Monthly Archives: October 2011

Flying High

The overused but not always pointless sentiment is that we hate flying. From a passenger jet, the lower atmosphere in its bright blueness is not noticeably different than the view seen from the usual terrestrial vantage point.

But there’s something chilling and mesmerizing about flying higher. It’s the darkness, no, the cold blackness that gradually sinks in. One sees the gases of the Earth contacting the vast void of space-time. One soon realizes that the atmosphere is as thin as apple skin, and that we had never evolved to survive outside of our bubble. It is when one is at the precipice of Earth and non-Earth, the event horizon of our limited human history, that we find ourselves breathing deeply and looking around in peaceful meditation.

Just When You Think You’re Asking A Wise and Profound Question…

Neil deGrasse Tyson answers an incredibly stupid question with an incredibly poetic and beautiful response.

I would request that my body in death be buried not cremated, so that the energy content contained within it gets returned to the earth, so that flora and fauna can dine upon it, just as I have dined upon flora and fauna during my lifetime.

Letter to the Doubting One

Dear Doubting One,

So you’ve been mildly religious. And you are beginning to doubt it all, and you’re wondering which religion, if any at all, is right for you.

You might be confused and questioning. You might be searching and unsure. You may recently have left behind the religion of your past as many people have for a number of reasons. It might be because it just doesn’t emotionally appeal to you anymore (and it might seem that it was all just emotion, without any real substance). It might be because your former church holds archaic values as dogma. It might be because your former church judges people of different sexual orientation and religion and isolates them as the “other”, the “sinner”. It might be because you’re learning about science, and the religious stories don’t quite make sense in light of the objective natural world. It might be because you’ve been reading some religious texts, and you realize that they are morally appalling regardless of time and culture. It might be because you’ve recently heard about atheism and secularism, and you find the arguments much more compelling.

Whatever the reason, whoever you are, know that WE, the hundreds of millions of people (perhaps over a billion) without religion, support you and your right to make your own decision and carve out your own life. We want you to decide for yourself what you should believe. Don’t listen to us because you’re angry at religion or because you just want some answers. Challenge us, ask questions, and think critically, of us and of yourself too. We’re not here to (de)convert you. We don’t really to. We’ll respect you and understand you if you go back to being religious. But no matter what you do, we’ll always fight for your right to believe and practice as you want, as long as it does not intrude on others’ rights.

You may have heard negative things about atheists, maybe even from people of your former church. After all we’re still the least trusted minority in America, and that might not change anytime soon. You might also get the impression that atheists are arrogant and fanatical, just like the religious dogmatists that you so desperately wanted to run away from.

But these stereotypes aren’t even good generalizations. Yes, there are many people very passionate about secular issues. But passion and dogmatism are different. Likewise, motivation is not the same as arrogance. The open thinker may defend his position loudly, but he/she will always consider changing his/her mind according to the evidence. The open thinker will tell you exactly the limits of his/her knowledge, and will never take leaps of faith to claim to know things he/she couldn’t possibly know. I sincerely believe we’re one of the most open and open-minded communities in the world. We are friendly, independent thinkers who debate fiercely, and that’s why we’re famous for the saying “herding atheists is like herding cats.”

More importantly, we want you to know that you’re not alone in your doubt. The doubter and skeptic could be your neighbor; it could be your teacher, or even a relative. Yes, you may come from a family and community that are absolutely intolerant to nonbelievers, but the world is much much bigger than the place where we come from. You’ll find great friends in your life who respect you for who you are, rather than for who they hope (or pray) that you’ll be. It will get better, I promise.

Don’t let anyone ever tell you that you can’t be “good without god.” And be kind to others always. You won’t regret it.

Go out in the world and explore. Not just literally, but intellectually as well. Take long adventures in books and stories, immerse yourself into the culture and religion of every part of the world. You might come out wiser, stronger, and much happier than you’ve ever been before.

Faithlessly yours,
Inspirational Freethought

Church Visit #1 and Nice Surprises

I, along with some heathen buddies at the UChicago Secular Alliance, are taking a tour of the many religious services around the Chicago-land area. We plan on going to Christian churches, Muslim mosques, Jewish synagogues, and more. We started our journey today at Living Hope, a small Presbyterian church that has its services at one of UChicago’s buildings.

First of all, the music was excellent. It was much more lively and eventful than the last church I’ve been to; a Jehovah’s Witness sermon literally bored me to yawning tears.

Most admirable was the community’s concern with violence and injustice in the local community. Though I don’t agree with prayer as a treatment for a serious problem, people at the church demonstrated that they were very aware of the insane amounts of shootings and criminal activities on our own streets. Inspired by this, I hope to speak to this topic and/or raise awareness at an SSA meeting.

After the sermon, the Pastor gave us a chance to have a Q/A session which was quite productive. We got to ask questions like, “how does faith impact your life?” and “Why do you pray?”

The first question I got to ask related to the service because there were quite a few instances when people prayed for people to get well in a hospital. I was wondering if people actually thought that their prayers would have an effect on the outcome. The answers I got, frankly, really surprised me.

There was a young lady who said she knew prayer worked because she or one of her friends (these things are always anecdotal, so bear with me here) had a miracle cure that was inexplicable. One day, a person didn’t need crutches anymore. The pastor also referenced a few examples in his life when people suddenly got better. I had no idea in this day and age, much less in an environment like the University of Chicago, people still subscribe to these superstitious beliefs about faith-healing. Of course, there was some discussion about scientific studies about the (non)influence of prayer, but few seemed to understand that virtually all the scientific literature pointed to the fact that prayer has no medical effect. Someone briefly mentioned this study which showed that only when patients knew that they were being prayed for was there an effect (and the effect was negative because of performance anxiety).

Anyways, the more interesting part of the discussion came when we discussed topics like morality and “finding hope as an atheist”. Nothing surprised me here, and the arguments on both sides were pretty standard. We got very very good questions from the Christians there too, like “How do you define good?” and “Where did we develop the ability to empathize?”

Of course, I’d be surprised once again. The pastor talked about how great it would be to survive one’s death and live into an afterlife. After all, we could do so much more than just try to leave a legacy here on Earth. My response was simply that, yes, although I find Hell an appalling concept, the idea of Heaven–the idea that one could survive death–is very appealing. It would be great if it were true.

The pastor then replied, “Oh. So you simply don’t see that the Resurrection shows that there is an after-life.”

“What? Did you say that the Resurrection proves that there is an after-life?” asking for clarification when I couldn’t believe my ears.

Do you see where this is going? Even if one could demonstrate positively that there was a Resurrection, there is no possible relevance to the question of whether there is an after-life.

I commented that I myself could be Resurrected, and everything I say could be nonsense. After all, there were many Resurrections in the Bible. Clearly, there was something terribly wrong with his argument.

So the pastor clarified that the Resurrection demonstrated the existence of an after-life because of who Jesus was. He was supposedly an exemplary moral figure, a man who made spectacular claims about the Universe, and performed many many miracles. He even predicted his own future. I found it quite odd that he admits that the Resurrection itself isn’t sufficient; it is only sufficient when it is couple with even more spectacular non-sequitur claims about being related to God, predicting the future, and performing miracles.

But how does that show anything? First of all, I can easily conceive of a (fictional) person who made the spectacular claims that Jesus did, did all the miracles, acted perfectly moral, and fulfilled many prophecies. Yet, he could still be the Devil’s assistant, sent here to trick men into believing an after-life.

But that’s not even the main problem with the argument. The most surprising thing is that this is a pastor advising people on what he believes based on a widely fallacious argument from authority.

Suppose Jesus said something demonstrably true like “for all right triangles, side one squared plus side two squared equals the hypotenuse squared”. It would seem like the pastor would like us to believe that the theorem is true because Jesus said it. I, and most atheists, on the other hand, think that propositions are true or false based on the properties of the thing being referred to (in this case, a right triangle). We believe therefore the only proper way to know if something is true is to study the thing itself (through geometry) and not by listening to authority.

Similarly, answers to questions like “is there an afterlife?” beg for study of the existence of the afterlife itself. We can try to study consciousness to see if it can possibly survive after death. We can refer to cognitive philosophy. We can look at studies of near-death experiences. Maybe the endeavor is futile, and we can’t know the answer.

But too many religious people say they already know, and that it is true because a figure in a desert said it was so, and because he:

i) had a mom who never had sex
ii) could turn water in wine
iii) claimed to be the Son of God
iv) was a perfect moral figure
v) etc. etc. etc.

If we imagine this list going to infinity, would that convince us? Would that convince you?

Always looking for surprises. Until next time, don’t keep the faith.

A Message to Seniors

Stressed about recruiting and/or graduate school? Don’t know what you want to do with your life? Take some advice from Steve Jobs (another inspirational visionary who probably didn’t believe in God).

You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

Don’t go for status, prestige, or money. Do what you love well, and it will become prestigious. Work exceptionally, and you will be paid well for it.

Stunning Beauty

One of the most famous physicists of all time, Richard Feynman, offers his reflections. It’s a solemn, transcendent experience.