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.


Atheism as a Religion

Last night on The Cleveland Show, Cleveland Junior admitted he is an atheist. That was good. He also said atheism is a religion. That was bad. I’m a bit confused as to why an atheist character would claim atheism is a religion. No atheist I know ever would.

Atheism is not a religion. Saying that you don’t believe in any kind of gods because there’s no proof for their existence is a position on religion, but it isn’t a religion in of itself. I think people who say that are trying to do a backwards assertion that atheists do, in fact, believe in God; they just can’t admit it.

But this is nonsense. To quote from a comment on this page, atheism is not a religion in the same way that bald is not a hair color. Look at any picture of me, and you’d never describe me as having bald colored hair. You’d just say I’m bald.

I have a specific stance on religion: I think it’s stupid, I think it’s wrong, I don’t believe any gods exist until I see proof otherwise, I don’t believe there’s any afterlife until I see proof otherwise. I believe we’re here because of what people refer to as “the Big Bang” and evolution, and I think these things because there is scientific evidence backing these things.

Believing something because there is evidence for it is not a religion. Refusing to believe something because there is not evidence for it is also not a religion.

Beacuse Religious People Never Commit Crimes

Bay Minette, Alabama, has a quaint idea for criminal justice, and by “quaint” I mean “incredibly un-Constitutional.” Their idea is this: rather than putting people in jail for minor offenses, they’re allowing said people to attend church every Sunday for a year.

This is stupid on so many levels. First of all, what if your religious denomination doesn’t have a church in the area? I’m sure there’s plenty of Catholic churches, Baptist and Presbyterian, but suppose you’re part of some more obscure Protestant denomination? Or what if your particular religion isn’t in the area at all? This doesn’t strike me as a place that’s likely to have or welcome any mosques, so Muslims couldn’t participate. What if you’re Hindu? Are they likely to have any Hindu temples in the area?

That’s not even asking the question of: what if you’re an atheist? Why should you be forced to spend time in jail rather than go to church? I’m sure the powers that be would simply shrug their shoulders and say, hey, if you don’t wanna go to church, that’s your choice, but if you’re an atheist it’s really not any kind of a choice at all. It’d be like telling a Catholic their only choice is jail or spending each week going to Southern Baptist services.

There’s also the question of what exactly they expect this to accomplish. I’m sure the people behind this approach religion with the belief that it’s a good, wonderful force that will somehow many people more moral if they are exposed to it. This ignores things like children being raped by priests, numerous televangelists having problems and people of all stripes, including Christians, committing acts of terrorism.

Then, lastly, there’s the fact that this is wildly illegal. It’s done to save money, and I promise you that there’s going to be a lawsuit. The end result of that lawsuit will be that the city winds up spending far more money in court costs than it would have spent just sending people to jail for a few days. They will likely fight tooth and nail to keep this law and it’s going to cost them so much money. It’s really quite sad.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m in favor of doing things to keep people out of jail. I think our desire to incarcerate as many people as possible is very self-destructive. But there’s right ways to do it and wrong ways, and this is clearly wrong.

Hope for a Godless Tomorrow

Apparently more and more young people are losing their religion. This is by way of being a very good thing. Religion has, since the dawn of humanity, done nothing to further the cause of science, reason or logic in the world. Its spread lies and fairy tales in the place of truth, and what little contributions its made to morality are extremely outbalanced by the evils it preaches (ie: we are all the property of God).

Right now about 15% of the American population is godless to a greater or lesser extent. At least, that’s the number of people who are willing to admit it. I’m sure the actual number of people who don’t truly believe is probably way, way higher. With luck, over the next few years this trend will continue and by the end of the century we will, perhaps, look at religious people the way we now look at the Amish; basically decent folk keeping alive an old way of life and nothing any sane person wants anything to do with.

Atheists in America

Are atheists in America “under siege” by the larger religious base in this country? Some people certainly think so and while I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to say “under siege,” I do feel that being an atheist in America is fundamentally more difficult than being a member of most, though by no means all, religions.

America was, at the time of its founding, one of the only countries that lacked an official state religion. The Constitution of the United States was referred to at the time of its creation as a “godless” document due to the fact that it made no mention of the Almighty. The First Amendment made it explicitly clear that Congress would “make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” thus creating what Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, referred to as “a wall of separation” between church and state, something that’s arguably healthy for both.

So, one would think that America is a country where it’s very easy to be an atheist, and I suppose it is easier here than it is in, say, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia or Uganda, but that doesn’t mean atheists don’t have issues here. They just tend to be more subtle.

First, atheists are culturally invisible. I can’t think of a single popular TV character who is avowedly atheist other than Brian Griffin, and he’s a talking dog. There’s no sitcom I’m aware of featuring an atheist main character, much less one that is, say, centered an atheist family. Of course there’s not any centering on a Muslim family, a Wiccan family or a Hindu family, but atheists in America outnumber the total number of all those groups by a fair margin.

In the sports world, just about any time an athlete does something amazing, they thank God and/or Jesus. They’re known to point skyward when they get a home run, drop to a knee to pray after getting a touchdown, etc. Actors, singers, and other entertainers have their own variations on this. It’s a bit creepy and unseemly, though some of us on the atheist side did find it somewhat amusing when one football player complained to God after losing.

In the political arena, there’s an overriding “godness” about our country. We have “In God We Trust,” on our money, which, were I religious, I think I’d find a bit inappropriate, as Theodore Roosevelt did. In the 1950s, the words, “One nation under God,” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance. Every politician who makes any speech of any note feels the need to end it with “God bless the United States of America!” One wonders if such a request would actually sway God, and if it did, what would that say about him?

Then there are the little ways religion keeps trying to creep into the classroom. Every year it seems there’s a new effort in a new place to drive “intelligent design” into a place where it doesn’t belong. Thus far this effort has been largely stopped by the courts, but it just takes one victory for years of effort on behalf of science to take a large hit.

There’s also tax exemptions for churches. Some of these intuitions pull in millions of dollars each year, but they and many of their employees are exempt from taxes. In theory the price they pay for this is that they can’t take specific political stances from the pulpit, but that rule is so easy to get around it isn’t even funny.

But all of these are general things. Things that aren’t so much directed at oppressing atheists as they are cultural background noise. Ok, let’s look at some more directly oppressive things.

Seven states have laws that make it impossible for atheists to serve on juries or be elected to public office. Admittedly, these would be thrown out were they to be challenged, but often people who live in states that have such laws are reluctant to protest, lest their neighbors learn of their godless ways.

As for politicians, well, it would be a brave one indeed who admitted he or she was an atheist, at least if said politician ever intended to get reelected. It wasn’t until 2007 that Pete Stark (D-CA), admitted he is an atheist. No other major national politician has. That’s no surprise, given that voters often say they wouldn’t vote for an atheist.

Even in the culturally iconic Boy Scouts, a symbol of healthy, moral boyhood, a bias exists against atheists. The Boy Scouts are a great organization that offers lots of opportunities for boys around the world to learn new things, interact with each other in a positive way, and generally create a better life. But if those kids are atheists or gay, they need not apply, as both groups are explicitly excluded from Scouting.

Of course, we atheists have ourselves to blame for much of this. We’re about 15 percent of the American public (depending on which polls you read), yet we don’t have the ability to group together and stand as a unit politically. Mind you, some would say that’s like herding cats.

Also, too many of us are “in the closet,” as it were, fearing the response of our friends, our families and our employers if we out ourselves as atheists, yet it is important that we do so. If there’s one thing we can learn from the gay rights struggle, it’s that people’s views of any minority group tend to change when someone they know is in that group.

As I said, the challenges that atheists face in this country aren’t nearly as severe as they are in other places. Rather than being brutally oppressed, we’re merely constantly stung by little insults to our dignity. That doesn’t make our problems any less valid, and so efforts to raise our profile through things like the “Good Without God” campaign, while perhaps not popular with the larger population, are a great start.

Atheists as Evangelists

Reza Aslan, someone who I find interesting and have some respect for, has published an article about atheists as evangelists for their cause. He makes specific mention of the atheist bus advertising campaigns going on around the world. I agree; that is basically atheists evangelizing. It’s us pushing a message that, as one of the signs says, you can be good without God. It’s important to note that these aren’t designed to swing over the religious. They are instead designed to appeal to those who already doubt their faith and perhaps need a bit of a nudge.

But then I pretty much part company with him for the rest of the article.

The parallels with religious fundamentalism are obvious and startling: the conviction that they are in sole possession of truth (scientific or otherwise), the troubling lack of tolerance for the views of their critics (Dawkins has compared creationists to Holocaust deniers), the insistence on a literalist reading of scripture (more literalist, in fact, than one finds among most religious fundamentalists), the simplistic reductionism of the religious phenomenon, and, perhaps most bizarrely, their overwhelming sense of siege: the belief that they have been oppressed and marginalized by Western societies and are just not going to take it anymore.

“Scientific or otherwise?” Surely isn’t everything that’s quantifiable as “truth” based in science? As for the second point, Holocaust deniers (and I’ve been dealing with one recently on, of all places, Amazon), are people who continue to believe the Holocaust never happened despite all the information to the contrary. Creationists are people who refuse to believe in the scientific explanation for the existence of life, the universe and everything, despite all the information to the contrary. Now perhaps he could have made a better comparison with, say, flat-Earth people, but the comparison is valid.

As to the literal reading of scripture, by taking a literal view of scripture we highlight its faults. We say that you cannot claim God is loving, caring, kind and forgiving when the Bible, Old and New Testaments, show the opposite. By approaching it from a literal angle, we use the words of believers against them. I don’t see that highlighting the faults in what someone claims to believe is a bad thing.

And, yes, atheists are oppressed and stigmatized by Western society. In this country, if I remember correctly, we have one (1) member of the House of Representatives who is openly atheist. That’s out of, what, 435? Even he’s from pretty much the most liberal district in the country, and I’m willing to bet that there’s people even there who blanch at the idea of voting for an atheist. That’s not even mentioning the fact that we have to put up with crap like “In God We Trust” on our money, “One nation under God” in the Pledge, and constant fights with the religious zealots who want to bring creationism into the classroom.

Here’s something to consider. This past weekend Rick Perry, the Republican governor of Texas who once spouted off nonsense about how Texas should leave the Union (and isn’t that just the sort of person we need as President? Someone who doesn’t want his state to be part of this country?), held a big religious rally in Texas. It was technically non-denominational, but come on. This is Texas. It was a Christian event through and through. I could see any number of other political figures being willing to attend such things even, sadly, our President, but tell me: how many politicians can you name who would attend an atheist rally and are still planning to run for office?

The principle error of the new atheists lies in their inability to understand religion outside of its simplistic, exoteric, and absolutist connotations. Indeed, the most prominent characteristic of the new atheism–and what most differentiates it from traditional atheism–is its utter lack of literacy in the subject (religion) it is so desperate to refute. After all, religion is as much a discipline to be studied as it is an expression of faith. (I do not write books about, say, biology because I am not a biologist.) Religion, however it is defined, is occupied with transcendence–by which I mean that which lies beyond the manifest world and towards which consciousness is oriented–and transcendence necessarily encompasses certain theological connotations with which one ought to be familiar to properly critique belief in a god…[this continues in this vein for quite a bit]

From what I can tell here, Aslan is basically saying you can’t understand religion unless you’re a religious person. Bullshit. Besides, most atheists were raised in various different religions and have since moved past them. I was raised Methodist, for example. I attended a Methodist summer camp. I was in our church’s youth group. I know about religion at least in part because I was raised with one. Since then I’ve spent time learning and studying about it. I’d never seek to write a book on biology because, as with Aslan, I am not a biologist. But I have studied religion and I feel qualified to write about it. I can’t yet write books about it, because I don’t know as much about it as Dawkins, Hitchens and some of the others, but they have spent their lives studying religion and so, yes, they are qualified to write about the subject.

Also this is like saying that you can’t write about anything you personally haven’t experienced. This means you can’t write women’s issues unless you’re a woman, can’t write about gay issues unless you’re a gay and can’t write about ancient history unless you’re John McCain. Bollocks to that.

The new atheists will say that religion is not just wrong but evil, as if religion has a monopoly on radicalism and violence; if one is to blame religion for acts of violence carried out in religion’s name then one must also blame nationalism for fascism, socialism for Nazism, communism for Stalinism, even science for eugenics.

Religion is evil to the extent that it presents a view of reality that almost certainly is not true. That’s a real problem. It’s also used as an excuse to kill people all over the planet, both historically and even now. I can’t think of one time when society thought it was a good idea to kill off lots of people in the name of atheism.

As far as eugenics go, yes, what people thought was science, but was about as scientific as the notion that vaccines cause autism, was responsible. So in the negatives for science we can pencil in “eugenics”. In the negatives for religion we can pencil in (takes a deep breath), “The Holocaust, the Crusades, the Inquisitions, 9/11, 7/7, the oppression of the Palestinians, the on-going conflict between India and Pakistan, the problems of Ireland and Sri Lanka, the recent split of Sudan between north and south, the Balkan genocides in the 1990s, the Rwandan genocide, the African slave trade, the Defenestration of Prague, the original split between India and Pakistan, the whole notion of monarchy, the concept of ‘manifest destiny’, the missionaries who destroyed native cultures around the world, oppression of women and gays, anti-abortion terrorism, many of Japan’s war crimes during WWII, and war upon war upon war.”

So, you pick a winner there.

Oh, and just add more to the religion column: “The Lord’s Resistance Army, the various Islamic dictatorships who justify their dictatorships by invoking religion, the Catholic Church’s stand on birth control, the fact that there are still state religions in various nations, and the fact that blasphemy laws still exist in various nations thus stiffing free speech.”

There you go. Oh, you want more? This time more historical rather than modern? Right-o. “Wahabism, the wars between the Catholic Church and the C of E, the slaughter of non-Christians in Jerusalem and Constantinople, as well as the slaughter of Christians in those cities, both done in the name of God, the human sacrifices of the Aztecs, the Carthagians, and the Jews, the early wars to spread Islam, the various religiously-based social codes that held the lower-classes to be low because ‘God’ wanted them to be that way, the entire caste system of India, the mere fact that something like the Papal states existed, the fact that the Byzantine Emperor was supposed to help spread the faith, the fact that to this day the monarch of the UK is also ‘defender of the faith’ and head of the Church of England, Roman legal codes that required worship of the Emperor, and all the various and sundry ways in which religion says, ‘my imaginary friend is better than your imaginary friend and that makes me better than you.'”

Tired of this yet? Not me. “Anders Breivik, David Koresh, Jim Jones, Warren Jeffs, the Southerners in the old Confederacy who claimed God was in favor of slavery (it is supported by the Bible), and made sure to mention God in their various founding documents, conversion of Mormonism after death, stoning people to death for adultery, stoning a rape victim to death for adultery because she was raped by a married man, turning boys into sex toys in Afghanistan because men aren’t allowed to associate with women in healthy ways, stigmatizing sex in general and, last but not least, lying to people about the fundamental nature of reality.”

Phew. I need a break! You know what the really sad part was? All of those were off the top of my head. Religion is so insane and has done so much evil, that I was able to pop off all those examples without having to look up anything. If I had bothered to look up religious horror through the centuries, I’d probably fill another several screens.

Anyhow, I think I made my point. Science: One error with people following the “bad science” of eugenics. Religion: all that other crap.

What if one viewed the recurring patterns of religious phenomena that so many diverse cultures and civilizations–separated by immeasurable time and distance–seem to have shared as evidence of an active, engaging, transcendent presence (what Muslims call the Universal Spirit, Hindus call prana, Taoists call chi’i, Jews call ruah, and Christians call the Holy Spirit) that underlies creation, that, in fact, impels creation? Is such a possibility any more hypothetical than say, superstring theory or the notion of the multiverse?

Yes, those are very much more hypothetical because by using the scientific method we can’t “prove” any of them. Superstring theory and the notion of the multiverse actually have some evidence behind them. Things like chi’i do not.


The new atheists claim that people of faith are not just misguided but stupid–the stock response of any absolutist.

I don’t claim that people who believe are stupid. Quite the contrary, people like St Augustine, C S Lewis, Andrew Sullivan and, yes, Reza Aslan, were or are clearly very intelligent. They had to be in order to do the mental gymnastics needed to allow their minds enough to believe in such a fundamentally immoral endeavor as religion.

The 9/11 Cross Issue

Well, as you may have heard, an atheist group is filing a lawsuit to stop the display of a cross at the 9/11 Memorial. The cross itself was a piece of the World Trade Center that happened to form a cross shape and land in a cross-like position. It’s utter coincidence and I’m sure there were many of these, but, well, you know Christians.

Here’s my thoughts on this, and they’re pretty simple: If it’s on private property, the atheist group needs to knock it off. You can display whatever you want on private property. If, on the other hand, it’s on public property, that’s a different matter. Under previous court rulings, you can indeed display religious icons and such on public property, but if you do, you have to allow all religions.

Now I actually think that would be an ok compromise for a memorial. You can have a Christian cross, a Jewish star, a Muslim crescent, a Hindu wheel, a…oh, wait. A Muslim crescent?

Yes, let’s imagine the hue and cry that would errupt from that. You think it was bad during “Ground Zero” “Mosque” “Debate”? Just imagine if you had a Muslim symbol at the 9/11 memorial! Never mind that a lot of Muslims worked in the towers and died along with everyone else. I think Fox News would collectively explode.

So bottom line: if this is on private land, the lawsuit needs to stop. If it’s on public land, the cross needs to go away or you have to allow all religions, including Muslims, to display their religious imagery. I’m comfortable either way.