Theocracy vs. Liberty

This letter by Marcia Holliday was published on December 16th under the heading, “Nativity: No respect.”

I couldn't believe what I was seeing when I turned on a program and saw a piece about Willie Nelson mocking the Nativity with a song about bringing "pot" to the baby Jesus. And what was sadder is to see that people thought it was funny to mock our Lord's birth. Why do we forget that our country was founded on a belief in God and His divine protection? Forgive us, Lord. We need you more now than ever.
Ms. Holliday has the right to express her disapproval of the broadcast, but no more than Willie Nelson has the right to sing any song he pleases or anyone else to listen to any song they please. This nation certainly wasn't founded on theism; it was founded on individual liberty! I find her prayer within the letter rather presumptuous.


Goals & Accomplishments

Throughout most of this decade, I've approached the new year with a certain amount of dread. It seemed I had made another trip around the sun without doing anything important, without taking any steps to making my dreams come true. This year is quite different as I've chosen a new, promising career path and found the love of my life, so it seems especially appropriate to reflect on what has happened and what is yet to happen.

Here are my major accomplishments of 2008 (in chronological order):
  • got accepted to law school
  • got married
  • moved out of old apartment
Here are my goals for 2009 (in chronological order):
  • begin law school and study hard
  • help wife obtain green card
  • find new apartment
Happy New Year 2009!



Newspaper Problems

Two years ago, I started checking the opinion section of the local newspaper, The Florida Times-Union, daily for editorials and letters about religion and irreligion and responding to each of them here. It's been many months since my last entry of this type, and it appears it may be even more until my next. I don't subscribe to or otherwise purchase the paper version of the publication, so I'm dependent upon the online version, but the opinion section of the website hasn't been updated since December 4th. I've sent the newspaper multiple e-mails and received multiple responses, but it's still not updating. I know The Florida Times-Union, like all newspapers, has been struggling in recent years – they've resorted to the dangerous practice of having people stand in the medians of busy intersections selling copies to commuters stopped at red lights – and has been forced to cut back their staff, and I suspect this may be the issue. I know there have been numerous interesting pieces over the past month due to the annual discussion about Christmas, and I intend to write about them when they finally become available.

UPDATE: The issue has been resolved. It seems that the newspaper re-designed their website without re-directing the old addresses, so my bookmark was taking me to the old section which is no longer updated.



Happy Festivus!

I would like to wish all of my readers a Happy Festivus! For the rest of us! A donation has been made in your name to the Human Fund (“Money for People”). Please note that I display a Festivus pole year-round on this blog between the menu and the main text. If you want to air your grievances against the author, please leave a comment!



Ask the Author

This is your chance to pose a direct question to the author of Secular Planet outside of the framework of the regular blog entries and reasonably expect a direct response! I'd like especially to encourage questions on philosophical, theological or political topics, but I intend to answer all questions provided they're not too personal, revealing or absurd. If I decline to respond to a query, I'll explain why and at least acknowledge its receipt. In some cases, I may even choose to respond in a new blog entry devoted to your question. Anonymous questions are welcome!



My Mother Thinks I'm Going to Hell

Since my deconversion over four years ago, my Catholic family has never given me any trouble about my atheism. Outside of one occasion a long time ago during which my mother asked me a few simple, polite questions about what I believe now, they never even raise the topic of religion with me. They do talk about church activities around me, but it has nothing to do with my presence. They also pray before meals, but they've done that forever and I've never considered objecting, especially since it's quick and they're giving me free food! They never give me any flack whatsoever and never treat me any differently than they ever have, so the following episode surprised and hurt me.

A few weeks ago, my mother told me a story about my niece. My older sister regularly babysits two children of her neighbors who happen to be Buddhist. One day one of the neighbor kids heard something about Jesus and asked, "Who's Jesus?" My four-year-old niece told her, "You'd better know who Jesus is or you're not going to heaven!" My mother told me this story somehow thinking I would be amused, but I didn't laugh at all. I struggled to tell her I found it disturbing a little child has been taught to divide the world up into us versus them and tell people they're going to hell. She didn't seem to understand my viewpoint as she just thought it was funny a child would say something so adult-like. We talked and my mother expressed the (heretical from a Catholic perspective) opinion that it doesn't matter what religion you believed since they all lead to God. I asked her about the rest of the people and reminded her about me. She didn't say anything at first and said my beliefs are my own business.

So in the end, my mother who loves me very much and would do absolutely anything for me thinks I'll be damned to hell by her god who is supposedly all-loving for simply disbelieving in extraordinary claims without any evidence. In her view, it apparently doesn't matter what religious belief you have or why you believe it, you're still better than someone who looks at religion critically and decides it's simply not true. The dissonance between her belief and actions is remarkable. I thought about writing her a letter to express my thoughts, but I haven't done so. I see no need to risk adversely affecting our relationship over this evil belief which she doesn't talk about or act upon. It just bothers me that my family could possibly think I truly deserve to be roasted alive for all eternity. It makes me even more grateful for my new godfree wife whose love for me isn't obscured by systematic irrationality.



Home for Solstice

With the winter solstice approaching, I have a few choices of holidays to celebrate this year. Living in the United States and having a Catholic family, I will of course celebrate Christmas by visiting and exchanging gifts with my relatives on December 25th. While my family is rather religious, they have never asked me to accompany them to church since my deconversion and my own celebration will be entirely secular with the exception of listening to some carols which explicitly refer to Jesus. The rest of the traditions I observe have either secular or pagan origins, and I never bother decorate my home with a tree, wreath or lights because it's simply not worth the trouble to me.

Last year I wrote about my personal celebration of Humanlight, the relatively new Humanist winter holiday honoring reason, compassion and hope, but this year I don't feel as interested. I don't have any newfound objections to artificial holidays or to adding more around the winter solstice – I say the more, the merrier – but I've come appreciate that they can't be properly celebrated in isolation; they require some sort of community. As I'm not currently involved with any Humanist or freethought groups and I don't have any friends who've even heard about Humanlight, I'm going to forget about it this time around the sun and see what happens next year. My new wife shares my Humanist values, but we've never talked about Humanism explicitly, and this is her first year celebrating even a secular Christmas, so there's no need to overwhelm her with anything else simply to accommodate me.

I've also considered celebrating the winter solstice itself as it's the purely natural event which prompts or anchors all the other celebrations, but I realize that I'm already essentially observing it through them and I don't need to add any new practices. Let's all celebrate this time of year, whether we call Christmas, Yule, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Saturnalia, Sol Invictus, Humanlight or Festivus!


Influx of Readers

This blog has enjoyed an usually high number of readers over the past week and I'm scratching my head trying to figure out why. I haven't done anything to promote it in a rather long time and I don't suppose any of my previous efforts have just now shown such remarkable results. If you don't mind, please consider leaving me a comment telling me how you came here. Thank you!

UPDATE: Since multiple readers have commented they have found me through StumbleUpon, I have added a button for it and other bookmarking services to the end of each post to encourage more ratings and reviews.



Who is a Christian?

As my criticism of Christianity often focuses on the belief in a place of eternal punishment for nonbelievers and other sinners, sometimes I receive the response that not all Christians believe in hell. Since they cannot deny that in the gospels Jesus frequently spoke of hell and threatened his listeners with damnation for failure to follow him, they offer various explanations of these texts: he never said anyone will actually be damned, he was speaking metaphorically, he just meant you have to be a good person, he just meant you have to believe in something, he didn't really say this, he never really existed or even God doesn't exist! (Most often, however, they offer no explanation whatsoever and simply ignore the question completely, giving it no thought at all.) We find each of these views held by self-identified Christians, but how can one label apply to people with such disparate opinions and still retain any useful meaning? I'm well aware of the danger of falling into the No True Scotsman fallacy, but it seems we need to draw the line somewhere. There are perhaps as many different Christianities as there Christians in the world, but as for me, whenever I present criticism of the religion in this blog, I implicitly refer to the basic theology shared by Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism unless otherwise stated. I'm arguing against a specific collection and system of beliefs, not the label “Christian,” which can be and has been applied indiscriminately to almost anything. If I criticize a belief which you yourself don't hold, then you can ignore it and move on.



Levels of Control: Christianity vs. Atheism

I recently removed the Obama bumper sticker from the back of my car since the election is over and I decided that I don't want to give people controlling very heavy equipment at very high speeds an extra reason to feel any antagonism toward me on top of their general disdain for humanity. Despite this, earlier today I was pondering what the theoretical reaction might be to a sticker which read, “Smile! There is no hell!” I think the response would be less negative than to most anti-theistic messages, but I'm sure some people would think it's an evil lie intended to deceive people and lead them into hell although its actual purpose is quite the opposite: to help people free themselves from the control of manipulative institutions teaching an evil untruth! This led me to ponder the stark contrast between religion and irreligion with respect to control, and I've complied a short list of differences between Christianity and atheism on this matter:


  • We demand ten percent of your money.
  • We demand at least one hour per week of your time.
  • We demand total allegiance.
  • Don't think for yourself.
  • Obey all of our rules, even if they're absurd or evil.
  • Only vote for candidates of whom we approve.
  • If you disagree with us, you will be roasted in the flames of hell for all eternity.
  • People on the other side are either knowing or unknowing agents of the devil.
  • We don't want your money.
  • We don't want your time.
  • We don't want your allegiance.
  • Think for yourself.
  • Live as you see fit.
  • Vote for whomever you want.
  • If you disagree with us, nothing bad will happen to you.
  • Most people on the other side are good people who are simply mistaken. 
I used Christianity as an example since I know it better than any other religion, but most of the points could apply to the majority of religions with little to no adaptation. Atheism offers us freedom from religious tyranny, but it's our responsibility to use it wisely.


Atheism as Medicine

Although I have strong reservations about the Freedom from Religion Foundation's choice of venues for posting that “religion is but myth and superstition which hardens the heart and enslaves the mind,” I certainly can't disagree with the message itself. Religion is indeed a mental disease, and one which in my case was literally almost fatal. Critics of atheism often argue that it doesn't offer anything inherently positive or constructive and that it only tears down religion. They're correct, of course, but they're entirely missing the point. If religion is a disease, atheism is the medicine. It doesn't offer anything beyond canceling out superstition in exactly the same way that most medicine doesn't offer anything beyond canceling out sickness. We don't dismiss chemotherapy for just treating cancer but not offering any benefit to those who are already healthy! It may even be argued that I'm missing the point because atheism doesn't need to offer us anything whatsoever in order to be true.



The Day My Life Changes Forever

Today is my wedding day. My atheist bride and I are having a very simple ceremony at the courthouse this afternoon with only my parents and her grandparents in attendance and a modest wedding reception on Sunday afternoon to celebrate with the rest of our family and friends. Then we're ready to spend the rest of our lives together! For the longest time, I thought this day might never come, but my soon-to-be wife came into my life almost seven months ago and has since surprised me with her affection, devotion and love. I hope to prove myself worthy of her and make her happy each and every day that I'm fortunate enough to find myself with her. This is, of course, a very happy time for me, but I still have time to reflect on the influence of religion on marriage.

My younger sister is also engaged to be married and she and her fiancé are currently doing the pre-marriage counseling with a priest at her parish. When she mentioned to him earlier this week that I was getting married rather quickly, he asked whether anyone had talked to me about my decision. If someone who knew me well had suggested this, I would be open to listening to them. If someone who doesn't know me well but who has plenty of marital experience suggested it, I would be slightly annoyed but not upset. But for someone who doesn't really know me and who has voluntarily vowed never to have any romantic relationship to presume give me unsolicited advice about marriage is absurd. This is a man who believes that he can never have sex, masturbate nor even entertain sexual thoughts without incurring the wrath of his supposedly all-loving god and he thinks he's qualified to advise me about the woman I love simply because he's studied ancient mythology and received an official title. I'm a proud apostate and I resent the church's attempted interference in my life.

Since my bride doesn't yet have permanent residency in the United States, right now the primary advantage of getting married is that she can apply for a green card fairly easily once our marriage is official. At this time, I think of people who don't enjoy this right: same-sex couples. When opponents of gay marriage make the argument that homosexuals don't really need legal recognition of their relationships, I will always think of this clear example that shows them how mistaken they are. Same-sex couples in our situation more often end up separated by oceans because they have no way to ensure they can be in the same country. This is just another instance of religion causing needless suffering.

I'm looking forward to sharing all of my future joys and sorrows with my godfree wife. It will be easier to nurture our marriage working strictly within the parameters of reality, without any concern for fairy tales and sky spirits.



Why Religious Belief Matters

Whenever someone criticizes religious belief, almost invariably they're confronted with the question of why they care what other people believe. The best response to this is that beliefs often translate into actions. Sometimes religious belief motivates benevolence such as charitable activities – and even that is frequently tainted by proselytism – but it can equally well motivate malevolence such as holy wars, inquisitions and terrorism. While these evils are almost completely absent from modern Christianity, a week ago in the United States we witnessed the very real power that religion still wields to inflict suffering on society with the passage of more laws against same-sex marriage across the country, most notably Proposition 8 in California but also Amendment 2 in Florida, which won by a twenty-four percent margin in a swing state carried by the supposedly most liberal Democratic presidential candidate in history.

I have clear political opinions on many different topics, but my strongest views generally relate to those issues in which religion is a major component to one side's arguments: same-sex marriage, sex education and church-state separation. Note that I don't necessarily think these are the most important issues, just the easiest to decide which side to support. Other issues I care strongly about, such as universal healthcare, are complicated matters about which people can disagree for purely secular reasons. But the above issues only exist because of religion.

The nonreligious community, for example, overwhelming supports same-sex marriage, for there are no good secular arguments against extending full rights to every person to marry whomever they wish. Undoubtedly, there are some bigots who would voice opposition to same-sex marriage even in a world without religion but not enough to matter politically. Religion gives bigots moral cover and even pressures otherwise liberal-minded people to align with them. When I was devoutly religious, I fell into the latter category. I had nothing against homosexuals in general – even if I felt somewhat uncomfortable around the most open of them – but from what the Catholic Church teaches, I believed God demanded I oppose it or risk eternal damnation! Upon my deconversion, I immediately changed to support civil unions and very soon after to full same-sex marriage. I believe that most opposition to same-sex marriage would dissolve immediately if religion were to magically disappear, especially since churches are behind almost all the organized opposition.

That will never happen, of course, but if we can convince people to stop believing altogether, to adopt more liberal religious beliefs or simply to take their beliefs less seriously, then the result would probably be a freer, more equitable and most just society. I don't recommend that you begin criticizing religion unless you want to, but if you enjoy it like I do, then don't let anyone convince you that you're wrong to do so.



Sex, Race, Religion and Ideology

I don't know whether the same or similar patterns hold true in other countries, but I've noticed three facts about American political and religious demography which, when considered in conjunction, puzzle me:

(1) White males are statistically more conservative than the general population.
(2) Atheists are statistically more liberal than the general population.
(3) A disproportionate number of atheists are white males.

I don't have even a conjecture to explain these seemingly incongruous statements. I'm really just wondering out loud. If you have any ideas, please leave a comment.



Election Reflections

I'm very pleased the country and Florida went blue. Part of northeast Florida even turned purple while the rest ended up a slightly lighter shade of red. Duval County was essentially even, with McCain winning by only a single point after Bush carried it by sixteen points twice. I'm greatly relieved we avoided the national disaster waiting to happen with Sarah Palin anywhere near the White House.

I'm equally disappointed the “marriage protection” constitutional amendment, which bans same-sex marriages and civil unions even though it's already outlawed by four statutes, passed 62 percent to 38 percent, breaking the sixty-point threshold necessary for adoption. I'm not surprised it received a majority, but I was hoping it would fall a few points short. There are still too many bigots in this state and the rest of the country. This is the biggest reason I hate religion.

Congratulations to President-elect Barack Obama!




Today is the first day of early voting in Florida, so this morning I went to the tax collector's office, stood in line for twenty minutes, chatted with some elderly folks behind me and cast my ballot. I've voted early in the past, but I don't think I went on the first day and I certainly don't remember standing in line. I was primarily excited to vote against McCain/Palin and against the “Florida Marriage Protection Act,” but I voted in every partisan race and on every ballot measure. I didn't vote on the retention of any judges because I know absolutely nothing about any of them. Everything went perfectly smoothly, but I was disappointed I still have never gotten a chance to answer an exit poll. As I left, I attached the “I Voted Early” sticker on the Obama sticker on my car. Now I have fifteen more days to wait for the final results.



Blasphemy Will Have to Wait for DVD

Today I was disappointed to learn that no cinema within at least fifty miles of Jacksonville, Florida, is showing Bill Maher's new anti-religion film Religulous. I had been planning on watching it for months and I thought it was notable that its release coincided with the fourth anniversary of my apostasy from the Catholic Church. I suppose that the local cinemas may have simply concluded they wouldn't make enough money from it, but perhaps they feared generating a backlash from religious groups. This seems especially plausible given that most cinemas today have eighteen to twenty-four screens and benefit from showing as many different films as possible. Now I will have to wait until it's released on DVD.

Ever since the film was announced, I've wondered why it's not spelled Religiulous. I can't think of a single word or even name has a soft G without an E or I following it. I thought it was pronounced with a hard G until I watched the preview!



Godfree for Four Years

Today is the fourth anniversary of my apostasy from the Catholic Church. Recently I've noticed it's becoming increasingly difficult for me to remember what it was like to really believe everything I now consider nonsense. My status as a former devout Catholic seems less important to my identity as time passes. Indeed, my status as an atheist seems less important than it did just a few months ago. Sometimes I consider discontinuing posting here, visiting forums, reading blogs, listening to podcasts and buying books because it often feels pointless to spend so much energy on the non-existent. But religion was my primary hobby, as it were, for more than a decade and irreligion has taken on that role for the past four years. There's no topic that interests me so intensely. Religion simultaneously attracts and repulses me, and I always want to discuss it even if there's nothing new under the sun. So until further notice, the pursuit of my fascination continues.

This year the date of my apostasy has additional personal significance: it's the birthday of my girlfriend of two months, who also happens to be an atheist. Since she was raised without religion in a socialist country, her experiences are very different from my own; religion doesn't really interest her at all!



Prayer at the Obama Rally

Yesterday I attended the Obama rally at Metro Park here in Jacksonville, Florida. It was the first campaign rally I've ever attended, so I didn't know exactly what to expect, but I was greatly disappointed by how it began: the very first speaker was a Christian minister who delivered a public prayer! What's more, it was explicitly Christian and partisan because he prayed “in Christ's name” and asked for blessings specifically for Obama and not the other candidates. I immediately wanted to boo to express my objection to this religious invocation at a supposedly secular political event, but I was afraid of the consequences of such vocal opposition, so I just kept my head raised, crossed my arms, frowned and looked around for others who shared my disapproval. I found some who didn't seem to be participating, and later a friend of mine told me she also had problems with the prayer. I know we weren't alone in our discomfort with it. Perhaps I will contact the Obama campaign today to register a complaint.

For me, the prayer put a damper on the entire event, though not enough to ruin the full experience. I got see and hear Obama in person as well as Senator Bill Nelson and few other political figures. The rally was certainly a success in terms of turnout: there were approximately twelve thousand people in attendance and another eight thousand who were turned away because there was no more room in the park! I just wish the Democratic Party would stick to the issues rather than pandering to the religious and sacrificing their commitment to secularism.



Reverse Stupidity

Yesterday I was driving down the road when I saw a red billboard with the outline of a horned head, a clawed hand and a pointed tail sticking beyond the basic rectangular shape. As I got closer, I realized it was an advertisement for a fundamentalist Christian church, one which combines reverse psychology and ancient scare tactics into a lethally idiotic mixture. It read, “Boycott New Life Fellowship” with “-Satan” in the lower right and the church's website address in the lower left. (I don't have a photograph and the image I found online is presumably a variant.) Beyond the absurd theology, the entire set-up raises several questions: If the devil wants you to know his feelings about the church, then why is he hiding behind the sign? Why doesn't he know how to use proper capitalization and punctuation? Why did he let the church deface his sign with their website address? Why did he hack their website but fail to remove their content and simply add graffiti? If on the other hand he doesn't want you to know his feelings, then why did he put his message on a billboard in the first place? All of this suggests the devil is highly incompetent and poses no threat to anyone with half a brain, but I suppose that's not the church's target audience.


Florida Supreme Court to the Rescue

In my last entry, I discussed a pair of destructive amendments to the state constitution on the November ballot here in Florida. This morning I heard some good news: the Florida Supreme Court has removed three education-related amendments to the state constitution, including one that I mentioned! Amendments 5, 7 and 9 have been removed because the texts on the ballot weren't clear enough for the voters to properly understand. Amendment 5 concerned property taxes and school funding, amendment 7 would have allowed the state to distribute money to religious institutions – including schools – and amendment 9 would have directly reversed a legal precedent against vouchers. It's good to see these issues off the table for now. I only wish they could remove amendment 2, which would ban same-sex marriage and civil unions, on the same grounds, but the language of its text is unfortunately crystal-clear.

The Florida Supreme Court is an admirable group of judges. Remember that if their decision hadn't been overturned by the federal Supreme Court, the recount in 2000 would have continued, Gore would have become president and the world would have been spared eight years of Bush!



Religion on the Ballot

My home state of Florida has earned a very negative reputation, some of it completely warranted, for electoral ineptitude. Most of the country is only aware of the issues in presidential elections, but there's a more serious problem with the general electorate and the amendments to the state constitution we vote on as ballot initiatives. Florida has passed the highest percentage of ballot initiatives of any state in the union. It seems the residents of the state are even less skeptical than even the average American and will approve almost any measure that doesn't immediately appear like a bad idea. The majority of initiatives concern taxation issues because the state legislature doesn't want to risk passing an unpopular measure which will hurt their constituents' wallets, and they have learned that Floridians foolishly tend to vote yes by default when they don't understand a proposal rather than demanding a clear explanation before they change the state's supreme law. The problem has become so bad that in 2006 we passed an amendment that requires a sixty-percent majority for all future amendments, ironically with only a 57.8% majority. I'm afraid that even this new threshold won't prevent two very destructive amendments on this year's ballot from passing.

Amendment 2 would explicitly ban same-sex marriage and civil unions:

Inasmuch as a marriage is the legal union of only one man and one woman as husband and wife, no other legal union that is treated as marriage or the substantial equivalent thereof shall be valid or recognized.
Florida already has a statute against same-sex marriage, but proponents apparently want to make it even more difficult for homosexuals to be granted equal rights. Although there are indeed secular arguments against same-sex marriage, this is undoubtedly a religious issue. The secular arguments hold almost no sway among the nonreligious, primarily only among those who want rationalize their opposition based on either faith or simple bigotry. Every poll I've seen shows that the nonreligious support same-sex marriage by overwhelming margins.

Amendment 7 would repeal the constitutional prohibition on granting money to religious institutions:
An individual or entity may not be barred from participating in any public program because of religion and to delete the prohibition against using revenues from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.
I don't really know what the first clause entails, but it must sound good to most voters, so it may only be there to distract them from the main issue: school vouchers. This amendment was created after an earlier voucher program was thwarted in state court precisely on account of this law. Perhaps proponents even have in mind a state “faith-based initiative” program like the federal program. Whatever the case, it's very clear this is a step in the wrong direction.

With taxation amendments, the problem is that voters don't understand the meaning of the text and vote for them anyway. With these two amendments, citizens will have little difficulty understanding. It's their failure to appreciate the importance of church-state separation that will be the problem. I predict that both will pass in November, but I hope I'm proven wrong. Wherever you live, take the time to vote and make your voice heard!



Atheism and the Internet

For those of us who became adults after the advent of the internet, it's sometimes difficult to imagine how anyone found any information without this very powerful tool. Almost every day I look up something online that I would have been unable to find otherwise and it makes finding everything else much faster and easier. This is especially true with respect to atheism. Indeed, the internet makes it easier to become and to live as an atheist.

When I began investigating my doubts four years, I bought a few books critical of religion, but most of skeptical materials that I read were only available on the internet. Since my deconversion, the internet has facilitated almost all of my interaction with other atheists. The vast majority has happened directly online through forums and blogs. All the groups that I've met or visited in person I first learned about online. I listen to atheist podcasts online. I find most of my atheist books online. Other atheist products I can find only online. If it weren't for the internet, I would be almost totally isolated from other atheists and would feel very alone. I sympathize with all the millions of atheists throughout history who had to struggle without any help whatsoever from fellow nonbelievers simply because they didn't know any and didn't know how to find them. It's still not easy to be an atheist in religious society, but the internet has certainly helped.



No Gods, No Children

Since my deconversion almost four years ago, I've only dated women who were at most only nominally religious, and it seems increasingly unlikely that I'll end up with even a moderate believer. Ideally, I would prefer to marry another atheist. It's very difficult for me to fully respect anyone who professes belief in the supernatural and almost impossible to respect anyone who claims to have no doubts. It's not really a problem if she has an unbiblical view of God as love or a hopeful belief in some vague almost universalism in which only murderers and rapists are sent to hell and everyone else is admitted to heaven. But if she believes that the world was created in six days, that her god magically takes the form of bread and wine during a sacred ritual, or that anyone outside of her religious group will be roasted for all eternity merely for thinking differently, then it's an absolute deal-breaker. If I'm to share my life with someone, it would be best that we at least share a similar relationship with reality. Unfortunately, I'm usually not really compatible with most female atheists. I can form friendships with them perfectly well, but the harmony of personalities necessary for romantic relationships seems to be lacking. Perhaps this is because atheism isn't fully socially acceptable in American culture, so atheists, and female atheists in particular, are often intellectually and emotionally stronger than average, but I tend to be attracted to weaker, more passive and more traditionally feminine women. The only explicitly nonreligious women I've dated were from socialist countries where irreligion is promoted as the societal standard. The difficulty I experience in finding someone with the same worldview is the way that religion most directly affects my life.

A much larger issue for me is that I don't ever want to have children. I've always felt this way, for as long as I can remember, though during the height of my religious devotion, I believed my future wife and I would be morally obliged to have as many children as were conceived without contraception, so I tried to convince myself that it was God's will. I thought it was the only way I could have sex without risking eternal damnation! I'm very happy I didn't find a woman during that time willing to marry me! Today I can say without any guilt that I don't want children. In fact, I feel it's more responsible because I won't be contributing to the problem of overpopulation. While I understand the biological basis of the desire to reproduce, I find myself unable to relate to people who sincerely want children because I never have at all. Finding a suitable match is difficult enough without having desires contrary to the evolutionary urges and socialization of the vast majority of one's potential mates, but I doubt I could make myself want children and I refuse to have them unless I'm absolutely certain I want them.

There's a significant overlap between the membership of the godfree and the childfree, but so far this statistic hasn't done anything to help me find the right woman and I don't expect that it will. I would really love to find someone special with whom to share my life, but I've accepted that, because of my unpopular beliefs and desires and because of me personally, I may spend the rest of my life alone. I haven't given up; I've just become more realistic about my chances.



Divine Comedy

Yesterday evening I spent an hour and a half in a Christian bookstore. My visit, however, had nothing to do with religion. I'm a member of an improv comedy troupe and we were invited at the last minute to perform at an open mic there, which I guess usually consists of musical performances. It was a disappointing event, though not because of the nature of the establishment. There was nothing remotely resembling a stage or seating area – I don't understand how they've hosted such an event without these basic elements – and we ended up performing in an area near the front counter in front of some children's books with only a handful of onlooking shoppers stopping to watch for a few minutes from time to time. I wondered how we came to such an unusual venue until I spotted several copies of a newly published book by one of our members about living with diabetes on a table near the entrance. At least I now know how we learned of their open mic!

We've just started looking for a new location after the coffee shop where we used to perform was closed. I don't know whether our director intends to have us return, especially given the lackluster facilities, but I think I'll decline to participate if she does. Although our performance last night wasn't affected by the venue, I'd rather not be at all associated with purveyors of irrational nonsense. I love to perform any chance I get, but I must draw the line at places where Jack Chick tracts are sold!



The Importance of Religious Literalism

Although I discarded all my religious beliefs several years ago when I deconverted, I have retained one metabelief throughout my life: it really matters whether the claims of religion are true. If there exists an omnimax deity who created the universe, who loves me, and who has instructed me how to be happy, then I want to listen to him and follow his plan. If heaven exists, then I want to live there forever. If hell exists, then I want, more than anything else, to avoid being condemned to suffer there for all eternity. Indeed, I simply can't imagine anything which would more justly merit my concern. If, on the other hand, there are no deities, there is no heaven and there is no hell, then I see no reason to maintain any religious tradition merely for the sake of tradition. And if religion is nothing more than a metaphor, then I don't care any more about biblical stories than I do about Aesop's fables. In fact, the message of the bible is essentially tyrannical and barbaric and, even though it contains some benevolence, I don't want to give the impression that I respect the more pervasive malevolence or give special credence to any of it as divine. If any religion is true, then I want to accept it as truth, but if it's false or just symbolic, then it's simply not of any interest to me.

The rejection of literalism and scriptural inerrancy is the mark of liberal religion. It seems in particular that one can't be a liberal believer without rejecting the doctrine of hell, or at least the belief that nonbelievers are condemned there simply for not believing. But without the threat of hell, there is no reason to take religion seriously except societal pressure, personal preference or the belief that religious devotion is rewarded in this life and there is certainly no reason to obsess about it. Over the past several centuries, even the Catholic Church has liberalized its teaching on the salvation of those outside the church. (Of course, church leaders refuse to acknowledge the change and refer to it doctrinal development.) The traditional teaching was that only baptized Catholics in good standing could hope to be saved. The possibility was later extended to those who lived before Jesus or who otherwise never heard the gospel. Next unbaptized infants or aborted fetuses were included. Then it was non-Catholic Christians who could be part of an “invisible” church. Now some theologians argue that all non-Christians and even atheists might achieve salvation. I know not all of this has become official dogma, but the overall trend toward universalism is unmistakeable. If the church officially renounced the doctrine of hell, however, and apologized for the enormous amount of suffering it has caused through the ages, I would be no closer to returning the fold as there would be even less incentive to return since I would be admitted to heaven no matter what. I attended mass every single Sunday for twenty-five years, with only a small number of exceptions which I later confessed, until the day I decided to apostatize. Not once since then have I ever even considered the idea of returning for the community or the nostalgia. Attending mass was at most a tolerable experience from which the only pleasure I ever really derived was my belief that I had fulfilled my obligation for yet another week. Attempting to follow all the moral rules was at best an annoyance and at worst pure torment. I want to leave all vestiges of my former faith in the past where they belong. Perhaps the only significant difference between liberal believers and nonbelievers is that the former like religion and want to preserve it, even if they have to mangle it in the process, and the latter generally don't like it and are content to live without it.

Ironically, I share this metabelief that religion matters with conservative believers, who are usually opponents on political and social issues, but not with liberal believers, who are usually allies on these same issues. Since individuals rightly have their own unique opinions, it's usually not possible (or necessary) to find others who share the exact same thought processes, only similar conclusions. We can use all the allies we can get for political battles.



Happy World Humanist Day!

Today is World Humanist Day, a day to celebrate and raise awareness of Humanism as a life stance. Unfortunately, this holiday holds even less significance for me than Humanlight since I know of no local events in which I can participate and it has no popular holiday to create a festive atmosphere from which it can indirectly benefit. Nevertheless, I would like to wish all of my visitors a Happy World Humanist Day! Perhaps next year I will have someone with whom to celebrate this special day.



Pain and Suffering

Yesterday I went to the beach for the first time in years, excluding visits during which I simply walked along the sand or the pier, and I paid the price for spending so much time in the midday, summer, Florida sun. I completely forgot to apply sunblock to my feet and failed to sufficiently cover the backs of my lower legs, resulting in severe sunburn, primarily on the tops of my feet. In addition, I had to walk back to the vehicle barefoot over sand which was absolutely scorching, the hottest I have felt during my entire life. My feet are still in constant pain more than twenty-four hours later despite my use of multiple cooling, soothing and healing agents. I'm sure that I will recover soon enough, but all of this pain reminded me of the change in my approach to suffering from when I was religious.

As a believer, none of this pain would have seemed pointless because I could have offered it to God. I believed this would reduce the amount of time I would spend in purgatory after my death and perhaps even gain me some merit in the eyes of God. It didn't matter that the causes of suffering didn't always seem just; the offering itself gave it meaning and perhaps made it easier for me to accept. This response to suffering has most likely played a major role in allowing religion to largely sidestep the problem of evil, which even believers acknowledge as the strongest argument against their faith, and is just one way in which religion makes life easier for believers by making unsupported promises.

As an atheist, now I have to accept any and all pain as essentially meaningless. It's true that it will teach me to more carefully apply sunblock before spending hours in the merciless sun, but this is a lesson which I could have learned without pain and which has no real moral value. The same is true of much greater suffering such as major illness, accidents or even death. We have to face cold hard reality without any promise that everything will be all right in the end and that everything will balance out. It's not easy, but it still seems better than comforting fantasy.



Individualism and Infallibility

In my previous entry, I discussed the tendency of modern Catholics to adopt Protestant attitudes toward theology and proclaim the autonomy of the individual in determining religious truth. During my deconversion, however, I realized that even the most conservative Catholic must also necessarily implicitly hold this position because of the inescapable fact that it's always an individual who chooses to follow a religion and thus always an individual who act as the final authority. Catholics attempt to avoid this issue by claiming to recognize an infallible pope as the final authority, but the individual still must be the ultimate arbiter between who is fallible and who is infallible! All Catholic dogma does is reduce the number of personal judgments to one, but this judgment still must be made by each fallible person. It would be circular and thus invalid to argue that the pope is infallible because he claims to be, so in the end, each Catholic really only says, “I think the pope cannot possibly be wrong.” So much for building the church upon a rock.


Protestant Catholics

Although there are far more atheists than professed Catholics in this country, I felt more alone intellectually when I was believer because only a small percentage really thought like I did beyond their basic belief in the divinity of Jesus. I thought that miracles and logical arguments proved the authority of the Catholic Church and I accepted absolutely everything that the church taught for that reason. The majority of self-identified Catholics, however, even those who attend mass regularly, don't truly recognize that authority (if they dissent from even one teaching) and are essentially Protestants in that they consider themselves the ultimate arbiter between true and false, right and wrong, good and bad. I felt especially alone because all these people who supposedly shared my religion really didn't; at most, they shared some superficial beliefs, but they lacked the core principle that I considered so important to my identity. As an atheist, this is not the case. I fully accept the primacy of the individual conscience, and my reasons for disbelieving generally align with those of others: lack of evidence and the meaninglessness of religious language. The general populace might look at me with suspicion when I say I'm an atheist, but at least I know that I'm not alone in my thinking.



Perpetual Adoration

Catholics believe that the bread and wine consecrated during the mass “transubstantiate” into the body and blood of Jesus, that is, truly become God without changing their outward appearance. As such, they become proper objects of worship within the mass and, sometimes, outside of the mass. In some parishes, there is a practice known as perpetual adoration in which a consecrated wafer is placed in a monstrance and displayed in a chapel twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year with volunteers scheduled such that at least one person is always present in the chapel offering adoration.

Volumes have been written criticizing the belief in transubstantiation and the reception of communion, but my intention here is only to indicate the absurdity of asking people to keep God company around the clock, even within the context of church teaching. The practice is supposedly voluntary, but it's rather more complicated than it seems because of the goal of continually uninterrupted worship. First, in order to set up and then maintain the practice, the organizers need people for every time slot throughout the week, so parishioners could feel guilted into participating. Second, if someone cannot come during their regular time slot, because of a vacation, a new work or school schedule, sickness, accident, etc., a replacement must be found, even if it's for two o'clock in the morning. And if the person following someone doesn't show up, they're not supposed to leave until someone else can replace them. I fully realize that it's supposed to be a sacrifice, but I object to asking people to make sacrifices which put the elderly and the sleep-deprived on the road in the middle of the night, all to visit a deity who is supposedly present in every corner of the universe. As is typical with religion, it's just absurdity upon absurdity.



The Day I Almost Deconverted

Although my actual deconversion several years ago was a rather thoughtful and deliberate process, there was a memorable day approximately eleven years ago when I seriously considered becoming an atheist in the matter of a single day. It was the summer after I graduated from high school and I was working at a supermarket as a bagger. I remember that I had recently had conversations with a couple of friends who were atheists in which they had refuted the apologetic arguments that I had presented to them, even though I didn't really recognize the validity of their responses at the time. As I carried the groceries out of the store to the customers' cars and brought back the shopping carts, I imagined how it would feel to be an atheist. I can't seem to recall the particular issues that I was pondering, but I do recall the surge of emotion that I felt, a mixture of excitement and fear. At home at the end of the day, I decided that I couldn't ignore the arguments from miracles and the peacefulness of the religious, though it was certainly the fear of hell which provided the greatest motivation to remain a believer. It seems truly strange that I almost rejected a lifetime of belief with hardly any thought and I wonder what could have happened if I had deconverted that day. If it had stuck, I might have saved myself from a lot of grief that I was to experience in later years, but if it hadn't, then I might have ended up worse than I actually did.

One of those friends correctly predicted that I would eventually become an atheist because, in his opinion, I was too smart to remain a believer. I haven't seen him since high school and I have occasionally wondered whether he would even remember his remark and whether he would be pleased to learn that he was right. If I ever talk to him, I will be sure to ask and probably report on it here.



Sounds of Peace

Whenever writing a blog entry, I listen to quiet music to soothe my mind and I've found that my most frequent selection is my collection of Gregorian chant on my computer. It's rather ironic that I compose my thoughts against religion to the sounds of the sacred liturgy, but it's simply the best choice for the purpose. Chant is both very beautiful and completely calm. It's also performed in Latin, a language which I've studied but which I can tune out without any effort. If I automatically understood what the performers were singing like I would if they sang in English, I think that I would be annoyed by the words themselves and most especially by what they signify and that I would be unable to concentrate. As it is, however, I can enjoy chant for what its actual sound conveys to me: peace and meditation.



Hell: The Evilest Doctrine

The single most influential idea on my religious outlook is undoubtedly the doctrine of hell. It was hell that sparked my initial interest in religion during my teenage years, it was hell that kindled the scrupulosity which tormented me for years, it was hell that ignited my investigation and subsequent deconversion and it is hell that continues to fuel my antipathy toward Christianity. It's difficult to envision how my life would have been if I had never believed in hell, but it certainly would have followed a markedly different course.

Every person values and seeks happiness. It's the ultimate motivation for all our thoughts and actions, whether we pursue it directly or indirectly (by making others and then thus ourselves happy) and even paradoxically when we find it in feelings of sadness. Hell is the antithesis of happiness and is by definition the worst possible concept imaginable. It's a place (or “state”) of eternal pain and suffering and has been symbolized as an unquenchable lake of fire. And it is, despite its simplicity, without a doubt the vilest concept ever conceived of by humanity.

No person could ever deserve to be consigned to hell, for the pain endured therein would be infinitely more than any pain inflicted by a finite being. Even the most brutal dictators caused only a limited amount of suffering and would be unjustly punished in hell, even by the most vindictive standards of justice. And I find it both laughable and depressing to hear believers argue that an omnimax deity cannot prevent people from being roasted for eternity. This claim can only result from complete ignorance or from a complete lack of imagination.

Whenever I hear Jesus referred to as loving or merciful, I wince. While the gospels do contain some benevolent teachings, these are completely overshadowed by Jesus' recurrent threat of unending torture for anyone who fails to accept his message. One cannot expect praise for preaching love while simultaneously executing divine blackmail. An objector might arguing that hell is only a metaphor and that Jesus' threats weren't meant literally. To this, I respond that this isn't the Jesus of Christianity but instead a sanitized caricature of Jesus that has been altered in response to moral progress of the past twenty centuries. To claim that the vast majority of Jesus' followers throughout history have totally misunderstood him and that the true message of Jesus perfectly corresponds with modern western humanistic values is to engage in completely unsupportable historical revisionism.

I simply cannot imagine that the billions of people who profess to believe in hell truly do so, or at least not that they believe they themselves might actually go there. If there is truly even the slightest possibility that one could be tortured forever and ever, then no response is too radical to prevent this possibility from being realized. For many, however, hell is just a place for murderers; everyone else will be admitted to heaven upon death. With this thoroughly unbiblical perspective and because most of us aren't emotionally close to any murderers, hell is relatively easy to ignore. I would like to stress that this is a very good thing; billions of people obsessing about it would result in worldwide chaos. It was, after all, belief in hell which fanned the flames of the crusades and inquisitions. We would all do well to toss the concept of eternal punishment into the trash bin of history.

I would like to comfort my readers by reminding them of a truly glorious truth which finally ended my personal religious struggles and which I hereby resolve to reflect upon each day: Smile! There is no hell!



No Sacred Cows

Atheism, unlike religion, has no sacred cows. There is nothing that someone can do which can cause especial offense to atheists beyond the mere desire to offend. There are no gods to blaspheme, no prophets to mock, no dogmas to ridicule, no scriptures to desecrate, no temples to profane, no sacred objects to defile and no rituals to parody. This is certainly not to say that you cannot offend atheists, only that we don't set ourselves up for offense by treating something or someone as inviolable. You never see an angry atheist mob form in response to a cartoon caricature, an obscene sculpture, an incisive documentary, or the publication of a controversial book. We might well feel upset over any of these but only because they misrepresent our position and not simply because someone had the audacity to portray it differently from ourselves. Even then, our response is far more measured than that of most believers.

Muslims in particular are known for the extreme amount of offense they claim and for their verbally and physically violent reactions thereto, but Christians aren't immune to emotional reactions to alleged blasphemy. Although they very thankfully almost never threaten real violence, we have all probably heard believers threaten and even wish others hellfire for even questioning their faith. It's difficult to appreciate just how violent this response is unless you realize that these people actually believe that hell exists and that they want you to suffer unspeakable torment there for all eternity! Perhaps even more remarkable is that the majority of Christians only condemn the desire to see others in hell and not the threat itself, which is an integral part of the gospel message. (Most people think the message is love and forgiveness whereas it's actually, “Believe or fry!”) Even if an atheist dismisses all believers as fools, that doesn't even begin to compare with what the average believer thinks about atheists. And atheists certainly don't express the same level of emotion when someone insults their beliefs.

It's not surprising there is no reaction when you believe that blasphemy is a victimless crime.



False Tolerance

Freedom of expression is today informally limited by a false sense of tolerance widespread in our culture. Many people are reluctant to express their thoughts critical of religion out of fear of offending someone. Self-censorship thus silences many who would otherwise contribute to the public discussion of religion and its place in our society that is so badly needed. In light of this lamentable situation, I would like to encourage my readers to assert your right to express your opinion and disregard any attempt to invoke an imaginary right not to be offended in order to prevent you from speaking your mind.

As for me, I refuse to recognize anyone's claim to a right to be automatically respected. If you don't want anyone to criticize your religion, then you should defend it rationally and show why the detractors are wrong. If you can't do this, you should abandon your beliefs as indefensible or humbly accept the criticism. Demanding that someone else respect your faith and refrain from criticizing it, however, is not an acceptable response. You have the right to promote your opinions and I have the right to promote mine. You have the right to criticize my opinions and I have the right to criticize yours. Any respect in the marketplace of ideas must be earned and not arbitrarily granted. If one's beliefs don't hold up under scrutiny, then they simply they aren't worthy of respect. Religion doesn't receive any immunity from criticism merely because of its importance in some people's lives, especially since its effects are far from uniformly benign. It's in fact far more disrespectful to insulate others from your ideas, assuming their justifications for the beliefs or their feelings are so fragile that you must protect them from the hard truth like little children.

I want to be clear that the above applies only to public society and not to private society. The latter has a totally different set of standards regarding politeness and access. If you fail to respect the beliefs of the company you keep by attacking or mocking them, then you cannot expect that company to continue welcoming you. They have the right to exclude you from their homes for whatever reason they deem appropriate, just as you have the right to exclude them from yours. In the world of public discourse, however, no one should be excluded. Anyone should be able to express their opinions by making speeches, writing books, publishing websites, distributing pamphlets, organizing rallies, singing songs, creating paintings or sculptures, producing films or television programs, and no one should attempt to silence them by labeling them intolerant, fundamentalist or militant for simply expressing criticism of the ideas of others. Attacking an intolerant ideology is a service to, not against, tolerance.

I'm very thankful that I myself was able to find books and websites critical of my former religion when I undertook my investigation several years ago. If those authors had chosen to censor themselves, I wouldn't have found the necessary resources to escape the mental prison of irrational faith. Think of how many more people could bask in the light of reason if only they had more opportunities to join the conversation and think for themselves.



The Necessity of Doubt

I simply cannot respect anyone who claims to have never doubted their beliefs. This statement tells me they have never really examined their opinions, no matter how much time they have spent thinking, reading or discussing them. Whatever your beliefs regarding religion, the vast majority of the world disagrees with you. I find it incredible that a person can go through life, aware that billions of people hold opposing viewpoints, without once thinking, “Perhaps I'm wrong.” While it's possible to understand this failure to doubt in the culturally homogeneous societies of the past where literally everyone you knew belonged to the same religion, it's nothing short of inexcusable in modern, cosmopolitan America. Despite this absurdity, I still occasionally read interviews of religious leaders in the local newspaper in which they state they have not once doubted their faith. And very few of those who do acknowledge their doubts then say they have pursued and investigated them logically, instead preferring to rely on prayer and scripture to resolve their uncertainties. Of course, if they approached the question of religion from a rational perspective, it's extremely unlikely they would have become religious leaders in the first place.



Why I Joined the Green Party

UPDATE: I re-registered as a Democrat on 15 May. I decided to accept the reality of the two-party system and make my liberal voice heard within the big tent of a major party. In addition, Florida has closed primaries and I want to vote as often as possible.

My trek across the political spectrum has been as radical as that across the religious spectrum, and for much the same reasons. Within a few weeks of turning eighteen years old, I registered to vote for the first time. Since I was religious and conservative, I chose to affiliate with the Republican Party. Several years later I became so frustrated with the Republicans for not being conservative enough that I almost registered with the reactionary Constitution Party. I acquired a new voter registration form, filled it out, but then decided not to mail it in for whatever reason. After my deconversion during my mid-twenties, without the influence of religion, my politics quickly changed. I had been taught my entire life to listen to ecclesiastical authority instead of thinking for myself and now, having thought for myself by investigating my doubts about the faith, I had very explicitly rejected that authority. So I carefully examined my political positions, which had mostly been based on dogma and ignorance, not on reason and wisdom. As a result, many of them changed radically; some remained the same. In the end, however, I came to identify myself as a liberal. I wasn't in a hurry to change my party affiliation, but I did switch to the Democratic Party before the next major election. That's where I remained until yesterday, when I mailed off a new registration form in order to switch to the Green Party.

My departure from the Democratic Party is primarily the result of the party's failure to represent my voice. The single largest issue is the Iraq war. The newly elected Democratic majority in Congress has failed to bring any troops home and there's still a real possibility that the superdelegates will award the party's nomination to someone who voted to authorize the war in the first place and who has shown utter contempt for the democratic process throughout her campaign. If Obama wins the nomination, I still intend to vote for him in the general election. If Hillary wins, I absolutely refuse to vote for her and will most likely cast my ballot for the Green Party nominee. Other issues are the party's connections to corporate interests, its pandering to the religious, and its lack of support for democratic reform of our electoral system. I acknowledge that my joining the Green Party is mostly a symbolic gesture of protest against the Democrats and in support of the Greens, but it feels good and I'm glad I've done it.

When I examined the Green Party's 2004 platform, I found a number of my own views in it which the Democratic Party's 2004 platform lacked:

  • unequivocal opposition to the Iraq war
  • reduction of military spending
  • repeal of the Patriot Act
  • establishment of single-payer universal healthcare
  • abolition of the death penalty
  • full support for gay marriage
  • support for proportional representation, preferential voting, and neutral redistricting
  • abolition of the electoral college
  • support for statehood for the District of Columbia
  • support for stringent environmental standards (naturally)

There was even one section entitled “Religious Freedom and Secular Equality” which I would like to present in full:

The United States Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of religion. We affirm the right of each individual to the exercise of conscience and religion, while maintaining the constitutionally mandated separation of government and religion. We believe that federal, state, and local governments must remain neutral regarding religion. We call for:

a. Ending discriminatory federal, state, and local laws against particular religious beliefs, and nonbelief. The U.S. Constitution states that there shall be no religious test for public office. This requirement should apply to oaths (or affirmations) for holding public office at any level, employment at all government levels, oaths for witnesses in courts, oaths for jury membership, and the oath for citizenship.

b. Prosecution of hate crimes based on religious affiliation or practice.

c. Elimination of displays of religious symbols, monuments, or statements on government buildings, property, websites, money, or documents.

d. Restoration of the Pledge of Allegiance to its pre-1954 version, eliminating the politically motivated addition of “under God.”

e. Ending faith-based initiatives and charitable choice programs, whereby public funds are used to support religious organizations that do not adhere to specified guidelines and standards, including anti-discrimination laws.

f. Ending school vouchers whereby public money pays for students in religious schools.

g. Ending governmental use of the doctrines of specific religions to define the nature of family, marriage, and the type and character of personal relationships between consenting adults.

h. Ending religiously-based curricula in government-funded public schools.

i. Ending the use of religion as a justification to deny children necessary medical care or subject them to physical and emotional abuse.

j. Ending the use of religion by government to define the role and rights of women in our society.

k. Revocation of the Congressional charter of the Boy Scouts of America. Any private organization that practices bigotry against certain religious beliefs and classes of people should not have a Congressional endorsement or access to public property and funds.
Of course, I can't say that I agree with everything in the platform, but it certainly reflects my views much more closely than that of any other party. I'm glad to be a Green. I don't know whether my political journey has ended, but it has certainly been a wild ride so far. I might be the only person in the country to have voted for both Alan Keyes and Barack Obama in presidential primaries. I can only claim mental illness in the first case.


Happy Earth Day!

The March equinox is one of the two different days recognized as Earth Day by the United Nations. I want to wish my visitors a pleasant spring or fall, depending on which hemisphere you call home. Let's all work together to protect the planet from ourselves.



Atheists Have Values, Too

It troubles me that people tend to interpret atheism as the repudiation of everything that religion happens to represent in their minds rather than simply the principled rejection of the core of religion, belief in the supernatural. While it's true that someone could be diametrically opposed to absolutely anything even remotely associated with religion, it's wrong to assume that atheists necessarily are; I certainly have never encountered one who was. As for me, I embrace a number of values which religions commonly profess to promote such as peace, justice, empathy, compassion, honesty, loyalty, responsibility, temperance, introspection and reflection.

I also, however, strongly embrace skepticism, which has led me to disbelieve the supernatural claims of upon which believers (wrongly) claim to derive their moral values, and freethought, which allows me to evaluate the worth of moral values with my own individual judgement rather than deferring to an unquestionable authority such as scripture or a religious leader. These twin values foster others which most religions don't inherently support and which some even explicitly oppose such as liberty, equality and secularism. They have also led me to reject irrationality, superstition, fear, hatred and ignorance, which most religions support or have supported to varying degrees throughout their histories. It is my skepticism and freethinking which distinguish me from believers, not a lack of virtue.

In truth, I yearn for a community in which I can foster my personal growth through contemplation of, discussion about and action based on my values without any compromise to supernaturalism. My several visits to a Unitarian Universalist congregation and my casual online investigation of Buddhism were part of an as-of-yet unsuccessful quest for such a community and identity. Humanism presents the greatest promise for fidelity to my beliefs, but it lacks the type of formal structure that I desire, perhaps for fear of being too similar to religion, and it's not distinct enough from increasingly humanistic western culture to provide a unique focus and identity. All I can say is that I'm a naturalist in search of a place to call home.



Happy Groundhog Day!

“It's Groundhog Day...again.” – Phil Connors
According to tradition, the groundhog awakes from hibernation and emerges from his hole today, in the exact middle of winter, in order to check on the weather. If it's sunny, he will see his shadow, get scared and return underground, giving us six more weeks of winter. If it's cloudy, he won't see his shadow and will remain aboveground, giving us an early spring.

Groundhog Day is my favorite holiday of the entire year. I love it because it has the perfect balance between popularity and obscurity, it's a uniquely North American observance, it has some history behind it, it requires no shopping or decoration, and it's just silly and fun. The 1993 Bill Murray film that shares the same name as the holiday is my favorite movie of all time. I have watched it more often than any other film and I can recite large portions of the script. I have already watched it twice this year and I might watch it again later today. It's of course rather ironic that I've watched that particular movie so many times!

In case you're wondering, the most famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, saw his shadow this morning. Don't put away your jackets just yet.



Obama for President

In my initial entry almost two years ago I stated an intention to discuss a variety of topics in addition to religion and irreligion, but until now I had never done so. Today I would like to talk politics and announce my endorsement of Barack Obama for president of the United States. I already cast my vote for Obama in the Florida primary earlier this week and I would like to publicly discuss my support.

My favorite candidate entering the primaries was in fact Dennis Kucinich because of his thoroughly progressive stances on the issues, but he never had a chance to win the nomination and he had even withdrawn his name before election day in Florida. I liked John Edwards about the same as I like Obama, but the latter's viability made it an easy choice to support him. I don't like Hillary Clinton because she voted to initiate the Iraq war, because she seems to be little more than a political opportunist, and because the Republicans would be able to easily incite their voter base into a frenzy against her. Obama, on the other hand, can excite the Democratic base and bring people to the polls who had never voted previously. I think he has a much better chance of winning a general election, especially by electrifying the black vote in the otherwise deep red south.

Obama is the most progressive of the remaining candidates and in particular I believe that he is the best choice to preserve the separation of church and state in this country. When I read his book The Audacity of Hope, I noted that whenever he discussed the issue of religious freedom, he always explicitly mentioned the rights of nonbelievers along with everyone else. He is a committed Christian and his faith has certainly influenced his life, but he appears to appreciate the importance of secular government and the necessity of justifying government policy without any reference to religion. Perhaps his diverse familial and personal religious background helps him understand the necessity of building coalitions based on principles which appeal to citizens of various beliefs. In the United States, we need someone to bring us together and I think Barack Obama is the best choice for our nation and the world.



More Lies About Evolution

The local debate over evolution and creationism will never end. This letter by Harold J. Adams was published today under the heading “Evolution: Theories are not understood.”

Apparently, we do need more instruction in the theories of evolution in our schools and elsewhere. Recent letters reveal the fact that many of those who attempt to defend organic evolution do not really understand it themselves. One writer stated that the fossil record supports evolution. It does not! All creatures, living or extinct, enter and exit the fossil record fully formed. The glaring absence of fossil evidence of any true transitional steps between any two different kinds of creatures is admitted by all knowledgeable scientists, regardless of their stand on evolution. Charles Darwin based his theory upon finding millions of such transitions sometime in the future. None exists. Another writer used examples of the variation that occurs within a given kind of creature to try to prove evolution. Variation occurs, but that is not evolution from one kind of creature to another kind. The flu virus, for example, that mutates is still a virus, and it will never become anything else. That's because mutation and natural selection are conservation agents. They conserve and re-sort information already existing in DNA, but they are incapable of adding anything new. Thus, they will never change a reptile into a bird, for example. If we do force more evolution on our children, hopefully, the evolutionists, themselves, will occupy the front-row seats.
Just like yesterday, the numerous untruths contained in this letter are addressed in great detail on many websites; I won't repeat the corrections here. I'm really starting to tire of posting these letters even for the sake of completeness. It seems that the series won't be complete until the creationists realize that the fossil record is sufficiently complete and that every “missing link” discovered creates two more in their mind.



Lies About Evolution

The local debate over evolution and creation simply will not die. This letter by Frederick J. West was published today under the heading, “Evolution: Theories cannot be proved.”

This is in response to recent letters concerning the theory of evolution. When the theory sticks to natural selection and genetics, it can be tested and proved correct. For example, new generations of moths changing colors to match the color of the tree bark they hide in, cockroaches becoming immune to certain pesticides and the flu virus mutating so that it renders vaccines ineffective. But it should be emphasized that over time moths do not become robins, cockroaches do not become puppies and the flu virus does not become the polio virus. When the evolutionists take the giant leap to the theory that millions or billions of years ago slimy creatures climbed onto the beach and some became turtles, some became giraffes and others humans, then they are entering the arena of fantasy, not science. The changing from one species to another cannot be tested or proved. If these changes occurred over billions of years, the fossil record should contain millions of crossover species. However, not one crossover fossil exists. Not too long ago, modern scientists were hoodwinked by a Chinese peasant who attached the bones of a bird to the bones of a dinosaur. This find was plastered on the front page of Natural Geographic. When the hoax was discovered, the disclaimer was printed in small type on a back page of the same magazine. Evolutionists cannot test or prove the monkeys-to-men theory or the dinosaurs-to-birds theory, and they should not be taught to highly impressionable youngsters.
The numerous untruths contained in this letter are addressed in great detail on many websites; I won't repeat the corrections here. I will only say that if the author objects to the teaching the theory of evolution by natural selection on the grounds that it's “fantasy,” then he must also object to the teaching of creationism by the same account and recommend that science classes completely ignore the most fundamental question of biology. I suspect, however, the author is not so logically consistent as this.



Evidence Supports Evolution

The local debate over evolution and creationism continues some more. This letter by J. Carlson was published today under the heading, “Evolution: A valid scientific theory.

A recent letter titled "Teach students the truth" is a great example of intellectual dishonesty. People are trying to have creationism taught in schools. Only when their efforts are unsuccessful do they start to backpedal and try to undermine the credibility of evolution once again. They first need to learn the term "theory" as used in science classrooms. That word holds more scientific credibility than the word "fact." Scientific theories are ideas that have been put through rigorous testing before that title is applied. If scientific theories were just random ideas, there would be millions of them instead of a select few. The letter writer leaves out pivotal parts of the theory of evolution, which are natural selection and genetics. Those two components of the theory have been and are being tested, recreated and observed constantly. If evolution is such an absurd theory, why is it every time a new fossil or new species is found, it seems to fit? Microbiology proves evolution almost singlehandedly. What about the flu? Every year the virus mutates into a form that the body doesn't recognize. That's why the flu shot is an annual deal. It is not because that's the shelf life of the vaccine, but because we need to be re-immunized against the same, but mutated, virus. There is a reason evolution is taught in schools. It is a valid and highly regarded scientific theory that is responsible for some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs in history. Without it, we would still be dying from the flu instead of getting vaccinated from it. Let's be intellectually honest. Keep evolution where it belongs: in the biology class. Keep creationism where it belongs: in the theology class.
This letter in support of teaching only evolution in public schools is fairly standard like the previous two. I'm publishing it for the sake of completeness and I have no additional comments.



Evolution is No Myth

The local debate over evolution and creationism yet continues. This letter by Marcia Greer was published today under the heading, “Science: No place for creationism.”

I was dumbfounded by the poor reasoning and arguments in a recent letter titled "Teach students the truth." The letter writer asked for intellectual honesty, and for our students to excel in science, yet wants stories of creation taught. That's exactly what they are: stories. Yes, evolution is a theory. A theory is a framework that guides scientific research. It is not a guess; it is not based on written stories by men who had their own agendas thousands of years ago. The fossil record does show evolution. For example, evolution of vertebrate legs is well documented in the fossil record. The evolution of some dinosaurs into birds also has documentation; the most famous fossil is the Archeopteryx, showing a creature with traits of both dinosaur and bird. If, as the letter writer said, we need to include creation stories, how about all the other myths including Aztec, Hindu, Norse, etc. I think it is only fair to give those myths the same focus another unproven story deserves - the Bible. What makes our creation myth so much more believable than anybody else's? Nothing. While we're teaching all these stories, we'll crowd out the real science that our kids aren't learning. Evolution, while much is unexplained, can be documented, tested and researched. That is science. Keep religion in religion class or mythology. This nation is already lagging in science.
This letter in support of teaching only evolution in public schools is fairly standard like the previous one. I'm publishing it for the sake of completeness and I have no additional comments.



Theories & Ways of Knowing

The local debate over evolution and creationism still continues. This letter by Ed Brunson was published today under the headline, “Science: Evolution is a theory.”

The fact that the scientific theory of evolution is being debated in the same breath with the religious theory of creationism and intelligent design is appalling. In the 1920s, Tennessee was the scene of the famous Scopes monkey trial that debated the legitimacy of teaching evolution. Since that time, scientific evidence has continued to come in supporting the theories involved in natural selection and evolution. Recently, the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine published their updated edition of Science, Evolution & Creationism. In it, they state, quite succinctly, "The evidence for evolution can be fully compatible with religious faith. Science and religion are different ways of understanding the world. Needlessly placing them in opposition reduces the potential of each to contribute to a better future." Evolution is a scientific theory, testable, but not 100 percent provable. Isaac Newton's theories, including that of gravity, are theories. Not provable. But you don't need to prove gravity, because, when you try to deny it, you fall. Creationism, and intelligent design are not scientific theories; they are religious explanations for unknown happenings. The story of creationism is allegorical, nothing more, nothing less. The infusion of religious theory into scientific teaching is folly; it should have ended in the 1920s along with the Scopes monkey trial.
This letter in support of teaching only evolution in public schools is fairly standard and I would just like to comment on the texts written by other parties.

First, I find the heading printed by the newspaper misleading. Many detractors of evolution argue that it's “only a theory,” implying a lack of supporting evidence, but the author of this letter emphasized that a scientific theory is not something to be proved. Perhaps they could have written something like, “Evolution: Gravity is also only a theory.”

Second, I have objections to the statement by the National Academy of Sciences. Evolution can be compatible with religious faith, but that depends entirely on what that religion teaches. It's not compatible with the belief that humans were miraculously created by God six thousand years ago. It's not compatible with the belief that humans have existed on earth for all eternity. It's not compatible with the belief that humans were brought here by space aliens. No one is placing science and religion in any more opposition than they actually are; some people just aren't willing to pretend that there's no contradiction when there actually is, radically change their religious beliefs, and sweep the issue under the rug. I don't object to changing one's religious beliefs and acknowledging that this change was made in the light of new evidence, but it's simply dishonest to strip a belief of its original meaning in order to save face, especially if while still claiming infallible certitude for this and other completely unsupported assertions. Science and religion aren't two different ways to understand the world because religion just isn't a way to understand the world. One might as well say that a magic eight-ball is yet a third way to understand the world since it's no less reliable than religion in ascertaining the truth.  Of the various ways to gain knowledge, only science offers consistent results and we shouldn't give religious dogma receive any more respect than any other variety of quackery.



Quackery in the Classroom

The local debate over evolution and creationism continues. This letter by Marjorie Ramseur was published today under the heading, “Science: Teach students the truth.”
The recent letter titled "Prohibit myths" in relation to science standards missed the point. People are not trying to have creation or intelligent design taught in the science classrooms of public schools. Good science is what is needed, and it must be taught objectively and truthfully. The theory of evolution is unproved. Its validity is being questioned by hundreds of scientists around the world. The fossil record does not show evolution. Microbiology does not show evolution. Embryology does not show evolution. Comparative anatomy does not show evolution, only similarities. Students must be able to distinguish the data of the Theory of Evolution; analyze and recognize its strengths and weaknesses, its assumptions and presumptions, along with its frauds and gaps. The scientific method used by experimental sciences stresses the testability and repeatability of a theory. The theory of evolution falls short since it has not been observed, cannot be tested and cannot be repeated. Evolutionary scientists may claim that evolution is the basic principle of biology, but the processes involved and the mechanisms needed are still the subject of much diligent research, discussion and, I might add, skepticism among the scientists themselves. As brought out in the 1925 Scopes trial, ACLU lawyer Clarence Darrow stated that it is the "height of bigotry to have only one theory of origins taught in our schools." This was when creation was the main view taught in public schools. Let us be intellectually honest and teach students the truth. After all, what we want is for our students to excel in their knowledge of science.
Despite what the author claims, people are trying to have creationism taught in schools. She even indicates her desire for this by presenting a quote from Darrow which condemns teaching only one view! The rest of her claims are equally untrue; the evidence overwhelmingly supports evolution and only a tiny portion of scientists even have questions about its validity. It's inappropriate to teach both views when the second view is held only by a fringe group with a clear political agenda using claims that simply aren't supported by the evidence. I doubt that Ms. Ramseur would support teaching the views in the history books that the moon landings were faked, that extraterrestrials actually crashed in Roswell, or that President Bush was behind the 9/11 attacks. I also doubt that she would support adding astrology, alchemy, or homeopathy to the science curriculum. Schools shouldn't make exceptions to teach anyone's favorite pseudoscience or conspiracy theory. Actually do research to support the objections and have them accepted by the scientific community before demanding that children learn them in school.



Thought Control

Although I have previously written about my past experiences with a condition known as scrupulosity when I was a devout Catholic, I would like to go into more detail regarding a particularly torturous element thereof which I endured for a few years, in order to illustrate the absurdity of certain religious prohibitions. As I have discussed in a separate earlier entry, the Catholic Church teaches an especially strict sexual morality which condemns every sexual act except that between a husband and wife without contraception and, per clear scriptural authority, condemns even willful indulgence of sexual thoughts. While the prohibition against actions is severe, it's not impossible to obey it if one is truly careful to avoid opportunities to succumb to temptation. The prohibition against thoughts, however, proves practically impossible to obey if one takes both it and the threat of eternal damnation seriously. I struggled mightily for years to control my thoughts and, despite my most strenuous efforts, I failed to achieve anything except an unhealthy suppression of my natural desires and the development of violent compulsions against myself.

The most relevant fact about the condemnation of consenting to impure thoughts is that it's simply impossible to control one's mental activity, most especially with respect to such a basic animal instinct as sex. It's almost always on our minds, subconsciously if not consciously. Most people realize this, especially psychologists and advertisers. Healthy adults automatically respond to the sight, sound or smell of attractive individuals by becoming sexually aroused. Now while the church teaches that mere instinctive thoughts aren't willful and thus aren't at all sinful, it does teach that to consciously entertain and indulge these thoughts constitutes such a serious offense that you could burn in hell forever if you commit it and die without repenting and confessing it to a priest. That idea in itself is absurdly evil, but notice that there's nothing even resembling a clear boundary between an event that happens automatically and an action that can condemn one to eternal damnation. That's just an open invitation for obsession.

Let's say that a sexual thought enters one's mind as it does innumerable times each day. If one dwells on it for even a moment, then one risks sinning by “entertaining” or “consenting” to it. If one attempts to banish it from one's mind, the thought only becomes stronger and more persistent. I found it impossible to simply “let it pass” as I was repeatedly advised by confessors because I was afraid that I had not done enough to avoid sin and had thereby sinned already. My response to this fear was to work harder and harder to banish any sexual thought as soon as it entered my mind. I shouldn't reveal much detail, but I will say that my attempts to immediately distract my mind from unwanted images became more and more manic over time and that it was simply impossible for me to function properly until my deconversion.

If I saw an attractive woman who aroused any sexual feelings in me, I forced myself to avert my eyes and drive out with a physical response against myself any sexual thoughts that the sight of her generated in my mind. I then thought about whether I was thinking about it and then about whether I had sinned by thinking something lustful about her, often subtly appearing like I suffered from a mental condition, which in retrospect was not entirely inaccurate. This rumination could last from a few seconds to several minutes to the rest of the day and all I had actually done was happen to a see a woman in completely normal and acceptable attire. My mind even seemed to revolt at the suppression of its thoughts. The more I struggled not to think something, the stronger the urge I felt to think it out of frustration and anger. This tendency, by the way, extended to violent and blasphemous thoughts as well, though these caused much less trouble due to far weaker instincts to think them. It's notable that I came to believe that the vast majority of women dressed immodestly and that I noticed every single inch of cleavage on every woman, perhaps similar to how a Saudi man might feel in a western society.

Contrast that to how simple life has become with respect to sexual thoughts since my belief in God and hell disintegrated. Now when I see an attractive woman, the exact same sexual thoughts arise, but they present no trouble whatsoever. If I want to and have the time, I can indulge in a sexual fantasy for a short time and move on. If I'm busy or focused on something else, I can let it pass because there's absolutely no fear that I have done anything which might result in neverending torment. Either way it lasts for a few moments at most and I can concentrate on actually living my life, all without any guilt or fear. There's no obsession; it's natural and normal. And I'm sure there's just as much cleavage and as many pairs of tight pants as there were a few years ago, but I hardly notice except in the most exceptional cases, when such a sight most likely presents far more potential pleasure than anguish. It feels so good to be normal again.



Intelligent Design is Myth-information

Outside of the prayer in public venues fiasco in October, it has been many months since I have commented on an editorial piece or letter to the editor appearing in the Florida Times-Union. It's time to start the new year with a fresh letter on an old debate. This letter by Tom Brady was published today under the heading, “Science standards: Prohibit myths.”

I was somewhat dismayed to see in a recent story that people were challenging Florida's current attempt to bring our education standards concerning science out of the realm of theology and into that of rational thought. Trying to equate "creationism" or "intelligent design" with the scientific approach to the evolution of the species is tantamount to comparing the proverbial apples and oranges. The first two are manifestations of a belief system; the third is a demonstration of the scientific method. If we are going to teach creation myths in our schools, then we should not limit those teachings to Judeo/Christian myths only. The Hindus, Buddhists, Shintoists, Animists and even many American Indians have their own creation stories. If the school systems choose one myth over the others, they are making a choice to advance one religion over another, which violates the Constitution. For those who claim that the theory of evolution is not proved and is "just a theory," they obviously don't understand the definition of the scientific term. Since none of us knows, or can know, from whence the universe ultimately came, a discussion involving the possibility of an intelligent designer is perfectly appropriate. But this should be in a philosophy or theology class, not in a science classroom.
Since I don't read the entire paper, the article referenced in the letter had escaped my notice until today when I did a search. The original story was about a public hearing about a new public school curriculum which explicitly teaches evolution and the debate which took place over whether also to include material on intelligent design. I agree with everything that the author of the letter wrote, but there really isn't much new to say about this debate. Intelligent design simply isn't science and shouldn't be taught in a science classroom.

What I find remarkable is that the most valuable player of the National Football League has time to write letters to the editor in Jacksonville when one would expect him to be preparing to play the Jaguars this Saturday evening in Foxboro!