Category Archives: History

I am an Atheist, and this is who I love …

Post #1 for SSA’s Blogathon! Consider offering a small donation to help empower secular students and provide safe places for secular students in schools around the country!

I *love* a lot of people, some famous and some not. But I think the questioner is asking me to narrow down a list of people that are above and beyond even a high standard of awesomeness, and have me explain why. Here we go.

As you might expect, Carl Sagan has always been one of my favorite people. Not only a great scientist, but an excellent communicator of science to the public. Not only a great communicator of science, but a dreamer who cared about the political and social realities of our time and offered a vision about the future transcended our present location in time and space. At a time when the Cold War seemed far from over, he condemned the “obscene” number of active nuclear weapons on Earth and framed it in the context of existential risk and survival in the vast Cosmos. He talked passionately about the need to protect our fragile environment from the dangers of climate change. He warned us against the costs of religious or political divisions. And he directly addressed a lot of social issues, like the prohibition of marijuana. He died in 1996, convinced that we are not alone in the Universe.

The next person on this very short list is Bayard Rustin. He was a civil rights activist, a socialist, a Quaker, and a gay rights advocate. He agreed with MLK and Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence, and he worked to organize the 1947 Freedom Ride and the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He traveled to California and worked to protect property rights of Japanese Americans during WWII internment. Although he identified as a member of the Communist Party during his early life, he eventually became disillusioned with the movement.

copy of bayard rustin

It wasn’t his communist history that got him in trouble as much as his open homosexuality. His political opponents, many part of the more conservative parts of the Civil Rights movement, labeled him as a pervert and a corrupting influence, and many historians say that his legacy suffered as a result. It’s a shame that he’s not more well-known these days.

There’s a great documentary about Rustin if you want to learn more.

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200 Years of Medicine is 200 Years of Incredible Scientific Progress

If there is any giant leap in the betterment of humankind, it is in the field of medicine. The fact that you will likely live beyond age 70 is a result of millions of hours of research, and hundreds of thousands of experiments and trials. Let us thank all the very dedicated doctors and researchers who have made it their life’s work to make the world a much better place.

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.

When Religion Claims to Tame Natural Impulses

Often one hears from the religious (and from Christians in particular) that religion tames the natural state of the human. The creationist pseudo-intellectual John Piper, for example, often talks about this in his oh-so-sophisticated “analysis” of atheism.

But why should we believe that the willingness to put rules and regulations on human freedom in the name of mystical ascetic values is not natural tooReligion, as described by Daniel Dennett, is entirely natural phenomenon. It is exactly what one expects from a species that, having evolved for billions of years, still have frontal lobes that are too small and hormonal glands that are too big. Even with our frontal lobes, we are host to countless cognitive biases that we are very seldom aware of and which seriously disrupt our ability to make reliable, accurate inferences from available evidence.

It is therefore no surprise that we, as natural people, have a long history filled with superstition and off-the-charts irrationality. We have and we continue to believe that witchcraft and demonic possessions are real things, and that we can kill witches or perform exorcisms. We have people that fall for Nigerian scams and arguments like Lewis’s Trilemma or TAG. We have a surprising number of highly educated people committing the conjunction fallacy. We have a very difficult time understanding Bayes’s Theorem.

The methods of skeptical inquiry that we take for granted, the methods of science, rationality, and logic are not natural. We are not born with nearly the kind of sharp rationality that we should have; rather, we are inescapably mammals full of delusions and beliefs that we don’t realize we have.

The secular idea of human freedom, of living in a pluralistic society with a separation of church and state, is also not natural. It is politically radical, religiously blasphemous, and chronologically modern. The history of humanity is filled with patterns of oppression, and much of this oppression comes from ideas about how we should control the apparent “natural” impulse of man. This need, this will to political and moral power, is as natural as the impulses themselves, and it leads to very bad places.

These ideas are a rejection of our supposed “natural” ideas of sex, of work, of family life. They’ve placed women in bondage and homosexuals in jail. They’ve made certain days of the week “holy” enough to not allow anyone to work (or sell alcohol). They continue to haunt us through taunts of, “we love the sinner, but hate the sin”. They seek to define what people can wear or how they should present themselves (often with extra regulations for a specific gender). They care about your family and your marriage and feel threatened when your family isn’t like theirs. They’ve warned against the dangers of skepticism, of free inquiry, of rational inferential methods. And they absolutely cannot stand atheism, because all people are born without a belief in God, and whatever people are naturally can’t possibly be good.

If religion wants to tame us as natural people, then it has to start at the fundamental level. It has to demonstrate why it is correct outside of the realms of “personal experience” and other fallacious methods of inquiry. It has to demonstrate, and not merely assert, why it is morally superior. Even after hundreds or thousands of years, there is still work that they haven’t even started.

 

The Lives She Saved, For The Humanity She Loved

Tina Strobos, famous woman of the Dutch resistance who sheltered more than 100 Jews during the Holocaust, recently passed away from cancer at the age of 91.

She risked her own life for total strangers. She found ingenious ways to forge travel documents. She let carpenters build hidden rooms in her own house. She was arrested multiple times and survived all the interrogations. Her house was searched multiple times. She didn’t fail.

“I never believed in God,” she said, “but I believed in the sacredness of life.”

So don’t ever ever ever let anyone tell you that we can’t be Good Without God.

So speak up. Be brave. Do amazing things.  Know that godless doesn’t mean voiceless, and atheist doesn’t mean heartless.

The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth

The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, assembled in 1820, is the title of the Thomas Jefferson’s edited compilation of the stories in the New Testament. Jefferson literally took a razor and cut out all the supernatural, nonsensical aspects of the Gospels and kept all the stories that had moral value.

I was very fortunate to be able to see the actual Jefferson Bible during my visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. They have a new exhibit that recently opened in November 2011 and will run until July 2012.

This is what the American History Museum looks like on the outside.

 

The exhibit was right next to this more permanent one about Jefferson’s involvement in the dark side of slavery.

 

The entrance into the exhibit.

 

“Left behind in the source material were those elements that he could not support through reason or that he believed were later embellishments, such as the miracles and the Resurrection.”

 

More background information.

 

At last, the thing itself.

Rused Into Accommodationism

Michael Ruse paid a short visit to the University of Chicago on Thursday at a small meeting full of graduate students and Jimmy John’s sandwiches (which was a slight disappointment considering the overwhelming superiority of pretty much anything from Potbelly’s).

I normally show up to events like these to take advantage of an opportunity to ask armor-piercing questions. But this was more of a listening event. I first became interested in Prof. Ruse the person by reading The Darwinian Revolution: Science Red in Tooth and Claw, and I realized I really wanted to see the guy in person. It’s an excellent book by the way, and I recommend that anyone who really wants to understand the history of scientific progress to read it.

Michael Ruse has done wonderful work of not just advancing science, but fighting against creationism and its Trojan horses like intelligent design. He’s a leading scholar on the philosophy of science, and his coverage of the evolution/creationism debate has been followed by many around the world.

But of course, Michael Ruse is the Great Accommodationist. He has written articles on how the “new atheists are a bloody disaster,” and he has a new book on how science and faith are compatible. His positions, consequently, clash violently with my worldview. The utter incompatibility between scientific ways of knowing and faith-based ways of knowing are as clear to me as any basic proof by contradiction.

But I was listening, and he was speaking. As Chana Messinger from the UChicago Secular Alliance noted, Prof. Ruse, on multiple occasions, just loved say that he was a “conservative Protestant nonbeliever” who took the Bible more seriously than a lot of other Christians. Of course, in light of the prevalent relativism and intellectual dishonesty of many so-called modern-day “liberal Christians,” I couldn’t help but agree with Prof. Ruse on this one. People who claim to be Christians but don’t believe in the Resurrection, or in salvation by faith, or in Original Sin are as useless to serious intellectual discussion as non-chess-players are to chess theory. It’s a shame, unfortunately, that Prof. Ruse is only marginally better than these pseudo-Christians.

Prof. Ruse’s ultimate thesis is that because there are questions that science cannot touch—questions like “why is there something rather than nothing?” and “does a God love us?”—it is therefore perfectly alright for faith-based beliefs (like Christianity) to enter the discussion so long as they don’t blatantly trespass on science (in the form of creationism or the insane belief that Adam and Eve were actual people). His position seems at a two-second glance to hold some water, but once he gets questioned, one can clearly see the falling scenery behind his little show. One audience member noted that the Apostle’s Creed sums up Christian belief very well. Why then is Prof. Ruse so offended at the idea of a literal Adam and Eve but not at the idea of a human Resurrection or a virgin birth?

Prof. Ruse’s answer was that as long as Christians don’t try to make it a scientific claim, then it does not trespass on science. But a historical resurrection IS a scientific claim. There were physical cells and proteins involved in death and revitalization of a living body. A virgin birth is likewise a scientific claim. There are natural materials involved in the spontaneous fertilization of a female’s eggs. Prof. Ruse then tried to escape by citing Hume, who must have been rocking rather than rolling in his grave at that moment.

The overall problem is not that Prof. Ruse gives too much credence to religion, even though he does. The problem is that he knows and believes very much that religion and faith are incompatible in many ways. He even said very clearly that he thinks anyone who believes in a literal Resurrection is nuts and that “if science and religion are indeed incompatible, science will win every time.” It’s quite unfortunate that he holds these views but still doesn’t have the guts to go one deductive step further.

“Religion is something left over from the infancy of our intelligence, it will fade away as we adopt reason and science as our guidelines.”
– Bertrand Russell

It is almost Carl Sagan Day

And a new video has surfaced. His voice, his message, his dream lives on.

Two Different Histories of Mankind

Watch the following two summaries of human history. Which one is more likely to be true? Which one do you want to be true? Which one is more inspirational?

 

Flight 93

George W. Bush spoke today at the United 93 site in Pennsylvania.

At the memorial we dedicate today will ensure our nation always remembers those lost here on 9/11. But we have a duty beyond memory. We have a duty beyond honoring. We have a duty to live our lives in a way that upholds the ideals for which the men and women gave their lives, to build a living memorial to their courage and sacrifice. We have a duty to find common purpose as a nation.

Over a century ago, it was also in Pennsylvania that an American president honored those who died.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

-Abraham Lincoln