Archive for May, 2009

Sunday Sermon: My favorite contradiction

addis_religioncartoonSome atheists love to stump Christians (particularly fundamentalists) with the question, “How did Judas die?” This is a pretty good one, since the Bible contains 2 completely different accounts.

In one version (Matthew 27:5), Judas hangs himself, after throwing away the “blood money” he was paid for betraying Jesus. In another (Acts 1:18), his belly spontaneously splits open and he falls over dead, in the field he bought with the blood money he was paid for betraying Jesus. That would seem to be an airtight contradiction (especially given that one version has him throw away the money, while the other has him spending it), but fundamentalist Christians can be remarkably creative about interpreting a book they claim needs no interpretation.

They’ll claim he threw the money away and later picked it up, or just threw some of it away, and then they’ll claim that he hung himself and then his belly split open after his body rotted. No contradiction at all! Just 2 stories emphasizing different details. Don’t  believe me? Try it in a forum and just see what answers you get.

I prefer to ask the simple question, “How many times did Peter deny Jesus before the rooster first crowed?” (I prefer to say “rooster” because I don’t want people thinking I’m just looking for an excuse to say “cock”). The thing is, there are 2 different versions of that story too, and they directly and unequivocally contradict each other. They simply can’t both be true.

In the better-known version (related in Matthew, Luke and John), Jesus says Peter will deny him 3 times before the rooster crows, and that’s what happens — 3 different people come up to Peter asking if he knows that guy they just arrested, and each time Peter says he doesn’t know him — and then the rooster crows.

But in the book of Mark, it’s a different story. Jesus says Peter will deny him 3 times before the rooster crows twice, and then Peter’s very first denial is followed by the rooster crowing, then 2 more denials, then the second crow.

This might seem like a trivial quibble. But remember, fundamentalists don’t merely claim the Bible is highly accurate — they say it’s authored by God His own Self, and contains no errors or inaccuracies. Lots of contradictions can be waved away by dedicated fundamentalists who say that each version tells part of the story, but you just can’t do that with the contradictory accounts of Peter’s denial.

If Jesus said Peter would deny him 3 times before the rooster crowed, and if that actually happened, then any account that has a rooster crowing before Peter’s third denial — in Mark’s case, actually even before the second denial — must simply be false.

And if Mark’s version is true, then the other three versions are false. There’s just no way around it — the Gospels contain at least one story that is, at least in the details, just plain false. If God authored all of the Gospels, then He really should have had a fact-checker or a copy editor or one of the other support staff employed to help fallible authors keep their stories straight.

(Don Addis cartoon via Friendly Atheist)

An offer you can’t refuse?

baptismWhat should you do if a friend or relative who’s just had a baby asks you to be the godfather? Or godmother (presumably of the non-“fairy” variety)? As an atheist, is it appropriate to say yes? As a friend or family member, is it appropriate to say no?

I think if you’re asked in front of a group, you should do the same as if you’re proposed to in front of a group – -say yes, no matter what (especially if there’s a JumboTron involved). It’s just ridiculously humiliating to turn someone down in public. If you really don’t want to do it, you can tell them later in private (or decide to “have second thoughts” at a later time).

But before you decide whether to accept, you should be aware of what being a godparent means, both short- and long-term. Traditionally, it means you’re responsible for the child’s spiritual upbringing (although obviously the parents bear primary responsibility).

And generally it means you’re expected to be present at the baptism or christening (and yes, that means you get to buy a gift — whoopee!), and it’s even slightly possible that you’ll be asked to participate, maybe just by saying “yes” or “I do” when asked if you’ll look after the child’s spiritual safety (in which case treat it just as you would if it’s a wedding — either play along, or don’t agree to participate in the first case). Or you might even be asked to “say a few words” at the ceremony or whatever lunch or dinner or picnic they have later — if that happens, you can play it safe by talking about how wonderful the parents are and how happy they must be with their new bundle of joy and all that sort of stuff.

Often, being named as godparent implies that you’ll be the one to take the kids in and raise them if, (relevant deity) forbid, something should happen to the parents. However, this is not a legal commitment, just an informal understanding, and it’s often not even that. Sometimes, naming you a godparent is just little “shout-out” gesture of friendship or closeness, like making you a maid of honor or a groomsman or an usher at a wedding.

Officially, it’s just a formal commitment to being the spiritual advisor/mentor/teacher/whatever. And of course, like many formalities, it’s not really binding either, any more than you’re actually required to “speak now or forever hold your peace” when you actually can think of a reason or two or 47 why those two people in the black tux and white dress really shouldn’t try to spend the rest of their lives together (but it sure does make for a suspenseful moment or two at the ceremony, doesn’t it?).

NOTE: Catholics say you can’t be godparent (or “sponsor” either) if you’re not Catholic, but you can be a “witness” (here are some details).

And here’s a nifty blog with some resources for those facing godparenthood from someone who’s been put in the position a few times (apparently a few too many for his liking): The Grumpy Godfather.

(Baptism cartoon via SwensonFunnies)

Truth in labeling

agnostic-cemeteryJust what do we mean when we say “atheist,” or “agnostic”? It’s a subject that can cause quite a bit of confusion, even among those who define themselves as one or the other.

By far the most common shorthand definition of “atheist” is “someone who doesn’t believe in God.” Many atheists have a problem with that definition, not least because it’s framed within a religious, monotheist viewpoint. It implies, sort of, that God actually exists but that atheists are people who don’t realize that.

Not to mention, it assumes that theism equals monotheism, and fails to take into account the various other theistic views (e.g. Hinduism with its millions of deities). Personally, I don’t think this is a huge problem. If you don’t object to saying you don’t believe in Santa Claus, I don’t see why it’s any different (when living in a culture where Santa Claus and God are both commonly understood concepts of supernatural beings) to say you don’t believe in God.

A bigger problem with “doesn’t believe in God” is that it’s grammatically imprecise. It’s like saying “I don’t like kumquats” — it could mean you’ve tried them and dislike them, or that you’ve tried them and have no particular like or dislike, or that you’ve never tried them at all, and therefore have no reason to say you like them.

Of course, when someone in casual conversation says “I don’t like kumquats,” the sensible conclusion is that they’re tried them and they dislike them, but that’s not quite the same with “I don’t believe in God.” A person who says that may mean that they believe God doesn’t exist (and most likely they don’t believe in any other deities either), or that they neither believe that there are deities nor actively believe that there aren’t any.

Some people define “atheist” literally as “a-theist,” someone who merely isn’t a theist. Generally, they define a “strong atheist” as someone who makes the affirmative assertion that there are no deities, and a “weak atheist” as someone who simply lacks any belief strong enough to make an affirmative assertion either way.

In this view, “agnostic” refers to the belief that the deity question is unknowable and unanswerable. I find that unsatisfactory, for a number of reasons, not least of which is that any sensible person — theist or atheist — considers the deity question unknowable. That doesn’t mean we can’t have an opinion on the subject, it just means that any sensible person — atheist or theist — should acknowledge that their opinion or belief is just that. It’s not certainty or knowledge.

When someone says “an atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in God, and an agnostic is someone who doesn’t know,” my immediate response is to say that therefore everybody’s an agnostic, since nobody knows.

I prefer to use the word “atheist” to mean someone who believes that there aren’t any deities, and “agnostic” to mean someone who doesn’t believe either that there are or aren’t any.

What about “freethinker”? To me, that’s best used as an umbrella description for atheists and agnostics (by whatever definition you use), those people whose worldviews don’t include a belief in any deities. I also tend to think it’s a term best used en famille, with other like-minded folks, rather than in discussions with religious people, since it’s kind of a self-compliment, implying that other people’s thinking isn’t free. That may in fact be true, but it’s not polite to mention with company around.

(Agnostic cemetery cartoon by Dan Piraro)

Atheists in Foxholes

foxholememorial_clrGiving respect where it’s due is a basic principle not only of etiquette but of just being a decent human being. On this Memorial Day, it’s especially appropriate to pay respect to the men and women of the military who have given their lives in service.

And it’s worth noting that, contrary to the cliched (and smugly anti-logical) platitude, there are indeed atheists in foxholes. It’s not impolite in the slightest to honor atheists who have given their lives in military service, or to correct people who wrongly try to co-opt Memorial Day into some sort of quasi-religious observance.

If you want to learn more about foxhole atheists, you can visit the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, or look at the Atheists in Foxholes Monument, or read this Newsweek article on the subject, or listen to one Army captain’s story.

And if you’d like to help atheists who are still alive, and still serving in the military, you might want to check out Operation Foxhole Atheists.

(Atheists in Foxholes Monument pic via Freedom From Religion Foundation)

Sunday Sermon

song-chart-memes-the-bibleI’ve been doing this blog for a couple weeks now, and one thing I’ve learned is that talking about being polite is, well … boring. I’m thinking it might be interesting to liven things up a bit by leaving the area of politeness occasionally, and talk about ways atheists can engage with the world without worrying about ruffling feathers.

So let’s look at an area where it’s totally acceptable (IMHO) to stop worrying about being polite — debate forums that  have been set up explicitly for the purpose of debating the merits (or lack thereof) of religion or atheism.

I’m not saying there aren’t any restrictions (moderation is often an issue), or that you always feel free to let fly with all the vitriol  you can muster (I have many online “friends” who are devout believers, and I try to respect their feelings even though we’ve never met).

But if it’s an online forum, set up for the express purpose of arguing about atheism (or arguing about religion), then you don’t need to be closeted, you don’t need to worry that announcing your atheism will be a bummer or will distract people from the event at hand and make it “all about you,” or any of the other considerations that often motivate atheists to keep a lid on it in public settings.

Needless to say, not all non-atheists are equally fun to debate (or argue with, or hassle, or whatever). There are those really annoying believers — the cool ones who know that they don’t have some special line to God, they just have a faith that they believe in. Those people are a real pain.

Fortunately, those types of believers are a minority. The really awesome non-atheists are the ones who combine ignorance and arrogance for a perfect storm of nose-tweakability. You know the kind — the ones who insist the Bible is completely accurate because nobody’s ever sat them down and showed them the contradictions.

The ones who say the reason there’s good in the world is all because of God, and the reason there’s evil is all because of humans (without pondering who’s responsible for creating the humans in the first place).

The ones who say God knows everything — even the future, even all the bad things  you’re going to do, even before you decide to do them — and then claim you have free will (without pondering what would happen if you used your free will to choose to do something God “knew” you wouldn’t choose to do).

Atheists in church

atheist_churchWhether you’re an atheist or a Christian or some other sort of religious believer, there’s a good chance that one day you’ll find yourself in a church or other house of worship with traditions you don’t understand, surrounded by people whose beliefs you don’t share.

That’s especially true at weddings, baptisms, etc., where it’s likely there will be friends and extended family who don’t attend the same church (if they attend any at all). So don’t sweat it too much if you find yourself in such a situation. Even if you’re the only atheist there, you’re not the only fish out of water.

Different churches have different routines. There are sedate churches where the most you have to do is bow your head a few times, or (if you’re feeling ambitious) say some words (or move your lips). Then there are churches that practically give you an aerobic workout — “Everybody stand up! Everybody sit down! Stand up! On your knees!” — and you can feel like an idiot if you don’t know the drill.

(Bonus Power Tip for Protestants: Catholics end the Lord’s Prayer at “deliver us from evil.” If you’re at a Catholic church (maybe for a wedding or baptism) and you pray along with the Lord’s Prayer, and they get to “deliver us from evil” and you go right on with “for thine is the kingdom …” you’re probably going to be the only one still talking. Ask me how I know.)

The good news is, most churches are used to having “foreigners” in their midst, and you won’t get a hard time if you don’t join in. And if you’re still worried about it, you can always ask someone in the main party (the couple getting married or baptizing their kid) about whether there are any protocols you should know about.

This works well whether they know you’re an atheist or not, and whether you want to make it an issue or not. Either way, you’re not from their church and don’t know the traditions, so asking about it is a good way to show concern about making their day special, and/or sending a message that even though you’re an atheist you won’t make a scene when people start praying and stuff. There are lots of good places and times to stand up and be counted as an atheist, but somebody else’s special day isn’t one of them.

Confession time: I got married in a church. Not only married, but counseled beforehand by an Episcopal priest. Fortunately for me, the priest was a guy (the Episcopals let any gender be priests, and they’re even allowed to marry), so there wasn’t a lot of touchy-feely crap about feelings and building relationships and stuff like that. The only part I remember was that he said every man needs a “cave,” and a woman should let him have a place where he can be alone to mess around with guy-type stuff. Whatever. Works for me.

Why get married in a church? Mainly because my wife’s father was very religious and very ill, and it was no skin off our nose for him to see his youngest daughter (and only unmarried offspring) get married in a proper church before he became too ill (physically and mentally) to be there. Was that cowardly of us? Maybe. Would we do it again? You bet.

(Don Addis cartoon via Freedom From Religion Foundation)

To bow or not to bow, redux

I covered my view on group prayers (saying grace, etc.) in an earlier post, but there’s one aspect I left out — what if they want you to join hands? Does that change the equation? To me, it doesn’t. If you’ve already decided that being polite is more important than standing on principle (which is, of course, a whole other issue), then joining hands isn’t any more insincere than just bowing your head.

A Christian prayer uttered in a group holding hands is just like any other prayer — it’s not a frickin’ seance. Nobody’s pretending that there’s some magical “circle of faith”-type power operating and that you’re somehow violating their pseudo-magic if  you’re a non-believer. It’s just a gesture of fellowship.

The other people don’t believe their prayer won’t “work” if someone in the circle isn’t a believer — or if they do, and they find out, and they give you a hard time about it (i.e. if they’ve stopped being polite and started being rude, thus ruining any chance of maintaining a polite atmosphere at the gathering), just tell them that if it was so all-fired  important to them, they should have taken steps to determine that everyone was a believer, rather than arrogantly assuming it.

You’re not being any more insincere by holding hands than you’re already being by bowing your head and not making trouble. So don’t sweat it.

Asymmetrical attitudes

etiquette-for-atheistsOne important difference between being religious and being an atheist is that religions often have strict instructions about specific behavior. A religion, for example, may have a rule forbidding participation (or even silent assent) in a prayer to a different deity. Atheism, on the other hand, doesn’t carry any specific moral commands (note to obnoxious Christians: this does *not* mean atheists don’t have any morality, merely that they don’t have some centralized dogma).

While some may say that going along with a public prayer (by bowing one’s head and/or even reciting the words) is dishonest, and therefore immoral, it’s at least a debatable proposition. And since atheism doesn’t inherently have any centralized moral dogma (even the notion that dishonesty is wrong isn’t necessarily implied by the mere non-existence of deities), it’s not quite as clear-cut how to behave in a given situation.

Another difference is in the area of evangelism. Many religions (notably Christianity and Islam) command their followers to reach out to convert nonbelievers. Atheism, of course, does not. It may well be the case that truth is better than falsehood and knowledge is better than ignorance (I certainly believe that), but there’s nothing about atheism per se that commands atheists to reach out to convert (or de-convert) non-atheists to atheism.

Likewise, many religions command or encourage their followers to acknowledge their deity publicly. That creates a potentially asymmetrical sitation — when a Christian or Muslim injects their religious views into a conversation (or just makes a religious gesture after scoring a touchdown or something), it can be argued that etiquette dictates we cut them some slack, since they’re caught between a God and a hard place — they’re being a bit impolite because they’re following what they believe to be a divine command from a deity they worship. On the other hand, an atheist who injects their non-belief into a public situation doesn’t have the fallback of claiming they were just doing what God commanded them.

Is this fair? Of course not. But if you’re an atheist, you don’t have any innate reason to expect that life would be fair (and therefore, perhaps, more motivation to work to make it more fair when possible). Does this mean an atheist has no moral basis for asserting that there aren’t any deities, or pointing out the various flaws in religious people’s beliefs? No, but it does mean it’s harder to claim you feel a burning need to spread the word about your worldview.

My advice: If you want to call out an obnoxious believer on how silly their beliefs are, make sure that 1) they’re coming off as obnoxious to the other folks around, not just to you; and 2) the beliefs you castigate as silly are specific to the obnoxious jerk, and not shared by the rest of the folks.

In other words, if the obnoxious guy is a fundamentalist, and you’re pretty sure the other folks aren’t, then go ahead and point out some direct contradiction in the Bible, and watch them squirm.

But if you point out how silly you think it is to believe in a deity in the first place, you’re likely to alienate the onlookers and turn your opponent from an antagonist getting well-deserved comeuppance into a victim being bullied.

(cartoon via Swenson Funnies)

To bow or not to bow?

atheist_prayerOne of the most common situations where atheists feel awkward is a gathering where someone initiates a public prayer, and asks people to join in (usually silently, with heads bowed and/or hands folded). Here’s my take on why, in most cases, the polite thing to do is to bow your head and play along:

Taking part in a ritual doesn’t imply buying into all the cultural/social/religious baggage associated with it. There are lots and lots of cases where people engage in gestures or traditions that carry meanings they don’t remotely intend.

We shake hands with people in lots of situations where neither of us are armed and there’s no need to demonstrate that our sword hand is empty. Some of us knock on wood (or say “knock on wood”) even if we’re not pagans who believe trees hold spirits who can watch over our needs. And likewise, bowing your head while someone utters a memorized, ritualistic speech doesn’t mean you wholeheartedly endorse the underlying concepts.

You could argue, of course, that it’s rude of the person initiating the prayer to do so in a situation where there are (or may be) atheists or other non-believers present. That may well be true (although there are situations where prayer is an accepted part of the deal, like a Christian wedding — see below).

But one of the big rules of etiquette is that it’s rude to point out that someone else is being rude. At least, it’s rude to point it out directly. There are some passive-aggressive moves that some etiquette experts recommend for people who simply must say something, but if you’re trying to maintain good social relationships (which is, after all, what etiquette is for), you don’t help to accomplish that by pointing out that someone else is being an idiot or an asshole.

And you could also argue that silently going along with a prayer makes it harder for atheists to stand up and be counted, and creates a deceptive picture of just how few atheists there are out there. If you think there’s a moral imperative that’s more important than being polite, then do what you think is right — but don’t be surprised if people think you’re rude. Because basically, you are. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — as someone said, polite people rarely make history. But it’s still a thing.

And if you’re at a Christian wedding, and the minister calls for a moment of silent prayer, it’s perfectly appropriate for you to bow your head. Just as it’s perfectly appropriate for a Christian at a Buddhist wedding to bow her head, or stand, or kneel, if that’s what everyone else is doing. A wedding is about the happy couple, not about you. And if you didn’t want to be exposed to Christian religion, the time to make that decision was before you walked through the Christian church doors and took your seat at the Christian church pew.

There are some other prayer-related etiquette issues (What about holding hands to say grace? What if someone asks you to offer a prayer? What if a prayer you’re going along with turns nasty?), but I think this will do for now.

Etiquette Rule #5: Everybody Lighten the (Bleep) Up

atheist-golden-ruleMost of the world’s problems are caused by idiots or assholes. That guy who cut you off in traffic because he didn’t see your car? He’s an idiot. The guy who saw you there and cut you off anyway? Asshole. That guy you accidentally cut off who started tailgating you and honking his horn? He’s responding to idiocy with assholery.

The real problem is this: There’s another term for idiots, and another term for assholes. That term is, “us.” We’re all idiots sometimes, and we’re all assholes sometimes. And just as idiots or assholes are the cause of most problems in the world, people who respond to idiocy with assholery are the cause of most of the really big problems in the world.

The Middle East? Here’s why it’s messed up. Thousands of years ago, one of two things happened: Either a Jew was an idiot and an Arab responded by being an asshole, or an Arab was the idiot and a Jew was the asshole. They’ve been fighting ever since over which was which.

So look, here’s the deal. That time you sneezed and someone said “God bless you”? They were being a tiny bit of an idiot. But if you responded by snapping, “There is no God,” or, “sorry, I’m an atheist,” or otherwise denigrating their genuine (if superficial) gesture of sympathy? You were being an asshole. Lighten the (bleep) up. It’s just a figure of speech. So is “God only knows” (you can still like the Beach Boys, really, it’s OK). So is “thank you Jesus” when you get good news, or “there is no God” when you get bad news (not really bad news, just bad enough to be a bummer that merits a wry, self-pitying wisecrack).

(cartoon via My Blasphemous Mouth)