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.


God’s Not Dead, Now More Easily Digestible

A few months ago I wrote a bit about the persecuted majority (white, Anglo Saxon, Protestants, basically), and a new movie that was made to appeal to them. It’s called God’s Not Dead, and it looked just horrible.

Turns out that the reality was even worse than I had imagined. Check this condensed version of the movie.

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.


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!

Patriotism, Religion and Other Things

Consider religion. It is, at its heart, about faith. You take it on faith that whatever god or gods you believe in exist. You take it on faith that the priests, ministers or cult leaders whose words you follow know what they’re talking about. You take it on faith that the book that describes your religion is accurate. Almost no real questioning is allowed, and even when it happens, it must be answered only in ways that don’t really endanger faith. No real outside influence is allowed, and, indeed, people and groups outside yours, while they might be decent are, in many ways, fundamentally inferior. They are perhaps still worthy of good treatment, but, well, they just aren’t part of the same thing you are. You know that yours is the best, truest faith and anything that threatens that belief may be argued with, but generally will just be lightly scorned or ignored.

The cousin to religion is fundamentalism. This particular variant holds that not only are those who are outside the “correct” faith inferior, but they might actually be dangerous. Therefore anything that you do to them is perfectly acceptable, even if it means killing them. Any criticism of your religion isn’t just dissent; it, too, might be dangerous. Dangerous in the temporal world and dangerous in the spiritual world. Therefore anything that you do to people you criticize your religion, particularly those within who criticize, is acceptable. You know that yours is the best, truest, and perhaps only faith, and anything that threatens that must be destroyed.

Patriotism is, at its heart, also about faith, though occasionally bolstered with evidence. You take it on faith that your country is wonderful and, especially in America, exceptional in the context of history. You love your country, and get very uncomfortable about the idea that it might be flawed or might have done something wrong in the past, or continue to do things wrong in the present. But usually such criticism can be explained away, dismissed as unimportant, justified as “being in our national interest” or ignored. You accept that other people might love their countries, too, but those nations are just fundamentally inferior, no matter how hard they try.

Nationalism is, at its heart, about a fanatical devotion to ones country. You know beyond a shadow of a doubt that your country is wonderful and exceptional in the context of history. You love your country with a blinding fury, and get extremely angry and aggressive at the idea that it might be flawed, or might have done something wrong in the past, or continue to do things wrong in the present. Such criticism can never be ignored; it must always be challenged. And if that challenge requires force, well, so be it. You accept that other people might love their countries, but those people are wrong if they think their nation is as good as yours, and may even be a threat.

I am not a patriot. I am not a nationalist. I am not religious, fundamentalist or otherwise. Here’s what I am.

Atheism is, at its heart, about reality. Beyond that, it’s all pretty much DIY.

A good citizen of their country loves it dearly, and knows that it is, for them, a wonderful place, with its own glorious moments in history. You love your country, but you do so with the same love that you have for a person. You know that your country, great though it is, has its flaws, and that those flaws, those problems, those errors of deed must be addressed. This must be done, not to make your country weaker, but to make it stronger. You accept, and even embrace, the idea that other people love their countries, too, and that they and their nations must be treated as equals and no looked down upon as inferior. Notably it’s also about paying your taxes, voting and doing whatever else your country requires, and doing so not because you have to, but because you love your country enough to want to.

Atheism is Not a Religion

It’s not. It’s really not. Please stop pretending it is. The absence of belief is not belief. Watch this video if you need help understanding this simple concept.

Gaining a Religion

I just read most of an article about a woman who turned from being an atheist to joining the Catholic Church. Well, hey, whatever works for her. I hope she’s happy with her new life. But I do need to call her out for some of the things she says in her article:

One thing I could never get on the same page with my fellow atheists about was the idea of meaning. The other atheists I knew seemed to feel like life was full of purpose despite the fact that we’re all nothing more than chemical reactions. I could never get there. In fact, I thought that whole line of thinking was unscientific, and more than a little intellectually dishonest. If everything that we call heroism and glory, and all the significance of all great human achievements, can be reduced to some neurons firing in the human brain, then it’s all destined to be extinguished at death. And considering that the entire span of homo sapiens’ existence on earth wouldn’t even amount to a blip on the radar screen of a 5-billion-year-old universe, it seemed silly to pretend like the 60-odd-year life of some random organism on one of trillions of planets was something special. (I was a blast at parties.)

In what way is this line of thinking unscientific? The universe is entirely indifferent to your existence. So? We aren’t anything special in the great scheme of things.

But in the little scheme of things, in our local lives in the here and now, we are important to each other and we do matter. Life isn’t assigned any special meaning, it’s true; life is what you make of it. It has whatever meaning you decide that it has. It has whatever purpose you assign it. I don’t see that as being at all bad.

Suicide had crossed my mind — not because I was depressed in the common sense of the word, simply because it seemed like it was nothing more than speeding up the inevitable. A life multiplied by zero yields the same result, no matter when you do it.

Not knowing what else to do, I followed the well-worn path of people who are trying to run from something that haunts them: I worked too much. I drank too much. I was emotionally fragile. Many of my relationships with other people were toxic. I wrapped myself in a cocoon of distractions, trying to pretend like I didn’t know what I knew.

Actually, this really comes off to me as someone who needs some therapy. Someone with this sort of nihilist<bl worldview is clearly not mentally healthy and running toward religion is not likely to fix the underlying problems.

I considered that in almost every single time and place throughout human history, people have believed in some kind of spiritual realm. Almost every human society we know of has shared the belief that there is more to life than meets the eye, that what transpires here in the material world somehow reverberates into the eternal. Previously I had assumed that the vast majority of the billions of people who had ever lived were all simply ignorant; now I wondered if maybe I was the one who was missing something.

If billions of people before her believed the world was flat, and that was the basis of their personal perception, should we accept that there might be something to that, and perhaps the world isn’t as round as we think it is?

I don’t wanna go into a huge tear-down of this woman’s article. If she’s happier now, well, great, I guess. I do find it vaguely amusing to contemplate that this happened when she picked up a book about Christianity written by a former atheist. A few books down and she might have ended up Jian, or Taoist, or Wiccan.