One Hundred Voices of Doubt

Neurosurgeon Jonathan T. Pararajasingham has undertaken an interesting project: compiling the views of 100 prominent intellectuals on the subject of religion and why they don’t believe in a god or afterlife. Some explanations are particularly unique (to me at least), while many share a lot of the same premises, not that it’s always a bad thing. The majority of these people are scientists or academics, many of whom are Nobel Laureates or otherwise well-renowned in their field.

Though I’ve posted the first half before, I figured I’d share both videos in their entirety now that the second part is available. As I’ve written before, it never hurts to have a frank discussion about this sort of topic, provided that it’s sincere, open-minded, and civil. I’ve listened to my fair share of testimonies of faith, so I think it’s both refreshing and essential to hear the other side give its account in much the same vein. Even if you disagree, there’s no harm in keeping an open mind.
 
The list of the participants, in order of appearance, is posted below each video on YouTube. I hope you find their point of view illuminating, whether you agree with them or not (I apologize for the links not working the first time: thanks to an astute reader, I identified the problem).
Part 1:

Part 2:

My intention in sharing these videos – and in much of my writing on this blog – is to show people that nonbelievers aren’t just nihilistic and curmudgeonly rebels. Many of us aren’t atheists out of spite, arrogance, or a desire to be counter-culture. We have deeper reasons for our religious doubts, and even if you don’t agree with said reasons, you should at least try to acknowledge their sincerity. For the record, I make it a point to do the same for my theistic counterparts, and encourage everyone to just hear each other out, at the very least.

Survey Shows Decline in Religiosity Among Americans.

Around mid-November, the Pew Research Center, a major polling organization, released the results of its most recent survey, “American Exceptionalism Subsides—The American-Western European Values Gap.” Its purpose was to compare the beliefs and attitudes of Americans with those of four Western European countries: the UK, France, Spain, and Germany.

As with most surveys, it’s vital to understand how the conclusions were reached.* In this case 1,000 participants in each country were asked by telephone the same set of questions, mostly pertaining to notions of “exceptionalism” – i.e. how strongly one feels about their nation’s uniqueness – as well as social and religious values. The overall findings were pretty interesting, and I encourage you all to read it for yourselves. But since it covers a wide range of subjects, I’ll be focusing on the area pertaining to religious.

Unsurprisingly, the data bears out the findings of previous studies that show Americans to be far more religious than their European (and other developed world) counterparts.

Half of Americans deem religion very important in their lives; fewer than a quarter in Spain (22%), Germany (21%), Britain (17%) and France (13%) share this view.

Moreover, Americans are far more inclined than Western Europeans to say it is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values; 53% say this is the case in the U.S., compared with just one-third in Germany, 20% in Britain, 19% in Spain and 15% in France

Compared to our own historical standards, these proportions are far lower (though not dramatically so). In fact, this very questionnaire has been carried out before, as part of the Pew Center’s Global Attitudes Survey. Since the same demographic sample size has been asked the same questions regular for a decade, we can determine the trend over time.

For example, the question “Do you consider religion very important?” showed a 9% decrease since 2002, (falling from 59% to 50%). In contrast, the European results for the same question remain far lower than the US in both periods, and much less variable – Europeans remain consistently secular.

But despite the trend, we’re still uniquely religious for a nation with our level of overall human development, the result of many complex social, political, and even economic factors (which will be discussed at a later post). But the survey didn’t just reinforce already established observations, since the levels of religiosity were broken down by demographics, yielding interesting results. I’ve posted the data below, with my own analysis.

One interesting confirmation that has been established anecdotally is that attitudes to religion vary pretty considerably based on gender: women are much more likely than men to consider religion as being very important to their lives (59% versus 41%) and to believe that a belief in God is necessary for morality (58% versus 47%).

Indeed, as I discussed in a previous post, the nonreligious community is quite male-dominated, especially the further up you go in terms of disbelief (irreligious women tend to be more spiritual and take a friendlier stance towards belief; the more anti-religious or outright disbelieving the group, the fewer women you’ll find represented). Most people who identify as explicitly atheist, or who are public advocates of religious skepticism, are males, including the most prominent figures in the movement. This sex-imbalance isn’t lost on the secular community, and there’s much internal debate as to why it exists (again, best left for another post, though you’re free to share your thoughts).

Perhaps a little less surprising, but still important to consider, is that older people (50+ years) tend to be far more pious than young ones (18-29) at around 56% versus 41%. Even the middle-aged group (30-49) was slightly more religious at 48%, suggesting a generational correlation – the further down the age bracket you are, the more secular you tend to be (note, by the way, the distinction between secular and atheist – you can still have a religion and be the former – it just means you’re less pious, such as not going to church or not following all the doctrines). Interestingly, there is far less difference between these age brackets when it comes to the question of whether theism is a necessary prerequisite to moral behavior, suggesting the pervasiveness of the myth that godlessness leads to evil (a sentiment I’ve discussed at length).

Then there is the effect that a college education has on religious attitudes. A common assumption is that a higher level of education, particularly in the sciences, erodes religiosity. While there are a lot of caveats, by and large the majority of scientists, academics, and philosophers identify as secular (as far as we can tell). In any case, it’s interesting to note that there is little difference between those with a college degree and those without a college degree, as far as the importance of religion (47% vs. 51%).

Yet, the gap is far wider when it comes to the question “is it necessary to believe in God to be moral.” Among non-college degree holders, 59% believe there is a connection between belief in God and goodness, while only 37% of college-educated people agree. My theory for this concerns public consciousness: the average university body is both secular and diverse, so you’re much more likely to encounter more non-religious people (among others) than you would elsewhere. This exposure to godless folk, many of whom may leave a good impression, forces many to moderate their view as far as making this connection.

It is also worth mentioning that the religious attitudes of self-described political moderates are a lot closer to conservatives than to liberals. When asked whether it’s necessary to believe in God to be moral, 66% of conservatives agree, compared with 52% of moderates and 26% of liberals. Generally speaking, American society has traditionally been far more conservative comparatively speaking, than those of other wealthy nations (even our resident leftist party, the Democrats, is tame by the standards of other nations). People who describe themselves as politically moderate may therefore be conservatives in practice, although that goes into a whole other issue concerning self-reporting bias and defining political identity.  It could simply be that religious is so prevalent in our society that religion pervades even those groups who, in other countries, would otherwise be secular.

[As an aside, this would explain the Obama administration’s tendency to pander to conservative views about contraception and gay marriage, or why the healthcare reform that it pushed through was more akin to a previous Republican plan than a  more leftist single-payer system – heck, a lot of Democrats opposed it as well.]

So the religious the make-up of this country is pretty complex, and is rather uneven depending on one’s background. Also consider that this poll was relatively simple as far as determining the extent of American piety (for example, belief in creationism, the Rapture, etc). But it gives a pretty good picture, and reveals that the US is slowly but surely becoming more secular overall. Consider the changing attitude towards homosexuals, with 60% of Americans saying that homosexuality should be accepted, a 9% increase since the 2002 (though still far lower than in Europe, with 81% support in Britain or  91% in Spain). There’s a similar and gradual increase in the acceptance of evolution and gay marriage, especially, once again, among the young.

If current trends continue along the same pace, the United States may eventually become as secular as the rest of the developed world, which will have vast implications for our society and politics (which are both becoming more polarized along religious lines). Consider that an increasing number of younger people are more secular, tolerant, and pluralistic than the proceeding generations, suggesting that such changes may be inevitable, barring any significant changes (such as another “Great Awakening”).

*I understand that most surveys, like social studies as a whole, should be taken as rough approximations rather than watertight measurements. The nature of studying human beings, especially their beliefs, is complex and can only be accomplished with sample sizes that reflect different demographic groups. Of course, sociological research shouldn’t consequently be dismissed outright, but should instead be reviewed with an understanding of the caveats. My analysis takes all this into consideration.

 

 

 

Atheist Threatened With Death Once More

A few months ago, I posted about the lamentable display of hostility and outright murderous intent on the part of religious people towards atheists. This awful expression of vitriol was in response to a news piece on Fox News about American Atheists, which was pursuing a lawsuit again the 9/11 cross at the memorial (read more about that here).

Now, whatever your views on the subject, I think any decent or sane person would object to some of the violent and nasty reactions that erupted throughout the web. No one deserves that sort of treatment, especially if they’ve done no harm to anyone, other than to offend religious sensibilities.

Of course, give the well-established deep-seated animosity towards nonbelievers, it’s unsurprising that such views were expressed in the first place – much less that they’d surface once again, in an eerily similar fashion. The following samples were posted by the online group, Atheist Underground, which was one of the first to call attention to this barbaric response to a Twitter hashtag, #Godisnotgreat, which was the title of a book written by the late Christopher Hitchens, in whose honor it was trending.

All this over a contentious hashtag? Tasteless, mean, or provocative – whatever you want to call it, it doesn’t merit this disquieting level of contempt and even intent for violence. I know these believers don’t always speak for their coreligionists, and I’m certain the overwhelming majority of religious folks I know would be equally horrified. But unfortunately, it’s this sort of behavior – from the self-righteous members of a loving religion no less – that pushes many people, particularly the young, away from faith. As the article best put it:

We have the right to put up our billboards, mock your religion, and unashamedly shout god is not great. Just as you have the right to profess your love for you imaginary divinity…

Free speech is paid for by hearing words we hate, words that challenge our deepest ideals.

A line is crossed when you threaten violence and death in response to the types of speech you detest. It shows how weak minded you are, fearful of losing your faith. If this were another time or place the threat of violence would be followed by carnage. The wish to kill someone and the act of carrying it out are separated by scant millimeters of ethical judgment. For people who claim to hold the keys to righteousness and morality I expect more. While I have come to learn I can expect less than I ever thought possible, I still expect more. Put on the mask of morality while in public and release your hate filled ruminations inside the walls of your church.

I for one do my best to avoid being belligerent or provocative if I can help it, and I try to keep my tone civil and conciliatory at all costs. I would never taunt, mock, or personally insult a believer, unless they did so to me first (at which point I must level the playing field sometimes, though even then I rarely stoop to their level to the very same degree). Most of all, though, I’d never threaten someone I disagree with with death, or wish them dead in any capacity in the first place.

I don’t need a religion to see through the lack of decency in such behavior, and to know how wrong it is to treat others this way, especially within a free and democratic society in which such beliefs are to be scrutinized, discussed, and addressed. Thankfully, it seems more people, regardless of their convictions or lack thereof, would agree – although I wonder how prevalent this reactionary bigotry is among the wider population.

The Plight of Minority Atheists

African-Americans are known for being one of the most pious communities in the country, even by the rather high religious standards of the United States (which is the most devout nation in the developed world by a hefty margin). There are many proposed historical and socio-cultural reasons for this, but it remains a given among Blacks and non-Blacks alike that religion, particularly Christianity, is an inseparable part of Black culture and identity.

 
Or at least it was, until a small but growing number of nonreligious African-Americans began to “come out,” organize, and raise attention about their disbelieving status – something that was largely unheard of, much less acknowledged, by the public until a recent article in the New York Times (note that I’m sure a few minor publications, as well as periodicals within the secular community, have discussed the issue, but theTimes is the first prominent one to address it).
 
“My mother is very devout,” said [Ronnelle] Adams, 30, a Washington resident who has published an atheist children’s book, “Aching and Praying,” but who in high school considered becoming a Baptist preacher. “She started telling me her issues with homosexuality, which were, of course, Biblical,” he said. “‘I just don’t care what the Bible says about that,’ I told her, and she asked why. ‘I don’t believe that stuff anymore.’ It got silent. She was distraught. She told me she was more bothered by that than the revelation I was gay.”
 
This was in 2000, and Mr. Adams did not meet another black atheist in Washington until 2009, when he found the Facebook group called Black Atheists, which immediately struck a chord. “I felt like, ‘100 black atheists? Wow!’ ” he said.
 
Indeed, the few nonreligious African-Americans I know have confirmed this sense of isolation. Less than 0.5% of Blacks identify themselves as atheists, and some polls even yield zero respondents for that category. Given that self-identified atheists are also a tiny minority – 2% to 10%, depending on the poll – that makes black nonbelievers a double minority. Consequently, many of them have only recently found others who relate with them, and even then it tends to be only a handful, mostly through the internet. Increased organizing and the use of social media are helping to bridge the gap slowly but surely.
 
In the two years since, Black Atheists has grown to 879 members from that initial 100, YouTube confessionals have attracted thousands, blogs like Black” have gained followings, and hundreds more have joined Facebook groups like Black Atheist Alliance (524 members) to share their struggles with “coming out” about their atheism.
 
Feeling isolated from religious friends and families and excluded from what it means to be African-American, people turn to these sites to seek out advice and understanding, with some of them even finding a date. And having benefited from the momentum online, organizations like African Americans for Humanism and Center for Inquiry-Harlem have well-attended meet-up groups, and others like Black Atheists of America and Black Nonbelievers have been founded.
 
Given that 88% of African-Americans are absolutely certain of their belief in God, and a good half of them attend church regularly, I can only imagine how difficult it must be to fit in. Having an online group and holding some gatherings with local atheists doesn’t substitute the deep sense of community that is intertwined with religious institutions. Most black communities are centered on faith-based organizations or churches, which tend to play social, religious, and cultural roles that pervade every aspect of individual and community life. 
 
Islam and other religions are represented in the black community, but with the assumption that African-Americans are religious comes the expectation that they are Christian.
 
“That’s the kicker, when they ask which church you go to,” said Linda Chavers, 29, a Harvard graduate student. The question comes up among young black professionals like her classmates as casually as chitchat about classes and dating. “At first,” she said, “they think it’s because I haven’t found one, and they’ll say, ‘Oh I know a few great churches,’ and I don’t know a nice way to say I’m not interested,” she said.
 
Even among those African-Americans who report no affiliation, more than two-thirds say religion plays a somewhat important role in their lives, according to Pew. And some nonbelieving African-Americans have been known to attend church out of tradition.
 
While this issue may be more pronounced among Blacks, it’s hardly unique to them. Many people, religious or otherwise, are drawn to religion for the social cohesion. In many areas of the country, your best chances to meet someone, find a job, or receive some sort of social or economic support is through the local church. So opting out, even as a disbeliever is out of the question – it’s just too impractical, even when you don’t count the peer pressure and ostracizing that may follow. I suspect many people who claim to be religious, even in surveys, are secretly more undecided than they let on. It must be difficult to choose between risking isolation and maintaining a façade.
 
According to Pew, the vast majority of atheists and agnostics are white, including the authors Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.
 
Jamila Bey, a 35-year-old journalist, said, “To be black and atheist, in a lot of circles, is to not be black.” She said the story the nation tells of African-Americans’ struggle for civil rights is a Christian one, so African-Americans who reject religion are seen as turning their backs on their history. This feels unfair to Ms. Bey, whose mother is Roman Catholic and whose father is Muslim, because people of different faiths, and some with none, were in the movement. The black church dominated, she said, because it was the one independent black institution allowed under Jim Crow laws, providing free spaces to African-Americans who otherwise faced arrest for congregating in public.
 
Recognizing the role of churches in the movement, Ms. Bey still takes issue when their work is retold as God’s. “These people were using the church, pulling from its resources, to attack a problem and literally change history. But the story that gets told is, ‘Jesus delivered us,’ ” Ms. Bey said. “Frankly, it was humans who did all the work.”
 
I’ve often heard the argument about Christianity’s contribution to social justice, and how that in large part won over Blacks and other minorities to greater piety. While the great works of Christians should not be understated, I ultimately think it’s perverse to credit God for the achievements of the abolitionist and civil rights movements.
 
Certainly, many people who fought slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow were pious (though others, like Mark Twain and Robert Ingersoll, were not). But so were the ones who defended them. It was, after all, the Southern “Bible Belt” – then and now the most religious part of the country – that was the last holdout for enslaving blacks and denying them their civil liberties. The KKK, from its inception, was an explicitly Christian organization, as are many White Power groups to this day. Even the Apartheid regime of South Africa, perhaps the most racist institution of all, predicated its legitimacy on Christianity. If God or Christianity had anything to do with emancipating blacks in and of themselves, than these bigoted groups would never exist, and the South would have been the first region to abandon these ethical travesties, rather than the last.
 
As for the “whiteness” of the nonreligious community, particularly the more outspoken bits, it’s a problem that many secular groups and leaders have acknowledged and tried to address for some time. The reasons for this are pretty complex, tying in with the socioeconomic inequities between Caucasian males and everyone else (and that in turn has many complex factors behind it as well).
 
Globally, a number of non-white nations, such as Botswana, South Korea, Japan, and China, have large nonreligious or atheist populations. But by and large, especially within the US, it does seem to be the purview of older white males, and thereby perceived as such – women and minorities without religion may thus feel just as out of place among fellow secularists as they do among their more devout demographic group. If trends persist, that will change eventually, but in the meantime it will no doubt be challenging, though it’s already being attended to.
 
The Facebook discussion boards for these groups often become therapy sessions, and as administrator of the Black Atheist Alliance, Mark Hatcher finds himself a counselor. “My advice is usually let them know you understand their religion and what they believe, but you have to take a stand,” he said.
 
This strategy has worked for Mr. Hatcher, 30, a graduate student who started a secular student group at the historically black Howard University. For two of his Facebook friends, though, it has not worked, and they moved to Washington, not to sever ties with their families as much as to keep their sanity.
 
Now that Facebook groups have connected black atheists, meet-ups have started in cities like Atlanta, Houston and New York.
 
On a gray Saturday in October, 40 members of African Americans for Humanism, including Mr. Hatcher, Ms. Bey and Mr. Adams, met at a restaurant in Washington to celebrate the first anniversary of holding meet-ups. Speakers discussed plans to broaden services like tutoring and starting a speaking tour at historically black colleges.
 
“Someone’s sitting on the fence, saying, ‘I go to church, and all my friends and my family are there, how am I supposed to leave?’ ” Mr. Hatcher said on stage. “That’s where we, as African-American humanists, say, ‘Hey look, we have a community over here.’ ”
 
After the speeches, Mr. Hatcher looked at the attendees mingling, laughing, and hugging one another. “I feel like I’m sitting at a family reunion,” he said.
 
Raising public consciousness is a major concern for atheists and other secularists. Like other minorities before us, we’re keen on making society more aware of our existence and our ideological positions, so as to make demonization and marginalization less effective. It’s harder to be bigoted or ignorant of a group when it’s out in the open on the public stage and able to speak for itself. Plus, you can reach others who had felt too alone or afraid to come out. It’s all about building a community, just as our religious contemporaries do.
Though his atheism is a well-worn subject of debate with his wife and his mother (a minister), Mr. White, a 41-year-old Austin-based writer, avoids discussing it with the rest of his family. Though he won’t attend Christmas services this year, and hasn’t in years, he said, his family assumes he’s just “not that interested in religion.” To say explicitly he is an atheist, he said, “would break my grandmother’s heart.”
 
The pressure he feels to quiet his atheism is at the heart of a provocative statement he makes on his blog: “In most African-American communities, it is more acceptable to be a criminal who goes to church on Sunday, while selling drugs to kids all week, than to be an atheist who … contributes to society and supports his family.”
 
Over the phone, Mr. White said he does feel respected for his education and success, but because he cannot talk freely about his atheism, it ultimately excludes him. When he lived in Los Angeles, he watched gang members in their colors enter the church where they were welcomed to shout “Amen” (they had sinned but had been redeemed) along with everyone else.
 
“They were free to tell their story,” Mr. White said, while his story about leaving religion he keeps to himself — and the Internet.
 
None of this is surprising in a society where atheists are as distrusted as rapists, and being a nonbeliever is viewed as synonymous with immorality and dishonesty. White’s account also reminds me of the fact that less than 1% of all incarcerated people identify as atheists – the overwhelming majority are believers to some degree, mostly in Christianity. A belief system where forgiveness and salvation can be attained by nothing more than prayer and obedience does little to encourage moral behavior and self-correction (and for the record, I’m well aware that many Christians don’t adhere to this doctrine, even though there is Biblical justification for it).
 
At any rate, I feel for any of the nonreligious among you who must contend with this sense of separation and exclusion. As an Arab, I can’t say there are too many outspoken religious skeptics out there, though I am sure there are a lot more who keep it in private. Most Lebanese, who are greatly divided along sectarian lines, subsequently identify as Christian or Muslim largely in a cultural or parochial sense.
 
My own family, like most of the Lebanese Diaspora, is Christian, but they’ve always been tolerant and accommodating, for which I’m grateful. Given that I’ve got Hispanic descent in a mostly Latino area and am pretty Westernized to begin with, I don’t feel as culturally distinct as a Black person or Muslim Arab would – so being part of the wider secular community isn’t as challenging.
 
Still, if there’s one thing all we nonreligious folks share – regardless of background or label – it’s that we’re all terribly misunderstood and negatively treated, and seek to change that together.

Divine Intervention (Even in the Mundane)

Tim Tebow, a Denver Broncos quarterback, is a very religious man known for claiming that God helps his team win their games:

With Tebow there’s no getting away from it. He uses the microphones thrust in front of him to mention his personal savior, Jesus Christ, and has said that heaven is reserved for devout Christians. He genuflects so publicly and frequently that to drop to one knee in the precise way he does has been given its own word, along with its own Web site, where you can see photographs of people Tebowing inside St. Peter’s, in front of the Taj Mahal, on sand, on ice and even underwater.

Indeed, many people – dev   out and mildly pious alike – credit God for intervening on their behalf in all sorts of mundane things, such as passing a test, winning an award, getting their car to start, and so on. To me, there are few things more arrogant than believing that the most powerful being in existence has singled you out for assistance in such trivial matters, while millions of people die senseless an horrible deaths annually, and hundreds of millions more suffer poverty, disease, and tyranny.

Personally, I’d be terrified of any God who prioritizes a football match ahead of making sure an infant lives past its first year – how can you respect a deity who takes side in a sports match? How can some religious folks explain away the problem of evil – as a consequence of free will, a part of God’s plan, etc – yet believe, as millions do, that God has an interest in competitive games? Tebow is hardly alone in uttering the below sentiment, spoken in the context of his team’s recent victory:

If you believe, unbelievable things can sometimes be possible.

Indeed, tell that to a humanitarian worker who gets kidnapped or killed during their service to humanity, or some random person who’s wasting away from a terminal illness. I can’t imagine losing a loved one to cancer, despite all my prayers, only to hear someone else claim God helped them score a touchdown or win an Oscar.
 
Yet millions of people, such as the columnist hyperlinked above, not only share in this view, but find reasons to respect and admire it.

[Tebow] reminds us that strength comes in many forms and some people have what can be described only as a gift for winning, which isn’t synonymous with any spreadsheet inventory of what it supposedly takes to win.

This gift usually involves hope, confidence and a special composure, all of which keep a person in the game long enough, with enough energy and stability, so that a fickle entity known as luck might break his or her way. For Tebow that state of mind comes from his particular relationship with his chosen God and is a matter of religion. For someone else it might be understood and experienced as the power of positive thinking, and is a matter of psychology. Either way it boils down to stubborn optimism and bequeaths a spark. A swagger. An edge.

. . . The Broncos are the talk of the league. More and more people are watching. And you could indeed say they’re tuning in to find out how far God can take a team. Because that’s just another way of saying how far grit can.

A belief in God can certainly be a motivating factor, as it no doubt is for Tebow. But it’s hardly an indicator of “grit” in and of itself.  There’s a great distinction between having the willpower to succeed in something, and having that willpower (or grit) driven by believing that an omnipotent divine entity is taking a keen interest in your victory. I wonder how devout members of the losing team feel – is it all a stage, since ultimately God decides? Or do they feel it’s punishment for something? Surely, they must rationalize it in some odd way.

Similarly, it’s one thing to take comfort in God looking after you in some broader sense (as many of my friends and family do) and a whole other to believe his plan somehow entails helping some people get through some specific part of their daily routine (namely you), even while, for his mysterious reasons, others have their prayers unanswered and are left to suffer. When survivors of some fatal tragedy proclaim God to have been with them during the ordeal, what does that mean for those who died, who may have been just as devout?

Bruni laments the derision that observers direct at Tebow and his displays, but I disagree – such behaviors and beliefs should be criticized and ridiculed. He’s giving thanks to an all-powerful deity who seems to be a fan of certain Earthly football teams. If that’s not palpably ludicrous, I don’t know what is.  Besides, if people like Tebow want to make a public displays of their piety (as many religious folks do), then it’s only fair that we can publicly call them out in turn.

 

One disclaimer I’d like to make clear – despite my harsh language, I understand that many of those who think this way aren’t bad or malicious people. They could very well be honest and well-intentioned, and I used to relate in sharing this belief. I think they simply haven’t given their claims much thought, or considered the perspectives of others who also proclaim God to be on their side despite never being heard by him. Much of this religious thinking seems more ingrained or intuitive than it is conscious, and as such, I try to assume it’s largely a matter of habit or reflex. I suspect if it were better thought through or analyzed, it wouldn’t happen in the first place.

 

America’s Double-Standard Towards Atheists

There is ample evidence that American society is viscerally distrustful of the “Godless” (read a prior post on the subject for a start). This deep-seated bias – often emerging as outright contempt – tends to manifest itself most clearly in the double-standard by which atheists are often treated, both by their peers and the media as a whole.

A common example concerns an expression of piety or faith versus that of religious doubt or skepticism. The former raises no concerns, and if anything is generally met with great respect and admiration (hint: especially if you’re a politician), whereas the latter, expressed even politely, invites scorn, pity, or casual prejudice – if not all of the above. In a similar vain, religious leaders for the most part can be as strident, forceful, or critical of other beliefs as they like; yet for a critic of religion to be just as shrill and unforgiving towards faith is unacceptable and worthy of opprobrium.
In both cases, the playing field is even, yet the irreligious are not accorded the same acceptance or public space – overwhelming social pressure demands that they keep their beliefs to themselves. This disparity was on display in a microcosmic but telling incident discussed in the Friendly Atheist blog.

At Salisbury University in southern Maryland, a campus Christian group chalked the ground (as groups do) with the following Biblical message:

Only fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, and their actions are evil; not one of them does good!

So what are atheists at the school supposed to do? Respond with Bible verses of their own, of course.

Reader John explains what he and a few friends did:

We began with Deut. 22:22 and graduated to Exodus 22:20. Then we wrote “Rape victims must marry their rapists” and correctly attributed it to Deut. 22: 28-29, and “God Supports Slavery” and the corresponding verses.

Within about 30 minutes, the campus police were called and took our IDs. Then the dean of students invited us into his office where we had a very productive conversation and he ended up supporting our free speech and our motives, and assuring us that if any of the chalk was washed away, all of it would be (not just ours).

When we came outside, someone had given an order to wash away our chalk, so the dean of students was forced to have the whole campus washed — his office apologized.

Sounds like a potentially bad situation that turned out alright. Everybody learned their lesson, right? The Bible is full of a lot of really shitty passages and context matters.

That’s not how local news station WBOC-16 spun the story:

Seeing chalk on the sidewalks at Salisbury University is a regular occurrence. Some groups and clubs use it as a way to promote events and get their messages out there. But early Friday some students say things went a little too far.

Statements such as “God supports slavery,” and “Rape victims must marry their rapist” [were] written on the sidewalk near Guererri Hall. Surveillance videotape helped Campus Police apprehend several Salisbury students.

No immediate disciplinary action was taken against the students but the school’s Dean of Students met with the students involved, and encouraged a more positive kind of discourse and use of the freedom of speech.

There’s no context to the story and no mention of what the Christians wrote to start the controversy. Just an implication that the atheists would get into trouble. Not true.

The reaction is just another example of a double-standard between Christians and atheists. When they quote the Bible, they’re righteous. When we do it, we’re dicks. It doesn’t matter what you quote.

I don’t think the Christians who started this should get in trouble either. They get their free speech, too. But atheists have every right to publicly mock the hell out of it.

The issue is clear cut: Christians put out a quote goading atheists, and atheists responded with provocative Biblical quotes of their own as a response. It was as even exchange, yet the latter were made to seem, as per the stereotype, as nasty and aggressive in their approach -as if calling non-religious people corrupt and immoral, without any discernible provocation, was acceptable. Both quoted from the same source, and both did so in a public sphere (and in a university no less).
It’s a minor spat, and nothing to lose sleep over in and of itself, but it’s indicative of a larger trend in most segments of this society: a rejection of any scrutiny of religion even when done in a rather benign manner (as in this example). While a lot more non-Christian and non-religious views are being expressed than ever before, it’s still nowhere near as palatable to get away with such “blasphemy” as it is to be religiously dogmatic. It doesn’t help that secularists don’t have anything remotely akin to the Christian Right as far as political, social, and media influence.
This exchange also shows how ignorant of the Bible most Christians are (including, ironically enough, the more pious ones). Many of them are quick to deny or explain away the nastier parts of their book even while they quote mine the more notable or admirable segments. As one commentator to the post noted:
A good friend of mine, who runs BetterThanFaith.com, has been quoting the Bible in this fashion for some time. He developed fliers and pamphlets with artwork and context to describe theses horrible passages; oftentimes I hear from people that he’s “twisted the words of scripture” to which I always have to reply, “He quoted them directly and left a reference.”If you don’t agree with what the Bible says on some point, say you don’t agree already. Telling me that’s not what it says is going to be a hard sell when I can look it up myself and see that’s exactly what it says.The two groups here were in a sniping contest; both written quotes were actually criticisms of the literature at hand. Calling a group “fools” for not accepting the text is pretty negative in itself and is not designed to generate a dialogue; pointing out the same book calls for slavery and further injury to rape victims (not just insulting people) critically highlights why it’s a very bad “authority” to insult people who don’t agree with it.

I have great respect for anyone, Christian or otherwise, who can actually engage in dialogue about this sort of thing as opposed to dismissing it out-of-hand or aggressively. I know many atheists can be just as unproductive and belligerent, so far be it from me to apply a double-standard myself. But examples like this abound throughout public discourse, especially in the vast expanse of middle-America – indeed, I’ve experienced it myself several times, although I had the fortune of participating in more productive and good-natured exchanges too, which has tempered my cynicism.
The saddest part is that the non-religious people who do try to break away from this stereotype are often treated as strident, intolerant, or mean-spirited all the same (I suspect that this leads to a self-fulling prophecy, by which frustrated secularists decide to get louder and more aggressive as a form of push-back). In the end, it’s not often our approach that upsets and infuriates people, but what we believe (or disbelieve) in the first place, regardless.

An Atheist Perspective On Politics

In this video from Big Think, an online forum that discusses a variety of ideas, Penn Jillette, of the magical duo Penn and Teller, weighs in with a secular perspective on the 2012 elections and American politics as a whole. It’s relatively long, at around 20 minutes, but it was a pretty illuminating rant. As always, Penn raises some sensible (for me anyway) questions about the intersection of faith, politics, and society.

Two things from this video resonated most with me: one, the role that abortion played in almost single-handedly creating the Christian Right, and the very concept of a unified Christian identity in general (historically, as Penn points out, Christians were far more divided by sect and denomination until abortion galvanized them).

Secondly, and most significant for me, is the systemic dishonesty that typifies just about every politician’s expression of faith (never mind other things). Most public officials are clearly not as religious as they try to maintain, and the majority of us in the secular community are not only well aware of it, but we’ve come to accept it. It’s strange to know that such expressions of piety are probably insincere, and yet we it as a good thing. We’re still a long way from being to speak about religion in a frank or honest way within the public sphere – though that seems to apply to a lot subjects.

GOP Aims For Theocracy?

In many ways, the GOP has largely developed into a religious party, placing increasing emphasis on the socially conservative values that are held up by it’s strong fundamentalist Christian base. It’s moderates or Libertarians are either marginalized or forced to play along, lest they lose their political careers. It’s come to a point that most aspiring Republican politicians are almost explicitly calling for what could only be called a theocratic state.

In an under-reported forum that took place in Iowa a week ago, Republican presidential candidates running for president gathered together to burnish their religious and ideological credentials. You could find a video for the entire event – the “Thanksgiving Family Forum” – on the website of the National Organization for Marriage. It goes without saying that much of their rhetoric is disquieting, especially coming from people who presumably value individual freedom and self-determination.

While I intended to narrow it down to a few of the more pressing examples, I found all of them too concerning to pass up sharing. Even if it’s just political opportunism, the fact that politicians would have to feign these ideas in order to get elected is just as disquieting as them meaning it (I think it’s a bit of both). So many presumably freedom-loving ,right-wing Americans see no qualms about making all of society conform to their notions of “America,” despite their claim as promoters and lovers of liberty. It seems such freedom is only acceptable if it conforms to your own rigid and specific ideology.

1. Religious Americans must fight back against nonbelievers. To quote Herman Cain:

What we are seeing is a wider gap between people of faith and people of nonfaith. … Those of us that are people of faith and strong faith have allowed the nonfaith element to intimidate us into not fighting back. I believe we’ve been too passive. We have maybepushed back, but as people of faith, we have not fought back.

2. The religious values we must fight for are Judeo-Christian. Rick Perry warned:

Somebody’s values are going to decide what the Congress votes on or what the president of the United States is going to deal with. And the question is: Whose values? And let me tell you, it needs to be our values—values and virtues that this country was based upon in Judeo-Christian founding fathers.

3. Our laws and our national identity are Judeo-Christian. Michele Bachmann explained:

American exceptionalism is grounded on the Judeo-Christian ethic, which is really based upon the 10 Commandments. The 10 Commandments were the foundation for our law. That’s what Blackstone said—the English jurist—and our founders looked to Blackstone for the foundation of our law. That’s our law.

4. No religion but Christianity will suffice. Perry declared, “In every person’s heart, in every person’s soul, there is a hole that can only be filled by the Lord Jesus Christ.”

5. God created our government. Bachmann told the audience:

I have a biblical worldview. And I think, going back to the Declaration of Independence, the fact that it’s God who created us—if He created us, He created government. And the government is on His shoulders, as the book of Isaiah says.

 

6. U.S. law should follow God’s law. As Rick Santorum put it:

Unlike Islam, where the higher law and the civil law are the same, in our case, we have civil laws. But our civil laws have to comport with the higher law. … As long as abortion is legal—at least according to the Supreme Court—legal in this country, we will never have rest, because that law does not comport with God’s law.

7. Anything that’s immoral by religious standards should be outlawed. Santorum again:

God gave us rights, but He also gave us laws upon which to exercise those rights, and that’s what you ought to do. And, by the way, the law should comport—the laws of this country should comport with that moral vision. Why? Because the law is a teacher. If something is illegal in this country because it is immoral and it is wrong and it is harmful to society, saying that it is illegal and putting a law in place teaches. It’s not just—laws cannot be neutral. There is no neutral, Ron. There is only moral and immoral. And the law has to reflect what is right and good and just for our society

8. The federal government should impose this morality on the states. Santorum once more:

The idea that the only things that the states are prevented from doing are only things specifically established in the Constitution is wrong. Our country is based on a moral enterprise. Gay marriage is wrong. As Abraham Lincoln said, the states do not have the right to do wrong. … As a president, I will get involved, because the states do not have the right to undermine the basic, fundamental values that hold this country together.

9. Congress should erase the judiciary’s power to review moral laws. Newt Gingrich suggested:

I am intrigued with something which Robby George at Princeton has come up with, which is an interpretation of the 14th Amendment, in which it says that Congress shall define personhood. That’s very clearly in the 14th Amendment. And part of what I would like to explore is whether or not you could get the Congress to pass a law which simply says: Personhood begins at conception. And therefore—and you could, in the same law, block the court and just say, ‘This will not be subject to review,’ which we have precedent for. You would therefore not have to have a constitutional amendment, because the Congress would have exercised its authority under the 14th Amendment to define life, and to therefore undo all of Roe vs. Wade, for the entire country, in one legislative action.

Gingrich said the same strategy could secure the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars federal recognition of same-sex marriages and protects the right of states to disregard same-sex marriages performed in other states. In his words, “You could repass DOMA and make it not appealable to the court, period.”

10. Courts that get in the way should be abolished. Gingrich again:

The simplest first step which I would take is to propose—and I hope this will be a significant part of the campaign next year—I have proposed to abolish the court of Judge Biery in San Antonio, who on June 1 issued an order that said, not only could students not pray at their graduation, they couldn’t use the word benediction, the could not say the word prayer, they could not say the word God, they could not ask people to stand for a moment of silence, they couldn’t use the word invocation, and if he broke any of those, he would put their superintendent in jail. I regard that as such a ruthless anti-American statement that he should not be on the court, and I would move to literally abolish his court, so that he could go back to private practice, as a signal to the courts.

Biery’s order was an overreach. In fact, it was overturned two days later by an appeals court. But he’s only the first target of the anti-judicial purge. The next words after Gingrich’s threat came from Santorum, who said: “I agree with a lot of what has just been said here. I would go farther—one step farther, Newt. I would abolish the entire Ninth Circuit.”

11. The purge of judges should be based on public opinion. Gingrich once more:

Part of the purpose of singling out Judge Biery and eliminating his job is to communicate the standard that the two elected branches have the power and the authority to educate the judiciary when it deviates too far from the American people. And I think you would probably take that approach.

12. Freedom means obeying morality. Santorum concluded, “Our founders understood liberty is not what you want to do, but what you ought to do. That’s what liberty really is about.”

There was one voice of dissent among the candidates. Ron Paul, the libertarian congressman from Texas, argued that people should be allowed to make bad decisions, that freedom of choice in religious matters should extend to atheists, and that powers not reserved to the federal government should be left to the states. But in a field of candidates bent on legislating Christian morality and purging uncooperative judges, Paul stood alone. Protecting America is too important to let the Constitution get in the way.

Stephen Hawking’s “Curiosity: The Questions of Life”

While I’m on the subject of science, I thought I’d share a great show that recently debuted on the Discovery Channel hosted by none other than Stephen Hawking  (hint: one of the answers to the “Name that Scientist” quiz I posted earlier). Given the channel’s tragic decline from actual science to the watered-down pop variety – packaged mostly in reality television form no less – it’s refreshing to see some small resurgence in scientific topics. I really hope it starts a trend.

The show’s premise is aimed at tackling the bigger questions of science, such as how the universe was created and how it operates. It even explicitly touches on the subject of God and whether such an entity could have been responsible for it all. I consider this to be ground breaking, since – to my knowledge – no popular science show has ever directly sought to address whether there is a God based on what we know of the universe. Even discounting this contentious question, I think the show gives a great explanation of how remarkable our universe’s workings are.

Anyway, here are the four parts that comprise the very first episode. I leave it up to you all to judge for yourselves.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

Hope you all enjoy. Feel free to leave any feedback here as well. If anyone is interested, there is also a two-part post-episode “conversation” between Hawking and some other scientists and theologians concerning the topic of God and physics.

Part 1:

Part 2: 

I personally think it’s quite interesting and I look forward to seeing more shows like this continue to encourage frank discussion and dialogue on the subject, especially to a mass audience (I can only hope they’re as receptive to at least hearing out the premise as I am).

Qualia Soup

Once again, I  am pleased to have found a good dose of wisdom on YouTube, courtesy of a user known as Qualia Soup. He posts a series of Flash-animated videos that crisply address several scientific and philosophical topics, particularly arguments in favor of freethought, reason, and skeptical inquiry; and a critical dissection of religious dogma, illogical thinking, and pseudo-scientific ideas such as intelligent design.

Personally, I find the videos to be of great quality and are well presented, with good narration and structure (his scholarly English accent certainly helps). What I like most is the way he addresses his given topic in a clear and concise manner, dealing with common misconceptions and presenting the material in a way that engages those viewers with little understanding of the topic without being patronizing. I respect anyone that can find a balance between properly explaining a subject and doing so in a way that is easy to understand (especially when it comes to relatively difficult topics such as logic, evolution, morality, and so on). My only (minor) criticism is his tendency to move a bit too fast sometimes.

The following are a few of my favorite, though I haven’t seen them all:

 

 

 

I encourage you to look into more of his work. I think even my religious friends could appreciate some of the interesting arguments he presents, and could no doubt agree with at least some of the irrational arguments and beliefs he invalidates.  At the very least, I hope this encourages some reflection and open-mindedness, whether you agree with the arguments or not. As always, my purpose is nothing more but to share certain philosophical and logical positions that appeal to me, either to enlighten others or to initiate a discourse (be it with me, my resources, or within your own mind).

Hope you all enjoy.