Friday, September 28, 2007

Being nice is the best tactic

I've been reading all the new "new atheism" books out there lately...The God Delusion, God is not Great, Letter to a Christian Nation, etc. Dawkins, Hitchens and Dennett et al are brilliant. Their ability to get their points across leaves me breathless with envy.

But they're so darn mean!

Don't get me wrong. I agree with them. I believe religion, especially the fundamentalist versions of it, is bad. It makes no sense and I don't understand how intelligent people can possibly believe any of it.

But I'm just having a hard time dealing with the meanness I'm reading. It doesn't seem necessary. Maybe it's a reaction to the agression atheists have received from theists all over the world for centuries. I confess I find it highly entertaining in a way. It's sure more interesting to read than most of the philosophical, professorial stuff I read on a lot of the atheism blogs I follow. But after I finish reading, I feel a little bad.

It's not in my nature to be mean like that. Not as a rule, anyway. I can be grumpy with the best of them at times. For most of my life, I've been a committed atheist, but I've always felt that religion, when practiced with the best intentions, is not really a bad thing, and can inspire people to do good things (even if it is for a heavenly reward and not true altruism). I'm doing it! I'm being mean. Well, I'll reserve the one can be sweetness and light 24/7.

But I had a thought a few minutes ago while reading yet another blog entry about how vitriolic some of these atheist writers can be. I thought... "wouldn't it be the best demonstration of how great atheists are if we all just acted really nice all the time?" It's like they well is the best revenge. Well...being nice would prove all the theists wrong about us being amoral and evil and all that nonsense.

So, now I can continue to be my natural, nice self, being open about my atheism, and knowing that my nature will show dubious theists that atheists are nice people too.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Mojoey's Atheist Blogroll

Herewith, Mojoey's (Deep Thoughts) Atheist Blogroll, being pasted all over the atheist blogiverse to promote atheism blogs and raise their ratings in Technorati. In the words of a godless heathen is not on the list, but I may write to Mojoey and ask him to add it (if I can get over my feeling that this little blog isn't really worth promoting).

Enjoy the links, read your little hearts out, learn a few things, form a few opinions and let me know if you find anything particularly tasty.

2 Intellectual Atheists
A Daily Dose of Doubt
A Human Mind
A Load of Bright
A Night on the Tiles
A Veritable Plethora
A Whore in the Temple of Reason
About: Agnosticism / Atheism
Abstract Nonsense
Aces Full of Links
Action Skeptics
After Faith
Agnostic Atheism
aidan maconachy blog
Ain’t Christian
Al-Kafir Akbar!
Alien Atheist
Am I mad, or is the world?
Amused Muse
An Enlightened Observer
Angels Depart
Angry Astronomer
Arcis Logos
Atheism is the Rational Response
Atheism Online
atheism |
Atheism: Proving The Negative
Atheist Blogs Aggregated
Atheist Ethicist
Atheist Ethics
Atheist Father
Atheist Girl
Atheist Housewife
Atheist Hussy
Atheist Movies
Atheist Revolution
Atheist Says What
Atheist Self
Austin Atheist Anonymous
Author of Confusion
Axis of Jared
Ayrshire Blog
Babble, bullshit, blasphemy and being.
Bay of Fundie
Beaman’s World
Beep! Beep! It’s Me.
Ben’s Place
Bert’s Blog
Bible Study for Atheists
Bill’s View
bits of starstuff
Bjorn & Jeannette’s Blog
Black Sun Journal
Blogue de Mathieu Demers
Bob Kowalski
Born Again Atheist
Buridan’s Ass
By The Book Comics
Can’t make a difference
Christian Follies
Church of Integrity
Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster
Circular Reasoning
Cogita Tute - Think For Yourself
Coming Out Godless
Complete Materialist
Confessions of an Anonymous Coward
Cosmic Variance
Crazy Christian Chain Emails
Culture for all
Daily Atheist
Dark Christianity
Dark Side of Mars
Darwin’s Dagger
Daylight Atheism
Debunking Christianity
Deep Thoughts
Deeply Blasphemous
Desperately Seeking Ethics and Reason
Deus ex Absurdum
DEVOUT Atheist Godless Grief
Die Eigenheit
Dime a dozen
discernible chaos
Disgusted Beyond Belief
Dispatches from the Culture Wars
do not read this blog
Dr. Joan Bushwell’s Chimpanzee Refuge
Drunken Tune
Dubito Ergo Sum
Duplicitous Primates
Dwindling In Unbelief
Edifying Spectacle
Edward T. Babinski
Elaine Vigneault
Everyday Atheism
Everyday Humanist
Everything Is Pointless
Expired Convictions
Explicit Atheist
Feersum Endjinn
Fish Wars on Cars
Five Public Opinions
Flex Your Head
Free Mind Joe
FreeThought by a FreeThinker
Freethought vs. Friel-Thought
Freethought Weekly
Friendly Atheist
Geoff Arnold
Gimme Back My God!
God is for Suckers!
God is Pretend
Godless Kiwi
Godless on the Wasatch Front
Goosing the Antithesis
Gospel of Reason
Gratuitous Common Sense
Greg Hartnett
Happy Jihad’s House of Pancakes
Hayleys Paranormal Blog
Hellbound Alleee
hell’s handmaiden
High Maintenance Hags
Honjii’s Harangues
Human Psyche of J.D. Crow
Ice Station Tango
In Defence Of Reason
Incessant Expressions
Inkblot Icon
Irked off
Jewish Atheist
Judith’s thought-provoking hard-hitting journal
K H A L A S !
Kill The Afterlife
King Aardvark
Lary Crews
Le Contestataire
le tiers monde
leaping rabbit/lapin sauteur
Leicester Secularist
Let There Be Light
Letters from a broad
Life & Otherwise
Life is an adventure
Life Without Faith
Life, the Universe and Everything
Living with Missy and other thoughts
LOL god
Look at the Bright’s Side
Lord J-Bar For Democracy, Not Theocracy
louis’ blog
Love the Nimbu
Lubab No More
lynn’s daughter, thinking
Masala Skeptic
Matt’s Notepad
Mechanical Crowds
Meet An Atheist
Memoirs of a (G)a(y)theist
Memoirs of an ex-Christian
Midwest Atheist
Mike’s Weekly Skeptic Rant
Misc. Musing
mister jebs blog
Modern Agnostic
Modern Atheist
My Case Against God
My Elemental Muse
My Life Thinly Disguised as Groove
Naturalistic Atheism
Neural Gourmet
New Humanist Blog
Nicest Girl and Destroyer of Planets
No Double Standards
No More Hornets
No more Mr. Nice Guy!
Non Credo Deus
North Alabama Rant
Nothing Is Sacred
One Fewer God
Onion Breath
Onwards and Forwards
Open Parachute
Oz Atheis’s Weblog
parenthetical remarks
Philosophers’ Playground
Pink Prozac
Pinoy Atheist
Planet Atheism
Pooflingers Anonymous
Primordial Blog
Principles of Parsimony
Prose Justice
Psychodiva’s Mutterings
Quintessential Rambling
Ramblings of an Atheist Undergrad
Random Intelligence
Rank Atheism
Re-imagine Ritual
Reeding and Writing
Religion is Bullshit !
Rev. BigDumbChimp
Richard Carrier Blogs
Rideo ergo sum
Robert’s Thought’s
Ron’s Rants
Rupture the Rapture
Russell’s Teapot
Saint Gasoline
Sans God
Scientia Natura
Sean the Blogonaut
Secular Humanism with a human face
See For Yourself
Shared Difference
Silly Humans
Skeptic Rant
Skeptical Personal Development
So long, and thanks for all the guilt!
Son Shines Zee 365
Southern Atheist
Stardust Musings and Thoughts for the Freethinker
Staring At Empty Pages
Steven Carr’s Blog
Strange Land
Summer Squirrel
Talk Reason
Talking to Theists
Tangled Up In Blue Guy
Tarpan’s Blog
Televangelists with Toupees
Terahertz - From Physics to Life
Thank God I’m An Atheist
The Affable Atheist
The Allen Zone
The Angry Atheist
The Anonymous Atheist
The Apostate
The Ateist Endeavor
the atheist chronicles
The Atheist Effect
The Atheist Experience
The Atheist Jew
The Atheist Mama
The Atheist Resistance
The Atheocracy
The Atheologist
The Bach
The Blasphemous
The Blog of M’Gath
The Cat Ranch
The Chronicles of Gorthos
The Conscious Earth
The Daily Cat Chase
The Eternal Gaijin
The Flying Bagpiper
The Flying Trilobite
The Fundy Post
The Gay Black Jew
The Godless Grief
The Good Atheist
The Great Realization
The Greenbelt
The Happy, Religion Free Family
The Homeless Atheist
The Honest Doubter
The Humanist Observer
The Incomer
The Jesus Myth
The Jewish Atheist
The Labour Humanist
The Libertarian Defender
The Lippard Blog
the LITTLE things
The Mary Blog
The Nate and Di Show
The Natural Skeptic
The New Atheist
The New Horizon
The O Project
The One With Aldacron
The Pagan Prattle Online
The Panda’s Thumb
The People’s Republic Of Newport
the post-bicameral mind
The Questionable Authority
The Rad Guy Blog
The Raving Atheist
the right of reason
the Science Ethicist
The Science Pundit
The Second Mouses Guide to Life
The Second Oldest Question
The Secular Outpost
The Secular-Man Blog (An Oasis of Clear Thinking)
The Serenity of Reason
The shadows of an open mind
The Skeptic Review
the skeptical alchemist
The Strong Atheist
The Thermal Vent
The Uncredible Hallq
The Underground Unbeliever
The Uninformed Suburban Housewife
The Uninspired Manifesto
The Zen Of G
These Twisted Times
They Promised Us Jetpacks and We Got Blogs
Thought Theater
Toxic thought waste site
Ungodly Cynic
Unscrewing The Inscrutable
Uri Kalish - Urikalization
Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy
Vetenskap & F?rnuft
View From Earth
Villa Nandes
Wanderin’ Weeta
Way of the Mind
Why Dont You Blog?
Wild-Eyed Atheist Boy
Without Gods
Writer Philosopher Culture Warrior
Yet Another Blog
You Made Me Say It
Young Earth Creationists Anonymous
Zeemy’s Paradigm
Zen Curmudgeon
“Atheism Sucks” sucks

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Challenges of being an atheist

I have difficulty sometimes with the challenges I face as an atheist. That's not to say I would ever stop being an atheist -- I wouldn't. Whatever challenges I may perceive or experience are minor irritants or simply philosophical quandaries compared with the certainty I feel about the non-existence of deities. And yes...I am certain. 100%.

I am lucky to live in a country where being an atheist is rarely considered to be a scandalous thing. At least in my own experience. I'm sure there are plenty of reformed theists out there in the rest of Canada who have experienced dreadful repercussions as a result of denying the existence of god. This might be especially so in the eastern part of the country and most especially in Quebec, where Catholicism is rampant in the more rural areas of the province. Montrealers, however, are among the most worldly and sophisticated people we have in this country and I'm sure the percentage of atheists there is as high as, or higher, than anywhere else in Canada.

Being from one of Canada's larger urban centres, I have never experienced more than mild surprise from others when I reveal that I'm an atheist. More typically, I'll find out that my interlocutor is also an atheist or an agnostic. Agnosticism is especially high in this country. Hardly anyone I know claims a philosophy more religious than agnosticism. My gentle, polite compatriots are a surprisingly doubtful lot. Canada is a very good place to live for those of us who doubt or disbelieve.

But that doesn't mean we don't have philosophical and practical challenges to face now and then. And the challenges become greater when, like me, you begin to explore more deeply into the world of atheism, when you start devouring everything you can find on the subject. Being only human, all this reading and listening and exploring leads to the inevitable: questioning.

I'm not saying I'm beginning to doubt my position as an atheist. I'm not and I don't. My convictions on the matter are stronger than they've ever been. What I'm saying is that by probing more deeply into the questions that arise from a study of atheism, I sometimes come up against conundrums that, as a a simple person with a only college education and a curious mind can't quite get my head around and don't have the knowledge or experience to solve.

Take for instance one of Richard Dawkins' most hotly held beliefs: that expecting children to follow the religious beliefs of their parents is child abuse. Well, firstly, I have to say that his position is far too stubborn for me to espouse, even though I agree that children should be given the opportunity to make up their own minds about the matter when they're old enough to do so.

My problem with the idea is that, well, what else are parents supposed to do? Leave their kids with a babysitter when they go to their place of worship? Hide all the crucifixes and bibles and holy things away in a dresser drawer so the kids won't be influenced by them or become curious until that unknowable future day when someone (who?) decides they're at the right age to form their own opinion? Is a pious person supposed to refrain from talking about god or saying grace or using expressions that reveal their theism, even in the privacy of their own home just to avoid the possibility of "contaminating" the kids before they're ready for it?

Seriously...keeping religion from kids is simply not going to happen, for many reasons. First, it's just not practical. If everyone who went out of their homes to worship had to leave the kids with a babysitter while they were gone, who's going to be taking care of the kids? Atheists, agnostics and people of different faiths. Hmmm. See a problem there?

And what happens when you try to hide things from children? just makes them a lot more curious to find out what's going on, and for sure you're going to find some day that the dresser drawer in which you hide your religious paraphernalia has been riffled through and there's peanut butter stains on the pages of your bible and cookie crumbs in your crucifix. By hiding these things, you'd just be making the kids even more curious. And why should parents have to go into contortions to prevent their own children from sharing in their religion?

I realize I'm arguing on the theists' side right now, but some things are just too unrealistic to expect. It'd be like asking George Bush to form a coherent thought without a speechwriter writing it down for him. I'd like children to make up their own minds, but I just don't see how it's possible to shield them from any religious influence (if they live in a religious family) until they can make up their own minds on the subject. And while I'm at it, is it any better to lead a child to believe there is no god before they have the resources to decide for themselves?

I think this is one area where we atheists will just have to step back and let the wisdom that comes with time and age help children find their own way to whatever belief is most comfortable for them. As an atheist, I would hope that parents will at least expose their children from an early age to the fact that there are other belief systems out there, including, where applicable, the concept that some people do not believe in any god at all. But even with no pressure from parents, most children will choose whatever belief system their parents's just how people are.

Ironically though, my feeling is that if you simply didn't mention religion or god at all, most kids would wind up as atheists. In this day and age, there simply isn't any reason to invent god on your own. There's enough evidence out there to explain the world satisfactorily for most children. They wouldn't need a made-up figure to stand in for what they can see right in front of their eyes or find out with a few keystrokes on the Internet. Of course, I'm speaking of children in a society like the one I exist in. It's not within my power to discuss how things are for kids in foreign cultures. Kids get over the concept of Santa Claus easily enough - after the initial trauma wears off. They can get over god too.

Another challenge I find myself grappling with is the question "what would the world be like without gods?" would the world look, what would be the impact of the death of religion? What would we replace it with, if anything? People require certain things in order to feel that life has meaning, purpose and sense. Ritual is one. Community is another -- we're social beings and no matter how sophisticated and modern and technologically advanced we think we are, we are subject to our instinctive craving for community.

Ritual is not really a problem. It's as easy to create rituals for life passages for atheists as for theists. In fact, many aspects of theistic rituals do not require a belief in god. We already have civil marriage. Funerals in many ways are a-religious except for the prayers that are said. Most other milestones in life can be marked quite easily with parties or solemn reflection or whatever the appropriate response is...without prayer.

Community is another matter though, and this is where I stumble when trying to imagine a world without god. Even the most ardent introverts at some points in their lives seek out the company of other people. Hermits are exceedingly rare in all societies so it's not even logical to combine them into the mix as proof of anything this way or that way. Let's face it...churches, mosques, synagogues, temples...they all serve as gathering places for community. What do we atheists have that would replace that?

Not believing in something is not a good basis upon which to build community. Free thinkers don't like to be boxed in or labeled. Flesh and blood atheist clubs tend to be small and, I would guess, rather plastic, with membership changing regularly as people come and go.

Community is necessary. Will there be something to replace the places of worship as centres of community when religion finally starts to die out? What will those places be like? Will they be like special interest clubs? Quite literally, the Catholic church for instance is a special interest club...they just have a huge membership, very complex structure and a hierarchy of participants that makes it more like a small country than anything else I can think of. Where would all the members of the catholic church go if religion suddenly went away?

Also, religious institutions often hold up the charity work they do as an example of how bad the world would be without them. No-one to "house the people living in the street, no-one to shoe the children with no shoes on their feet" (Steve Miller Band). Non-theistic charities have to start making a point that they're not a part of, nor reliant on, any faith-based institutions for their existence. But it still remains that someone would have to take over from the faith-based charities in a non-theistic world because if suddenly they weren't there any more, the level of suffering in the world would certainly rise. That's not an excuse to justify religion, it's simply a statement that if they don't do it, someone else will have to...and that's entirely doable.

Then again, perhaps in a non-theistic world, there wouldn't be as much need for charities.

Something to think about in more depth another time.

If any readers of this blog know of any online resources which specifically address the ideas of letting children choose their own path, or what the world might look like without god, please share them with us in the comments. I would certainly be interested in learning what other more erudite writers would have to say on those topics.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

"Saving Grace" - the new "Touched by an Angel"

You remember that show, Touched by an Angel, with the team of angels, led by Della Reese in her red caddy convertible, going around helping people out of their hard spots and then surprising them with the revelation that angels really exist? Remember Highway to Heaven, with Michael Landon and his smarmy, condescending grin that said in no uncertain terms that he was going to heaven and the rest of us could spend eternity folding skivvies in an all-night laundromat on skid row for all he cared. Remember that?

Well, I guess the kind of sweetness and light that worked for those shows doesn't work in these days of hard-ball religious proselytizing and now they've been replaced by a new, though much edgier convert-caddy for the Jesus-lovers called Saving Grace, starring Holly Hunter. This show's got it all...and the warning that shows up before every segment of the show is the one I like best: "This program contains scenes with nudity, sexuality, violence and coarse language. Viewer discretion is advised." BOO-yahhh!

Oh baby, The Big Four. That's like having a four-layer devil's food cake with a different sinful filling between every layer. Slurp.

Hunter plays a cop named Grace Hanadarko. Grace has very few socially redeeming qualities. She curses, she drinks, she neglects her family, she's a slob, she breaks the rules at work, she's having an affair with her partner -- who's married -- and, the best part, which comes out in virtually her first spoken line in the pilot...she's an atheist. In other words, she's an enormously likable character who I fell in love with within the first sixty seconds of the show.

In the premier episode, they spend the first twenty minutes or so showing you what a sinner she is, which just makes you love her all the more. And then they ruin it all by bringing god into the picture in the form of a shiny-winged, tobacco-chawing, denim-and-tshirt-wearing angel named Earl (a direct rip-off of the brilliant character Michael, the archangel played by John Travolta) who comes along at Grace's darkest moment - right after she's killed a guy with her car while driving drunk.

The atheist Grace, upon realizing the guy is dead, cries out "Oh God! Please help me!" And poof...Earl appears right on cue. When Grace expresses skepticism at his claims that he's an angel from god, Earl gleefully whips out his glorious, glowing wings and says something calculated to be charmingly witty, while coming off sounding like a hillbilly trying to impress his toothless girlfriend. Still skeptical, sweetie? Ok...he whisks her off to the top of a tower of rock in the Grand Canyon and makes the wind blow so hard that she is forced to reach out for his hand to keep from falling to her death.

Way to convince someone that god exists there, dude. Threaten them with going splat at the bottom of a remote canyon. Real smooth. And of course, true to form, as soon as she gives in and takes his hand, he's all nice and sets her back on the street, where she discovers there's no dead body, no dented car and no knocked over street sign. (But a few little clues are left of the encounter.)

So now, we're exactly halfway through the show, and Grace is trying to convince herself it was all a dream, while her best friend, the forensics expert at work, is more than ready to believe that the angel Earl proves that miracles really happen and easily makes out the face of Jesus in the markings on the side of a cow that Grace has "liberated" from a lecherous cattle rancher.

"Holy cow," says Forensics Friend (played by a sour-faced Laura San Giacomo).

Later, after stepping in dog shit and spitting out a juicy "goddamit!", Earl appears again and scolds Grace for cursing. Grace takes the opportunity to ask a few questions, but can't quite find the words. "Let me guess," says Earl, "you want to know why pain and misery and death and destruction." "Yeah, pretty much," Grace agrees.

"If I gave you the answers, there's no room for faith," is the answer Earl offers.

Yeah right. Always with the evasive answers. How about a good solid "here's why and here's the evidence" now and then?

So the route has been graded and the gravel is being laid and we're being led down the super highway to Heaven. And in between scenes of Grace handily finding the kidnapper of a little girl, Grace discovers, with the aid of Forensics Friend, that the blood on her shirt (Earl isn't a very good launderer) was that of a death-row inmate. During a visit to said inmate, Grace and inmate discover that they had the same dream... he died after being hit by a drunk driver and was whisked off to heaven by an angel. Inmate and Grace also discover they have a friend in common - Earl the Erstwhile Angel. Inmate informs Grace that Earl appears to him irregularly, with no schedule, and refers to him as the "Last-Chance Angel."

So Inmate and Grace are both being given their last chances by god and has sent his emissary, the twang-talking Earl, to guide them both to redemption.


Ok... I have to confess that, in spite of the god angle, I liked this show. I like Grace's character a lot, and some of the peripheral characters seem to have a lot of potential too, especially Grace's partner/lover, who looks like he might be a Brad Pitt look-alike if not for the constant stream of black eyes, whiskers, bruises, dirt and scrapes he sports, not to mention the constantly drunk-or-hungover look on his face. San Giacomo as Forensic Friend (I'm too lazy to look up the character's name) looks like she'll be fun and interesting too...although as the god-lover in the cast of characters, she may turn out to be a bore. They've also got a long-haired Native American guy on the squad who looks like potential fun.

But, that said, here's the thing. I'm a little annoyed at the approach the Jesus-lovers are taking with this show. Obviously they won't get anywhere with the Touched by an Angel approach. Too gentle, too much preaching to the choir. Won't get any converts that way. With Saving Grace they've gotten sneaky. Create a character and plotlines that attract an atheist-type viewing audience and then slide in the proselytizing on the side like the brussels sprouts your mum used to force you to eat, only covered with loads of cheese sauce so you think they might just be palatable even though you hate them.

I'm also a little offended by the suggestion they make that atheists are amoral, cursing, philandering, wreckless drunkards. Gotta tell ya, I'm pulling for Grace to get a clue and tell Earl to shove off.

But I suspect that ain't gonna happen.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

A poem

Church Going

Philip Larkin

Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,
Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new-
Cleaned or restored? Someone would know: I don't.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
"Here endeth" much more loudly than I'd meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort or other will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation -- marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these -- for whom was built
This special shell? For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round

In a nutshell

This YouTube video, called A World Without Religion: It's a matter of mindset, by YouTube poster BlasphemyBaby, perfectly sums up my own feelings on what the world would be like if religion suddenly vanished. "Would the world really be a better place?" she asks, and then answers herself: "Kinda."

This other video by the same poster, titled Where does morality come from: an atheist perspective, nicely encapsulates the theory that morality does not come from scripture, it comes from humans' need to co-exist, just like any social animal.

Out of the mouths of babes.

Using the Socratic Method against religion

I just finished watching a really good seven-part video on YouTube called Using the Socratic Method w/Christian proselytizers, by a fellow named Todd Allen Gates.

Gates walks us through, one step at a time, a very workable method for getting a believer (in this case a Christian who Gates refers to as "Chris") to talk himself into questioning his belief in the word of the Bible.

The Socratic Method is a lot like intellectual Jiu Jitsu - using your opponent's skills against him. It hinges on the sceptic's willingness to allow, just for the purpose of discussion of course, that there may be an omniscient being (the creator) out there, that this creator communicates with us, and that it is in our best interest to obey him.

It's really quite brilliant, this Socratic Method, but devious and almost predatory, in a way. I can't help picturing a spider and a fly. You reel in the believer with protestations that you are willing to entertain his ideas then, holding his hand to the bitter end, walk alongside him down the garden path into a trap he has set himself and from which he cannot escape. It's almost unfair!

But not really. It's reason and deduction at its best. I hope you'll have a look at these videos*.

1 of 7: a brief description of videos 2 through 7.
2 of 7: a description of the Socratic Method.
3 of 7: agreeing on the ground rules sceptic and Christian
4 of 7: reading non-Christian scriptures to identify the three telltale signs that those scriptures are made up by people
5 of 7: reading through the Judeo-Christian Bible to examine it by the same critical light just held up to non-Christian scriptures. (Note, there are 4 parts to part 5)
6 of 7: listening to and refuting the Christian's reasoning in defence of the bible, based on the previously agreed-upon telltale signs of man-made scripture (Note, there are 2 parts to part 6)
7 of 7: a discussion of why the Gates's approach focuses on skepticism of religion rather than scepticism of a devine being

*Links updated Nov. 30, 2007 at the request of Todd Gates, after he made some tweaks to the videos.

A World With No Religion #1 - Why dictators hate religion

I suspect this may be a topic I'll come back to from time to time, so I'll try to number the posts as I write them to keep things organized.

I've been pondering this idea for a long time, but have only recently begun to form some coherent thoughts on it. It's really quite a big question. What if there were no belief in gods? What would the world be like?

The automatic answer of the faithful is that we would face chaos, anarchy, lawlessness and universal violence...basically the opposite of the world the ten commandments tries to enforce.

I completely disagree. Morality is not dependent upon faith in higher beings. There are so many ways to cover this argument: The evolutionary approach, the nature versus nurture approach, holy war approach, etc, etc, etc.

For now, I want to focus on one point someone made on a message board topic where they were discussing what the world might be like if there was no religion. This person stated, in defense of religion, that one of the first things dictators and totalitarian states often do when taking over a country is eliminate religion. As if this proves the point that atheism is bad. The reason a dictator would eliminate religion is so that he can become the god himself. Dictators are megalomaniacs. They don't want competition! Religion saps the peoples' energy away from the dictator, so of course he's going to get rid of that first. Look at Castro in Cuba and Kim Il-Sun and Kim Jong-Il in North Korea. Perfect examples of personality cults. Even Saddam Hussein, even though he led a Muslim country, was a staunch secularist (though smart enough in at least one sense not to try and tell Iraqis not to worship allah).

So...just because dictatorship and totalitarianism are bad, and dictators and totalitarians sometimes try to eliminate religion when they take power, that doesn't mean that a lack of religion is also bad. Politicians use religion for their own ends (as they use everything else). Whether it's Kim Jong-Il eliminating it or George W. Bush shoving it down our throats, it still winds up meaning trouble for us all.

One man's loss of faith

"There is kindness in this world. There is compassion and decency. In a universe of death and suffering, there are things that make existence worth our while. In the heart of each person there is a penchant to make one's environment a better place. There does not need to be a God if we choose to exercise our proclivity for decency."

From this article by Dr. David Lee, published in the online version of Medical Economics, describing how he lost his faith after the death of a two-week-old baby girl. A very moving article which I hope you will read.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Westboro Baptist Church must like me

The News page of Wesboro Baptist Church's website has posted a link to this blog.

It's listed under the wordage " 'We don't usually do "blogs" on media, but this is at least entertaining' - 2007 -9 - 03" (Most of the other links on that page are from news organizations of one kind or another.)

It's second from the top right now, but it'll drop lower as more entries are added.

It amazes me that these people find this little blog so interesting that they even bother to read it, let alone comment on it and post links to it. Hey...thanks guys! I'm flattered!

Friday, September 7, 2007

Don't preach to the choir

On my bedside table right now are several books examining atheism:
1) The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins
2) The End of Faith, by Sam Harris
3) Letter to a Christian Nation, by Sam Harris
4) The Evolution of God, by Barbara J. King
5) An assortment of novels such as Sarum, by Edward J. Rutherfurd, and Richard North Patterson's latest in paperback, Exile, about a lawyer who gets roped into defending a Muslim man accused of assassinating the prime minister of Israel.

Some pretty heavy reading there, kids.

Somehow, books one through three are all on the best-seller lists, along with a few other works questioning the validity of religion, including God is not Great, by Christopher Hitchens. That one is not on my bedstand. Yet.

With so many learned folks publishing arguments against religion, you've got to assume it's all in reaction to the overabundance of fundamentalism of every stripe that we contend with in the world today. The delightful thing is that these books are bestsellers in spite of logic that might make one think that a preponderance of fundamentalism would result in fewer publishing successes for people like Dawkins and Harris. It's also happening in spite of the fact that these books do not make for light reading. They really challenge you to think about what you're reading. They don't carry you along on a wave of plot and character and dialogue.

Which makes sense when you think about it. Just about any writer touching on the impact of religion in the world today will gleefully report that 90 per cent of the American population believes in a god and the afterlife, while the other ten per cent are eminent scientists. Only 40 per cent of scientists in general believe in god. So, it's not too difficult to see that intelligence is inversely proportional to religiosity.

Why then are all the books being written against religion written for people in the top percentages of intelligence? Why aren't these authors also producing works written in language and formats that the average believer can digest and understand? Sam Harris is the closest I've read so far to being able to reach a population with average IQ, but even he writes more like the New York Times than the local community newspaper.

So hey! You guys! Stop preaching to the choir all the time and take a walk on the other side of the tracks now and then. You might reach more of the people who really need to be reached. Are there any novels out there that tell the story of a world with no religion in a positive way? Are there any major actors out there who'd be willing to lose a few notches on the popularity scale to come out and say they're atheists? We've got to reach the masses, and we ain't gonna do that with high-brow language.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Why I stopped believing

I first started to question the validity of religion when I was a little girl driving home through the countryside with my mother after a visit to my grandmother's house. There were cows out in the fields all along the highway, and for some reason I started wondering what happens to cows when they die. I asked my mother, "do cows go to heaven when they die?" She told me that they didn't. When I asked why, she said "because they have no souls."

Now, this brought me right up short. What?? Cows have no souls? This was big news. But of course, dogs and cats have souls, right Mommy?

Nope. No souls.

Okay, now that's just not right, I was thinking in my little kid head. This is just wrong. Cats and dogs have to have souls! Otherwise they can't go to heaven and be with their families when they die! But Mum insisted it was so, so it must be so. Mum was always right, after all.

My belief began to die that day, when I was just a kid, because animals couldn't go to heaven.

Then there was the fact that my Mother and brother and I converted to Judaism when I was nine. Going from believing in the god of the Christians to believing in the god of the Jews didn't really do a lot to help in the soulless animals department. I mean, if you can just switch from one god to another, it doesn't really help when it comes to really believing in something. It's a little fickle, isn't it. Mum always insisted she converted because she believed in the Jewish faith, and because she's my Mum, I believe her, but I always got the feeling that most people I share the story with assume she converted because she wanted to marry a Jewish man (because she did marry a Jewish man). So if you can change your religion simply to marry someone, it doesn't seem to give religion a lot of cling in the stickiness department.

So, doubting on two fronts, I was totally primed for what happened when I was sixteen. I wish I could remember it better, but memory has never been my strong suit. I do remember sitting on the kitchen floor, talking on the phone with my boyfriend at the time, who had just started med school at Carleton University. We spent hours on the phone, like all teenagers do.

This particular conversation was about religion, and I remember the thoughts going through my mind. I remember thinking how I just couldn't grasp the concept of some old white-bearded guy sitting on a throne up in the sky. It just didn't make sense to me at all. My boyfriend of course was doing his best to encourage this train of thought. And suddenly it was like there was a *click* and all of a sudden I didn't believe anymore. Just like that.

Kinda like the way I quit smoking when I was 23. I ran out of cigarettes at work one day. I was the only one in the office, and I was seriously considering leaving the office empty for up to half an hour so I could walk to the convenience store down the street and buy more smokes. All of a sudden I realized that cigarettes were running my life. How stupid was that? So right then and there, I quit, and I've never had a cigarette since. (Rather a good analogy don't you think? And true!)

Soulless animals, religious conversion and a convincing atheist boyfriend may not be very compelling reasons to give up religion. Certainly not very dramatic. But young people don't need compelling reasons to do the things they do. The important thing is that I've never wavered in my lack of faith since it left me. 31 years it's been, and even without a god I'm still a good person for the most least as good as any god-fearing folk are, if not more so. I haven't suffered for the lack of a personal deity in my life. In fact, my life has been unusually free of suffering and want. I don't ascribe that to any choices I've made. I'm just lucky. My Mum always said so.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Westboro Baptist Church talks back

My new little blog has come to the attention of Margie Phelps, daughter of Fred Phelps, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. You can read her comment to my post titled "A fate worse than hell" posted on August 29, 2007.

I guess she has a bot that scours the Internet for mentions of her congregation so she can rail against anyone publishing material she finds disagreeable. She must have a lot of time on her hands. Or maybe she just has a program that sends out the same flamboyant flame message to anyone who mentions WBC, filling in the appropriately juvenile nickname where appropriate.

Margie calls me "Patti the Pervert." That's cute... I like it. "PP" for short. I'm sure she just pissed herself giggling over that one.

I'm not going to argue with her. I'll just leave her vitriol up on my comments for all the world to see for themselves how over-the-top she is. I do want to say one thing though...

Margie says at least twice in her hellfire and brimstone diatribe against me that she couldn't care less what I think:

"As for the hatred that you and 9.9999999999% of the WORLD show us -- BIG FAT YAWN! You are an arrogant delusional fat assed fool if you think YOU can come up with some words that would move us."

and ...

"What in the WORLD would make you think we give a rat's ass about what any of you hell bound selfish mutts have to say?"

All I want to know is, if she really doesn't care what I have to say, what in the WORLD inspired her to spend her valuable time writing such a long and involved comment on my blog?? What would inspire her to write any comment at all if she really doesn't care what people like me think? (And does she really think only 9.9999....% of the world hates them? As rlpr, another commenter suggested, she probably meant 99%, but I'm not going to fix it for her.) Quite obviously, she does care what the world thinks about WBC, regardless how often or how loudly she may scream otherwise.

As for one of the other comments, I have one regret about my Fate Worse than Hell post. A comment by A. Martin of the blog Defending Westboro Baptist Church (aka The Right to Be Wrong) has quite rightly scolded me for my comment that I wished members of the WBC would go home and drink poisoned kool-aid. It was wrong of me to say that and I apologise, although I don't believe in revising history so I won't go back and edit it out of the post. This apology will have to suffice. While there is no excuse for wishing anyone to commit suicide, my only explanation is that I was writing that post while still under the influence of the shock I felt after watching the documentary I was commenting on. Proof that violent words beget violent words, I guess, but still no justification for saying what I did. I value calm and reason and I will refrain from making remarks like that in the future. Thank you, A. Martin.

A rose by any other name?

Words are important to me. I like to use just the right word to express what I mean, so there can be little to no chance of misunderstanding. It drives me crazy when I've tried very hard to write a sentence to express exactly my intent, and still some people don't "get" it the way I meant it.

I try to be the same way when speaking, though the spoken word is much more difficult to get just right owing to the fact that it's on-the-fly and can't be edited once it's spoken.

So you can see my dilemma when it comes to being a non-believer. How do I refer to things in such a way that it's clear that I don't believe in god and don't wish to frame my thoughts using expressions created for a god-fearing world?

Even though I stopped believing in any form of deity when I was 16 (more than thirty years ago!) I still use many expressions that originate with religious terms, even though people don't think of them as religious expressions anymore, they're so ubiquitous. But with my recent escalation from simply being a non-believer to being a well-informed and aware non-believer, I feel it necessary to start watching my language.

The term "atheist" is a little problematic for me. It's problematic in the sense that it's a simple, widely-understood term, yet it forces me to define myself in terms of what I am not. I wouldn't call myself an amermaidist or an aleprechaunist, right?

So what do I call myself instead? Do I need to call myself anything? When someone asks what religion I am, I've always said "I'm an atheist." But I don't want to use that term to define myself anymore. I also don't like terms like "Humanist," as it connotes a relationship with an official group of people whose methods I haven't completely decided if I agree with yet.

At one point, I thought I would refer to myself simply as homo sapiens. It's accurate, and in its translation, very true: thinking man (if you accept the word "man" to define the entire human race, which just opens up another whole can of worms!). Besides, people would just look at me funny if I said "I'm homo sapiens." Half of them because they wouldn't know what it means, the other half because it just sounds silly. And all of them would probably think I was saying I'm gay. Besides, technically, even if it doesn't seem like they do much logical thinking, even deists are homo sapiens.

I think from now on, when the subject comes up, I'll simply say I don't believe in a deity.

I've also been having trouble lately with expressions like "thank god" or "thank heaven" or any number of other expressions that refer to anything religious. I'm trying to purge them from my lexicon, but it's not easy, partly because they're so ingrained in me after almost 48 years, and partly because I haven't come up with suitable replacements. One of my favourites is "thank my lucky stars." I can't even use that anymore because it implies a belief in astrology or some such folderall. "Thank goodness" is probably the best I can do there. It doesn't imply any religious intent. "Oh for crying out loud" is a good expression of exasperation or frustration to use instead of "oh god."

Hmmm...I wonder what I'll say instead of "oh god" when I'm having really good sex?