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Christian like me

[Religiously] Unaffiliated Americans are also less likely to vote in presidential elections than other religious groups. Although they make up 19% of the adult population, the AVS found that only 16% of unaffiliated are likely voters.

This quote, from The Evolution of the Religiously Unaffiliated Vote, 1980-2008, made me pause for a moment. Not to think about the importance or ethics of voting (or not voting, as the case may be). That is a fascinating topic, but one I don’t want to address right now. What I’m thinking about, actually, is what it says in terms of privilege.

Think about the fuss raised about Mitt Romney being Mormon, at least before he received the Republican nomination. It’s the exact same fuss that was raised in 2008, if you recall. Not the right kind of Christian. Not a Christian at all, according to some. Because, you see, Mormons aren’t real Christians. It was an uncanny echo of the objections raised to JFK, who also wasn’t a “real Christian” in spite of considering himself one. Obama, we hear, is also not a Christian. Sure, he might attend church. He might have written prolifically about his faith, and even belong to a Protestant denomination– United Church of Christ. But according to opponents who obviously know Obama’s faith more than he does himself, he’s actually, secretly, a Muslim. Or an atheist. Or both.

Evangelist Billy Graham’s career has been in large part about advising presidential candidates and presidents on how to be more Christian, or at least appear to be. According to With God on Our Side: The Rise of the Religious Right in America,* Graham (who is a registered Democrat, but opposed Kennedy because he was Catholic) began functioning in the role of adviser to the president on behalf of evangelical America with Richard Nixon, whom he advised to actually attend church every once in a while. Graham, for all of the legitimate criticisms one could make of his beliefs, was (and is, so far as I can tell– he’s still kicking around at age 94) at least earnest about them. He didn’t want to control the presidency or the government; he wanted a voice– according to Graham, Jesus did not have a political party (though he did, apparently, have opinions). In 1979 Graham refused to join Jerry Falwell’s so-called Moral Majority, saying:

I’m for morality, but morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice. We as clergy know so very little to speak with authority on the Panama Canal or superiority of armaments. Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people, right and left. I haven’t been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will be in the future.

It’s notable this same person supported Mitt Romney for president in 2012, and also that he has spent considerable time in his remaining years lending his name to causes opposing gay rights. Graham, who has been called “the Protestant Pope,” is a complicated man— his son Franklin much less so. The modern religious right is either less thoughtful or less honest, or both.

Now, I ask you to imagine…what if Billy Graham was Richard Dawkins? What if every president in America’s history had been a non-believer rather than a Christian, and a self-appointed advocate of secularism became powerful enough to advise every person aspiring to executive office on how to be properly atheist? And this person could decide for all of his followers whether they would join in allegiance in voting for the sufficiently atheistic presidential wannabe, or his/her opponent? I know of Christians who refused to vote in the 2012 election because they didn’t consider Romney a proper Christian, even though he represents their politics. Can you imagine if atheists did the same, from their own perspective?

Yeah, neither can I.

*Excellent book, by the way. Great for enhancing your own historical perspective. 

I am not a cockroach– what materialism is, and isn’t

Several years ago, I bounded out of a faculty building on a university campus and, in a thoughtful and optimistic mood, joined a couple of lecturers in the pub across the street. After we’d settled on benches in the garden out back, I mentioned that in the course of my studies, I seemed to be becoming a materialist. The reaction was immediate and memorable: “A Marxist, you mean?”

Not memorable, mind you, because unusual or unexpected. I had, after all, been studying political philosophy that semester, and this was the United Kingdom– and my interlocutors were British and Austrian, respectively. What else could I possibly mean? After all, Marx was a continuation of a long line of becoming more and more about…well, the material. German philosophy in the 19th and 20th centuries has in large part been about coming down from the ideological rafters and starting to deal with mundane, real, ordinary life. Realism in reaction to idealism. Imagine that scene from Mary Poppins in which they visited a friend of hers stuck on the ceiling because he laughed so much, and eventually everyone started laughing along and floated up there with him, while Mary stood on the floor beneath them impatiently waiting for them to come down. Those people floating around, drinking tea? Hegelians. Mary Poppins on the floor (at least, at that specific moment)? Young Hegelians, which sounds like progeny but is actually more reactionary. Estranged progeny. Marx was one of them. He was impatient with philosophers pretending that philosophy could be about things that don’t really matter– or to be more charitable, things that don’t really matter in daily, practical existence, such as making a living and feeding yourself and your kids. While Hegel waxed on about the für sich (for itself) and the an sich (for us), Marx took from that a lesson to figure out what it means to exist for yourself as opposed to for someone else, and translated it into a matter of property, and who is control of property. That’s Marxist materialism.

That was not really what I meant. But it’s connected.

What I meant was that, in the course of studying religion and culture, I for some reason got it into my head that I ought to learn more about the mind and how it produces…well, anything, including culture, to begin with. And with that thought, in rapid succession I read a long list of books which included the following:

  • Consilience, by E.O. Wilson
  • Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, by Daniel Dennett
  • The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker
  • How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker
  • Consciousness: An Introduction, by Susan Blackmore (if you have not read this, and are interested in the science and philosophy of consciousness and the theories of principle thinkers on such…do)
  • The Meme Machine, by Susan Blackmore
  • Consciousness Explained, by Daniel Dennett
  • Freedom Evolves, by Daniel Dennett
(This was pre-Breaking the Spell. This was pre-, for that matter, a lot of the popular literature on the cognitive science of religion, which became a thing in 1993 but didn’t really catch fire until about ten years later)

When you think about that, it’s really no wonder my MA thesis was a mess. It was a struggle between social constructivism– “continental philosophy”– as I was being taught, and a much more…well, naturey approach which I’d undergone basically on my own. Now, I hasten to pull up a bit here and note that the constructivist perspectives I was hearing about in the classroom (“post modernist” would be the indelicate term) were not useless. Far from it. I learned how important perspective is– that it must always be taken into account, and that manifold factors shape one’s perspective without any requirement of awareness or acknowledgement on the part of the speaker. I learned what it means to have privilege, and to lack it, and that claims of objectivity must never be taken for granted. That differences are as important as generalities. That it’s important, critical, to understand where people with other views are coming from– but that you don’t “win” against them by knowing it; you can’t psychoanalyze someone into submission. Anthropology, sociology, psychology…studies of human thought and behavior can’t begin and end with what people say about their own motivations for doing things. You need a heterophenomenological approach, which acknowledges that experience but doesn’t take it as authoritative. And knowing someone’s motivation may not confirm or refute what he or she is saying, but it can tell you a hell of a lot about why they’re saying it.

Knowing all of this augmented, rather than detracted from, my understanding that we are simply organisms making our way in the world, in our environment (both natural and social). I started to see culture as more of an extended phenotype than an independent causal force. My thesis was, in retrospect, a rather weak project and a terribly ambitious one at the same time– I was trying to sell cognitive science to scholars of religion. Make what seemed obvious to me– that you need to understand the brain in order to understand belief and behavior, including religious belief and behavior– seem even palatable, much less relevant.

Admittedly, I didn’t do the best job. At least, it didn’t appear to be very convincing. When it became clear that my PhD was going to be more along those lines, a meeting was held and it was determined that I’d need to go elsewhere. Why not to Denmark, where this university is starting a brand new program for the cognitive science of religion?

Yes. 

Anyway, getting back to materialism. I’m writing this in the first place in reaction to an “open letter to atheists”  posted on Answers in Genesis, which repeats every last misconception and outright falsehood about what it’s like to be an atheist– and therefore a materialist (which doesn’t actually follow, but oh well)– there is. To wit:

Do you feel conflicted about the fact that atheism has no basis in morality (i.e., no absolute right and wrong; no good, no bad?) If someone stabs you in the back, treats you like nothing, steals from you, or lies to you, it doesn’t ultimately matter in an atheistic worldview where everything and everyone are just chemical reactions doing what chemicals do. And further, knowing that you are essentially no different from a cockroach in an atheistic worldview (since people are just animals) must be disheartening. Are you tired of the fact that atheism (which is based in materialism, a popular worldview today) has no basis for logic and reasoning? Is it tough trying to get up every day thinking that truth, which is immaterial, really doesn’t exist?

Okay, yes, there is a version of materialism which entails that nothing but physical objects exist. That’s why I now prefer not to call myself a materialist– or a material girl, for that matter (diamonds have never been my best friend, or even a close acquaintance, really). I much prefer the term naturalist (which should not be confused with naturist. No nudism in this instance). It means, basically, that the natural world is what we have. That science has it right, and we should consider things to be real only if they have an objectively demonstrable existence. Which means, yes, that supernatural factors should not be taken into account. Metaphysical naturalism pairs well with secular humanism, the ethical philosophy that as humans we have to rely on our own resources and abilities to make existence better. To flourish, to reach our full potential, to do what my former adviser called “becoming divine.” But by that, she did not mean we should literally become gods ourselves. She was talking about enabling fulfillment, becoming the best, most satisfying version of yourself. We might have disagreed on several things, including terminology such as this, but not on the concept itself. To hear the author of this “letter to atheists,” you’d think such a pursuit would be worthless without a belief in God.

Actually, the author is mistaken about a lot of things, and it makes my head spin to try and articulate exactly how many. Perhaps most ironically, the fact that not only is atheism not based in materialism (since not being convinced of something doesn’t need to be “based” in any particular philosophy) but there are plenty of non-materialist atheists out there. Believers in the supernatural are certainly the stars of the mind/body dualism debate, but they certainly aren’t the only players. The most obvious part of this portrayal of  “atheists are materialists, which is a crap philosophy” is the inability to imagine that there can be any meaning in life without a belief in God, which I don’t think most atheists acknowledge the strength of. That is some powerful conviction, even with the similarly powerful fear of eternal hellfire which frequently accompanies it. What the author of the above letter, Bodie Hodge, is doing is conflating naturalism– the belief that objective reality is all we have– with the naturalistic fallacy, which says that the way things are is the way things should be. This is a common mistake, perhaps the most common mistake made regarding any view of life which appears too reductionistic for the person critiquing it: You think this is all there is. That must mean that’s all you want it to be. Well, of course not, replies the naturalist. If I point out that we’ve got a newly built house and several cans of paint, that doesn’t mean I’m opposed to having a painted house. I’m simply refusing to believe that the house will be or has already been painted by magical elves. If we want that house to be painted, we’d better get out the brushes and roll up our shirt sleeves.

Similarly, the criticism that “everything and everyone are just chemicals doing what chemicals do” is only really a criticism if you fail to recognize that what chemicals do is freaking amazing. Complaining that what we do and are is chemicals is like complaining that the Sistine Chapel is made of bricks, only worse because a chemical is far more versatile than a brick (and bricks are pretty darn versatile). “Greedy reductionism” is Daniel Dennett’s term for when you explain how something works by describing the interactions of its components (reductionism), but in the process of doing so, you leave some things out. You fail to take into account the true complexity of what you’re explaining, and end up doing the equivalent of describing how to bake a cake without mentioning that it requires some heat, a move which is legitimately invalid. Anti-reductionism, by contrast, is a refusal to see something in terms of its components in the first place. Opponents of evolutionary theory, and of what I’m going to stick with calling naturalism, often seem to have a hard time with the concept of emergent properties. Or at least, the concept of us being emergent properties. It’s okay for a lot of cars to equal traffic, but not for the activity of a load of chemicals to equal consciousness. Dennett was famously quoted as saying that we have a soul, but it’s made of lots of tiny robots. Religious anti-reductionists don’t like the robots. They don’t like the idea of unthinking things combining to form a thinking thing, at least not without the outside help– the outside design– of some grander, elevated thinking thing who had this all planned out from the beginning. Whenever that was.

“Knowing that you are essentially no different from a cockroach in an atheistic worldview…” Religious anti-reductionists have a problem with essentialism, too. And by that I mean, they seem to be addicted to it. They are too fond of it. Things have properties, and those properties are immutable, and there’s no room for one thing to turn into another thing– the very notion is ridiculous. Gender essentialism is the belief that men have to be one thing and women another, and never the twain shall meet– except to have sex and make babies, of course. That’s common enough in religion, but the “atheists are just the same as cockroaches according to atheists” thing is saying that unless we consider humanity to be separate from the rest of existence as distinguished by our relationship with God (aka possession of a soul), then we might as well be cockroaches. Hodge assumes the conclusion of atheists by his own standards– we reject what he thinks distinguishes us from vermin, therefore we must perceive ourselves as vermin. And wow, that must suck for us, huh? That must be why when you enter a room and turn on the lights, all of the atheists scatter for the dark space under the stove or the fridge.

But strangely…no, we’re not. We’re living our lives as human beings, thinking thoughts, doing work, relating to others, practicing empathy and creating works of art and caring for family and occasionally taking a road trip or seeing Avatar in 3D or making a podcast about video games. No demonstrable diminished joie de vivre; no elevated angst; no visible heightened incidences of people being told to get off of lawns or general curmudgeonliness (well, I can’t exactly speak to that– I’ve been a curmudgeon since age 20 or so). Hodge is simply mistaken about the consequences of non-belief, apparently because he cannot comprehend what it’s like not to believe. It’s like the god-of-the-gaps wrapped up in an argument from incredulity– “I can’t fathom what it’s like to not have, much less not need, this thing I find so important. So I can’t help but conclude that people who lack it are missing something important, and must suffer from the lacking.”

That– assuming someone’s conclusion through the lens of your own philosophy– is part of prejudice, or more basically it’s a form of ignorance which gives birth to prejudice. It seems to be most easily overcome by not just actually getting to know members of the group you’re prejudiced against and seeing that they have no existential gaps in their lives which need to be filled, but also by coming to realize that the choice you made (more or less voluntarily, depending), was in fact a choice. There were/are others, equally legitimate. Comparative religion courses are valuable in part because they encourage this realization– they nudge a student to take note of the fact that if he or she had been born somewhere else, his/her beliefs about the order and creator of the universe might well be radically different. It’s fine to stop there– this is the foundation of inter-faith exchange, after all– but some of us go on to conclude that if all faith-based perspectives are equally valid, then they are all equally invalid, and that maybe it would be better to go about life on the assumption that they are. This is a conclusion I reached in my junior year of college as a religious studies major, as part of a program at Texas Christian University which I recall the local Campus Crusade for Christ called an “atheist training camp.” Not hardly– it simply wasn’t/isn’t a seminary.

Is it tough trying to get up every day thinking that truth, which is immaterial, really doesn’t exist?

No, because I have no trouble distinguishing between the legitimacy of beliefs and the reality of physical objects. I’m perfectly aware that the fact that modus ponens can’t be found anywhere in the universe using a GPS or any other tracking device makes it no less real. You will not catch me stepping out of an airplane at 10,000 feet without a parachute on the conviction that truth is relative, and therefore doesn’t matter. But you also won’t catch me declaring that gravity (which is not material, but is physical) or modus ponens (which is neither) created the universe, and therefore should be worshiped. One thing a naturalistic worldview does cut down on is relentlessly anthropomorphizing things.

Internet antipathy, part 2….thousand

So, one of the people I was most looking forward to seeing (and talking with, if I could come up with something to talk about) at Skepticon was Matt Dillahunty, host of The Atheist Experience and president of the Atheist Community of Austin. As it was, I only got to see part of his talk on Sunday because I had to check out of my hotel and get out of town, and conversation was limited to Saturday night at Farmer’s Gastropub where Ed Brayton suggested that I’d said something about Dillahunty being banned from Freethought Blogs (a joke stemming from this non-joke, which unfortunately many don’t grasp as a joke and I didn’t want to be mistaken for one of them– clear as mud, right?).

Anyway. Dillahunty’s house was burgled yesterday, and he posted about it on Facebook. The thief or thieves  made off with some valuable jewelry, electronics, and other things. JT Eberhard responded to this by posting on his blog at Patheos that he really is short on cash (boy, I get that) but he would be donating any revenue resulting from hits on that post to Matt Dillahunty and his wife Beth in order to replace some of what was lost. Since that includes Beth’s wedding ring, not all of it is replaceable regardless of how much money is raised. But you get the intent of the gesture.  
Or at least, I got the intent of the gesture….some people on Reddit are having a hard time of it. The general thrust of their position is:
  1. Matt said on Facebook that he didn’t require donations, therefore it’s not just unnecessary but wrong and offensive to donate, 
  2. The stolen items were expensive, which means that Matt and Beth are filthy rich and it would be ridiculous to donate to replace such items when there are much needier people in the world,
  3. Matt and Beth’s insurance should cover the full cost, and if they don’t have insurance then this should just be a little lesson to them, and
  4. Who the hell is Matt Dillahunty, anyway?
These are reasons why Reddit has been labeled a “swirling pit of asshole.” One such troglodyte even took the opportunity call Dillahunty fat. It wasn’t enough to shrug and say “I’m not interested,” or just pass over the thread completely in a non-vernal expression of that same sentiment….they had to play “Dear Muslima” about it and try to shame someone for trying to be charitable and help out a friend and good guy who experienced something really horrible. That’s a serious case of empathy impairment, right there. 
Maybe it’s particularly salient to me because I’ve experienced a very similar thing a few years ago– some people broke into my apartment and stole things. And the things they stole were expensive– two laptops. They didn’t know that one of the laptops was completely non-functional, and had in fact been replaced by the other one but I couldn’t bring myself to trash the old one. Maybe they told themselves that my ownership of such things meant I was wealthy, and that if I could afford such things, I could afford to replace them. Wrong. And no, I had no renter’s insurance. And my MA dissertation was on the working laptop. 
But as with Matt and Beth, the worst thing about it was the feeling of violation– the broken window, the door left open, the knowledge that someone has been in your space. The feeling that can’t exactly be alleviated, but at least can be softened a bit by the knowledge that people care about you. And online, this is the form that care tends to take. 

A simple ethics of expectations

On the news this morning I listened to a report about a new virus discovered in Saudi Arabia. But after talking about how scary and disturbing that is, it was mentioned that it has infected a total of two people and is believed to be only transmissable from non-human animals to humans, so it probably won’t be any significant threat to the tens of thousands of people expected to flood into the country for the Hajj, the pilgrimmage to Mecca.

And I thought…..man, I’m glad I don’t believe in a god who wants me to do things.

Not just things like go on a pilgrimmage to a country where I might get infected with a virus, but anything. Because those things might be against my own interests, and because they’re expectations of a god, they’re not expectations I could advisably ignore.

Now, morality requires you to act against your own interests sometimes– only psychopaths go around using other people with absolutely no regard for those peoples’ welfare. But with morality, you’re refraining from harming people for the sake of those people. With the expectations of a god, you’re refraining from doing things because of the demands of a being that you don’t even know exists. And whom you can’t harm.

Frequently, and happily, the expectations of the gods people believe in just happen to be things they would do anyway, because they’re also moral (e.g. giving to the poor). Infrequently, the expectations of the gods people believe in are very immoral indeed (e.g. punishing non-believers). And frequently those expectations are morally neutral or close to it (e.g. making a pilgrimmage). But even a morally neutral expectation can be an unnecessary pain in the ass at best for the believer because it still requires him or her to at least exert some energy, time, and/or money on something he/she wouldn’t otherwise do. And in this case, could actually prove very harmful to him or her.

Good things are worth doing because they’re good.

Good things may be good because of God, or they may not. But regardless, you don’t need to believe in God to know what Good is, and to do good things.

If God is good, then God should only expect us to do good things. Not bad things, and not neutral things. Not because neutral is bad, but because it’s subjective– once you demand that someone do a neutral thing rather than them doing it for their own pleasure, you’re imposing on them. And that’s bad.

Conclusions:

Therefore, it would be reasonable for a believer in God to do only those things which God expects that are recognizable as good by the believer him/herself. Which would mean that “God says so” is never sufficient reason to consider something good.

Therefore, a believer who is moral should behave identically* to a non-believer who is moral.

Therefore, you can tell if the god someone believes in is good by whether that person’s behavior reflects an expectation of doing only Good things, not bad things or neutral things.

Therefore, believing in God, if God is good, is a morally neutral thing to do. As is not believing in God. If God is bad or neutral, then believing in God is an imprudent (bad for you) or bad (immoral) thing to do.

*Edit: This is a problematic term. I don’t mean “exactly the same as” but “indistinguishably from.”

Skepticon 5

So, I’m going. Registered, got a hotel room, time off work scheduled, etc.

Haven’t been since 2010, and I’m sure a great deal has changed since then, well beyond a good portion of the speakers. It should be really interesting and a lot of fun…hopefully things like sleep and wifi will be included rather than unexpected bonuses.

If you’re anywhere in the Midwest, you might consider coming too.

Atheism Minus

…is my term for the collective group of idiots who contributed to Jen McCreight deciding that blogging is no longer worth the harassment she has faced on a daily basis. I wish they would form their own organization already. As soon as they hold a conference, the organizers of all other secular conferences could examine the attendees and speakers lists, and know who to forbid from future meetings of their own.

And this news comes only a week after Jen gave a very interesting and hopeful interview with Ed Brayton on his show Culture Wars Radio (available here, and in podcast form on iTunes). Give it a listen– the interview is in the latter half of the show, starting at 59:48.

Oh, on that sexism in atheism/skepticism topic…

If you only read one thing about it– or, more likely, if you’ve read plenty about it and are either borderline overwhelmed or so overwhelmed that you can hardly see “whelmed” from where you stand– read Natalie Reed’s post from a couple of days ago, “All In.” It’s long, but definitely worth reading in its entirety.

If you need some further explanation of the Thunderfoot thing, read this, but it really isn’t the central focus of Natalie’s post. More of a catalyst. I may not come down where she does on every issue, but can’t find a single thing in that essay that I out-and-out disagree with. And she lays it out with a depth and feeling that makes me ashamed of how glibly I summed up the problem in my last post.

What’s a “bad atheist”?

Ian Murphy has a piece on AlterNet called The 5 Most Awful Atheists, the title of which can be read a few different ways. He could be talking about people who happen to be atheists, who are awful. Or, he could be talking about people who are awful at being atheists. His subheading– Many notable atheists believe in some powerfully stupid stuff, thereby eroding the credibility of all atheists— suggests that he might believe that you can be awful at being an atheist by being an awful person, or at least being a person who believes awful things, or who believes things for awful reasons. Murphy’s article actually conflates all of these things, which is precisely the problem with it. It does, however, work admirably as an illustration of why they shouldn’t be conflated.

In short, Murphy contends that Sam Harris, Bill Maher, Penn Jillette, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are “awful atheists” because they are awful people– in his opinion. Specifically, they hold personal and political stances that he finds repulsive, which means (to him) that they aren’t rational. And as we all know, “rationalist” and “atheist” are the same thing.

Wait, they aren’t? Could’ve fooled Murphy:

The thing about the so-called “rationalist” movement in America is that disbelief in gods seems to be the only qualification to join the club. Disbelief in a supernatural creator, especially as the movement becomes more popular or “hep,” as I’m pretending the kids say, in no way guarantees rationality in matters of foreign policy or economics, for example. Many notable atheists believe in some powerfully stupid stuff—likely owing their prominence to these same benighted beliefs, lending an air of scientific credibility to the myths corporate media seeks to highlight, and thereby eroding the credibility of all atheists in the long-term. In other words: The crap always rises to the top.

Here’s a thought: From here on out, criticize self-proclaimed rationalists for dropping the ball when it comes to being rational. Say that people who declare themselves to be skeptics are “awful skeptics” when they fail abysmally at applying skepticism in their outlook. Disbelief in a supernatural creator– or more accurately, a deity generally– is all it takes to be an atheist. So saying that Harris, Maher, Jillette, and Hirsi Ali are “awful atheists” because of something you dislike about their thinking which is not a lack of belief in a god or gods is incoherent. They have not failed at being atheists. They may have failed at being rationalists, skeptics, humanists, non-bigots, or just decent people generally, but not at atheism.

Why have I excluded S.E. Cupp from this consideration? Well, because I think she might actually have failed at atheism. I really don’t know much about her– less by far than any of the other people Murphy criticizes– but he describes her as being “self-loathing” as an atheist: “She recently said, ‘I would never vote for an atheist president. Ever,’ because she thinks religion serves as a ‘check’ on presidential power.” The only time I am likely to think of someone as a “bad atheist” is when they don’t appear to actually be an atheist, and/or can’t seem to get his or her mind around the concept. The most recent time that happened was Christopher Beha’s review of recent books by atheists in which he counts himself amongst the “disappointed disbelievers” whose only recourse is to seek simple pleasure in recreational drugs (!) or other transient entertainment in order to avoid or ignore the nihilism to which non-belief logically, inevitably leads. Atheism: you’re doing it wrong.

Hemant Mehta wrote of Murphy’s piece:

Here’s a summary of his list:

  • Sam Harris: He thinks religious profiling might have merit and defends torture in some instances.
  • Bill Maher: He’s misogynistic, condescending, and anti-flu-shots.
  • Penn Jillette: He’s a libertarian.
  • Ayaan Hirsi Ali: She’s practices “neoconservative lunacy” and is excessively anti-Islam.
  • S.E. Cupp: She’s a self-loathing atheist

I’ll give him S.E. Cupp. When it comes to atheism, she’s pretty embarrassing, talking about how she openly wishes she were religious and how she refuses to vote for an atheist. It’s arguable that her atheism, true or not, is more of a schtick she uses to get attention. But the rest of them? Please.

Mehta goes on to discuss the validity of Murphy’s individual objections, and evaluates whether these five people in terms of how much they have done to convince other people to become atheists, which I’d say is more a measure of their individual respective knacks for evangelism. It doesn’t specifically address how good they are at being atheists, because that’s fundamentally silly– you can’t be “good” at not believing in something. Lack of belief has no merit badges, no ranks, no authorities, no governing organizations. There are certainly organizations of atheists, but rising in power and influence within those organizations is not about how strongly you disbelieve (what a bizarre thought), but how good you are at….well, making it more comfortable to disbelieve. Easier. More acceptable. Less like something you’d feel the need to snort a line of cocaine to escape from, or openly disdain in order to curry favor with believers who require the myth of the self-destructive and nihilistic non-believer to be maintained.

It is, by the way, to the benefit of atheists to clarify these distinctions rather than blur them, intentionally or otherwise.  If we don’t pretend that rationalism, skepticism, secularism, humanism, and atheism are all the same thing, then people won’t mistakenly think that pointing out downfalls in one is the same as refuting them all, especially when the downfalls they’re pointing out are restricted to an individual person– intended for some reason to not only represent the entirety of one (non)ideology, but of all of them. That’s an absurd move, one that shouldn’t receive any help from the people it seeks to vilify. So don’t give that help. Pay attention to the distinctions. Recognize that people aren’t packages– they can be exemplary at one thing you admire while failing abysmally at another– and adjust your need for spokespeople accordingly.

Reject them when they don’t speak for you. Don’t let other people assume they do, and then hold you accountable for their failings. And for god’s sake, don’t assume that a person failing in any way somehow reflects on an entire body of people whose connection to that person really has nothing to do with whatever flaw you found. That’s called prejudice, and the people unfairly slandered by it are not the ones at fault.

Petition to free Alexander Aan

I had no idea that the White House had established a web site specifically to host petitions. Some of them are quite wacky, but the one I got an email from CFI (the Center for Inquiry) about today is very worthy:

Call upon the Indonesian government to respect the freedom and dignity of all its citizens and to free Alexander Aan. Earlier this year, Indonesian civil servant Alexander Aan posted on Facebook that he doubted the existence of God. He was then attacked and beaten by an angry mob, and arrested for blasphemy. On June 14, Aan was convicted of “disseminating information aimed at inciting religious hatred or hostility,” sentenced to 30 months in prison, and saddled with a large fine. Now many Indonesians are calling for his death. By punishing Aan, Indonesia is violating its obligations to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees every person the rights to freedom of belief and expression. We petition the Obama administration to call upon the Indonesian government to immediately release Alexander Aan and improve its protections for religious dissidents and nonbelievers.

There can be no freedom of religion where there is no right to be non-religious. When simply admitting that you don’t share the religious beliefs of the majority amounts to blasphemy, it’s effectively illegal to not believe. This petition has a long way to go, and I don’t know whether it will do any good. But it’s simple to sign, so please do!

The big bad atheist will blow your religion down?

Ronald Lindsay, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry (CFI), wrote a piece for the Huffington Post comparing coming out as an atheist to coming out as LGBT. In it he urges atheists to reveal their existence to the world for much the same reason that it’s good for “queers” of all sorts to come out– for their own happiness and for the world to recognize their ubiquity and similarity to themselves. Just normal folks, as worthy and intelligent and moral and loving as anyone else. Recognition of this is the single biggest factor in social acceptance, and it’s good to encourage. But while making this comparison, Lindsay also draws what he sees as an important contrast:

I don’t think coming out will have the same level of success for atheists as it’s had for LGBT individuals. Why? Because even after we come out, some fear will persist. For some, the level of fear, the sense of being threatened, may actually increase. There’s a big difference between being gay and being an atheist. Someone can persuade you to be an atheist; no one is going to persuade you to be gay (no matter what the extremist anti-gay propaganda says). I don’t foresee a best-selling book entitled “The Straight Delusion” or “Heterosexuality Poisons Everything.” The LGBT community wants acceptance; they don’t want to persuade others to join their “team,” and even if they had that objective, they would strive for it in vain. By contrast, the amount of literature that has been produced in the last decade criticizing religious belief is extensive and continues to grow. Moreover, these critiques of religion seem to have had some effect. Of course, many atheists have little or no interest in persuading the religious to abandon their beliefs. They merely want to be treated as equals and to end the influence that religion has on public policy. That doesn’t matter. The realization that many atheists once were religious and then “lost” their faith has an unnerving effect on some of the religious. How far will atheism spread? Will I be next? Or my children?

Okay, so prejudice against atheists– in America, at least– has been demonstrated to exist. It takes the form of a distrust, a belief that atheists are different and mysterious, fundamentally “other,” and that they cannot be relied upon to support the same ideals, to “share the same vision of American society.” However, there are some interesting aspects to that. The first is that this impression of atheists as a threat to societal values can be significantly diminished by reminders of social controls– if people receive messages indicating a strong justice system is in place, their anxiety of wanting a supernatural form of police as backup seems to drop substantially. In addition to this, there’s a factor that runs counter to Lindsay’s suggestions:

In the third experiment, Gervais gave the subjects one of three passages to read and react to – one on food, an excerpt from The God Delusion in which Dawkins argues that belief is nonsensical, and a passage detailing the increasing numbers of atheists in the USA in recent decades. This last passage included the crucial fact that at least 20% of Americans aged 18-25 are atheists. For the religious, reading that atheism was rather more common than they previously believed had a remarkable effect. It effectively abolished their distrust of atheists. To me, this result strongly suggests that distrust of atheists is mostly due to fear of ‘others’. It suggests that the main reason for the distrust is that the subjects had not realised that many of their fellow students were, in fact, atheists. Once they learned that atheists were not a weird, alien group, but rather people just like them, they felt able to trust them. And I think this conclusion is supported by the experience of atheists in places like the UK, where overt atheism is much more prevalent and distrust of atheists is correspondingly lower.

How to say this? I think Lindsay is treating the issue a little too…rationally. And by that I mean, he seems to believe that the greatest threat that atheists present to theists is the fact of their having a different opinion about what would seem to be a foundational matter, the existence of a creator. And yes, clearly efforts to argue that matter such as The God Delusion are a turn-off for people of faith, and should be viewed much more as sources of reassurance for atheists, especially the new kind, than as tools of conversion for the religious. Given how many times I’ve seen the same refutations of the same arguments done more and less artfully in various forms in books and internet forums and chat rooms over the past couple of decades to no apparent avail, I don’t find that idea hard to swallow at all. Religion is far from a purely intellectual matter, and– let’s be honest– so is atheism. Acceptance seems far more likely to be dependent on tripping the right empathy triggers than anything else.

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