Archive for June, 2009

Hiatus for a week

I’m going to a family reunion for about a week, so posts will probably be (even more) sporadic. If I run into any atheist-etiquette type of situations, I’ll be sure to report on them when I get back. But I doubt anything will come up.

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Sunday Sermon: Patience is a virtue

militant_atheist

No Sunday Sermon this week — I’m too busy with family visits (hooking up with my brother and his family in NYC today, then going to a family reunion in Colorado the first week in July), so I’ll leave you with this nicely sermonistic piece by PZ Myers. For more in this vein, check out PZ’s blog, Pharyngula. He’s maybe a bit more militant than the guy in the cartoon above, but nowhere near the same league as militant religious types.

There might not be one next week either, while I’m out of town. I’ll see if I can whip up something, but no guarantees.

Talking to kids about atheism

atheism_kidsWhat if a child you know asks you, ‘Do you believe in God?” What’s the best way to handle that situation?

I think that you first have to ask yourself, what are your goals? What outcome are you hoping for as a result of this conversation?

Presumably you’re not interested in making atheists look scary and weird, and presumably you’re not trying to tell the kid that their friends and family members who are non-atheists are idiots or ignoramuses.

But what are you trying to accomplish? Aside from accurately and eloquently explaining your worldview (or finding a polite way of avoiding it that you can live with), I’d think you’d want to leave the kid with a favorable (or at least not unfavorable) impression of atheists, as well as of freethinking (not in the “euphemism for atheist” sense, but genuinely being open-minded).

The child will be hearing enough nonsense about “dogmatic” or “militant” atheists from the non-atheists — no need to create the appearance of corroboration of such nonsense from an actual atheist.

So even if your own worldview WRT deities tends to be emphatic in its denial of their existence, you might want to make sure to remind the kid that you’re aware that different people have different views, and that there are (some) sensible and rational people to be found with pretty much any worldview.

If someone asks me if I “believe in God,” I’m inclined to say something like, “No, but I try to be open-minded about the possibility,” or “No, but I’ve been known to be wrong.” If I feel like elaborating, I might say, “No, but I once did, and now I don’t, so one thing I do know for sure is that I’m capable of being wrong, since I can’t have been right both times.”

This has the added advantage (or disadvantage, depending on your POV) of letting the kid know that it actually is possible for someone to have a religious belief and then change their mind. I say “possible disadvantage” because not everyone is able to deal with the concept of abandoning religion. I once freaked someone out when I described myself as a “former born-again Christian” — and the person I freaked out was in college at the time. You might want to take the kid’s mental and intellectual state into account when deciding how to answer.

But after you’ve come up with some sort of answer, what do you say then if the kid asks you why you don’t believe in God? Kids have been known, on occasion, to make such annoying inquiries.

If you’re feeling subversive, you can always trot out your best argument, and see if you can get the kid to agree. But that could get you in serious trouble with any theist friends or relatives you may have in common.

Another option is to politely explain to the child that it’s not really very polite to ask people about their religious-type beliefs, and/or say that you think people should try to answer those kinds of questions for themselves.

And, of course, if you really don’t want to get into a great big God talk with a child, and wrestle with all the issues mentioned above, there’s always the good old “flat out lie” option. Hey, if you can lie to kids about believing in Santa Claus, why not God?

(Cartoon via Atheist Closet)

Sunday Sermon: Bacon bits

receive_baconThere’s a bumpersticker that says, “If we’re not supposed to eat animals, why are they made out of meat?” That’s funny, in a question-begging* sort of way, but there’s a similar question that needs to be asked of Judeo-Christian-Muslim worldview: If we’re not supposed to eat pigs, why are they made out of bacon?

Essentially, the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) ask us to believe that God basically said to mankind, “Hey guys, see this animal here? It’s called a pig. I made the top part out of baby back ribs and the shoulders out of pork that makes fantastic barbecue. The legs are made out of ham, and just in case that wasn’t enough, I made its belly out of bacon! And guess what, humans? You can’t eat any of it! Bwahahahaha!”

Even if such a deity ever did exist, I could never bring myself to worship such a sick and twisted being.

* Pet Peeve: The phrase “begs the question” refers to a failure of logic in which one attempts to prove a proposition true via a proof that itself assumes the proposition as true, e.g. “The Bible is the infallible word of God, because there’s a verse in the Bible that says so” (and yes, you can easily find Christians who will use precisely that argument). The phrase “begs the question …” does NOT mean “raises the question …” or “brings up the question …” or “leads logically to the question …” and I’m really sick of seeing it used that way — not just by the unwashed masses, but even by professional journalists who should know better. Knock it off, already!

{“Receive Bacon” pic via Pieces of Limbo)

Third-party insults

proof-is-in-the-poseidonSo, you’re at a dinner party or something, and someone pipes up with some nasty comment about atheists — or perhaps a comment that’s not nasty, just ignorant of atheism and atheists, and of the fact that there’s an atheist right there in the room.

What’s the polite way to respond (or is not responding the polite thing to do)?

Before we look at what response is polite — that is, helping to maintain an atmosphere of civility and good manners — we have to ask whether such an atmosphere has already been destroyed by the unthinking anti-atheist comment. If it has, then putting the idiot in their place isn’t dragging the conversation down any further than it’s already been dragged.

But the truth is, as much as I hate to admit it, that’s probably not the case. Unless the atheists are thick on the ground, and the idiot just doesn’t realize it, chances are most people won’t even take much note of the comment, let alone take offense. So what’s the polite thing to do? It probably depends on a lot of variables.

For one thing, how “polite” is the company? Is it a group where you’re mostly friends and/or family, where talking about how a comment makes you feel is appropriate? Or is it a gathering of strangers or bare acquaintances, where talking about your feelings (or the religion-oriented parts of your worldview) is less appropriate?

If you’re with people you like, care about and want to spend lots of time with, it’s probably best to clear the air, and explain to the idiot why they’re being an idiot. That’s easier if it’s a relatively innocuous remark, like wondering how atheists find the strength to deal with life’s challenges, etc. Probably not so easy with a really offensive question or comment, like something about atheists having no morality.

One suggestion: Try to make sure that your response, whatever it may be, is less offensive (to an objective observer) than the comment that prompted it. And if you can, try to be matter-of-fact about the discussion, unless you’re among friends and you really need to make clear that you were bothered by the remark. If the conversation is already headed into less-than-polite territory, you want to de-escalate things, not escalate them.

If someone asks where atheists get their moral compass from (or suggests that maybe they don’t have one), you can genially reply, “I suspect most of us atheists get our moral compass from the same place everyone else does — from stuff we were raised with as kids, and stuff we figured out later on. That’s where I got mine from.”

If someone tries to be funny and ask, “What do atheists cry out during sex? ‘Oh, Darwin!’ or something?” you can reply, “No, we say ‘Oh God’ too, we just say it ironically.” And smile.

If someone asks why (or whether) atheists say “bless you” when someone sneezes, you can say, “Yeah, some of us say it, and we don’t mean it any more than Christians do when they say it — I mean, it’s not like a head cold really requires a plea for divine intervention, even if there was a God.”

On the other hand, if you’re having dinner at your boss’s house, and your boss’s spouse makes the obnoxious remark, you might just want to bite your tongue and smile.

Figures of speech

atheist-sexI have an online friend named HRG who often talks about God even though he’s an atheist. But he’s quick to use “standard atheist disclaimer applies” in such discussions, by which he means he’s talking about “God” as a concept, in the same way one can talk about Darth Vader or Harry Potter or some other fictional character.

That’s one way of talking about religious concepts, and I myself have been known (quite recently) to talk about what Jesus said (although I did specify that I was operating under the presumption that the Bible’s description was accurate — a highly suspect proposition, but a useful presumption when discussing Christian concepts).

But there are other ways that people in general introduce theistic concepts into areas of discussion that are about as far removed from religion as you can get.

People say “God bless you” when you sneeze, for example. People invoke God or Jesus in other ways when they hit their thumb with a hammer, or when they’re having a really good time in bed (or a really bad time in traffic).

People express bewilderment or ignorance (I don’t mean that in a bad way) by saying “God knows” or “God only knows” (the latter is the title of a song by Brian Wilson that his Beach Boy brother Dennis said was the most beautiful song he’d ever heard, and I’m not sure I disagree).

Evan Thomas of Newsweek recently became a target of right-wing bloggers for comparing President Obama’s above-the-fray position as being “sort of God.” What about us atheists? Is it OK for us to use such figures of speech? Or are we great big hypocrites if we don’t come up with some non-theistic alternative, or just forgo the concept altogether?

I don’t think so. People who say “bless you” when you sneeze aren’t actually invoking divine intervention, they’re just making the societally prescribed response to an unfortunate bodily function – -the same way people say “excuse me” when they burp, even if they aren’t actually petitioning the people around them for some sort of pardon.

Likewise, when people curse, it’s generally a semi-involuntary response, not an attempt at rational discussion. And we all know pretty much the same bad words, and use them pretty much the same way. Using the G-word or the J-word in a stream of profanity isn’t any more literal than using the S-word or the F-word.

And “God” is a useful concept for actual discussions with actual content. God (the character in the fictional story, that is), knows everything, and he’s above the fray, with an objective(ish) view of the entire world. Evan Thomas used the concept in a valid way when describing Obama’s position (even though of course you could dispute the accuracy of his claim), and using the phrase “a God’s-eye view” is a convenient shorthand for describing an imaginary all-seeing perspective.

Not that we always have to be serious. I’ve been known to look skyward and say “Thank you Jesus!” when I get a particularly good bit of news, or “Why me, Lord?” when I get some bad news. Just as theists sometimes jokingly say “There is no God” in response to something bad happening.

You could argue, of course, that every time anyone uses “God” in a figure of speech, they’re helping to perpetuate the hegemony of religious people, organizations and ideas in public (or even private) life. And yeah, that’s a point. But if someone really wants to make an issue out of that, I would refer them to my Rule #5: Everybody Lighten the (Bleep) Up.

(cartoon via Friendly Atheist)

Sunday Sermon: “It takes faith to be an atheist”

perfect-senseSome Christians seem fond of declaring, “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.” That’s a pretty stupid thing to say if you’re someone whose religion is based on faith. It’s also a pretty stupid thing to say to someone who’s actually an atheist, rather than a fellow Christian who’ll smile and nod “knowingly” without bothering to think about it.

One thing that’s stupid about it is that it denigrates faith. Even for an atheist like me, that seems wrong. Faith is a powerful thing. Even in a world devoid of deities, we have faith in other people. I know what it’s like to have faith in someone. I know what it’s like to have that faith rewarded. I know what it’s like to have that faith betrayed. And (as a former born-again Christian) I know what it’s like to have faith that’s neither rewarded nor betrayed, but still abides nonetheless. It’s not a trivial thing.

One reason Christians pursue the “atheist faith” line of reasoning (or perhaps I should say “reasoning”) is because it’s a way to equate atheism with religion. This has tactical advantages — for instance, if there’s some public school curriculum you don’t like (e.g. evolution), you can declare that it’s atheist in nature (even if it’s not), and try to have it banned because it’s religious (since atheism is a religion, right?).

But while there are a few activist Christians pursuing such blatantly tactical approaches, most of them are just talking about and thinking about stuff. So why the denigration of faith? Why try to undermine the mainstay of their own religious view?

christianityMaybe it’s because they think they can win on an appeal to what “makes perfect sense,” either literally or sarcastically. Maybe that’s the whole reason they’re theists in the first place — they simply can’t believe that nobody’s in charge, and their religious belief isn’t really based on faith in the first place, but on a need to feel certain about something, even if what they feel certain about is absurd. For some people,¬† answering a question like “How did the universe come about?” by saying “It’s magic” is more satisfying than saying “I don’t know.”

But in a straight-up debate about cosmological-type issues, “I don’t know” wins every time, especially when you can pin down the Christian about specific details of what they claim to “know” (or at least have faith in).

For one thing, there’s the sheer vast emptiness of most of the universe. Creationists like to claim the universe is “fine-tuned” for life, but so far we only know of one planet that has life, and that planet is a tiny portion of its own solar system, which in turn is a really tiny portion of its galaxy, which in turn is only a tiny part of the universe. What’s the deal with creating this whole vast universe just to do a little social experiment on one tiny blue ball in one tiny corner of it?

And then there’s the actual creation story in Genesis. Not only do the first 2 chapters contradict each other (not my favorite Bible contradiction, but a good one), but the second chapter makes God into a colossal cosmic Homer Simpson character, making huge blunders and then cobbling together half-assed kludges to compensate for his mistakes.

For starters, he creates the earth and puts plants on it, but there’s no one to till the soil (BTW, most plants on earth grow in the wild without any tilling needed). So he creates a man (scoops up some mud, shapes it into a man and breathes life into its nostrils), but — D’oh! — the man is all alone! That’s not good. So God decides to create a mate for the man. How does he do this? By creating animals. He creates every animal in the world (same process, breathing life into the nostrils of mud sculptures), and brings them to Adam to name them.

(Question for creationists: There are at least 250,000 species of beetle we know about so far — how much time did Adam spend just naming beetles? If he did it really quickly — say, one beetle per second — that’s still 3 solid days, without pausing to eat, drink, sleep or anything else, just naming beetles. And how many¬† beetles did Adam go through before saying, “Hey, God, I think maybe you’re on the wrong track with these critters. You’ve brought me 185,394 of them already, and I’m pretty sure they’re not getting any closer to being a suitable mate”?)

So God ends up creating every single animal on earth, but — D’oh! — Adam still doesn’t have a mate! So then God (finally!) abandons the whole mud-sculpture concept, and takes a rib out of Adam and makes another person out of that. You’d think, being all-knowing and all, he might have foreseen that the mud-sculpture method wouldn’t work, wouldn’t you? And even if he didn’t foresee that, you might think he’d figure it out fairly early on — maybe around the 497th beetle or so.

Now, if a Christian challenges you to explain how all this stuff got here, you might think “I don’t know” is a lousy answer. But you don’t need to know how it got here to know that it’s here. You can observe that the universe exists, that the earth exists, that life on earth exists, without having any idea whatsoever how it got here. Saying that reality exists isn’t faith, it’s just observation.

But the Christian can’t just rest on “I don’t know” for explaining why (or how) God exists, or any other tenet of his religion — he can’t fall back on saying “I don’t know how God got here, I merely observe that he is here.” Because that’s not an observation — that’s faith.

And, I suspect, that’s why Christians want to claim atheism is also a faith — because it’s the only way they can even begin to attempt to make our worldview appear as comically absurd as their own.

(Christianity cartoon via Migrations; atheism cartoon via The Web Elf Report)