Thought of the day

“I would challenge anyone here to think of a question upon which we once had a scientific answer, however inadequate, but for which now the best answer is a religious one.”


Where the real persecution is

Christians in America have this habit of pretending that they are some persecuted minority: Our Muslim, socialist, communist, Nazi, white-hating, Kenyan, Marxist president has a war on religion; every December the nation’s retailers wage a war on Christmas; atheists want to ban Christian children from praying to themselves in school. And around and around it goes, Christians pretending that everyone is out to get them, that they have no power, and if we don’t all act fast, religious persecutions and moral decay are on their way. It is all a bald lie. Christians have nothing but power. They hold almost every political seat in the nation, whether on the state or federal level. They dominate the positions of authority in our legal system. Do you need to get time taken off your prison sentence? Don’t say you’ve found deep thinking in moral philosophers. Say you’ve found God and maybe you’ll get to see your family sooner than your atheist cellmate (presuming you are one of the rare people to experience such a person in an American prison).

The real belief-based persecution of people in America happens to two main groups: Muslims and atheists. The former is a relatively new, reactionary persecution related to September 11, but the latter has been happening since the inception of the nation. Look at any time period in the nation’s history to see who is being persecuted and I guarantee atheists will be mentioned every single time. Somewhere there is always someone seething over the idea that a person might not only reject the idea of a god in all its forms, but might also be a good person while doing it. Such an audacious lifestyle has had a strong history of garnering more than its fair share of emotion-based vitriol.

Unfortunately, it isn’t all history. Currently there is one openly atheist member of Congress. Compare that to at least 6 open gays. Or look at the fact that 9% of Americans would never vote for a Jew, yet 49% refuse to ever vote for an atheist. And then there are the actual lives of declared atheists:

[Take the story] of Harry Purdy, born in Manchester, the son of an American GI father he did not know. A year after the US government opened up its records, the then 46-year-old stepped off the plane at Louisville Airport, Kentucky in May 1991 and became the first of the lost GI babies to be reunited with his father. Purdy eventually took up American citizenship and moved over to live in 1993.

“It was a good thing I met him for the first time,” he told me when we met at a roadside restaurant near his home, “but this is Kentucky, this is the Bible Belt. I’m an atheist.” One by one, members of his new family turned against him because of his lack of belief. Harry doesn’t see any of his American family any more. “The last one I saw was my cousin, Ronnie. Every time he invites me over to dinner, he turns to religion. Last time I saw him, I didn’t back out, I took him full on.

“I’ve been told things like ‘I hope you have an accident, die and go to hell.’ So that’s what I’ve been up against.”

Friends have rejected him. “I used to be a good running friend with somebody who doesn’t live far from here. I mentioned on one occasion that I was an atheist and I’ve never seen him again … I came here knowing this was the Bible Belt, but I didn’t realise it was a more like a totalitarian Christian society: you’re either one of them or you’re not and there’s no in between. So I’ve learnt this lesson, to keep it to myself as much as possible.”

It might be suggested that one “solution” is to hide one’s lack of belief. This isn’t going to solve any problems, and even if it did, it isn’t going to solve the right ones. It’s telling people to lie about what they believe because the majority doesn’t want to hear certain voices.

From the outside, keeping your views to yourself may not seem such a problem. But this is only if you think that it’s easy to live hiding who you really are from almost everyone around you, even close family. Take Matt Elder, who lives in Festus, Missouri (pop. 11,602). When I met him in a downtown St Louis diner, he came across as a cheerful, friendly guy, not someone living under a kind of persecution. “They’re not going to cut me off or throw me to the wolves,” he says of his Christian family and in-laws. But if Elder is typical of the trying-to-keep-their-heads-down atheists scattered around the Bible Belt, then his story shows that none of them has it easy.

Elder says with a smile that when he goes out wearing his black T-shirt with its large scarlet A – the symbol of the atheist Out Campaign inspired by Richard Dawkins – “you’ll see mothers bring their children a little closer and step a little quickly away”. Elder is not militant and tries to be as accommodating as he can without being a hypocrite. “I would go to church with my wife about every week, just for community. But now, I don’t go because there’s really weird conflicts.” Weirdest of all is his regular appearance on the weekly prayer list. “There are times when people stand up and say stuff out loud to every­one else, and my wife did that while I was there.” I asked him what she said, and his paraphrase was: “My husband no longer believes in God and I’m scared for him and my family.” No wonder Elder feels that now at the church “there’s a target on my back”.

The statistics aren’t any better:

A now famous University of Minnesota study concluded that Americans ranked atheists lower than Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society”. Nearly 48 per cent said they “would disapprove if my child wanted to marry a member of this group” (many more than the next most unpopular category, Muslims, at 33.5 per cent).

I can say I’ve personally experienced someone turning me down for the explicit reason that I’m an atheist. I’m not so arrogant as to pretend there couldn’t be other factors, but it isn’t like people are in the habit of letting others down easy by going straight to religious (and non-religious) beliefs. Of course, it is understandable that a person would want to date a like-minded person, but that isn’t what the above poll was about. People were asked how they would feel about their child dating an atheist. The fact that there is a nearly 50% chance my would-be date’s parents were happy with her decision without knowing a thing about me is distressing. It betrays the prejudice which underlies so many of the misconceptions religious folks have about atheists.

A real solution to all these problems is for atheists to make their presence known. That means, when asked or relevant, to proudly state “I am an atheist” in front of absolutely anyone. No quibbling with “non-believer” or other terms of avoidance. Those phrases should be reserved for specific instances and linguistic purposes. If we can’t get rid of the stigma around the word “atheist”, then how can meaningful progress be had?

Some people will disagree with that strategy (such as Sam Harris, as quoted in the article), but for people to know they know atheists is the first step. This isn’t about trumpeting atheism around the public square or getting in anyone’s face; this strategy is not exclusive to Gnu atheists. Anyone who believes there is insufficient evidence for God in the same way there is insufficient evidence for celestial teapots ought to don a scarlet A, whether literally or figuratively. Letting people know we exist is the best way to combat the systematic scorn and persecution so many atheists face in America.

Sam Harris and William Lane Craig

I’m just beginning this debate, but I thought I’d throw it up here now for anyone who wants to watch.

Atheists, new atheists, and anti-theists

There’s confusion afoot. A lot of people aren’t sure what the difference is between atheists, new atheists, and anti-theists. Thank Zeus I’m here to clarify everything.

An atheist is someone without theism. This applies to those who actively reject all theologies but it can also apply to those ignorant of all theologies. The former point is clear enough (and includes deists), but the latter point begs for expansion.

Someone who is ignorant of all theologies is a bit of a rarity in one sense but then ever so common – in fact, they become commoner every day. In the first sense, few adults are without any form of theism. Anyone who amalgamates belief in a creator with normative statements has some theism. For instance, if someone says there is a creator of the Universe and that creator has commanded that people ought to act, behave, or believe in a particular way, that is a form of theism. (It isn’t necessary that an organized religion be the basis, but it does happen that even those who reject all religion tend to incorporate pieces of predominant cultural religious beliefs in their own personal theism.) On the other hand, someone who is a pure deist does not incorporate any statements of value into his belief (‘An entity started the Universe and that is it’) and is therefore an atheist, though connotations cause us to hesitate to such a label for a deist.

In the second sense, a baby is an atheist. This point draws the ire of a lot of theists who desire ever so deeply to incorrectly label their children things like “a Catholic child” or “a Baptist boy”, but this is part of the confusion. Remember, an atheist is simply someone without theism. A baby has no concept of God, except maybe in the sense that mommy and daddy are all-knowing and all-powerful. Until the child develops the ability to comprehend values, no theism can be said to exist.

A consequence of this definition is that all non-human things can be said to be atheists. A rock, a tree, speakers, spaghetti, metal, waterfalls. They’re all without theism. This is utterly correct, even if generally useless. Definitions are not required to acquiesce to popular connotations. A possibly helpful, if complicating, distinction can be made with the terms active atheism and passive atheism. An active atheist is aware of theologies, but rejects them. A passive atheist has no idea of any theology. An adult atheist would be an active atheist while a baby, tree, or spaghetti would be a passive atheist.

A new atheist is someone who rejects the existence of all gods, takes a strong stance against religion, and utilizes a strong tone. It originated in 2006 as a result of books written by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Victor Stenger. It does not refer to the novelty of any particular arguments, but rather the type of presentation of arguments. All the listed authors criticize religion, invariably making the statement or implication that religion is bad. This is a normative statement and it offers insight to a key difference between atheists and new atheists.

New atheists make value statements. Atheism is a descriptive position. To take a recent post, “Many people think bugs are gross” is descriptive. No judgement on the grossness or non-grossness of bugs has been passed. All that has been said is a statement of what many people think. On the other hand, “Bugs are gross” is a normative statement because it passes judgement on bugs. (It is necessary to qualify that atheism is “mostly” a descriptive position because this applies to active atheism. Passive atheism is a lack of description but gives the same result.)

New atheists aren’t merely rejecting the existence of all gods; they’re also saying religion, especially its component of faith, is bad. They’re saying something more about religion than that it isn’t true. They’re saying it’s a negative force in the world and we ought to find better alternatives such as reason, rationality, and science. Atheism, passive or active, does not make any of these claims.

An anti-theist is similar to a new atheist. Normative claims are made and belief in God is rejected. There are essential differences, however. One is that an active crusade against faith is not necessarily encouraged. Whereas a new atheist is considered out-spoken, an anti-theist may be as quiet as a mouse. In addition to this, tone is also not an inherent point. An anti-theist may take a gentle approach, offering respect towards religion and faith. New atheism, on the other hand, is partially defined by the vigor and forthrightness of its tone, as especially exemplified by the argument that says most religious claims have not earned anyone’s respect. In other words, new atheism is somewhat of a strategy (though that strategy is largely defined externally rather than internally by those who bear the label) while anti-theism may encompass a wide swath of individuals who believe in a wide swath of different ways to best attack the veracity of religion; new atheism takes one general path towards beating back religion (though it does not adhere solely to any individual path) while anti-theism makes no inherent claims of best strategy or approach.

Thought of the day

Science simply represents our best effort to understand what is going on in this universe, and the boundary between it and the rest of rational thought cannot always be drawn.

~Sam Harris


On morality.

There exists for those willing to see a new perspective a deeply satisfying purpose and meaning to life free from any divine influence. To glimpse this world, imagine for a moment that there is no invisible man in the sky using magical powers in “mysterious ways” to control our fate. Imagine that we can toss away the crutch of false hope and bad myth to walk unhindered down the path of personal responsibility. Without the burden of a wrathful god, we have the power to create our own meaning, our own sense of purpose, our own destiny. By rejecting the false premises of religion we are free to move beyond the random hand we are dealt at birth to pave our own road to a better life.

With freedom of course comes the obligation to act wisely and responsibly. We fulfill this duty first by taking a more modest view of our place in the world. When we see that humans are a natural part of the ecosystem, not above or separate from the environment, we will protect the resources that sustain us. When we reject the hubris and conceit of religion, we will redefine our relationship with each other without calling upon god to smite our enemies. When we understand that true morality is independent of religious doctrine, we will create a path toward a just society. We each have the power to create a life in which we no longer accept the arbitrary and destructive constraints of divine interference.