Okay, maybe I just shot myself in the foot. Yes, there are secular lobbyists (see Secular Coalition for America). Yes, atheists care about religious discrimination laws, women’s rights, gay rights, prayer in public schools, science education, etc. These are all hot political issues. Yes, tens of thousands of people congregated in Washington, D.C. demanding “legislative equality” and asking everyone, including politicians, to come out.
But there seems to be a difference between involving atheists in political affairs that relate to religion and defining what it means to be a good atheist with reference to a set political ideology. For example, I find the National Atheist Party not so much cringeworthy because of the things it has done, but rather because the idea is dangerous. It is troubling to think that one political party–with a single platform (and maybe a candidate in the future)–represents atheism and or at least what it should look like.
Of course, there is the much greater problem of the actual and deliberate hijacking of atheism by the Leftist, anti-capitalist, feel-good social justice kind of crowd. Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot to say about religious conservatism and its evils. There’s a lot to criticize about our current market economy and the policies we have in place. And yes, there’s a lot more good that could be done by the atheist/humanist/secular community to fight for the dignity and rights of oppressed peoples.
But there’s a raging temptation within parts of the atheist community to say that you aren’t really up to the standard if you aren’t a strict liberal, if you aren’t supportive of Occupy Wall Street, if you don’t agree with the left’s tax policies, if you don’t agree with the many subtleties of race and poverty in America, if you don’t neatly fit within the box that is the “activist” political left. There are also people like Chris Stedman who criticize people like Greta Christina and say that you aren’t really furthering worthwhile goals of the atheist movement if you seek to change people’s minds about religion in a rational context.
The fact is that this kind of narrowly-defined atheism is absolutely counterproductive. This issue is bigger than the fact that there are many conservative/libertarian atheists in America. Defining good atheism narrowly means that atheism is not really atheism, that the movement isn’t really worthwhile as an effort to spread rationality and reason (and to bring about positive change), unless we all adopt ideologies that frankly have little to do with atheism.
I, frankly, would much rather have our movement be successful in creating a rational society that is majority secular than having atheists neatly fit itself into a modern American liberalism. The former would not necessarily mean a political consensus, but it would be an absolute game-changer in terms of building more welcoming communities for nonbelievers, as well as opposing the influence of religion in the public sphere and effecting secular change. I know this is shocking, but one of the best ways to ensure a secular humanistic society is to have an electorate of secular humanists.
The idea that all atheists should instead be holding “I am the 99%” signs in front of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago is far less appealing to me. It’s even short-sighted in that it trades an open, dynamic, and diverse movement for an almost blind (but not necessarily bad) involvement in specific political activities. We should be very skeptical of this kind of stuff, and of the socio-economic ideologies that purport to be atheism’s soul-mates.
The secular/atheist movement is a huge tent. I say we keep it that way.
1. It was better than going to church.
Sure, there was plenty of music and dancing and feel-good stuff, and yes, there was even a mock church service by Sam Singleton. But this was first and foremost an amazing educational event where people learned about things like molecular biology, Baye’s theorem, math education, rationality experiments, Solomonoff induction, poker strategy, as well as hot political/social issues like death, Hollywood rationality, sex positivity, atheist anger, and mental illness. Come on, when was the last time church-going challenged anyone to think this deeply, or to think at all?
2. The speakers were absolutely incredible.
Simply the best and brightest in their particular fields. Many, like PZ Myers, Greta Christina, Rebecca Watson, Hemant Mehta, are wildly popular bloggers. Eliezer Yudhovsky is the author of the most popular Harry Potter fan fiction in world and an artificial intelligence researcher at the Singularity Institute. Dan Barker was a former preacher who now works with the Clergy Project, a group that helps closeted atheists in the church. Spencer Greenberg is a mathematician who founded Rebellion Research, a company that develops machine learning technology for investing. There were so many amazing speakers there that it would take too much time to talk about them all!
3. Too many people showed up.
Skepticon started as a small event a couple of years ago with merely two speakers. It has grown exponentially since, and this year, we nearly filled one of the largest theaters in the city. Who would have thought that people would actually show up in the middle of nowhere in America?
4. It was so far away.
Road-trips are fun, and nine-hour road trips are even better! Well I kind of cheated and flew to St. Louis, but we drove back to St. Louis and took Megabus back to Chicago. Thanks to SA-ers Chana Messinger and Brian Green (no, not the physicist) for an unforgettable time.
5. We stood up against atheist discrimination.
The owner from Mio Gelato, a gelato vendor right next door to the Skepticon event, thought that skepticism was limited to questioning the existence of UFO’s or disproving astrology. So he unknowingly walked into the Sam Singleton event (an amazing comedic event, btw) and couldn’t believe what he was seeing. In response, he posted a sign on his window that said “Skepticon people NOT welcomed to my CHRISTIAN business.” Soon enough, people were taking picture of this sign, and his Yelp score took a nosedive, and this was all reported in the local media as well as the blogosphere. Afterwards, the owner posted a quick apology, and, after more public pressure, finally issued a long, thorough apology.
Two things to say about this: first of all, yes, discrimination against atheists is so not fucking okay. This case is no different than posting a sign that says “Blacks not welcome to my white business” or “Jews not welcome to my Islamic restaurant”. Giving excuses like “I was offended when I voluntarily walked into a black church” or “Hamantash and Latke made me throw up last night” is NOT okay.
Secondly, I’m glad we stood up as a community. Two decades ago, this kind of bigotry was not only common, but also occasionally supported by popular figures like the President. Since then, we’ve made a lot of progress. I’m also glad that the owner learned his lesson and that he has apologized publicly for his indefensible actions. I do not think we should excuse him. I do not think we should forget. But I hope we can, instead of holding grudges, move on and learn collectively from this experience.
6. I met unbelievably smart and talented people.
Skepticon is a spectacular social event. I remember meeting wonderful student skeptics from KU, MSU, UofI, Depaul, and an engineering college in Indiana that I can’t remember the name of. I also met many non-student skeptics not just from the Missouri area, but also from places like Arkansas, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, etc. I met people from CFI, Unitarian Universalists, and other skeptics/freethinkers. I met Jesse Galef who works at the national SSA and co-writes Measure of Doubt. I also had the amazing opportunity to have dinner with several speakers from the event, namely Eliezer Yudhovsky, Spencer Greenberg, and Julia Galef. During dinner, we talked about game theory, the infinite hat problem(s), the axiom of choice, Godel’s incompleteness theorem, etc. etc. It was super!
7. We had an influence on Springfield, MO.
Besides the Mio Gelato incident, the experiences I’ve had with people from Springfield were overwhelmingly positive. The Christian activists outside our event did not cause any trouble at all. Also, many restaurants in Springfield opened early on the weekends just to accommodate us! One even gave us a special menu (I ordered a Skepticon salad, for example, but wasn’t sure if it was really a salad). In return, some of these businesses had one of their best weekends ever in terms of sales!
8. It made me proud to be part of this movement.
What more can I say? America is changing, whether you like it or not. Religion is losing its grip on the human mind, and especially with the advent of the internet, it now has to compete, for the very first time in history on such a large scale, in the free marketplace of ideas. Wherever skepticism leads us, there is no doubt that this movement has already had a profound effect on American political and social thought, and it will continue to do so. There will be a time in America when Christians (and religious people in general) will be a minority, and if the current trend continues, that day is approaching very quickly. I left Skepticon 4 with a great sense of optimism and a sigh of relief that we really are a movement that continually questions itself, continually tests itself, and continually tries to improve itself. We’re skeptics, we’re proud of it, and we have no apologies.
Remember that video that showed some Christian girl thanking God for the tsunami in Japan? It went viral on the internet and incited outrage by both the religious and the nonreligious.
But I never really believed it was real. And I found out a couple days ago that I was right:
She is a demonstration of Poe’s Law, the fact that it is impossible to distinguish between religious crazies and the people who parody them. However, she didn’t fool me, for the following reason:
1) I looked through many of her videos and deduced that she had a very good understanding of science and religion.
2) Her positions are actually opposite of what you would expect. No desperate attempts to understand natural tragedies (that God allows for) with ceaseless prayer and groveling. No guilty conscience. That’s very rare for religious people.
3) She looks like an atheist and smells like one too.
As you all know, this a great blog with no secular bias whatsoever, which is exactly why I want to show you the religious perspective on inspiration. My last post demonstrated the incomprehensible size of stars and how they should humble us, but this is how Christians view the exact same thing:
So he gets a nice sinking feel, huh? And all our false feelings of importance? They come from sin, right?
Remember that this is coming from a religion that for centuries insisted that we really were at the center of the Universe, that we were really the special creation of God completely separate from animals, that everything was tweaked just right for human life.
But let us forget about that. The guy is a Christian, and he claims to be humbled by the awesome size of stars in the Universe.
He’s so incredibly humbled that he, while holding the Bible in one hand, can probably answer the following:
1. Whether God certainly exists or not.
2. How many Gods there are.
3. Whether this God cares about what happens in some negligible nanoscopic alley in the Universe.
4. Which God, out of the millions that humans have believed, is the one true God.
5. Whether or not God really chose to save us by sending Jesus to some backwards part of the Middle East.
6. Whether there is an afterlife or not.
7. What the afterlife consists of, and what thoughts and beliefs (or rituals) you must have to get there.
8. Who you may have sex with.
9. What divine instructions God gave thousands of years ago.
10. Which parts of the Bible are literally true, and which ones are metaphor.
11. Whether God really answers prayers.
As a human being, I maintain that anyone who even remotely claims that they have the answers to some of the questions above are, at the least, extremely suspect and, at worst, complete frauds. The obvious fact, of course, is that anyone who claims to know with some clarity all or most of the answers above are claiming things that human beings cannot possibly know.
This is exactly why I don’t want to see my President having breakfast with people who make a living out of making the claims above. I especially don’t want to hear him saying how faith is about being humble and understanding the limits of your own knowledge.
The problem with faith is that it makes people so incredibly, unbelievably, astronomically, and galatically arrogant, while at the same time making them not realize it.
The inspiration of the day, therefore, comes from Carl Sagan:
We live on a hunk of rock and metal that circles a humdrum star that is one of 400 billion other stars that make up the Milky Way Galaxy which is one of billions of other galaxies which make up a universe which may be one of a very large number, perhaps an infinite number, of other universes. That is a perspective on human life and our culture that is well worth pondering.
Britain now a majority non-religious nation
In the latest 2010 BSA report, published earlier this month, only 42% said they were Christians while 51% now say they have no religion.
Well I’m sure somebody on the religious side will break the silence on this news in the upcoming days. Perhaps there will be condemnations. Perhaps they will warn that this is another sign of society’s moral decay. You know, just like how the Pope says that secularism is responsible for creating a moral environment conducive to child rape.
I mean, come on. Look at all those countries with the largest percentages of atheists: Sweden, Denmark, Japan, South Korea, Norway, Finland, Estonia. Aren’t they all collapsing into disrepair?
Happy Holidays everybody!
It is not rare that whenever someone tries to convince me about the apparent truth of Christian claim, he or she begins with a plethora of apologies: apologies for things from the Inquisition to sex abuse to Galileo’s torture to Pat Robertson. And after this long line of apologies for things I haven’t even had time to bring up, he or she then tells me that I should really direct my attention not to what humans do “in the name of religion” but only to what the true essence of the faith really is.
Of course, there’s nothing that excites me more about discussing what the true essence of Christianity really is.
As a prelude, I want to address those people — I call them pseudo-Christians — who say they are Christian but don’t actually believe there is any history in the Bible. They don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead, or that he even existed. I’ve met only a couple of these people in my life, and they say that Jesus, whether he existed or not, was a good person and a exemplary role model, that his message was to love one another and to treat each other well.
Of course, even I take issue with this because Jesus was certainly not the revolutionary who somehow discovered human kindness. Confucius, for example, taught the Golden Rule centuries before Jesus. The values of tolerance, generosity, selflessness are all found, arguably in stronger forms, in many Eastern philosophies. Personally, I think that morality comes not from prophets and tablets, but from a continuing dialectic, a conversation and debate between social creatures that, thanks to evolution, are innately inclined to show empathy and love. Of course, that’s another topic.
What I think is the true essence of Christianity is the composed of the following ideas:
1) We are born sick and imperfect, and commanded to be perfect.
The human condition, according to Christians, is a result of Genesis account of the Fall of Man. Why are we all “really really bad people” as many Christians claim? Because our very distant ancestors (dating back to a couple thousand years ago, as Young Earth Creationists say) decided to sin against God and to disobey him by taking fruit from, of all things, the Tree of Knowledge. As descendants, we all share in the guilt and responsibility for this condition resulting from this egregious rebellion. We are born sinful and imperfect, but in the light of God, we must strive to be perfect.
This is a cruel and unusual set of circumstances to be born into. First of all, children are never responsible for actions of their parents. Also, if it is the case that a person is born a certain way, then he or she is not responsible for that condition. If you are born imperfect, you are not responsible to be a perfect person, although you can and should be expected to be a decent person, which is very different, and much more realistic.
I often hear Christians assert that God can rightfully demand that we be perfect because God himself is perfect, but I think this is a morally bankrupt argument. Having a quality does not enable you to rightfully demand that others have it: I may be able to communicate better than people with autism or walk better than people born without legs, but I have no right to command or even expect people who are born a certain way to be like me.
2) You can suffer an eternity in Hell, depending on what you think.
In the Christian worldview, why is God’s command for us to be perfect so important? Because if you are imperfect, God cannot accept you into Heaven. For your few decades of imperfectness on Earth, you are headed by default to a very very bad place for eternity.
What really shocks me is how Christians rationalize this concept. In a Q&A session called Stump the Chump at UChicago, the speaker said that Hell was an eternal place for those who deliberately say “no” to God; God then merely grants you your wish and leaves you alone, forever.
I personally have never met an atheist (or a person of another religion) who has said “I want to go to Hell and leave you. Grant me this wish.” There is all the difference in the world between saying “no” to someone and not believing in the existence of that someone. The atheist (and non-Christian theist) simply does not believe in the existence of Yahweh or the divinity of Jesus or Hell, similar to how Christians don’t believe in Thor or reincarnation.
But to Christians, this difference doesn’t matter. Children are still going to be taught that they will end up in a place of eternal suffering with no way out if they don’t believe as Christians do.
3) God can wipe you clean, but only after a human sacrifice.
Yes you should know by now that, for the few billion seconds that you have left to live, your private thoughts and opinions about religion matter, and they matter a whole lot. According to Christians, you can only escape this cruel and unusual circumstance by somehow changing your thoughts to a less sinful one: by believing and accepting that Jesus Christ died on the cross for you. In short, the story is that God sent himself in human form to Earth, and then allowed himself to be tortured to death by other human beings. Only then are we washed clean, and this shows God’s forgiveness of our sins across the boundary of time.
This very story shows: how sins can be retroactively and vicariously dissolved, how forgiveness is only possible by punishment (or self-punishment), and how people can only partake in this deal if they are part of the Christian circle, that is, if they don’t have a different opinion about religion.
Most striking is the conditionality. Forgiveness and the cleansing of sin can only come through physical torture, and this torture and pain is not in any proportion to the crime. It does not matter if you are a vegetarian Buddhist or a homicidal Stalinist; either way the correct and just punishment for your very nature is extremely severe — far more severe, interestingly, than what Jesus himself supposedly experienced for a limited time on Earth.
Which brings us to the method. The method for which you may release the responsibility to God for being sinful is by putting the blame on someone else, who is himself God. Christians automatically assume that this process is morally sound and possible, although one can’t deny that this is what Christopher Hitchens calls “scape-goating,” the piling of sins on another object. The other issue with this is the questionable scale of the punishment. If it is true that we are bound for torture in Hell forever, how is it that a temporary period of torture of Jesus can relieve us of this debt? It must be bluntly noted that what Jesus went through was, for example, nothing compared to what victims of the Holocaust or Unit 731 experienced. Christians may argue that a divine being like Jesus deserves less torture, but why then does God need to torture (himself) at all to forgive humans for being imperfect?
Last is the exclusivity. For Christians, it is not enough to say that what is done is done: that Jesus saves all of humanity, and that’s it. Instead, we have a religion that compels you take that leap of faith and believe, on pain of eternal damnation. So exclusive is this arrangement that about 70% of the people on Earth right now are not Christian. Whenever I ask by how much Hell overpopulates Heaven, I never get a serious answer.
Perhaps this is why Christians disagree on what happens to people who never had the opportunity to hear about Christianity (e.g., very young children, people in isolated tribes, etc). The default position in the Bible is that these people will not be saved. Of course, there are countless Christians who protest and insist that this can’t be the case, saying that they trust God that there is actually more fairness in the system (ignoring the fact that the system is stacked against you in the first place). What we have here is the classic case of Christians unable to reconcile what is written down on paper with their common sense and reason. The existence of so much cognitive dissonance amongst Christians, I believe, is not evidence for the soundness of their ideas, but of their problematic nature.
4) Human Beings Can Know the Supernatural
By no means does Christianity have a monopoly on this idea, but it is certainly at the center of Christian thought.
It is always to me a profane and repulsive idea that human beings can claim to know amazingly accurate details about the nature and commands of God. Religious people in general, whenever they run out of arguments, go into “assert” mode, asserting that God wills this and that, that the nature of the after-life is a certain way, that God says this is wrong and that is okay.
I’m being too general, of course. What really happens is that people read their books and find out that God intervenes in this world in all kinds of ways: in the real estate market by promising land to certain groups of homo sapiens, in marriage and relationships by defining sexual boundaries and marriage rights, in dietary habits by making some animals sacred. This of course leads not to greater wisdom or knowledge, but greater conflict and ignorance. So much is at stake in the world that we cannot afford to quibble about theology while ignoring reality.
In conclusion, the true essence of Christianity is compared to the world of science, secular humanism, and reason.
Christians say that, even when lacking reasons to believe, the act of knowing things by faith is a great virtue. In direct contrast to this, Socrates argued that true wisdom is acknowledgement of one’s own ignorance. In other words, what atheists do admit that Christians cannot is that we do not know. We do not claim to know anything about God, including facts about his existence, because no human being can know so much. The moment that human beings claim to know what they don’t actually know is the moment they have religious disagreements.
The true essence of Christianity has at its basis a fanatical obsession with the fantasy of purity and perfection. It holds people responsible for the way they are born, and proposes that a just punishment for this condition is eternal torture in the afterlife. It claims that you can wipe your debt clean and join God in Heaven, but only if you believe and accept the torture of Jesus, who was also God himself. Lastly, it demands that you spread this good news and grow in Christ, that you go out and proclaim proudly to the world that Christianity is real and knowable.
I ask you kindly to think about the alternatives: Humility in the face of uncertainty. A demand for sound reasons and evidence over faith. A real commitment to true fairness, justice, and responsibility instead of the moral outrages in the Bible. That, my friends, is the true essence of secular humanism.
I’ll promise to blog more once I finish finals, but for now, you’ll have to appreciate this video on Youtube:
Now this would be a very uninspiring debate had it not been for Hitchens’ closing statement. Basically much of the debate involved back and forth between the two speakers over evolution, where Dembski (embarrassingly a UChicago alumni, I must admit) kept insisting on the conspiracy that atheists were emotionally attached to their position and were therefore making up models and explanations to support evolution. I cannot believe in this day and age that the overwhelming evidence for the truth of evolution is still a worthy topic of debate, but I guess I just don’t visit the Creation Museum often enough.
Hitchens talks about Shakespeare because Dembski brought up the idea of how wonderful it must be to meet Shakespeare in heaven. The reference to children being taught that they are “dead” was another response to Dembski, who said earlier in response to Hitchen’s criticism of the concept of hell, that in fact Hitchens misunderstands: Christianity doesn’t say “believe or die and go to hell”; instead, Scripture says that we are already dead, and that only Christ can make us live.
Well I guess his life story is inspiring in and of itself. After all, Hitchens is fighting cancer right now, and we all hope he will make it through this difficult period of his life with joy and comfort.
But I found it most fitting that Hitchens mentioned how authors are “immortal in the works they leave behind.” For me personally, Hitchens’ writings are the Shakespeare of the modern era, albeit mostly in nonfiction form. I agree with fifty percent of what he writes, and I love every little thing about all his writing: the structure, the vocabulary, the tone. There’s something dynamic about his prose; there’s nothing I like more than elegant ways to say simple things. He’s one of the few people who have made me want to read Slate and Vanity Fair Magazine.
If he leaves us anytime soon, I’m sure he’ll never really die.