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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SSA Blogathon Here

It’s SSA’s blogathon week! In case you didn’t know, the Secular Student Alliance empowers students from all over the country to build secular communities and to do generally awesome things.

So if you’re willing to donate money, let me know, and I’ll write a blog post for you right here on Inspirational Freethought, on any topic of your choice, which will be published from 12PM to 6PM this Sunday!

If you’re not in the position to donate, you can still request a blog post, although I can’t guarantee it, and I just won’t be as nice to you. =)

So any topics, issues, or questions you’re interested in?

God Help The Outcasts

First of all, I apologize for the long break in blogging. It was due a combination of some coursework (which has ended), a pretty bad flu (which I have recovered from), and a very busy period in my full-time job (which has passed).

There have been many comments in the past alleging that I dismiss religious sources of inspiration too easily. Of course, I do proudly admit to a lot of that. I find a lot of modern religion boring, trivial, uninspiring. Even the supposedly moving sermons of pulpit pop stars like John Piper or Mark Driscoll really don’t move me much at all. But there are quite a few pieces of religious music or art that I find simply transcendent.

The most beautiful parts of religion include not just the practical, concrete aesthetics that are sometimes associated with it (like choral music or gothic architecture), but the moral impulses that religious people feel arise from it. Although such people may disagree, I believe those impulses reflect the depth of our human emotional lives and the greatness of humanism rather than the truth of any particular religion. It wasn’t too long ago that a friend showed me this video of an old Disney song:

You might not believe me, but I love it. The song talks about relating to an common experience of being outcasted, of being “hungry from birth”. The mere fact that the song references God should not interfere too much with its message of service to the least among us (“the poor and downtrod”), of selflessness (“I ask for nothing”), and of equality (“I thought we all were children of God”).

I must be kidding, right? Don’t I find that the idea of a perfect God who lets evil happen in the world appalling?

No, I’m not kidding, and I do find the Problem of Evil deeply disturbing and still yet to be resolved. More importantly and more obviously, I don’t think there’s a God out there who can help us, who can fix the deep problems facing our world (including the problems of natural and social inequality).

But thinking about what kind of society we would want if there were in fact a loving God is not futile. It creates a Platonic, idealistic version of the society we want supposing that we had infinite love and power, and challenges us to fulfill that vision pragmatically. For many, it offers something beautiful and perfect to comprehend, and compels them to do great things that change the world. I am not inspired by exactly the same thing, and still am outraged by the kind of grotesque immorality, judgement, and anti-intellectualism I get from elements of the Bible Belt crowd, but I think I understand, at least to some limited extent, the complexities of religious inspiration.

Needless to say, I think humanism isn’t just compatible with this kind of idealistic thinking; I think many people are excelling at it, putting to good use their finite time as conscious beings to build the kind of world they want. The Pathfinders Project, a yearlong humanist service trip focusing on humanitarian projects in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, is a great example of this. So are the many secular organizations that do work all kinds of important work every single day for urban communities, for immigrants, for LGBTQA people, for sexual abuse victims, for the mentally ill, and so on.

It’s amazing, and I only wish we’d be inspired, in whatever ways we can, to do more.

What Are You Thirsty For? This is What I’m Thirsty For

There was a time at the UChicago campus when the InterVarsity Christians set up a tent outside and politely asked people, “What Are You Thirsty For?” as part of a larger national evangelism campaign. I think it was a very sincere effort to spark conversation about what people wanted in life, and how it connected to Christianity.

Well, I wasn’t asked, and who knows what I would have said, but I’m going to try to answer anyways.

This is what I’m thirsty for.

-I’m thirsty for a world of humanism, a world where old, narrow allegiances and ideologies give way to an appreciation of the well-being of all forms of sentient life and a true effort to minimize suffering, paying special attention to the poor, the disadvantaged, the outcasted, and our animal cousins.

-I’m thirsty for a world where people will learn to understand the benefits of thinking skeptically and the dangers of not recognizing their cognitive biases, a world where science, like a candle illuminating the dark, occupies its rightful place in the public discourse.

-I’m thirsty for a world where traditional and oppressive forms of morality that restrict ordinary human actions or identities, especially sexuality and gender, be discarded in favor of a more liberal system that affirms the true freedom and equality of all people.

-I’m thirsty for a world where real practical solutions, built from the technological intelligence of humankind, work to improve the quality and length of life, instead of a world that draws false hope from ancient fables that talk about a afterlife that we know not of.

-I’m thirsty for an ethical system that is reasonable and proportional to the welfare of people and the severity of moral transgressions, a system that rejects extreme and eternal forms of cruelty, rejects moral justification of actions based on supposed divine commands, and rejects the extreme belief that human beings are depraved and therefore need to feel guilty and repentant about every little imperfection that they have.

-I’m thirsty for a culture where disbelief, dissent, and skepticism is respected as a good, rather than discouraged or blamed as the workings of a supernatural demon.

-I’m thirsty for true inspiration instead of unfounded hopes, true inspiration that comes from seeing people of all religious backgrounds who do great and brave things, or from understanding the majesty of this enormous natural universe where we are floating on a speck of dust revolving around a random star in a random galaxy out of hundreds of billions. It is this cosmic view of life that I am also thirsty for an end to the conceited worldview that manifests itself in fights over politics, land, and religion.

-And finally, I’m thirsty for learning and growing, and for taking the risk all the time of thinking for myself, rather than resigning myself to an unalterable theistic authority that supposedly rules over us all.

That’s what I’m thirsty for.

Humanists, what are YOU thirsty for?

One Life: An Atheist Appeal to Make Your Life Extraordinary

Yes. This is the only life you’ll ever have. Listen to this message, and enjoy and cherish your wonderful existence in the Cosmos, which is “all that is or ever was or ever will be”.

I choose to offer the gift of kindness to those around me…

One year ago today, I was preparing to lead an Ash Wednesday service at my church. Today, one year later, I realize that we are not dust but instead… stardust. The answers to humanity’s problems are not found in self-depreciation to a deity, but in our ability to see the interconnectedness we possess as we reach out to help our fellow human. Instead of placing ashes on someone’s forehead today, I choose to offer the gift of kindness to those around me. Not for a reward that exists in another place after I die, but in the here and now in this life.

 

-Teresa Macbain

Check out this email I received today…

I’m sorry I didn’t get to know you at school as well as I would have liked. Your Facebook posts are generally amazing. Your very public atheism may well have contributed to me recently telling my parents I don’t believe. Thank you. You’re a good guy and a role model.

Wisdom, Epistemology, and the Power of Reason

Often, discussions with religious people turn into accusations of the atheist’s supposed “foolishness”. They attack the arrogant presupposition that humans can know better than God through their “weak” and “broken” faculties like reason. True Wisdom ™, or so it seems, comes only from the Divine, which transcends all possible human knowledge.

Yet, for this argument to be consistent, one would first have to demonstrate the superiority of a specific person or group of persons in the realm of epistemology. Undoubtedly, this claim isn’t even consistent with most religious viewpoints. If the atheist can be wrong in the eyes of God, then so can the religious person. Saying otherwise is to build a false hierarchical paradigm in which certain people, by privilege of belonging in a certain group, win the intellectual argument by default.

Even more importantly, arguing this way is a hasty dismissal of the other side. It undermines effective discourse and begs the question. It defeats the purpose of dialog and dries up further conversation.

Commitment to reason is a prerequisite for fruitful discussion. And contrary to popular belief, the use of rationality doesn’t mean we switch to a purely emotionless and calculating brain mode. It at the very least means we treat each other in conversation seriously and with a measure of charity.

Of course, if you don’t like reading, you can check out this wonderful inspirational video on how commitment to reason can take us far and wide.

P.S. Starting classes while working a full-time job. Updates will be sporadic from now on.

Where are you from?

descendent

Inspiration is for Everyone

My previous post about having a humble attitude towards inspiration has sparked some criticism, some of which is from Dianoilogos, who writes that “inspiration is for everyone (not just for the gifted few)“:

This is concerning to me.  Yes, not everyone has the opportunity to trulyappreciate a sunrise, listen to beautiful music, or revel in the sights and sounds of nature.  That’s true.  But saying inspiration is a “privilege.”  It just doesn’t set well.

Inspiration is for everyone.  But if we want to ensure everyone has equal access to it, we need to make sure the society is structured in a way everyone can adequately avail themselves of that blessing and the opportunity to appreciate the world in all its wonders regardless of whether they’re rich or poor,geniuses or not, etc.

Looking back, I think I chose the wrong ordering of words. No, having hope and being inspired doesn’t and shouldn’t make you an elite. It doesn’t make you inherently better than anyone else. Yes, like the many good things in life, inspiration is truly for everyone.

I still stand by my claim that certain privileges make access to inspiration easier, and that we should recognize that. More importantly, we all agree that the world has many wonders, and we should work towards a society that gives all people a chance to appreciate these wonders.

Lastly, this is a good reminder that constructive and honest criticism of vocabulary, tone, and content help us make our arguments better, and provide us with opportunities to be more rational people.