Santa Claus: A Web of White Lies

Although with respect to religion I've gone from devout believer to devout skeptic, I've always opposed encouraging children to believe in Santa Claus. It has always struck me as very strange that parents spend so much money on gifts for their children and then lie to them by saying that a magical elf snuck into their house in the middle of the night to drop them off, thus giving him all the credit for their work. I don't like the idea of lying to children in general, but this seems like a rather odd lie. I understand that some parents truly enjoy playing along with the idea of Santa Claus and sometimes use him as an unassailable authority when kids whine for a toy late in the year, but it seems that children would enjoy the holiday just as much if they knew their parents were responsible for all their gifts; older children and adults certainly like receiving presents despite knowing where they came from. As a Christian, I wanted to avoid lying as much as possible and I was concerned that children who learned that Santa Claus is imaginary would then start to think that God is imaginary as well. As an atheist, I also feel uneasy about lying unless truly necessary, though I certainly don't lament any nascent skepticism created in children about what their parents tell them about invisible beings. Still it strikes me as a bad idea to build and maintain this web of white lies for children.

Despite what some readers may suppose, I myself didn't have a negative experience with belief in Santa Claus. As is common, I believed in him as a young child and stopped believing in him sometime in elementary school. I don't remember being at all upset when I learned the truth. I didn't feel disappointed, deceived or disillusioned. I've heard stories, however, about children who do experience some amount of grief and who do sincerely struggle to accept the truth for some time. No, it's not a tragedy, but it is completely avoidable simply by not perpetuating absurd stories about an ageless magical elf who lives where there is no land, who can make deer fly, and who can deliver free toys to hundreds of millions of households in a single night though still unable to give nice presents to poor children.

I don't want anyone to get the impression, however, that I have some sort of weird vendetta against Santa Claus. It's not something I spend much time thinking about and it hardly even qualifies as a minor issue. Since I don't intend to have children, the question of what to say will probably never arise, but I decided long ago that I wouldn't lie to any children that I might end up raising one day. I certainly don't interfere with anyone else's parenting choices by telling children the truth about Santa Claus. When children talk to me about him, I listen attentively, but I don't ever say anything to suggest that he's real or that I myself believe in him. It's actually completely identical to my personal policy regarding children when they talk to me about God.



Bah Humbug!

I don't really like Christmas, but my reasons are mostly unrelated to religion or consumerism. Maybe I'm just a scrooge, but I dislike how Christmas dominates the month of December such that one can hardly think of the month without thinking of the holiday. I'm just tired of Christmas decorations, Christmas trees, Christmas lights, Christmas sweaters, Christmas cookies, Christmas candy, Christmas drinks, Christmas songs, Christmas poems, Christmas TV specials, Christmas movies, Christmas parties, Christmas travel and the incessant chatter about Christmas. I don't inherently dislike any of those things; it's just that it's too much for too long. We have other holidays, of course, but Christmas is unquestionably the holiday of the year. I would prefer to have several smaller holidays throughout the year during each of the four seasons rather than focusing so much energy on one particular winter day. One of the primary reasons that New Year's Day is one of my favorite holidays is that it's the unofficial end of the Christmas season and that our lives can return to normal after a little more relaxation. I'm already looking forward to it.



Religious Justification for Bigotry

I've only recently begun to fully realize the oddity of the obsession that certain religions have with homosexuality. Since I was raised as an observant Catholic and grew up in a relatively traditional society, I used to unreflectively consider homosexuality abnormal and homosexual acts morally wrong. As a heterosexual, I didn't really give the topic much thought during my religious years, but I assented to the teaching that to engage in homosexual behavior was gravely sinful and I opposed efforts to grant all persons the legal right to marry whomever they choose. To be fair, I in fact believed that every sexual act except that within a sacramental marriage and without contraception was gravely immoral, so homosexuality wasn't particularly singled out and was never an issue of much personal concern, but I still certainly thought it was immoral. All of that changed when I rejected the authority of religious leaders to dictate to me what was and wasn't acceptable. This change of opinion regarding homosexuality upon deconversion seems to be almost universal; I can't recall ever encountering any unbeliever who objected to homosexuality or to granting everyone the same legal rights with regard to marriage. And it's not that secular arguments against homosexuality are fallacious; I haven't even ever seen one. The only objections to homosexuality are religious and authoritarian and they exemplify the problems caused directly by religion.

It seems that the primary reason that many believers still consider homosexuality so morally abhorrent is that they personally find it disgusting, unlike other sins that also once received strong public disapproval. Fornication, i.e., sex between two unmarried persons, is equally condemned in the scriptures, has traditionally been regarded as taboo, and is still considered gravely sinful by the Catholic Church and certain other Christian sects, but there are no political efforts to prevent unmarried heterosexual couples from living together or to deny them certain legal benefits, at least after a certain number of years. What was once forbidden has become perfectly normal. Today it's not at all uncommon for even church-going Christians to live with their boyfriends or girlfriends while dating. Society has shed some of its former moral restrictions and most people today seem happy with the change as it grants them more personal freedom to indulge their natural sexual desires. The change happened quietly without becoming a political issue. Unlike with the situation with homosexuality, the majority of the population is composed of heterosexuals who by definition find straight sex appealing, so there was no issue of disgust or otherness to impede this repeal of the former moral code.

Where exactly does this feeling of disgust originate? It seems to me that the initial negative feelings were the result of simple xenophobia, i.e., antipathy toward anyone who is different from oneself or one's group, and that these feelings have been sustained by culture, especially by religious dogma. For my own part, I can't remember what I thought the first time I saw a homosexual couple together, but I definitely can't remember a time when I was aware of homosexuality when I wasn't also aware that it was considered strange and objectionable by most people. I know that I learned it from others, some of whom must have given an explicitly religious justification for their intolerance toward people who are different from themselves, for there are no other reasons to object to what sex of person mature adults choose to associate with. Since the time I cast off the heavy chains of religious devotion, however, my reason and my compassion for fellow humans have overridden any prior feelings of uneasiness about homosexuality. It seems high time that American society as a whole discard its religious obsessions, overcome any involuntary distaste it still experiences, and fully acknowledge the rights of all people. We do seem to be moving in that direction, but as is often the case, it's primarily religion that's hindering social progress. Whether religion actually creates bigotry or simply provides hypocritical justification for it, irrational belief is the enemy of human advancement.



A Man of No Faith

In dialogues with atheists, I regularly see theists pose the following inquiry:

If you don't have faith in God, then what do you have faith in?
The most typical answers include rationality, science and humanity. While I find nothing truly objectionable in these responses, it's my opinion that the most appopriate response is in fact, “Nothing. I have no faith.”

The problem is that a believer's faith and an unbeliever's faith are completely different. When a believer says they have faith in God, they mean that they believe in his existence without sufficient evidence, that they trust God to always do what's right, or both. When a nonbeliever says they have faith in rationality or science, they mean they think that's the best method to discover the truth about the universe, and when they say they have faith in humanity, they mean that humans must solve their own problems and that they have hope they in fact will, but it's never unbounded confidence like believers put in their deity. These two religious and two secular varieties of faith just don't truly overlap. Support for the scientific method and recognition that we must address our problems without divine assistance are not at all equivalent to belief without evidence and absolute trust in an invisible being, even though we often call them all by the same name of faith.

So in the sense that theists probably mean when they ask the question, most atheists simply have no faith whatsoever, but I don't really fault them for providing a seemingly more positive and optimistic answer than what I recommend. For my own part, however, I prefer to answer as honestly as possible and to challenge the assumption of the believer that I must have faith like they do.



A Man of No God

UPDATE: I officially resigned a week later. While I originally became ordained for the sake of novelty and as a protest against the special status of religious leaders before the law in performing certain ceremonies, I became increasingly concerned about confirming misconceptions about atheism, about my own conceptual clarity, about the apparent seriousness of the organization and finally about potential legal issues.

Today I have become an ordained minister with the First Church of Atheism. From time to time over the past few years I considered being ordained online with other groups, but I always decided against it because they always seemed too mystical or spiritual despite being completely non-dogmatic. This is not an issue with the First Church of Atheism. I'm fully legally ordained, but by an organization whose principles I support and which cannot possibly be mistaken for a liberal Christian denomination.

When I was a devout Catholic, I seriously contemplated entering the seminary to become a priest. Then as now, I didn't want any children and I knew that I couldn't in good conscience marry with the intention never to have any children, so it seemed like a reasonable option. I went so far as to write to a traditional seminary and look into scheduling a vocational retreat but no further. Eventually my scrupulosity came to dominate my life and removed the possibility from consideration. It surely would have been a major mistake to pursue that path and I have no idea what my life would look like today if I had. It probably though wouldn't have been as disastrous as if I had married a devout woman and had a child with her before undergoing a deconversion! It's remarkable that I might have become a Catholic priest and that now I'm an atheist minister.

I'm currently considering ordering the package which includes an official ordination certificate and identification card. I don't actually intend to perform any services, but I'm rather pleased that my new status means that in theory I have the same legal rights to preach my ideas to congregations and to perform weddings and funerals as any believer in the supernatural. I also like referring to myself as an atheist minister!


’Tis the Season

Regular visitors, if indeed I have any, will notice that I've added a logo to the site indicating that I celebrate Humanlight, a Humanist winter holiday about reason, compassion and hope. In order to avoid any possible copyright violations, I've created my own image without the logo from the official website and I'm rather pleased with the result. In my opinion, a burning candle symbolizes the idea of Humanlight much better than a shining sun. The festival occurs at the time of year when the sun provides the least amount of light and heat in the northern hemisphere, where the majority of humanity resides. Furthermore, the sun is a natural object whereas a candle is a human artifact, one which represents our ability to illuminate a dark world using the power of our reason and creativity. If anyone wishes to use the image I created on their own websites, then please do so.

This is my third year observing this festival and I intend to make this year the most meaningful yet. I've enjoyed starting my own traditions and personalizing my observance of this new holiday. Last year I purchased a simple metal candlestick and a white candle which each evening several weeks prior to December 23rd I lit while saying, “May the light of human reason illuminate a dark world.” This year I plan to repeat this ritual, to decorate my balcony with colored lights and to devise other ways to mark the holiday. I still observe Christmas by exchanging gifts, dining and visiting with my Christian family on December 25th as well as with my co-workers earlier in the season, but I would like to focus on Humanlight rather than a formerly religious and now essentially consumerist holiday.



Not Following Jesus

If Christians fully embraced and lived their lives according to all of the teachings of Jesus rather just those which still allow complete integration into society, the history of the western world would remarkably different. Jesus preached voluntary poverty, radical pacifism and irresponsible spontaneity; he told his followers to sell all of their possessions, to actively do good to their enemies and even to avoid thinking about tomorrow! How many Christians do you know who practice all of these teachings? Even the vast majority of monks, friars and nuns live in communities where they share possessions and which require a certain amount of administration. There are some truly nomadic and mendicant groups, but they are extremely rare. Perhaps less than one Christian in a million actually lives their life completely according to the Gospels. The rest generally enjoy a more conventional and comfortable lifestyle, excluding the significant number in the third-world who are involuntarily poor. Why is there such a disparity between what Christians teach and what they practice?

The key to understanding this divergence is to realize that Jesus' ministry as portrayed in the Gospels was essentially an apocalyptic cult. The major theme of Jesus' preaching was that the “Kingdom of Heaven” was coming very soon and that his followers were to repent of their sins, ask for forgiveness and amend their lives. His followers expected that the end of the world would happen at any moment and only with that in mind can we make any sense of his directives to live so irresponsibly. If he had intended to found a religion that was supposed to last for millennia, then he surely would have given some more practical instructions. When Jesus' didn't return very soon, his followers did what they had to do in order to survive: they compromised with the world. All of the difficult guidelines, which technically appear optional in the Gospels themselves, have been de-emphasized, especially in Protestantism. The majority of believers don't seem to worry about their possessions making them larger than a camel trying to pass through the eye of a needle. Christians today are no more likely to give money to charity than any other group and, here in the United States, they seem more likely to start a war than many other groups.

When I first started reading the Gospels on my own as teenager, I was very disturbed by what I read because I lived a normal lifestyle, not a radical Gospel lifestyle. I owned some possessions. I didn't start fights, but I would defend myself if attacked. I planned for tomorrow by studying. I wanted to get married. I loved my family and I didn't want to leave them to serve God. I didn't really spend any time volunteering. All of this made me feel very guilty and very afraid that God would damn me to hell for not obeying his commandments well enough, but I didn't want to live the insane life preached by Jesus. I didn't see anyone else worrying about this, but it was impossible for me to see Jesus' ministry for what it was, for that would mean that Jesus was mistaken and therefore not God. Eventually I learned the Catholic Church's teachings that one only has to die in a state of grace, not give away everything you own, to go to heaven. Similar yet distinct problems arose because of this, but that's another story. I knew I wasn't really following Jesus and it bothered me. I don't know why it doesn't bother more people.

I was prompted to write on this topic by the now annual coverage of Christians' war on “The War on Christmas.” I find it ironic for Christians to demand that minimum-wage employees explicitly say “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays” while they spend hundreds of dollars on frivolous gifts, often manufactured in dirty and dangerous factories by malnourished children in third-world countries. What an odd way to celebrate the birth of their lord who instructed them not to own even a second pair of sandals!



Death as Non-Existence

I find it remarkably difficult to fully conceptualize the extinction of my consciousness and personality upon my death. While I logically expect my subsequent non-existence to be identical to the billions of years prior to my birth, it seems that I actually tend to imagine it more like a deep sleep from which I will eventually somehow awaken at the end of time. I have to consciously remind myself that I won't ever even know that I'm dead because I won't exist. I then naturally wonder what it will be like not to exist and I have to remind myself again that it won't be like anything because it simply won't be. My mind simply cannot grasp what it means not to exist since from its own perspective it has always existed. It has been argued that fear of death is the principal cause of religious belief in humanity and I would argue that our instinctive tendency to think of our minds as always existing greatly contributes to it as well.

Like practically all humans, I certainly want to exist indefinitely. I say indefinitely rather than forever because I don't preclude the possibility that I might want my existence to end at some point. The only aspect of religion which I sincerely miss is the belief that life will continue forever. And it's not that I want just to believe; I want it to really be true. The promise of eternal bliss in a never-ending paradise is alluring, even if inconceivable, but I'm much more intrigued by the idea of repeatedly reincarnating and leading radically different lives in radically different circumstances. I would like to know what it's like to be both sexes, every ethnic group, attractive and ugly, strong and weak, intelligent and stupid, rich and poor, in every combination thereof, in every locale and in every age. It would be necessary that the memory of those lives be maintained, perhaps for later review and reflection outside of the physical universe, in order to distinguish it from an existence of only a single life. It seems that such a spiritual paradigm would be far more satisfying and poetic than the unchanging heaven of Christianity. None of this matters in the least, however, because I have no reason to believe that it's anything but an idle dream.

It's rather difficult to accept that I have no even remotely reasonable hope for life after death and that my consciousness will almost certainly be extinguished in a matter of decades at the latest. It's not that I really fear non-existence; I simply dread an existence filled with the despair of ever realizing my desires. In the end, all I have is a wish to exist indefinitely and all I can do is live this life to the fullest, trying not to waste too much precious time on idle dreams.



Labels Galore

We nonreligious have a remarkable number of labels with which we identify ourselves. I acknowledge that each has a unique denotation and connotation, that we disagree amongst ourselves what each one means, that we debate the merits of the options and that we often change labels, but the terms greatly overlap and tend to describe essentially the same group of people. Here is an incomplete list:

  • agnostic
  • antitheist
  • apatheist
  • atheist
  • bright
  • doubter
  • freethinker
  • godfree
  • godless
  • heathen
  • heretic
  • humanist
  • ignostic
  • infidel
  • irreligious
  • materialist
  • naturalist
  • nonbeliever
  • nontheist
  • nonreligious
  • rationalist
  • realist
  • secularist
  • skeptic
  • unbeliever
We often subdivide atheism into at least two types:
  • weak / strong
  • negative / positive
  • implicit / explicit
And we have at least two words to label those who used to be religious:
  • apostate
  • deconvert
If you have another fairly common label which I have forgotten, please post it in a comment and I will consider adding it to this catalogue of nonreligious labels. I have almost certainly forgotten one of the numerous names we call ourselves.



Neither Last Nor Least

Surveys indicate that approximately 15 percent of the United States population identifies as “non-religious,” making us the second largest group behind Christians, yet we're often listed last in most contexts, even by the most liberal sources. The list normally proceeds in descending order of adherents with the exception of the non-religious. If they bother to mention us at all, it's usually little more than an afterthought. I think this is wrong. The non-religious greatly outnumber all religions except Christianity combined, yet as a group we're hardly in the public's consciousness at all. I don't think this will ever change until we become so numerous that we're impossible to ignore.



The Concept of Neutrality

Many people fail to understand the concept of neutrality in church-state relations and I suspect most of these have never given any thought to comparing the various theoretical possibilities which clearly demonstrate it. They seem to believe that anything that fails to support their opinion automatically supports someone else's opinion and I think this is at least partially because they never stop to ponder the situation if the roles were reversed.

Let's examine the case of the motto “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency and coinage. When the issue of removing it arises, they see only two options:

(1) Keep the religious motto
(2) Remove the religious motto (and possibly replace it with a secular one)

They view the first option as favoring belief and the second as favoring disbelief. They don't see a neutral option and since there are more believers than non-believers, they argue that the majority should win. The problem is that they don't realize there's a third major option because it receives no support:

(3) Use an anti-religious motto such as “There are no gods”

With the full spectrum under consideration, they can see that the first option favors belief, the third option favors disbelief, but that the second option is truly neutral. It neither supports nor opposes any religious position. That the third option is never presented as a viable possibility doesn't negate its usefulness in demonstrating government neutrality.

The same principle can be shown with the issue of public prayer such as that at football games and city council meetings. The third option in this case would be to open or close the events by saying something like, “Since there are no gods, we have to rely on ourselves.” While I wholeheartedly agree with it, I don't think it would be appropriate to make this kind of statement in an official capacity at a public gathering.

Of course, many people who support government promotion of their religion have no interest in neutrality, but I honestly believe that at least some people who oppose removing religious mottos and public prayers simply need to be educated about the concept of neutrality.



Godfree for Three Years

Today is the third anniversary of my becoming a freethinker. In the months directly following my apostasy, I had plenty to say about my newfound freedom and peace. On the first anniversary, I wrote a thoughtful piece on an online forum reflecting on the many changes of the previous year. On the second anniversary, I wrote a simpler yet still substantive blog entry. This year I have very little to say because I have grown so accustomed to my situation, but I still want to commemorate one of the most important occasions in my life here in the most appropriate venue available. Here's to my intellectual freedom!



Prayer in Public Venues

This month The Florida-Times Union has published two articles, two editorials and numerous letters to the editor on the issue of prayer at public high school football games and other public venues. The original article which sparked the debate was about a high school football coach in nearby St. Johns County who regularly leads his team in prayer.

  • 1 October — original article by Tiffany Pakkala of The St. Augustine Record, “St. Johns coach under fire for team prayers”
  • 2 Octobereditorial by Ron Littlepage, columnist for The Florida Times-Union, “Christian prayers inappropriate at government events”
  • 3 Octoberletter by Marcia Greer, “Public schools: Prayer is not allowed”
  • 3 Octoberletter by Paul B. Schaeffer, “Football games: Prayer is not mandatory.”
  • 4 Octoberletter by Bobbie O'Connor, “Public prayer: Guidelines are offered.”
  • 8 October — letter by Chris Tidball, “Religious intolerance is blatant.”
  • 8 Octoberletter by Carolyn Henley, “Postgame Prayer: Coach is to be praised.”
  • 8 Octoberletter by Jim Reape, “Postgame Prayer: Coach is doing a fine job”
  • 9 Octobereditorial by Sam Borden, sports columnist for The Florida Times-Union, “Public school coaches should not preach”
  • 10 Octoberletter by David Schwam Baird, “Public Prayer: Infringing on freedom”
  • 11 Octoberletter by Richard Kusnierek, “Majority rule not always proper”
  • 13 October — letter by Sonja Harpe, “Church, State: Going too far”
  • 13 October — letter by Harry Parrott, Jr., “Time out on football and prayer”
  • 15 Octoberletter by Brad Howald, “Prayers at Events: No prohibition”
  • 16 October — letter by Steven Eddy, “First Amendment: Coach has a right”
  • 17 Octoberletter by Charles Collins, “Religion: Coach should be supported”
  • 18 Octoberarticle by Wayne Ezell, reader advocate for The Florida Times-Union, “When prayer is controversial”
  • 22 Octoberletter by Bryan Price, “Religion: Coach is the government”

I will continue to post updates until this issue passes.



Telling Others about Hell

Believers and nonbelievers tend to disagree about whether telling someone that they will be sent to hell constitutes a warning or a threat. Believers, convinced of the truth of their religion, feel that they must share this truth and attempt to save others from an eternity of suffering by warning them of the danger. Nonbelievers, unconvinced of the truth of the believer's claims, sometimes feel threatened, viewing the believers as the ones making the threats, using God as a proxy to express their anger and hatred toward nonbelievers.

Having been on both sides of this issue, I can sympathize with both groups. I know what it's like to be told that I'm going to hell, but I also remember what it's like to honestly believe that others would be damned and that I should at least make some effort to help them avoid that fate. I feel uncomfortable both with simply letting religious fanatics attack all of those who disagree with them while hiding under the veil of piety and with restricting the ability of people to express what they sincerely believe to be true. In the end, I prefer to support full freedom of speech as the law should never enshrine a particular viewpoint by prohibiting others from being expressed and discussed. Cultural conventions generally address issues such as this more effectively than the law, though I must admit that I'm concerned about the sustainability of informal norms in a socially fragmented and ideologically diverse modern society. We cannot, however, let fights over something as absurd as mythical torture chambers erode one of our most treasured freedoms by limiting what those who disagree with us can say.



Religion in the Business Section

Last week I noticed my local newspaper, The Florida Times-Union, had moved the weekly religion subsection to the business section of the paper. Since the publishers are rather religious, I'm sure the irony of such a move was purely unintentional. I open up this special section every Friday and I frequently close it in disgust. Of particular interest is a regular column in which they profile a local religious figure with their responses to a standard set of questions, including one which asks whether they have ever doubted their faith and another how they have resolved them. Their answers are almost as standard as the questions themselves. None has ever even remotely acknowledged that to doubt one's faith is merely to recognize that one is fallible. They have all demonstrated that they desire orthodoxy, not truth.



Naturalist as a Label

Although I've never actually disliked the term atheist as a personal label, I've come to appreciate a reason to prefer an alternate label: it's just too specific. Referring to someone as an atheist says that they don't believe in any deities, but it doesn't say anything about their beliefs regarding other supernatural concepts. Although they generally don't, an atheist could believe in life after death, ghosts, spirits, auras, astrology, numerology, karma, fate or any other number of supernatural entities or forces. In light of this, I have a theoretical preference for the term naturalist, but I have concerns regarding its practical usage. If I tell someone I'm a naturalist and they then ask what that means, I can explain that I don't believe in anything supernatural. If they don't ask, however, I'm afraid they will either think that I'm just interested in the outdoors, think that I'm a nudist, or simply not understand. I've identified as a Humanist in certain circumstances, but I feel this term simultaneously says too much and too little about what I think. I would really rather err on the side of saying too little and avoid mischaracterizing my beliefs, which are constantly being refined and reanalyzed in the light of new experience. I suppose that I'll adopt naturalist as my preferred label for now and see how it goes.



Truth vs. Orthodoxy

Although I have written much criticism about religious faith, there is one particular aspect of it which I would like to address today: Faith isn't interested in truth, only in orthodoxy. Believers are almost never encouraged to pursue their doubts, rather they are encouraged to overcome them, to ignore them, to banish them, to squelch them. They are encouraged to cultivate their faith and to pray for its continual increase. All of this says they are not really interested in truth, only in maintaining what they already hold as true. A believer may argue that they know their religion to be true and they are attempting to avoid error by fighting against their doubts, but they fail to recognize that the very fact that they have doubts is clear indication that they don't really know it's true! They work to unwaveringly retain a view which is uncertain in their eyes. If they were actually seeking the truth, they would examine all of the evidence, no matter how blasphemous it may seem in light of their current opinions, and make the best possible conclusion based on what they have learned. It's impossible to respect anyone's claim to truth who has not only refused to investigate alternate views but actively suppressed feelings that they just might be right.



Prayer & Miracles

Although I discussed the absurdity of petitionary prayer in my original essay against the Catholic faith, I have never written nor read anything about one particular aspect of this type of prayer:

Almost every petitionary prayer is a prayer for a literal miracle.
Petitionary prayer is prayer in which a person asks something of a deity, as distinguished from prayers of thanksgiving and meditative prayers. And it almost always asks for a supernatural, physical miracle. Sometimes this is obvious, such as when someone prays for a miracle cure from an illness, but believers never seem to realize they are always asking the laws of nature to be broken on their behalf. Let's examine a simple example, perhaps the most common type of petitionary prayer: a person asks God to bless them or someone else and keep them healthy. All diseases and injuries have physical causes whether it be bacteria, viruses, genetic defects, radiation, etc. When someone prays for health, they are asking that these physical causes not have the negative effect they would have had, or for their medical treatments to have a positive effect they wouldn't have had, if the prayer had not been said. For a deity to answer this prayer, it must somehow intervene on a physical level and alter the laws of nature. Even to inspire the person to healthier lifestyle, it must alter the neurons inside the person's head, again necessitating a literal miracle. Citing “spiritual” or “mystical” effects is absolutely meaningless because they can't effect physical substances without having a miraculous physical effect. If someone prays for a safe road trip, they are asking for the weather to miraculously change or for their equipment to miraculously function properly or for drivers to miraculously pay better attention. Even deities cannot give you a safe trip without doing anything.

The only type of petitionary prayer that doesn't seek a miracle is one that asks for something spiritual. If one asks a deity for forgiveness, the granting of mercy wouldn't entail any physical miracle. Even in this case, however, a miracle would be necessary to know that the mercy was granted, so even asking to feel forgiven is asking for a physical miracle, too.

I would like to end with a paraphrased quote by another user at an online forum which doesn't fit my theme perfectly but which is topical enough and which I found hilarious: “If prayer were sent by e-mail, you'd get a message back from your mailer daemon!”



God's Choices

Today I read something rather remarkable in the church bulletin from my parents' parish about the gospel reading regarding who will and will not be saved from the fires of hell:

If it were up to God, everyone would be saved.
If?!? The Christian God is supposedly omnipotent. He created the universe. He created humanity. He issued the commandments. He founded the church. He instituted the sacraments. He created heaven and hell. He forgives us. He will judge us upon our death. Everything is part of his perfect plan. How can one possibly say that our salvation is not up to him? I suppose one could argue that he grants us free will, concentrating on free will and ignoring he grants us, but even then there is absolutely no reason to imagine that we must forever suffer untold agony if we reject him. People who reject God don't suffer hellish pain while living. Why must they suffer after their death unless God specifically ordains it? It most certainly is up to him.

This attitude of resignation to whatever God has arbitrarily chosen to do as logically necessary can be seen in other areas of Christian theology. Christians say that Jesus' death on the cross was necessary for God to forgive humanity. Why? An omnipotent deity can forgive anyone of anything for any reason without any blood being spilled. If God chooses to do so, then it's because he wants to, not because he has to. Everything truly is up to God. You simply cannot justify the supremely hideous doctrine of hell by saying that God has no choice but to send some of his beloved creatures there to fry for eternity.


Scrupulosity, OCD and the Doctrine of Hell

For approximately five years, from 1999 until my deconversion in 2004, I suffered greatly from an obsession with sin, death and hell known as scrupulosity. The condition is usually considered a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder and is normally treated with counseling and medication. While I respect the general opinion of mental health professionals in this matter, I always insisted that my own problem was not the result of abnormal brain chemistry but simply of sincere belief in the teachings of the Catholic Church regarding the afterlife and I think that the almost three years of my life since then, without any belief in the supernatural and without the slightest hint of obsession, have vindicated that opinion. My belief that God might damn me to hell forever almost drove me literally insane and the terrible anguish which it caused contributed to my sustained antipathy toward the idea of the Christian God.

The Catholic Church preaches two entirely incompatible doctrines which led to my scrupulosity:

  1. God loves each person perfectly and unconditionally.
  2. God will damn a person to hell forever if they commit a mortal sin and then die without having confessed or at least having made an act of perfect contrition with the intention to confess as soon as possible.
It also seems that one must engage in doublethink to fully accept both of these conflicting dogmas and that my eventual inability to reconcile them in my mind was indeed the source of my problem.

Let's say that I'm not certain whether I have committed a mortal sin despite knowing that it must be a gravely immoral act committed with full knowledge of the intellect and full consent of the will. A confessor would most likely instruct me that if I'm not certain, then it cannot be a mortal sin and I don't need to confess it. The problem is that there is no absolute distinction between certain and uncertain in any of the three elements and I was frequently uncertain about whether I was certain! The prospect of literally never-ending torture meant that I couldn't risk even the very slightest chance that I culpably judged wrongly and that obsession was the only rational response to infinite danger. I was often told that I had to trust my current confessor absolutely, but my confessors had directly contradicted each other, directly contradicted official church documents, and even told me that I was right in leaving other confessors who had instructed me wrongly. I was told even more often that I had to trust God because he loves us, but it was simply impossible for me to really believe this. If he really and truly loved us, then he would never assign us infinite punishment for finite sins or make our salvation so heavily dependent on the hour of our death. I was told that I was wrong to view God as a policeman who is constantly waiting for us to do something wrong so that he can punish us, but the image seemed to fit rather well except that, unlike a policeman, God had unlimited control over me, my world, the rules and the punishment! I simply couldn't love a being who threatened me with eternal fire if I didn't follow his rules exactly and who would just completely give up on me once I died. The Christian God was a monster in my eyes whom I grew to fear and despise more and more over the years.

My scrupulosity was treated by confessors, counselors, and even with medication from a psychiatrist. Their assistance granted me a certain limited amount of relief, but it was always only temporary and my condition never really improved beyond being simply bearable. My deconversion, which included the rejection of the concepts of God and hell as absurd, on the other hand, resulted in complete, instantaneous and permanent relief without any counseling or medication because my obsession was rational and had nothing to do with brain chemistry or my “failure” to trust and love God. Here is an example. Like sufferers of actual OCD, I had an obsession with washing and cleanliness. The typical OCD obsession is based on the small possibility of becoming sick and the minuscule possibility of becoming fatally sick from lack of washing and cleanliness. My obsession was based on the possibility of sinning by getting me or someone else sick from lack of washing and cleanliness. The worst that happens with an OCD obsession is that someone gets sick or dies. Everyone dies eventually, so while it makes sense to be careful, it doesn't make sense to be so careful that it ruins one's life. The worst that happened with my obsession, however, was that I burned in hell forever and ever. It really would be worth ruining one's life to avoid an eternity of pain, so my reaction was completely proportionate to the danger. Once I realized that there was no danger of hell, however, I returned to normal immediately. I started washing my hands only after using the restroom and sometimes before eating. I could touch anything without worrying about germs. I could drop a cookie on the ground and eat it without thinking about it except to laugh at how easy it had become. That is simply not possible for someone with abnormal brain chemistry and irrational obsessions. Of course, I would argue that my belief in hell was essentially irrational, but my scrupulosity itself was a perfectly rational response to that irrational belief. The infinite nature of hell had completely disrupted my normal pattern of ordinary risk management and created obsessive thinking, and the church's liturgy had forced me to participate in compulsive rituals such as mass and confession to eliminate these obsessive thoughts. My scrupulosity was thus generated by belief in the church and was thus resolved by disbelief in the church.

A fundamentalist Protestant might respond that one's salvation is assured upon accepting Jesus as one's lord and savior. (As an aside, I don't understand why they usually think Catholics haven't done this except that they don't use those exact words to describe their faith.) At first this seems to avoid the problem of always having one's salvation in doubt, but there other problems which only become apparent upon further reflection. If one's salvation were truly assured, then they could sin with impunity without any fear of hell. Fundamentalists respond that sinning greatly would be an indication that a person was never saved in the first place. This entails that one can be mistaken about whether they are truly saved because they also might sin greatly in the future and therefore they have no assurance of their salvation! One cannot argue that they know they would never do that because many people have been very devout in their faith and then sinned greatly. I have heard of fundamentalists who repeatedly tried to become saved after sinning because they didn't know whether it worked the other times. Since fundamentalist hell is just as terrible as Catholic hell, the same infinite danger merits the same obsessive response.



Familiarity & Absurdity

I have become so accustomed to viewing the world without any belief in the supernatural and to interacting, mostly but not exclusively online, with people who share the same perspective, that I feel a certain amount of surprise and disappointment whenever I hear an intelligent and educated person express belief in religion. I remind myself that I used to believe quite sincerely and I cannot expect the entire world to have adopted as skeptical an outlook as I have in just the last three years. Even so, it seems so strange that someone living in the twenty-first century in a first-world country can believe that an omnimax deity is watching over us as we slaughter each other and suffer other innumerable tragedies, that unbelievers will be punished forever for honest doubt, that you can magically obtain what you desire by talking to yourself, or any of the other absurdities taught by traditional religion. I will probably always view such belief as irrational and ridiculous, but like everything else in life, it can only seem truly bizarre if one only rarely encounters it.



Ignoring the Problem of Evil

When I was a Catholic, I almost never thought about the problem of evil. I must have encountered the philosophical argument at some point and resolved the issue in my mind by concluding that God must have a justifiable reason for allowing suffering in the world which I just didn't know, but I can't remember it ever being an issue afterward. Now that I'm an atheist, I very often reflect on this problem when I see someone addressing some source of suffering in the world specifically from a religious perspective; I see someone perform some charitable work out of a religious motivation and think to myself, “Why doesn't their god solve the problem itself if it's infinitely perfect? How can their god inflict such suffering knowing the pain it will cause and realizing that the majority of it simply cannot be relieved by human effort? Why can't they see how much more benevolently they act than their own master?” Believers never seem to ask themselves these questions and I know that I certainly didn't ask myself them during my twenty-five years as a Catholic. They seemed blinded by something, whether it be love, fear, ignorance, laziness or something else. In my own case, the predominant religious emotion I experienced was fear of eternal torture.



Equality & Secularism

Is it truly possible for a devout believer to treat outsiders with complete equality? If a person honestly believes that their god will forever torture anyone who doesn't follow their religion, then it seems unrealistic to expect that person to treat them with any more respect or fairness than the deity they worship. If a person honestly believes that their god has specially chosen their ethnic group to receive special favors, then it again seems unrealistic to expect them to treat members of other groups with the same level of compassion as their own.

Social animals always treat outsiders differently than members of their own group and humans have more criteria than other animal upon which to mark divisions. Religion is one of those criteria along with location, ethnicity, language and culture, but it's unique among these in that it's irrational and, to a certain extent, can be moderated by education and social security. In order to build a more egalitarian society, the influence of religion must be diminished through these two means.



Perceptions about Atheists

I have come to the conclusion that the negative perception of atheists by theists seems to result primarily from interaction with two distinct groups. The first group is what I here term militant atheists. I fully realize that this term has been greatly abused by theists, but sometimes it's a completely appropriate description of certain individuals who are aggressively antagonistic toward believers without provocation. This group is rather small, but I can attest from personal experience that they in fact do exist and that they create quite an impression on the believers whom they encounter. The second group is what I here term delinquents. It includes criminals, thugs, hoodlums, hooligans, vandals and every other variety of habitually selfish jerk. Delinquents can be theists or atheists, but they are not representative of either group because of their marked lack of empathy. Theists often wrongly interpret, however, the lack of religious piety among this group as atheism even though it indicates only that they don't really follow a moral code, religious or otherwise. I believe the reason for this problem is that moral behavior is an inherent part of the concept of religious piety in the minds of most people. A delinquent theist is often dismissed as “not really a Christian,” but no one says that a delinquent atheist is “not really an atheist” because of his immorality. In fact, I have heard the exact opposite, that someone cannot possibly be an atheist precisely because he's moral!

I think there are ways to address these two sources of misunderstanding about atheists. First, although we can't really do much to convince truly militant atheists to calm down and relax, regular atheists can make themselves known as atheists. A theist who only meets militant atheists and a theist who meets a dozen regular atheists for every militant atheist will have very different perceptions of atheists in general. Second, we need to cultivate an image of a thoughtful, considerate atheist to correspond to the thoughtful, considerate theist that people already call pious. In order to do this, I don't think we can content ourselves with just simple atheism. An atheist is anyone who doesn't believe in gods. The word atheist says absolutely nothing about their other beliefs or actions and is no more useful than the word theist when referring to individuals. We need to move beyond our lack of religion and formulate what we do believe and value. I personally prefer the philosophy of Humanism, as I have explained previously, and I identify as a Humanist rather than as just an atheist whenever I can. It distinguishes me from nihilists, from postmodernists, and most especially from delinquent atheists. It says something about my principles and it identifies me as someone who cares about reason and compassion rather than just saying that I don't believe in gods. I'm not suggesting that everyone necessarily adopt this particular label, but I think it's a good idea to indicate what you think beyond your opinion on the single issue of the existence of deities.

Perhaps some readers will disagree with my desire to see atheists and theists in the same category, but I encourage them to remember that it's only with respect to their thoughtfulness and consideration. There is still a world of difference to distinguish the two groups.



Refusal to Respect through Capitalization

I consider myself a diligent and meticulous writer. I pay strong attention to detail, including proper spelling, capitalization, punctuation and various issues regarding formatting. I raise the topic because I want readers to be aware that my recent failure to capitalize the following words is a conscious decision, not a mistake made out of ignorance or carelessness:

  • bible
  • church
  • eucharist
  • mass
Capitalizing these indicates a measure of respect for the divinity or holiness for them, which I most strongly reject. I want to add, however, that I continue to capitalize church when part of a fuller title, e.g., the Catholic Church or the Church of England.

I continue to capitalize God when it refers to an omnimax deity, such as that of most monotheistic religions, in order to contrast it with a god of polytheistic religions. This does not indicate any respect, only that is treated as a name.


Fluctuating Religiosity in My Family

The world is always changing, but sometimes exactly how it changes surprises me.

Although my family has always been practicing Catholics who never miss a Sunday mass, growing up none of them was particularly devout or interested in religion outside of those Sunday mornings. As described in my deconversion story, I myself started to become religious around age thirteen and this devotion gradually increased for a dozen years until my deconversion at age twenty-five, but I never noticed any of them change at all during this time. Since then, however, I have observed that several of them have become more involved in their faith.

My father, who had always seemed the least interested in religion of anyone in my family, has been participating for a few years in perpetual adoration of the eucharist by spending one hour late at night each week praying in the chapel of their church and has more recently begun reading a book about church history. My older sister's change has been less marked and is not really unexpected because she and her husband have two young children. My younger sister's change, however, is the most radical. She prays often, reads devotional books, attends daily mass on occasion, consults a spiritual advisor and is currently discerning a vocation to be a nun! I find it notable, however, that she has never really sat down and read the bible. I recommended this to her because doing that is more likely to create doubts in the mind of a believer than any skeptical book, which she would flatly refuse even to consider anyway. If she decides to enter a convent, I will respect her decision, but I think it should be an informed decision.

Throughout all of these changes, I am pleased to say that certain things have remained the same. My family still respects my atheism, never treats me any differently and never raises the topic around me. I occasionally find myself voicing criticism of religion around them, to which they don't respond, but generally try to avoid doing this. They are remarkably tolerant of my opinions, but it really bothers me that the only people who really love me also probably believe that I will burn in hell forever after I die.



Thoughts on Unitarian Universalism

Readers will perhaps remember the account of my first visit to a Unitarian Universalist service at the end of January. Now that I have attended a total of five services, I would like to share my thoughts and explain why it no longer interests me.

The second service I attended was the following week. I found the sermon by a different speaker far less interesting and engaging than the first week. After that, I spent the next couple of weekends with a woman I was dating and so I didn't go. The third service I attended was at the beginning of April. I found the sermon boring and rather self-congratulatory. I didn't intend to return after that and didn't give it much more thought. A couple of weeks ago, however, I decided to attend again in hopes of meeting some new friends, despite my failing to have done so on the previous occasions, not because people weren't friendly and welcoming, but because they were generally older and married. Last week's sermon was somewhat interesting, but I didn't really enjoy it. Today I returned because there was a guest speaker who spoke about “positive atheism.” The sermon was mostly uninteresting, however, because I already knew all about everything he said, including the jokes and quotes. I don't intend to return again and I would like to explain why.

Essentially, it's still too “churchy” for my tastes, but there are several other issues:

  • The general focus has been on liberal faith, not reason.
  • The sermons have been mostly uninteresting.
  • The music has been rather boring.
  • The hymns and readings too often mention God or faith or simply make no sense.
  • The sharing of joys and concerns is too similar to actual prayer.
  • The tone is too self-congratulatory.
  • It costs time and money.
  • I doubt I would make any friends by continuing to go.
After leaving a service, I generally feel that my mind has been clouded with vague concepts and notions which make clear, rational thinking more difficult. It's not easy to explain. I just don't know what they're talking about half of the time and it hurts my brain. That is a common reaction for me to religion, especially liberal religion.

I am not seeking to criticize Unitarian Universalism. The society I visited was very warm, friendly and welcoming. They are not at all dogmatic. They do not proselytize. They are strong political allies on issues which atheists generally support. They provide a good home for liberal believers and even for some unbelievers. They are certainly the only religious group which invites an atheist speaker to give a sermon about atheism! I have concluded, however, that it's just not the place for me, which is really a shame since I would love to make some more friends.


A Failure of Imagination

The alleged resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the primary focal point of Christian apologetics. Excepting various discredited relics which would provide only very indirect support at best, the only type of evidence regularly claimed by Christian apologists is the supposed eyewitness accounts of the event. Yet the arguments presented in support of these accounts rely completely on a failure of the imagination.

There are many lengthy books which go into great detail explaining why the accounts are credible and trustworthy. The authors argue that the disciples could not possibly have lied, that they could not possibly have been mistaken, and that the later storytellers and scribes could not possibly have done either. Can they simply not fathom any possible scenario in which a false story came to be believed? Can they not remember their justification for dismissing every other religion's alleged miracles? No, they insist that in this particular case, the witnesses are completely and totally reliable, despite scientific studies having proven that eyewitnesses are not absolutely reliable even in their individual, basic, short-term memories, much less highly controversial and politically charged group claims of the miraculous in times of severe stress and anxiety.

It is patently absurd to argue in favor of a seemingly impossible occurrence that we never, ever witness by claiming that other occurrences which we witness on a daily basis just could not possibly have occurred.



Religious Exemption to City Ordinance

Early last week I watched a news story on the local news about American Atheists suing the City of Jacksonville again. I haven't been able to find any more information, despite visiting the website of the station and even writing to the webmaster about the story, so I will have to summarize it from memory.

At some point in the past, the city passed an ordinance which made it illegal to give food to the homeless without a permit, to ensure that they were not given anything unsanitary. Either last year or earlier this year, a religious group complained that this ordinance interfered with their right to practice their religion which commanded them to help the poor. The city then revised this ordinance by granting exceptions for anyone motivated by “bona fide religious faith.” American Atheists subsequently sued the city for violation of the separation of church and state by granting this religious exemption. The story didn't say what happened because the case was not yet closed.

I have several complaints about the exemption. First, it gives preference to religion by waiving the application fee for the permit for religious groups. Second, it provides no basis for distinguishing “bona fide” faith from any other variety of faith. Third, it's impossible to determine motivation for charitable acts at all. The city should either revoke the exemption or repeal the ordinance altogether.



Humanist On Board

Last week I became a slightly more visible Humanist when I attached a Happy Human emblem to the back of my car which I had ordered from EvolveFISH.com. I generally prefer that symbol over other secular symbols because it's positive: it doesn't attack religion, it represents what I do believe, and it's actually rather cheerful. With respect to this purchase, I also prefer it because religious bigots are unlikely to recognize it and are therefore less likely to vandalize my personal property. I have heard about someone whose Happy Human had its arms and legs broken off, but I'm sure it's far less common than vandalism to Darwin fish. I haven't received any reaction from it so far and I really don't expect any.



The Science of God

Although I missed the original airing, today I discovered the video and transcript of a news story entitled “The Science of God” recently presented by First Coast News, a local television news program, about a scientist who claims to have proven not only God but Christianity with physics. The man is Frank J. Tipler and his hypothesis is the omega point.

Tipler seems to toss the word proof around without justification. His omega point is not an accepted theory and has even been dismissed as pseudoscience by prominent scientists. Furthermore, it depends on other hypotheses which are still hotly debated. Puzzlingly, he identifies a hypothetical future state of the universe itself as the immaterial, eternal, personal creator of the universe. In the article, he refers to three “hypostases” of reality, a supposed trinity which somehow “proves” that a historically-questionable, illiterate, itinerant Jewish preacher in first-century Palestine executed for blasphemy is the only begotten son of God because some of his later followers decided to teach an unintelligible doctrine that God is three persons in one being based on confusing and contradictory sayings patched together long after his death. Tipler absurdly compares the certainty of his conclusion that Christianity is true and all other religions are false to “2+2=4”. He also claims that Biblical miracles can be explained by physics, but the only hint how given in the video was the suggestion that since God wrote the laws of physics, he can change them at his whim. This non-explanation is the epitome of banality. I doubt Tipler's work has any affect on anyone who wasn't already inclined and acclimated toward Christianity. Tipler, for the record, was born in Alabama, was raised as a Christian and now works at Tulane University in Louisiana. It's absolutely no surprise that he doesn't now claim to have proven the truth of Hinduism.

News stories like this are standard fare. They champion the uneducated, simple believer over the arrogant atheist intelligentsia, supposedly beating them on their own turf and validating the believer's traditional (read: backward) values. Never mind that the scientist's hypothesis is completely unproven and his conclusions are patently ridiculous; the man has proven almighty God with math and science! Stories like this don't even register a blip on a skeptic's radar.

The article features a comment section which displays a disturbing tendency within Christian thinking which probably merits its own entry, that it doesn't matter at all why you believe, just as long as you do. Several posters made this remark and no believer disagreed. Admittedly, it makes some sense given that they believe you will be tortured in a lake of fire if you believe the wrong things when you die, but this doctrine itself is remarkably perverse and despicable. The further conclusion that reasons for believing something are unimportant is very harmful to rational and critical thought.

Perhaps Tipler will continue his research and will eventually discover which sect of Christianity in particular quantum physics validates as the one true faith. We all need to know whether to join the Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879 or the Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915 to save our eternal souls from damnation.



Godless vs. Godfree

People who neither have nor desire to have any children sometimes describe themselves as childfree rather than childless. While both describe people without children, the latter implies the lack of something desirable while the former implies freedom from something undesired. Perhaps we atheists should refer to ourselves as godfree instead of godless, despite the latter having some comedic value in its irony. As a novel word, it would attract as much as, if not more attention than godless and would indicate our opinion that we don't need any gods in our lives.

Incidentally, I am both childfree and godfree.


Religion and My Life

Although I live within the “Bible Belt” of the most religious first-world nation on the planet, I have realized that religion only very rarely affects my daily life. If it were not for my sustained interest in freethought websites, podcasts, organizations and books, then the topic of religion would hardly ever arise in a typical day.

My immediate and much of my extended family are practicing Catholics, but they seldom discuss religion at all and really never with me. My friends rarely raise the topic. My co-workers have almost always remained professional and not spoken about it. I see religious programming on television, but I just keep flipping through the channels. I drive by plenty of churches, but they're no different from all the stores I never visit. I spend money without ever looking at In God We Trust, not even encountering it at all most of the time since I use my debit card for almost all transactions. It's been ten years since I've been asked to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and say that this is one nation under God. I've only ever had one religious proselytizer come to my door, and although he was very annoying, the encounter was fairly brief and has not happened again.

In light of this, perhaps some readers will wonder why I am interested enough in the topic of religion to write this blog. There are several reasons:

First, religion is a fascinating concept. It addresses the questions of where we come from, where we are going, and how we should lead our lives here and now. I believe the answers that religions provide are almost always dead wrong, but they are interesting nonetheless.

Second, religion is the principal virus of irrationality in our world, affecting the majority of people around the globe and in my own country. This irrationality often leads to poor decisions, injustice and misery and I hope that writing against it will contribute, even if in only small way, to a better world.

Third, religion made my life absolutely miserable for several years before my deconversion. It was primarily through internet resources that I was able to break free from my old beliefs and I hope that other doubters will benefit from my own thoughts.

Fourth, religion still affects my life sometimes, especially in the area of dating. Many people refuse, or are at least reluctant, to date an atheist even if they themselves are otherwise essentially apathetic toward religion. I certainly don't expect my blog to change this situation in even the slightest, but it generates additional antagonism in me toward religion, motivating me to write. Dating is difficult enough without having to worry about irrational beliefs in invisible beings. Religion also still affects my life by affecting politics.

Fifth, religion is a topic that I feel that I understand fairly well and can discuss intelligently at length. It's something of a compromise for me between philosophy, which is too abstract, and politics, which is too concrete, both of which interest me to a certain degree but neither of which I really feel qualified to address. I simply enjoy writing and I have more to say about religion than about any other topic.



Mayor Peyton's Insult to Atheists

Today I learned of this quote by the John Peyton, mayor of Jacksonville, regarding the city's “Day of Faith” in August 2006 and the subsequent lawsuit filed by American Atheists which resulted in the city having to pay $5,000 in lawyer's fees to the organization and to issue a new directive to avoid such violations in the future:

I think I’m doing pretty well in politics if the atheists sue me, especially in Jacksonville.
First, he would be doing pretty well if he solved the murder problem. Perhaps he could have spent $101,000 on increasing police presence throughout the city instead of wasting it on an ineffective prayer rally. Second, he would be doing pretty well if he fulfilled his oath to protect the constitution instead of shredding it to win him some more votes from believers by creating the illusion that he was actually doing something to address the issue of crime. Finally, the insensitivity of this quote cannot be fully appreciated, even by me, without substituting the word atheists with another minority:
  • I’m doing pretty well in politics if the blacks sue me.
  • I’m doing pretty well in politics if the Hispanics sue me.
  • I’m doing pretty well in politics if the Jews sue me.
  • I’m doing pretty well in politics if the Muslims sue me.
  • I’m doing pretty well in politics if the Mormons sue me.
  • I’m doing pretty well in politics if the homosexuals sue me.
  • I’m doing pretty well in politics if the senior citizens sue me.
  • I’m doing pretty well in politics if the handicapped sue me.
It's a sad day when you hear your elected officials say it's a good sign that their constituents successfully sue them for violating the constitution.



Blaming Everything on “Sin”

Today we find a confusing letter blaming the Virginia Tech massacre on sin. This letter by Bill Van Duyn was published today under the heading, “Society: Address the problem of sin.”

The horrible tragedy at Virginia Tech is yet another example of what this country and our world have come to, and it is going to get worse. The news media need to start helping our country wake up to what's going on. It is sin. Say it: S-I-N! How long has it been since you heard anyone say it out loud? It's politically incorrect.

Our sin burden is huge and growing. It effectively negates the benefits of advances in knowledge and technology. It is civilization in reverse. Think about how various things were when you were a child and how they are now, especially in the areas of security, trust and respect.

When I was a boy in Florida in the late 1940s and early 1950s, we had low taxes and no welfare system, yet society was pretty well off in the ways that count most. Much of our tax burden now goes to pay for our sin burden in so many ways. Our sin burden explains why it takes two or three jobs to keep a family going.

In Mandarin in 1949, my brother and I could flag down the Greyhound bus in the morning and take it to downtown by ourselves. We would see a movie and get our hair cut for 60 cents at Crowd's barber shop on Bay Street. We would walk all over town wherever our fancy would take us, then catch the evening Greyhound bus home again. When I was a young man, you could walk into any church at any time through an unlocked front door. I remember the day in the late 1970s when the doors of our church in Orange Park had to be locked for the first time.

It's not too late. But, if we won't address our sin problem, there's no need to bother ourselves with problems like global warming.

First, the author lacks geographical and historical perspective. School violence has occurred in such countries as Canada, Australia, the UK, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Russia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Israel, Lebanon, Yemen, Argentina, Thailand, China and Japan. They have also occurred for many decades. The worst incident occurred in 1927, long before all of the events mentioned in the letter.

Second, the reason that mentioning sin in public fora is “politically incorrect” is that we live in modern, multicultural and largely secular society. Many of us don't believe that sin, defined as an offense against a supernatural deity, even exists and there is no list of actions which theists can agree are sinful. It varies from religion to religion, from sect to sect, from person to person.

Third, the author seems to equate sin with crime. If he doesn't feel safe going downtown alone or leaving his doors unlocked, that is because he fears crime, not sin in general. He is afraid of muggers and murderers, not fornicators or religious skeptics.

Forth, what exactly is a “sin burden”? Assuming this means the costs of crime, I really doubt whether crime rates are the reason for major financial difficulties. Violent crime is at all-time historical lows. It just receives a lot of coverage in the press. If the author felt safer when he was younger, that's because the city was much smaller and smaller cities usually have less crime.

Fifth, the belief that “sin” poses a greater threat to human civilization than global warming depresses me. People have always believed that society was crumbling and that everything was better when they were younger. The ancient Greeks complained about their youth not respecting their elders and not caring about their traditions, yet somehow Greek civilization is still alive and well more than two millennia later. Global warming, on the other hand, is the result of industrialization and is a real threat to our way of life. And it's not as though we can only be concerned about only one issue.

Finally, the author completely fails to mention any specific proposals to “address our sin problem.” Does he think we should force people to pray or attend religious services? Teach the Bible in schools? Fund churches? I have two words for you, buddy: establishment clause.



Florida's “Imagine” License Plate

Florida has many specialty license plates for universities, professional sports teams, environmental causes and various charities. Today I saw this license plate:

If the image doesn't load, it's an “Imagine” license plate with that word at the top and John Lennon's drawing of himself in the center. According to the state's website, the extra yearly fee of $25 for this plate is donated to the Florida Association of Food Banks. Although the primary purpose is thus to relieve hunger, it strikes me as a good plate for a freethinker.

Imagine there's no heaven...



Chocolate Jesus

Although there has been much discussion of the Sweet Jesus sculpture by Cosimo Cavallaro, I have only chosen to address the topic as part of my newspaper monitoring policy. This letter by Richard Bohler was published on 7 April under the heading, “Jesus Christ: Sculpture is blasphemous.”

Could someone please explain why we all bow down and worship in the name of "art"? Granted, until the advent of the new art terrorism brought to us by liberal iconoclasts, art had stood in the camp of the noble and the beautiful. But, see now the depths to which it has sunk.

If the blasphemous depiction of the "anatomically correct" depiction of Jesus Christ sculpted in chocolate is any indication of what is in vogue among "artsy" folk, then perhaps a review of public funding for the brothels masquerading as art museums is in order.

Are we so complacent that we're willing to be mocked with our own tax dollars just so we can grovel at the altar of "art"? And, mocked we are. When St. Paul was knocked off his high horse, he heard the words: "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" Jesus was saying that persecuting his church was the same as persecuting him. Conversely, when people mock him, they mock all Christians. Jesus is not diminished by these juvenile attacks on his person, but he weeps for the souls of those who shake their fists at their God.
First, no one is worshiping in the name of art. Second, art museums are not brothels. If you want to reconsider public funding, talk to your representatives. Third, a piece of chocolate isn't persecution; burning people at the stake is persecution.

There have been death threats from supposedly loving Christians over this piece of chocolate. It's deliciously ironic.


Flurry of Letters about Islam

At the beginning of the year, I adopted a policy of monitoring each opinion piece regarding religion and secularism appearing in the Florida Times-Union. Recently I have fallen behind in face of a flurry of articles and letters on the topic of Islam in response to the Secular Islam Summit. Instead of responding to each piece individually and in full, I will catalogue them, summarize them, and respond only to selected quotes. I will add more letters to this list until this episode is complete.

22 MarchPro & Con: Reforming Islam

The pro section was the exact text of the St. Petersburg Declaration from the Secular Islam Summit. The con section by Dr. Parvez Ahmed, chairman of the Council on American-Islamic relations, criticized the signers for being outsiders, failing to be specific, ignoring existent reform, and for promoting “Islamaphobia.”

22 MarchMuslims: Universal Principles

This piece praises the Secular Islam Summit and praises the United States' policy toward Muslims.

25 MarchSecular Muslims: Does Islam need reformation?

This letter says that Muslims will not assimilate into western culture and implies that the west may eventually become Muslim. There is one section I would like to quote:

These self-proclaimed secularists represent only a small minority of Muslims. The majority of Muslims, not only in the United States but worldwide, have different opinions. Yet, the media, governments and neoconservative pundits pay more attention to the secular minority.
There must be a perception bias somewhere. I find far more new stories about radical Muslims protesting in the streets than about secular Muslims publishing documents. The protests, however, generally occur in the Middle East and Europe, not in the United States.

27 MarchMuslims: Face reality

This letter is a response to the previous one. It says that although the west is accused of imposing its culture on the Muslim world, the original letter writer clearly states his desire for the Muslim world to impose its culture on the west. The author claims we are in a cultural war.

1 AprilIslam: Clash of cultures is in progress

This letter is another response to the same letter as above. It lists some of the details of Sharia, which the original author would like to see adopted in the west, and explains how these principles are in conflict with the western values.

3 AprilMuslims: No criticism of radicals

This letter is yet another response to the same letter as above. It discusses the clash between Islamic and western values.

4 AprilReligion: Aspects of our society aren't good

This letter is a response to the previous group of letters. The author agrees with their negative assessment of Islamic culture but reminds them that Christian culture used to be just as barbaric and has only become more enlightened relatively recently.

6 AprilIslam: Radicals are the problem

This letter says that moderate Muslims do not pose a threat. It provides a link to a website, which I cannot seem to load, of a moderate group and lists some of their positions.

7 AprilIslam: Religion is misunderstood

This letter claims that women are equal to men under Sharia. This is demonstrably false.

9 AprilIslam: Muslims can live in harmony

This letter claims that Sharia is consistent with the U.S. Constitution. This is demonstrably false. It also discusses Muslim assimilation, persecution by Christians, and a recent poll of American Muslims.

10 AprilMuslims: Women guaranteed rights

This letter discusses the supposed rights of Muslim women under Sharia.

11 AprilAmerica: Democracy is not secularistic

This letter claims that democracy is not linked to secularism. This is only partially true. While there is no inherent connection between secularism and democratic values, there is a strong correlation in actual practice. Almost every threat to freedom today comes from a religious source, such as censorship and denial of civil rights to homosexuals.

18 April - America: Peaceful Muslims are welcome

This letter discusses Muslim terrorism in India and Spain, the incompatibility of the US Constitution and Sharia, and the willingness of the the United States to accept peaceful Muslims as immigrants.



Catholicism and Guilt

The relationship between religion and guilt is rather complex. Religion both manufactures and eliminates guilt and the more dominant aspect varies according to an individual's disposition and personal experiences. I would like to examine these two elements in detail. Since I was a Catholic for many years, I will speak about Catholicism in particular, but some of what I will say is relevant to Christianity in general and, to a lesser extent, religion in general.

Catholicism manufactures guilt in several distinct ways. First, the Church teaches that, because of the actions of Adam and Eve, we are all born sinners with the stain of original sin on our souls. This includes exclusion from heaven unless we are baptized and an insurmountable tendency to sin ourselves regardless. Second, the Church's liturgy constantly reminds us of our worthlessness and our sinfulness, especially in contrast to a perfect God. Third, and most important, the Church almost uniformly condemns as sinful a completely natural and normal aspect of human existence: sexuality. The Church teaches that every single sexual act except intercourse between a married man and woman without contraception is a mortal sin, meaning that it can cause that person to be damned to hell. This includes not only homosexuality and fornication, but masturbation, viewing pornography, mentally indulging in sexual fantasies, and even sex between a husband and wife who simply want to avoid having more children. It thus excludes from sexual activity every person who isn't currently ready to have another child with their legal spouse, i.e., the vast majority of the planet, and tells them that if you do anything sexually, you are an enemy of God who should burn forever in a lake of fire. Sexuality is an absolutely integral aspect of life and to attach extreme guilt to a basic human need is terrible. Sex is a serious affair and requires responsibility, maturity and respect, but condemning with hellfire every single sexual act except one is absurd. It's similar to teaching that if you eat any food other than organic vegetables, you are evil. Perhaps that is why dietary regulations are also common among religions; they create guilt and give power to the leaders of religion who alone can magically absolve that guilt.

Catholicism also eliminates guilt, primarily through confession, or as it is known today, reconciliation. Psychologically, it's probably helpful to admit one's faults to another person and to hear someone say that the sins are forgiven. The requirement of confession, however, on the balance probably creates more guilt than it relieves. Most penitents feel anxiety before and during the confession and many often avoid confessing for that reason. Others feel anxiety because they are afraid that they forgot something or that something made their confession invalid. Since receiving communion in a state of mortal sin is another mortal sin, worries arise every week at Mass. Adding anxiety to guilt is a recipe for much anguish. For some people, however, confession frees them of their guilt and tells them everything is all right.

Atheism, by contrast, neither manufactures nor eliminates guilt. Atheists have no one to make them feel guilty except their own consciences. Actions can be judged from a human level without fear of offending a perfect deity, violating an arbitrary regulation, or incurring eternal punishment. In addition, atheists are not tied to a holy book which must either be reinterpreted or discarded in order for their moral values to progress. But atheists also have no one to make them feel less guilty. They may occasionally and informally confess their failings to friends and family, but they have no deity to instantly make everything better. They have to take responsibility for their actions and realize that if they hurt someone, no one but them will make it right again. All of this echoes the theme I propounded in a recent entry, that a major aspect of atheism is maturity.

Before I finish, there is one more related topic to address. Theists sometimes claim that atheists really do believe but just want to sin without guilt. While this may be true of a small number of self-identifying atheists, the vast majority of atheists with whom I interact are quite sincere in the disbelief in the supernatural and exhibit no greater tendency to sin than theists, excluding actions such as not attending church and not praying which could only be considered wrong within the context of religion. They don't lie, steal, cheat, or hurt other people more often than the average theist. On the contrary, atheists are statistically much less likely to commit crimes than theists. The evil atheist who does whatever he wants because there is no divine police officer watching is nothing more than a caricature.



Water Tower Cross Removed in Starke

Today I was surprised to read an article on the front page of The Florida Times-Union reporting that a federal judge in Jacksonville has ruled that the nearby city of Starke is prohibited from displaying a ten-foot cross on its municipal water tower. The cross, which had been there since the 1970s, was recently removed and this judgement ensures that it will not be replaced. I applaud Senior U.S. District Judge John H. Moore II for this decision.

The most interesting part of the story was that the city argued the cross was a lower-case T for “Tornadoes” – the mascot for Bradford High School. I literally laughed out loud when I read this absurdity.


Believers without Faith

Although I was raised a practicing Catholic and became very devout for about ten years before my deconversion, I never really had faith in the sense of belief without sufficient evidence. To the extent to which I justified my beliefs, it was always through reason. Perhaps this is why I have difficulty relating to people who justify theirs through faith.

Before junior high school, I never gave much thought to religion. I went to Mass with my family and attended religious education classes, but like most children, I didn't pay much attention to it. My first real interest in religion developed when my family starting receiving EWTN on cable. A few years later I became interested in apologetics and it was then that I first examined my reasons for believing. At that time I adopted what I now call the rationalistic faith paradigm, discussed in more detail in my lengthy essay justifying my apostasy. I believed that the arguments for God's existence were valid and that the miracles of the Catholic Church objectively proved that it was the true, infallible church. I had faith in the sense that I accepted the truth of the dogmas of the church without direct evidence for them, but I thought that I had perfectly valid reasons for trusting the church. From my perspective, it had nothing to do with feelings or blind trust; it was all rational and logical.

It was that claim to rationality that later made my belief susceptible to inquiry and investigation. If the arguments for God's existence were invalid and the evidence for the supposed miracles of the Catholic Church were called into question, then my rationalistic faith could and in fact did crumble. My anchoring of my mind to reason led me to my current position.

There was for me no “having faith” in God to justify my belief in God himself. One cannot trust a being to establish the existence of that very being! It is circular and invalid. One is simply trusting himself and his own faculties. It's such a simple point, but the vast majority of believers fail to realize that their supposed faith in God is nothing more than faith in their own unjustified personal opinions. There are certainly, however, other believers who claim to base their beliefs entirely on objective evidence and it is these people, if they are unafraid or at least willing to face their fears, who are the most open to rational argumentation against religion.