where humans haven't evolved the ability to lie, and absolutely everyone is not only completely honest but also brutally frank in every situation. Gervais' character, Mark Bellison, is the first person on the planet who can tell an untruth, and he uses it to his advantage since people apparently also lack the ability to doubt anyone's veracity and believe whatever he says immediately and unquestioningly.

Using his unique skill, while trying to do something nice for his mother, Mark inadvertently creates the first religion in this world, focused on the “invisible man in the sky.” Though Mark actively seeks out opportunities to lie to get what he wants in other areas of his life, he's very reluctant to take on the role of prophet and does his best to create a reasonably fair and peaceful religion when he's forced to at the behest of the entire world. This is when the film becomes a true religious satire. Though it wasn't quite as funny as the best in this genre, I appreciated the humor. I don't want to give much away, but there are references to Moses, Jesus and even Joseph Smith. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops rates the film “O” for “morally offensive.” Its official review contains some of the following phrases: “venomous supposed comedy,” “all-out sneering assault,” “despicably belittling,” “pervasive blasphemy,” “fashionable new atheism,” “slithers,” and “calculated cinematic insult.” Those words are like music to my ears, especially considering the source!

I'd give the film a rating of 9 out 10. I enjoyed the novelty of the concept, and any film in which someone exclaims, “@#$* the invisible man in the sky!” and a large crowd cheers in agreement automatically gets an elevated rating in my book. There were, however, a few disappointments. We never really see how perfect honesty would make society radically different from our own except that there's no fiction and they don't have the words true or false. It also seemed that people couldn't even imagine that someone could simply say something mistaken. At the end, I wanted to see more of what happened to his religion, but without the ability to lie, no one else could expand his revelation, so I have no real objection. And, of course, a world without any religion whatsoever would be so different, but I don't think Gervais could have pulled that off without being boring and preachy. This film does a fine job of approaching the concept, and I recommend it to everyone.

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