Monthly Archives: May 2012

Is There a God? Stephen Hawking

I can’t believe I missed this documentary. Very good scenes, lots of dramatic CGI work.

Holy Is Our Reason

If you watch this inspirational clip and I don’t tell you that it is from Inherit the Wind, you might guess that it is from an angry “New Atheist” or something. Nope. The dialogue was recorded in 1960.

Atheism isn’t cynical. It isn’t a state of despair. Atheism has been and always will be beautiful, inspiring, and life-affirming.

Beautiful Words About Who You Are

I don’t why religions engage in guilt-tripping all the time. I don’t understand why you have to be told you’re broken or fallen, as if you deserve to be tortured forever. I don’t understand why children at Jesus Camp have to be told that they’re nothing but hypocrites and phonies, for doing things like watching Harry Potter and  *gasp* talking dirty. I don’t understand why children have to be emotionally and psychologically manipulated in this way.

Here’s a note that made it to Reddit.

Do not let fear inspire you. This does not have to be your life. But it will be only because you let it. There are those of us who are godless and good. You can be good without god. Do not let the fearful tales of sin and hell limit you.

You were not born broken — you were simply born. Born, as a human whose potential was to be shaped by your experiences. Your potential, your purpose, your entire life is what you make it.

I do not believe in a god… but I believe in you.”

No Apologies: Why Strident Atheism is Good Atheism

Anyone remotely familiar with the atheist movement knows we get a lot of criticism, not merely for our ideas, but sometimes overwhelmingly more often for our rhetoric and tactics. The following quote from Greta Christina sums it up nicely:

As a blogger, I’ve received a lot of advice from believers about how atheists should run our movement. I get comments all the time. It’s very difficult to avoid the observation that this advice is almost always in the direction of telling us to tone it down. Telling us to be less confrontational, less visible.

I have almost never seen a believer advise the atheist movement to speak up more loudly and more passionately. To not be afraid of offending people if we think we are right. To be willing to get in people’s faces about things they might not want to think about. I have gotten a lot of advice from believers, and it is almost always in the direction of politely suggesting that we shut up.

For many bloggers and outspoken atheists, this rings especially true. And the variety of forms it takes is almost unbelievable. Just within the last week and a half, I have had people tell me to stop “ridiculing” religion and to “stop offending people”. People on Facebook have called me a “jerk” and say that I’m too “mean”. These criticisms range from outright confrontation (e.g., “Stop it now!”) to concern trolling (e.g., “What’s the point? You’re just going to alienate a lot of people.”). And people like Dan Savage have been fiercely criticized by concern trolls for pointing out that the Bible is “bullshit” when he was addressing gay bullying.

These kinds of messages often flood the channels of public discourse, and they crowd out real discussion about serious problems in religion. In other  words, atheists are often criticized for being confrontational, angry, offensive, etc. simply for being part of the public dialogue, but are rarely criticized for their ideas. Believers criticize atheists for the act of criticizing religion, but don’t give arguments for why the atheist criticism is wrong.

The first thing people “offended” by atheist rhetoric should understand is that religion is indeed a sensitive topic, but it shouldn’t be. Claims about the universe like “God exists” and “God cares about me” are hypotheses about the world, and are therefore subject to criticism in the free marketplace of ideas. As we see every single day, there are people who go batshit crazy at the idea that their religious assumptions can be ridiculed or criticized, and they confuse criticism with personal attack. And it surprises me to see “concern trolls” act as if this is a problem with atheists/atheism, and not a problem with religion.

The other thing to know is that since religion often seeks protections from criticism (and demand intellectual “respect”), if we are going to be concerned about truth and reality, we ought to be more skeptical, not less. Criticism of religion is a basis and a model for all criticism. Christopher Hitchens says it succinctly:

Mockery of religion is one of the most essential things because we need to demystify supposedly “holy texts” dictated by god and show that they are man-made. What we have to show is that there are internal inconsistencies and absurdities. One of the beginnings of human emancipation is the ability to laugh at authority.

Open, unfiltered criticism of religion isn’t just something we think is a good idea; it is essential to a free and liberal society.

The second major point is that the “concern trolls” have very little idea of what the modern atheist/secular movement is, mostly because they aren’t in it. This is not surprising. Even in progressive circles and events (like 2012 NetRoots Nation conference for activists, which didn’t feature a single event about atheism), the atheist movement is largely being ignored as a legitimate social change movement. And this lack of understanding is fueling much of the well-meaning, but deeply mistaken beliefs about how atheists should act.

The fact is that the movement has been incredibly successful in the last ten years. We went from nearly nothing to holding a major presence in the consciousness of the American public; we’ve infiltrated popular social thought, as well as colleges and high schools in all fifty states, and we have sparked a large public conversation in the mainstream media. In religious demographics, there has been an explosion of secularism, especially amongst young people. In every single one of the fifty states, the fastest growing religious identification is “none”. Activist secularism–whether in the form of Damon Fowler and Jessica Ahlquist, in the lobbying work performed by the Secular Coalition for America, or in spirit of tens of thousands of people who descended upon the National Mall in Washington for the Reason Rally–is a force that is shaping America, and the entire world.

We are successful not because we have been quiet and nice to religion. We are successful because we are loud and critical, as well as legitimately angry. We are angry at injustice. We are angry at the the idea that people are being unnecessarily harmed. We are angry that there are serious metaphysical claims about the universe that are considered “too personal” to be criticized. We are angry at ignorance, at the lack of skepticism and critical thinking in this world. And we want things to change.

And things are changing. Not only are social attitudes (i.e., incredible distrust) towards atheists changing for the better, not only are more and more atheists coming out, but more and more people are becoming atheists. If you hang out for a while on /r/Atheism, for example, you’ll read hundreds of stories about how intense, uncensored debate has changed people’s mind on religion. If you watch videos dedicated to Christopher Hitchens (one of the most vehemently and outspoken anti-theists in history), you’ll see many people describe how his strident writings have turned them into atheists. It is not an accident that the most influential atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett) aren’t known for being nice to religion. Even I have personally have changed people’s minds about creationism, about sexual ethics, about end-of-life issues, and of course, about the existence of God by talking honestly and openly about my beliefs. Sharp, harsh criticism of religion is making a difference, and it shows.

And this loud criticism is what gives us our power, socially and politically. It’s what’s driving more and more people towards the movement.

The fallacy of concern trolls is therefore the following. They think that just because they are personally offended (or because they perceive others will be offended), they then automatically think our tactics don’t work or should be squashed. In other words, they ask us to give up one of the most essential aspects of our movement (our angry, critical attitude) just because they hold personal dislike–all without any evidence, and without any sound argument.

Following the orders of the concern trolls is one of the most dangerous things we can do. We are being asked to give up our power and our voice at a time when we are beginning to gain it.

Don’t let this happen. Speak out. Speak loudly. Be skeptical. Be critical. And don’t keep the faith.

A Moving Film About the Lives and Challenges of Closeted Atheists

Parrot, a short 24-minute film by Myrtle Street Pictures, is one of the first professionally produced films that center around the theme of atheism and its relation to an overwhelmingly religious society. It is a story about two brothers growing up in a devoutly Catholic family, and these brothers become closeted atheists, as least to the church and the family.

Suddenly, tragedy strikes, and the family starts to fall apart as religious tensions explode and the young man struggles with the oppressive absurdity of religion.

It’s inspirational and thought-provoking, and it makes me think about death and how we ought to be remembered. I think you should take some time out of your day to watch it right now:

Imagine a World Where…

“I think same sex couples should be able to get married.”

I think same sex couples should be able to get married.

-Barack Obama

Six Reasons Why Atheists Dislike Interfaith

After talking to some atheists and sensing part of the general sentiment, I want to summarize the common objections to the “interfaith” model that I’ve heard in the secular community. So this is material up for discussion. How would you respond to objections like the ones below? Which points are legitimate, and which ones are not?

1) The word “interfaith” has “faith” in it.

A big deal-breaker for a lot of atheists. You see, atheists aren’t people of faith. The very idea of faith, the idea that you should believe nonsense with no evidence at all, is repulsive. So when you make a movement or organization named for its inter-faith-ness, you alert our faith-dar and sirens start going off, meaning we might be excluded. It’s like trying to make a Pan-Asian club and calling it the Korean Society.

2) Interfaith people don’t engage with the fundamental issues in religion nearly enough.

You go to one of those interfaith dialogue meetings and you expect to have an intense and enlightening discussion about religious/secular issues. Instead, you wind up doing ice-breaker exercises making you draw silly depictions of your non-existent religious identity, and you get to see other people draw and talk about their angels and crosses and miraculous superstitions. And you smile to pretend you’re having fun. And you’re desperate to talk about proper epistemology and rational ways of arriving at conclusions, but you don’t get to, and you just want to shoot yourself.

3) Interfaith people aren’t angry enough.

You see, atheists aren’t just angry at fundamentalists and crazy religious fanatics. They’re angry at the very idea of faith, of a supernatural being, of believing in things without any good reasons at all. They’re angry at injustice and ignorance. Angry at the religious texts themselves for their absurdities and immoralities. Angry at liberal religion for enabling the idea that “faith is good.” Angry at people who think Jesus was actually a good person. Angry at the idea that we should “respect” religion. Angry at misogyny rooted in institutions and religious texts. Angry at homophobia caused directly by religious texts. Angry that evolution is still up for debate. Angry at faith’s willful suspension of our critical faculties to make us more gullible and unscientific. Angry at total nonsense like Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism. Angry that after all this history, people still think faith is a good idea…

Where is the intense, uncontrollable outrage? Where is the activist spirit to fight for a secular world?

4) Interfaith serves people who are already moderate and liberal.

If people aren’t going to change their minds about faith, if they’re going to continue to enable its legitimacy, then the next best option is to minimize the harmful effects of religion. Fortunately, the interfaith crowd usually does not need help in this regard. The kind of people who volunteer for interfaith probably are tolerant and loving in the first place. However, I bet that seeing people working together at a food pantry probably won’t convince that sexist to stop taking 1 Corinthians seriously.

5) “Interfaith” is just a repackaged form of humanism (designed to legitimize faith).

So the word “faith” is slapped onto a package of ideals striving for the betterment of humankind (for all faiths, backgrounds, ethnicities, etc). Isn’t there a word for this already, and isn’t it called “humanism”? Haven’t we been practicing humanism for thousands of years? Why does interfaith want to do the same thing we do (and strive for the same goals that we strive for) but want to separate itself with the label “interfaith” instead?

6) People of different religions finally find the common sense to not hate each other and to work together? And atheists are supposed to be impressed?

For a very long time, criticism of religion wasn’t just discouraged, it was dangerous. You couldn’t be an atheist (or an open Protestant under Catholic rule, for example) without fear for your life. Then religion comes to us, dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century, with a smiling and ingratiating face to tell us how loving and *truthful* and *tolerant* it has become. And how it needs to be respected in an ecumenical kind of way.

Uh huh. Sure.