Forgive and Move On


Every society needs a cry like that, but only in a very few do they come out with the complete, unvarnished version, which is “Remember-The-Atrocity-Committed-Against-Us-Last-Time-That-Will-Excuse-The Atrocity-That-We’re-About-To-Commit-Today! And So On! Hurrah!”
— THIEF OF TIME BY TERRY PRATCHETT

9/11 was, we can all agree, a tragic and horrible event. But we’ve stupidly allowed it to define us as a nation for the last fifteen years. We’ve never accepted it, we’ve never moved on, and we’ve never forgiven.

Because of those things, we’ve embarked on two wars, one of which was completely unnecessary and had nothing to do with 9/11, we engaged in torture, we continue to deny any trials or the like for people who we’ve held prisoner for almost 15 years, we’ve accepted massive limitations on our personal freedoms, and we’ve generally become a much smaller, nastier people.

It’s very important that we forgive everyone involved in the 9/11 tragedy. It’s important that we forgive George W Bush, whose arrogance and lack of attention created a situation where 9/11 could happen. It’s important that we forgive organizations like the FBI and the CIA, who failed to see this coming and couldn’t stop it.

But those are the easy things to forgive. We also have to forgive the hard stuff.

We have to forgive the terrorists who hijacked those planes and crashed them. These were men whose brains were marinated in a hate that was brought on by religious fervor and nurtured by their perception of American behaviors.

And hard though it is to accept, we, as a nation, have to forgive Osama bin Laden, a man who, despite what Obama and others like to say, was never “brought to justice”. Justice requires due process, and he never had that. Bin Laden was a terrible man who did terrible things, but its important that we forgive him that. And even that’s not the hardest bit of forgiveness we need to engage in.

We also need to forgive ourselves. We need to forgive ourselves, as a nation, for the crimes committed under our names. For the freedoms we once enjoyed and have denied future generations. For electing such incompetent leadership. For getting caught up in jingoistic enthusiasm. For all the bad choices we all made in the events leading up to 9/11 and for all the terrible things we’ve done, and allowed to happen, since then.

None of this is entirely easy, and the last two are especially hard. But it’s important that we do it. Forgiveness isn’t about the person who wronged you. It’s not about letting them off the hook, and saying, “Well, what’s past is past.” It’s not about letting them escape punishment for their crimes.

Forgiveness is about allowing yourself to move on. It’s about allowing yourself to heal, and to regain a focus on something other than that thing that was done to you by the other. It’s about accepting that something bad happened, but not letting it dominate your life forevermore. This is important as individuals, but it’s even more important on the national scale, especially when the nation in question is as powerful as ours.

There are certain steps we need to take to bring this about, of course, and one of those steps is that we need truth and reconciliation on certain things. We can’t entirely forgive the Bush administration for all the crimes committed by them on our behalf until we, to coin a phrase, bring them to justice.

But even without that, and without bin Laden around to ask for our forgiveness, and without the 19 hijackers able to face any kind of justice at all, we still need to find it in our hearts to forgive a move on. It’s to our benefit to do so.

As a last thought here, let me remind those of you who call yourselves Christian that Jesus was rather big on the subject of forgiveness. That I, an atheist, should have to remind so many of you to embrace that which you say you believe, should speak volumes as to how important this is.
flag_of_the_united_states-svg

Let this flag stand once more for something great; a nation bent on forgiveness and not upon revenge.

Ill-Advised Advice


Slate has a “Dear Prudence” section where people write in with interesting questions. Think Dear Abby, but occasionally with a more incesty vibe.

Today there was someone asking about their child who doesn’t want to go to church. Here was the question.

Dear Prudence,
Two years ago when my son was 10 he became very verbal about hating church and resisted going. My older son loves the teen group at Sunday school and assured his brother that when he made it out of the baby area, he, too, would love it. Well, he does not. Each Sunday morning he yells, pouts, and eventually succumbs to my threats. Then he takes his snarky and unhelpful attitude to Sunday school. He doesn’t believe in God, and his very cool Sunday teacher works with that. I hated my boring church as a kid, and looking back I wonder, had I not gone to church would I have been a worse person? My husband was forced to attend his church when he was little. Now, he sleeps late Sunday morning, then hikes and does other activities. He is supportive of the fact that both our sons’ spiritual development is important to me. Do I force my son to go or give up?

—Mad as Hell Mom

Here was the response.

Dear Mad,
There are some people who believe that one’s degree of religious belief has a large genetic component. That means in societies in which everyone appears to be pious, many are secretly saying to themselves, “This is a crock.” Let’s say this genetic theory is true. That means you may have passed your blue eyes and devotion to your elder son, and your husband may have passed his brown eyes and lack of belief to your younger. You and your older son find spiritual and intellectual sustenance in the church, but your younger son finds the whole thing intolerable. You’ve been fighting this losing battle for two years, and if you keep going, your son will flee all observance as soon as he is able. I think you need to walk a more tolerant path. Tell your little atheist that you’ve been thinking about what he’s been saying about church, you’re tired of dragging him to Sunday school, and you’re reconsidering your stand. But before you do, you have a requirement he needs to fulfill. You want him to write an essay (minimum two typed pages) about the progression of his (dis)beliefs, and he must cite examples of people who have struggled with lack of faith—Biblical sources get extra credit. Then, if he takes this assignment seriously, release him. But say this doesn’t mean he gets to watch TV or play video games while his brother is getting religious instruction. Have your husband agree that Sunday will be bonding time for the two skeptics. Maybe when they hike to the top of a mountain one day, your son will look around and feel a spiritual awakening.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, WRONG. This is terrible advice. The boy is clearly unhappy going to church and disruptive while he is there, thus making the experience less enjoyable for those who want to be there. Purely from a good manners standpoint, he should be left at home.

But making him write an essay about this? No, that’s total bullshit. Let me prove how by using one of my lovely little thought experiments.

Let’s suppose that the boy had decided he was going to be Jewish rather than being an atheist. Should his parents make him write an essay defending his desire to be Jewish? Actually, it’s more likely that the local rabbi would do that, but we’ll ignore that for the moment. If he wanted to be Jewish, should his parents say, “Prove it, or you’re going to Christian church!”

Or suppose that he was a boy who had been raised Muslim, but now wanted to be a Hindu. Should he have to sit and write two pages about the glory of Krishna? What if he was a Muslim, but now wanted to be a Christian?

Better yet, what if this kid’s family were all Wiccans, but he’d decided he was going to hit for Team Jesus. Actually, in that case it’s likely his parents would wince, but not get in the way, but let’s say they did. Would it be proper for them to make him “prove” that he wants to be a Christian?

The boy is twelve. He’s had zero interest in church for two years. Leave him be, and let him skip church. It would be nice if he and his father could spend time hiking, but if they just wanna sit around and watch football all Sunday, let them. It will likely lead to a “spiritual awakening” that’s got exactly the same value as that of hiking, ie: fuck-all.

Torture and the Pledge and the Meaning of America


"God bless America? No, god damn America!" - Jeremiah Wright

“God bless America? No, god damn America!” – Jeremiah Wright

Given what we now know of our government using torture, primarily through the CIA, and approved of by the White House, can someone still ethically consider themselves to be a proud American? And is it ethically correct to continue to say the Pledge of Allegiance?

Now I don’t say the Pledge anyhow. I consider it an odious little loyalty oath with religious overtones, and as an American, I’m happy to assert my freedom to not say it. But I know I’m an outlier here, so let’s consider this through the eyes of two Christian writers talking about our country and it great national shame.

Consider this from writer Benjamin L. Corey:

Still, even with the biblical arguments that I feel are straight forward (“I pledge allegiance to the flag” vs “…but I tell you, do not take a pledge”), some Christians are hesitant to let go of this tradition that as children we were indoctrinated to engage in– and I understand that. When you’ve had nationalism and tradition drilled into your head for years on end it can be hard to step back and realize that maybe we’ve been wrong– that’s how indoctrination works and why it’s so hard to break free from it. We grow up being taught that America is the greatest nation that has ever existed, that we are exceptional compared to others, that we are a “Christian” nation, and that whatever we do is good, right, and justified. And so, pledging to give our allegiance to such an entity is an easy sell, as the narrative we are given doesn’t seem on the surface to conflict with some basic understandings of following Jesus.

However, the release of the now infamous CIA Torture Report should be the final blow that closes the case on Christians reciting the pledge of allegiance. From reading the report, it should now be crystal clear to anyone who has read the teachings of Jesus as found in scripture that one cannot swear their allegiance to America while simultaneously giving our allegiance to the alternate way of Jesus. Absolutely, positively, impossible.

The contents of the report reveal what the US has done, and what has been done is anti-Christ– pure, absolute evil.

How a Jesus person could continue to swear allegiance to an entity that engages in behaviors that are so unarguably anti-Christ, sins against God, and crimes against humanity, is beyond me.

And:

Personally, I can think of no more of a compelling reason to close the case on Christians reciting the pledge of allegiance: we can pledge our allegiance to Jesus and his way of enemy love (which he said was a requirement to become God’s children), or we can pledge our allegiance to the empire who tortures and kills its enemies (the opposite of what Christ tells us to do, thus being an “anti-Christ” nation). But, I don’t see how one could do both, as they are complete opposites. As much as I hate lines, I don’t see how this isn’t one: we can follow Jesus, or follow America, but we cannot follow both Jesus and America at the same time as they are busy doing opposite things.

We also have the following from Kyle Cupp, writing in response to Corey:

Fidelity to any organization will at times mean aligning oneself with institutional evil, remotely and materially if not formally. If you belong to an organization, you will have to tolerate evil, sometimes very grave evil. No organization is exempt from structural sin–not the state, not the church. Nevertheless, some evils are so intolerable, so embedded in an institution, that you cannot in good conscience pledge allegiance to that institution.

And:

The United States of America receives no special graces or blessings that keep it mostly on the side of Christ. It’s not and never has been a “Christian nation.” It is not the world’s savior. American Christians do not owe their nation permanent loyalty.

It’s really an interesting question. Can you be a good and decent Christian (or Jew, or Muslim, or Hindu, or whatever), and still pledge loyalty to a country that has engaged in such ruthless, beyond-the-pale evil as the United States? If you do, can you pledge equal loyalty? Which is more important, your god or your country? Can one man effectively serve two masters?

The religious aspects of this aren’t important to me, really, since I’m an atheist. But the moral arguments remain. I don’t say the Pledge, but I do participate in other aspects of American life. I quite happily pay my taxes, for example, and I would serve on a jury if asked.

But…can I continue to do those things, thus supporting my country, while at the same time, that country has engaged in something so hideously evil and immoral?

I think I can, but only under certain circumstances. If we eventually bring to justice those involved in torture, and punish the guilty as they deserve, then, yes, I absolutely can continue to support my country and do so with a clear conscience. In fact, I’d be quite happy, because it would show that the self-correcting mechanisms we have in our country are working.

But what if we don’t prosecute? What if we just shrug, and let the international community do it for us? Well, in that case, if we at least extradite for trial those involved (up to and including Bush and Cheney, and even Obama if he participated in a cover-up), then I’ll be less happy than I would be if we handled it ourselves, but least we would have allowed others to take up the responsibility. A valid argument could be made that perhaps that’s what we should do.

Suppose, though, that we fight war crimes trials every step of the way, and don’t allow the international bodies to bring to justice those who so richly deserve it? What do I do then?

I don’t really know. I think the answer might be that I’d have to step away from supporting this country. I’m not entirely sure what that would mean. It might mean, for example, refusing to pay my taxes, knowing full-well that I’d go to prison for doing so. It might mean making it clear that I won’t serve on a jury, or ever vote again.

I don’t know what I’ll do. Hopefully I won’t have to find out. It’s been only six days since the torture report was released. Let’s see where I’m at when it’s been 60 days, or 600. Then I might have some idea of what I’ll do.

Hey, Gang, Let’s Play a Game!


That game? I’m calling it Persecuted Majority. It’s where the largest, most powerful group around pretends they are actually the weakest, and under constant attack from lesser beings who seek their destruction! The following video is informative.

That is the trailer for God’s Not Dead. It’s the latest Jesus fanwank to come out of Hollywood and, yeesh, does it sound awful. Here’s Wikipedia’s summary of the plot.

Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper), a naive freshman college student, enrolls in a philosophy class taught by an infamous and dictatorial professor. Professor Radisson (Kevin Sorbo) demands that all of his students must sign a declaration that “God is dead” in order to get a passing grade. Josh refuses and will go to any lengths to defend his belief in God, but he needs to take this class to meet his academic requirements. And so the professor strikes a bargain: Josh must defend his position that “God is Alive” in a series of debates with him in order to stay in the class. If he loses, he flunks. When Josh accepts the challenge, he gets more than he bargained for—jeopardizing his faith, his relationships, and even his future.

Ah, yes, because this would be far simpler than either a: reporting the professor to the college authorities for doing something that’s at least blatantly improper, if not perhaps illegal, or b: changing classes.

It’s really weird seeing all this happen. Probably about 80% of the American population are Christians of one flavor or another. They wield almost all the political, social and economic power in this country. Yet many of them have this totally bizarre fantasy that they’re somehow persecuted. This usually comes up when their rights are “threatened” by things like not being allowed to have organized prayer in public schools.

Let’s also take a moment to clear up a misconception in the trailer, not that it will make a difference to the audience of this movie. I don’t know of any atheist who hates God. That’s like hating Darth Vader, Sauron or Voldemort. We consider God to be a fictional character at best, and generally don’t hate such things. We do, however, quite often get very irked by what the Jesus freaks do in his name, however. Like, you know, trying to force organized prayers in public schools.

This movie looks incredibly stupid. Also, to take a cheap shot or two, wow, Kevin Sorbo looks like crap these days. I do find it amusing that he and Dean Cain both had their most famous roles playing Christ figures. But neither has been really relevant since the 1990s, so I think they, and their stupid little movie, can be largely ignored.

The Atheist Who Isn’t


Thomas Wells is not an atheist, as he explains an article published back on Monday. From what I can tell, he doesn’t believe in God, but he’s not an atheist because he apparently doesn’t feel the need to call himself one. Let’s take a look at some of his comments.

This new atheism isn’t nearly godless enough for me. Its proponents seem somewhat obsessed with the quite unremarkable fact that God doesn’t exist. Indeed, it seems so central to their identity – they seem to substantially organise their lives around it – that I find it hard to tell the difference between them and religionists.

For the record, I don’t organize my life around the fact that I am an atheist. I don’t wake up in the morning and say, “How can I tear down the foundations of faith today?” I read about the subject because I am interested in the philosophical, logical and scientific arguments about it. I discuss it, especially on my blog, because the subject interests me, and because religion is a very powerful force in our society.

I also really hate this notion that atheism is somehow a religion or like a religion. I’ve never gone to people and told them, “You must believe as I do, or you will be destroyed.” I’ve never said that schools should require students to do some sort of reverse prayer each morning. I’ve never suggested that our money should say “There is no God”. I’ve never even said that I’m 100%, unconditionally certain that there isn’t a god. There might be. The evidence doesn’t allow for it, but there could be.

So in what way is this a religion or like a religion? Let’s take a look at some more of the article.

Unsurprisingly, these passionate atheists are not content to hold their beliefs privately. Like members of many other religions (such as Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons) they not only want to share the Good News they have discovered with everyone else, but they actually see proselytising as a sacred duty that is inseparable from their faith as a whole. Part of being this kind of atheist is to preach to the heathen masses and seek to save them from their false gods by converting them to the Truth. Hence their routine breaches of social etiquette as they go around telling people they are deluded, just as many churches put up billboards threatening passers by with damnation and promising salvation. Hence their interest in seeking out and creating conflicts that will lead to media publicity, thus leveraging their relatively small numbers into greater public attention. The obnoxiousness of the new atheists is the obnoxiousness of any growth focused religion, one that is trying to grow by conversion rather than reproduction.

“relatively small numbers”…yes, approximately 20% of the American population (depending on one’s definitions), is rather small, I suppose. I mean, it’s more than the numbers of Jews, Muslims, and a few other religions combined, but, yes, relatively small, I suppose. And given that many politicians come to power in this country by catering to the religious, I think it is very much in our interest to stand up and fight back against that. Now, to be fair, from the author’s spelling, I suspect he’s in the UK, so things may be different there. But I’m sure there’re still many politicians who come to power by sucking up to the religious. And speaking of…

The fundamental problem with all this is that the new atheists accept that religion is important enough that it matters whether one has the right or wrong beliefs about it, and have specific views about what religious beliefs one should hold. What separates them from me is that I don’t consider religion worthy of rational dissent, and I don’t consider that true freedom from religion would require me to rationally justify my lack of belief or interest in it. Of course god doesn’t exist. So what?

There are many supernatural things that some people believe in that I don’t, including Santa Claus, UFOs, crop circles, witches, ghosts, homeopathy, gods, fairies, and astrology. I see no particular reason to select out my non-belief in gods from that list of non-beliefs for special attention and justification. I see no no more reason to describe myself as an atheist, than as an afairieist, ahomeopathist, etc. To put it another way, my non-belief is apathetic: the nonexistence of God/Gods is a matter of great insignificance to me. And isn’t that how it should be?

Neil de Grasse Tyson made a similar comment a couple years back that irritated me, too. Here’s the thing: in an ideal world, we could all just roll our eyes and ignore religion like we ignore crop circles. However in our world, especially in this country, religion wields a great deal of power, and we need to know about it and fight against it when religious people try to make the rest of us live by their faith.

He then goes on to some weird straw men arguments.

New atheism’s version of secularism seems more dangerous than the disease. To prevent religionists from imposing their irrational beliefs on the rest of us the atheists seem to demand not the neutrality of the state but its commitment to Truth, i.e. atheism. Will children be required to recite the Atheist’s Creed in schools and will bank notes have “There is no God” printed on them? How ghastly.

*headdesk*

I don’t know anyone who says that children should be required to recite some sort of Atheist’s Creed (not that such a thing exists), or that money should say “There is no God”. In fact, as I implied above, I at least have always said that would be the wrong thing. The only correct position government should take regarding religion is one of complete neutrality. No “In God We Trust” and no “There is no God”.

Thomas Wells seems to have a severely warped idea of what atheism is and is not. It is, in general, a rejection of religion, religious belief, and superstition. It is, in general, a philosophy that holds that reality, often reality that can be proven through the scientific method, is more important that fantasy. It can be, for some people, a rallying point to try and bring secular reforms to a government that is often way too religious, and to push religion in general out of the pubic square and back into churches where it belongs. And for others it can be just something they hold to passively.

It is not a rejection of morality. Atheists don’t say that science is the only way one can learn things or evolve a sense of right and wrong. It certainly isn’t about forcing people to start claiming there isn’t a god.

I don’t know where Thomas Wells actually is on the spectrum of belief, but if he doesn’t want to say he’s an atheist, that’s fine. We can get along ok without him.

Life of Pi and Spirituality


So I saw Life of Pi the other day. It was a really, really great movie, and one of those rare movies I highly recommend seeing in 3D.

Now I want to discuss something that happened at the end of the movie. It’s a huge, massive spoiler, so if you haven’t seen the film, don’t read any further. If you want to talk about it, however, please click the page number below to see what I have to say!

The Death of an Atheist


Christopher Hitchens, great thinker and all-around decent human being, died of cancer a few months ago. Hitchens was an avowed atheist, and reached his greatest fame here in the States after publication of his book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, which was a lighthearted romp.

Now the Daily Mail has published an article about the last days of his life. It can be read here. The money quote:

Hitchens knew he was dying but saw the funny side of all the glowing praise for his literary work. ‘Now so many tributes that it also seems that rumours of my LIFE have also been greatly exaggerated.
‘Lived to see most of what’s going to be written about me: this too is exhilarating, but hits diminishing returns when I realise how soon it, too will be “background.”‘