Monthly Archives: January 2011

Inspiration in a Place of Darkness

We are all shocked and saddened by the death of David Kato, a marked gay rights activist in Uganda who bravely fought for change in a country where homosexuality is officially illegal. Lately, there have been many questions about the influence of U.S. evangelicals like Rick Warren and Scott Lively in Uganda, all of whom have had deep and long friendships with prominent local religious leaders and government officials.

What we absolutely don’t need now is more religious rationalization and apology for the explosion of ignorance and hate in arguably the most Christian country in Africa. As I’ve written about before, religious moral arguments aren’t arguments because they have often have nothing to do with the reality of the objective world. Turning to the Bible or any other religious text for guidance on moral issues at a time like this is as useless as Sarah Palin’s foreign policy advice.

In fact, I don’t actually think that someone like Scott Lively, who actually organized a conference in Uganda to oppose homosexuality, added that much fuel to an already burning fire. What I want to point out, however, is irony of his position: Lively might have thought he was washing the people of Uganda with the blood of Jesus, but who thought that he might soon do it with the blood of actual people?

You see, the only source of inspiration I can find in this mess is never covered in the media and always ignored by the religious. I’m talking about the secular community of Uganda, which is a very real thing, and a thing that shouldn’t be ignored. After all we’ve seen on the news, shouldn’t we at least listen to what they have to say?

As a tribute to the community and as something to remember Kato by, I’ll post some of the official core beliefs and goals found on the website of the Uganda Humanist Association.

Beliefs:

We believe in human rights for all people including the despised minorities.
We believe in the right of human beings to make individual choices as they determine the course of their lives.

Goals:

To oppose religious, racial and ethnic fanaticism and fundamentalism.
To educate people about humanism as a free, rational, humane, skeptical/scientific, liberal and democratic life stance and approach to human life challenges.
To carry out projects that promote social welfare and environmental concern.

Commitments

To building a non- superstitious, rational and scientifically minded society in Uganda.
To promoting unity and tolerance among people.
To instil a culture of human rights concern and activism.
To build confidence in our fellow Ugandans to live the one life they have, purposely and with dignity.

If every Ugandan could hear these simple words, I’m sure they’ll be more beautiful than anything they’ve heard from their pastors lately. That’ll be the inspirational material for the day.

Let us remember that we can always rebuild and change societies. One person. One idea. One day at a time.

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All our passions reflect the stars.

Toutes nos passions reflètent les étoiles.

That’s from Victor Hugo, an author most famously known for his impossible-to-finish Les Miserables and his now-Disneyfied Hunchback of Notre Dame.

But did you know he was also an influential composer and a gifted artist? That he absolutely despised Christianity and published many poems (some posthumously) making exactly that point? That he was exiled from France for his support of republicanism? That he later returned to France and was elected to the National Assembly and the Senate? Did you know that two million people showed up for his funeral?

I particularly love the depth of his characters and the dark, complicated themes that they address.

As someone who has never finished reading a single thing Hugo wrote or looked at any other work he produced, I feel like I have some catching up to do.

Unbounded Admiration

You are unquestionably one of my heroes.

Dear Christopher Hitchens,

Your clarity of thought, your incisive wit, and your genuine and earnest disdain for religion are an inspiration to me. They have been since I finished reading god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and will be for as many years as I have. Be assured that your effect today on people like myself, all over the world, has been immense. Those of us in positions of education will continue to encourage the development and constant use of critical thinking in our students in part because of you.

I want you to know that you are unquestionably one of my heroes. You stand in rare company.

May you find whatever ease you can in the time you have remaining. Thank you, sir, for so very much.

Most sincerely,

A teacher in Pennsylvania

It was not an easy journey.

… I cannot give you my atheism, nor do you desire it I imagine, but your words, though they come from a long line of brilliant atheists, gave me the confidence I do have in my stance. My passion to see others such as myself, toppling on the edge but not quite over, finally make their way into ‘de-conversion’ is stronger, and more honest, than anything I had done as a Christian.

I say all this simply to say, ‘thank you.’ Thank you for taking the extra step as an atheist and speaking up where other had been silent…

We can only continue to speak up, and to help people out of the muck, and to see what a life well-lived really looks like, no longer passively longing for the eternal reward of kissing ass or burning in Sheol like the garbage religion would have us believe we are.

A ‘new’ atheist,
Bennie Robinson

Perhaps you truly don’t know the impact you have had.

Your works have helped in the battle for truth and compassion based on reason and logic. Your struggle against the forces of dogma has allowed people like myself to openly live as atheists. We need not be ashamed of the simple possession of critical thinking. The free expression of one’s self is a true gift, and you helped make that so much easier for so many of us.

I am certain that there are people walking around in our world that have benefited from your work, yet have never heard your name nor read anything you have written. I hope you take this as the deep compliment I intend it to be. You have helped create a better environment for all of us. As someone who has read your works and knows what you do for all of us, let me simply thank you and offer you best wishes.

Best regards,
Jason Jackson

You can read more letters like this and submit your own on DearChristopher.com.

What Morality Really Means

I may never forget the moment when I heard the Christian debater in my university give the reason for why God ordered the genocide of the Amalekites. Well actually, he didn’t give a reason, other than the assertion that suffering and death here on Earth is only temporary, that in the greater picture of eternity in Heaven (as offered by Jesus Christ), heavenly-mandated ethnic cleansing in the here and now might not be so bad after all.

You might now be expecting me to write about how immoral and evil these ideas are in and of themselves; you may even think I might link this to current politics, about how this commandment is disgustingly often invoked against Palestinians, for example.

No, my objection is quite simple. I believe supernatural and eternal considerations seriously undermine any possible system of morality and ethics. Once we have divine revelation and the possible of eternal life, the objective and knowable conditions and consequences in this world suddenly fall second to supernatural considerations, ideas that are articulated by religious people who arrogantly claim to know what no human can possibly know.

Albert Einstein put it best:

I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals, or would directly sit in judgment on creatures of his own creation. I cannot do this in spite of the fact that mechanistic causality has, to a certain extent, been placed in doubt by modern science. My religiosity consists in a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we, with our weak and transitory understanding, can comprehend of reality. Morality is of the highest importance — but for us, not for God.

Morality really means that we look at human suffering and well-being as we know it, in this life, on this Earth. We certainly don’t need instructions on tablets or rewards in the afterlife to be good people and to build flourishing societies. Let us get rid of these poisonous arguments that come from religion and understand what morality really means.

How to Live Before You Die

Neil Pasricha gives an life-changing talk about enjoying the simple things in life, being the authentic you, and overcoming whatever obstacles are in your way.

I sincerely hope I can share with you the things I love and the ideas I hold. I know not everybody will accept me (and not everybody has), but it doesn’t matter. This is the real me. Take it or leave it.

How to tell if you aren’t serious about your religion

1. You cannot make a coherent, intelligible argument for your beliefs.

2. You don’t even attempt to do (1).

3. You are willing to let any part of your holy book become “metaphor” if that part looks morally upsetting.

4. You are willing to let any part of your holy book become “metaphor” if scientific discoveries contradict it.

5. You believe all that matters in your religion is charity and good works.

6. You think multiple religions can be true.

7. You don’t really believe in the miracles of your religion.

8. You don’t really believe in the afterlife (and how your religion says you can get there).

9. You mainly stay in your religion to reap the benefits of community and the feeling that there is something greater than you.

10. You have serious doubts about what you’ve been told by a religious leader (rabbi, priest, etc.)

11. You prioritize things in your life as if your religion isn’t true.

Jesus

I’m an atheist, but this is the best (Christian) sermon I’ve ever heard.

Reflections on the Supernatural

“If we can observe it, it is by definition natural.”

On a pragmatic level, there is nothing wrong with the above statement. Let’s say you see an apple fly up into the air and out of your sight. This very observation seems to fly against (literally and figuratively) what we know about gravity and how fruits normally behave, for the simple reason that under normal circumstances, there is usually not a force that propels an apple into the air. Thus, in keeping with the theory of gravity, we start to find plausible reasons for why the apple flew into the air.

Was it shot out of a cannon that we didn’t see? Was there a thin string attached to the apple and pulled on the other side by an airplane? Or perhaps more importantly, could our observation be a figment of the imagination? If so, were there other people who saw this apple?

My answer to this question of whether the mysterious flying apple is always natural phenomenon is complicated on two levels. The actual motion of the apple flying into the air (if proven beyond a doubt that I was not imagining it) is undoubtedly a natural event, for the simple reason that it happened in our universe.

Yet, I believe there is something more when we say a phenomenon is natural; a natural phenomenon not only occurs in the natural, observable world, but is wholly contained by it—in all causes and relations. To understand my point, let me point you to another hypothetical situation.

Let’s pretend we all hear a voice. I’m not talking about the kind of mysterious, unverifiable voice that is supposed to be interpreted metaphorically through vague, general signs—the kind that religious people claim is “God answering prayers.” No, I mean an audible voice (preferably in English, but Cantonese is fine too) that we can all hear with our ears.

By all means, the mysterious audible sound—constituted physically by the molecules that vibrate along with the undulating sound waves in the air—is entirely a natural phenomenon. Yet, to call the voice natural by definition is to avoid the possibility that the cause (and the event’s relations to other things) of this voice is natural, for which I point out that it could possibly not be. Scientists may try to understand the presence of this voice by hypothesizing that it comes from natural causes like alien technology or the KGB, but one could also say that the spirits of the Underworld are talking to us. The ability to observe an event does not automatically exclude the possibility of supernaturalism in that event’s causes and relations.

Don’t get me wrong. To acknowledge the possibility of supernaturalism as a part of the theoretical/paradigmatic framework for events is not to suggest that supernatural explanations are equally valid. As it stands, there is absolutely no evidence for the supernatural, or for any need to think that supernatural explanations are needed to explain anything. So much for the Intelligent Design proponents, who have been thoroughly and completely discredited in the court room and in the scientific community. And how unfortunate it is for religious people in general, whose prophets and gods happen to only talk to them in private, making revelations only by whispering to select people in illiterate and backwards places thousands of years ago, and performing great miracles only to cease whenever science starts to flourish.

No, I don’t think I’m detracting from science at all. In fact, by acknowledging the possibility of supernaturalism, I believe we can better appreciate and understand the natural explanations that we have already, thanks to the immense progress of science. I suggest therefore, that instead of laughing at the person who claims to know for sure that the mysterious flying apple was caused by Yoda harnessing the power of the Force, perhaps we could do our own investigation and work to find a natural explanation that is supported by the evidence, strong in predictive power, and logically consistent. The same goes for any similarly disputed events.

I’ll close with words from PZ Myers: “If you’ve got a religious belief that withers in the face of observations of the natural world, you ought to rethink your beliefs — rethinking the world isn’t an option.”

The Frontier is Everywhere

The voice that soothes the heart and warms the soul, stimulates the mind and unleashes the imagination, brings us to other worlds and back. We will never ever forget.

Maybe somebody smarter than I…

Neil deGrasse Tyson gives a vivid explanation of the “God of the Gaps” phenomenon. It is nice to be reminded of how even one of the smartest people in the world, Isaac Newton, mixed his scientific findings with all kinds of superstition.