Archive for October, 2009

Ghosts and ghouls for the godless


Christians face a bit of a dilemma around Halloween time. On the one hand, it’s a Christian holiday (All Hallow’s Eve, the day before All Saints Day); on the other hand, it glorifies ghosts and devils and all sorts of other anti-Christian kind of stuff. But what about atheists? Should it be a dilemma for us as well?

Certainly Halloween has religious roots, however secularized and diluted the original meaning of the thing has become. Even if you want to assume (with good reason) that it was probably a pagan holiday long before the Christians snapped it up, paganism isn’t atheism — it’s just superstition without the overlay of rigorous codification that turns a superstition into a religion.

But let’s face it, if atheists shun every activity that’s been co-opted by the God-botherers, we wouldn’t have very much left to do for fun, would we? And we shouldn’t dismiss superstition (or religion) out of hand. There may well be profound psychological underpinnings to which superstition, paganism and other religions are a response.

Maybe mid-autumn (in Europe and North America), when leaves are dying and the icy bleakness of winter is beginning to approach, is just a natural time for people to think about death and other creepy things. Maybe that’s why religions in temperate climates evolved to use this time of year for reflection on such things.

There’s no reason we atheists — just as human, just as evolved, just as engaged in the world as anybody else — can’t acknowledge those underpinnings and even revel in them.

(cartoon via

Sunday Sermon: Muslim “miracle” mystery

muslim_miracle_babySo, apparently a Muslim baby “miraculously” is displaying red marks on his flesh with Koran verses on them. There’s a  discussion of the “miracle” on an online Catholic forum. Interesting how selective some people’s acceptance of miraculous apparitions can be.

Eventually some Muslims show up and the whole thread devolves into a “My God is better than your God” argument, but there are some curious comments earlier up:

“Pure nonsense! Just another hoax to keep Muslims mesmerized by Islam!” Yeah, it’s not like Catholics have divine apparitions every few years (or every few days if you count food products and building reflections) to keep their faith going.

And someone else seems a bit confused at the idea that a loving God would cause a skin rash, rather than something friendly like actual bleeding:

“Why would Allah let a baby suffer (they say it hurts him and he cries, with a high temperature) to bring conversion/reassurance to others? Wouldn’t it be better to do it with somebody’s permission once they’re older, etc?

Very interesting though. I am not sure if the stigmata hurt, but that’s the only comparable thing(that I can think of) in Christianity. But then even if it does hurt (which I don’t think it does) then it happens to a deeply prayerful adult, not a clueless child.”

I don’t recall any stigmatic (someone whose hands and/or feet bleed in imitation of Jesus’ wounds) who said anything about God asking permission before afflicting them.

It’s amazing how clueless people can be about the silliness and absurdity of their own religion, even when they see for themselves how silly and absurd (and downright harmful) religion can be.

Putting the “X” back in Xmas

atheist_christmasIs it time for the War on Christmas already? It’s not even Halloween!

Well, maybe not just yet (although I’m sure I’ll be nice and busy in a month or so), but there’s already a minor stir across the pond about a book that, among other things, addresses how atheists can try to get along with other people during the holiday season (hence my interest).

Ariane Sherine, the creator of England’s atheist bus campaign, has a new book out, “The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas.” It’s a collection of essays from atheists ranging from Richard Dawkins to Simon Le Bon (yes, of Duran Duran).

The book has made a bit of a splash across the pond, in English newspapers the Guardian and the Times, and a Guardian blogger (apparently himself an atheist) mentions the book in a column suggesting that atheism (or at least “New Atheism”) is classist. Sherine herself attempts to set him straight.

As for myself, I certainly don’t think it’s a good idea to look down on people of another class (even a “higher” one), but at the same time I don’t think it’s our fault that atheists tend to be better educated than theists, or that better educated people tend to make more money and occupy higher positions in society (though it’s worth noting that I’ve got 2 college degrees and I’ve been unemployed for 10 months now).

At any rate, being smug or arrogant is never polite, even when it’s justified.

Sunday Sermon: Conservative cafeteria Christianity, continued


So, last week I mentioned that lots of anti-gay Christians love to quote from Leviticus about homosexuality being an “abomination,” while the same chapter also condemns eating lobster. But guess what’s prohibited in the very next chapter? The chapter right after the one containing the verse tattooed on this guy’s arm? That’s right, tattoos!  Talk about cherry-picking the Bible!

But here’s the thing. This would be really funny in a lighthearted, let’s-laugh-at-the-Christians kind of way, except for one thing. The guy in the picture? In the news video the pic is taken from, he’s defending a friend of his who was caught on tape nearly beating a guy to death for being gay. Religion can be silly, and ridiculous, and so self-contradictory (both in what it says and what it’s followers do) as to be absurd, but always remember: Religion. Is. Also. Dangerous.

(Nice catch from the Friendly Atheist, from whom I also snagged the pic)

Deathbed Duties, redux

bought_more_crapA while back, I offered some thoughts on faking conversion for the sake of a dying loved one. One of the comments in that post prompted me to consider the topic from the other side — what if you’re a dying atheist with loved ones who desperately want to believe you’ll be sitting on a cloud instead of a pitchfork in the hereafter?

Should you feel obligated to put their minds at ease by pretending to have found Jesus (or whatever deity they would prefer)? I say no.

If you want to, that’s fine. You’re dying. Do whatever you want to make yourself more comfortable, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone — and maybe even if it does. Which kind of gets closer to the issue of whether you should try to spare your loved ones some pain and anguish during your final moments or days (or months or years — “deathbed” is kind of a nebulous concept, thanks to modern diagnostic technology).

The thing is, there’s a reason a deathbed confession is considered to have greater weight than some other confession. If you have the (arguable) luxury of knowing in advance that you’re about to die, you have an opportunity to set the record straight, to settle old differences (or even old scores). It’s a time for truth. And if the truth is that you don’t believe in the deities your loved ones do, then there’s no better time to explain that than on your deathbed.

If anything, I’d say your deathbed is a good place to “come out of the closet” as an atheist, if you’ve been hiding it your whole life. There’s a danger, of course, that your religious loved ones will ignore their religious instruction about respecting others (whatever religion theirs is, there’s probably something about that in there) and launch a full-blown offensive to convert you (and “offensive” is definitely the right word, however well-meaning it may appear, or actually be). But if you’re up to it, I don’t see any problem. And hey, you’re dying — even if they get really obnoxious, you won’t have to put up with it for long (look on the bright side, and all that).

Also, if you feel any affiliation with your fellow atheists, it’s more important than ever to stand up for your (un)beliefs on your deathbed, since while you were healthy, lots of theists were probably comforting themselves with the notion that you’d feel differently about God once you were face to face with your own mortality.

You may feel like you’re hurting your loved ones by refusing to fake a deathbed conversion, but how many atheists, all over the world, are you hurting by faking a conversion and lending credence to the fatuous notion that there are no atheists on deathbeds (or in foxholes)?

Sunday Sermon: Conservative cafeteria Christianity

conservative_bibleThe Conservative Bible Project has received lots of comments already, and it really kind of speaks for itself (in a Poe’s Law sort of way — if someone did it as a parody, some people would call it an over-the-top caricature). But I love the way people who call themselves “Bible believers” still find ways to justify ignoring, twisting or just plain defying the parts of the Bible they don’t like.

It’s the same sort of people who use the Old Testament description of “abomination” to describe homosexuality, and then either ignore the fact that the same chapter of Leviticus calls eating lobster an “abomination,” or point to a New Testament passage showing that the old Leviticus laws don’t apply (because the author of the book had a dream vision in which he got to eat shellfish), but somehow insisting that the other parts of Leviticus (the parts they like) aren’t also invalidated.

Sure, it may be true that the “adulteress story” (where Jesus says the one who’s without sin gets to cast the first stone) isn’t authentic, but somehow I doubt they’ll be applying the same rigor to the parts of the Bible that appeal to them.

“Why don’t you believe in God?”

religion-cartoon-salesmanWhat if someone asks why you don’t believe in God?  While it’s a somewhat rude question, and therefore somewhat abandoning any atmosphere of politeness, that’s not necessarily an excuse to be rude in your answer.

Yes, it’s rude to ask, because it’s a personal question, something people don’t generally talk about. Oversharing is a bit rude, and therefore so is inviting someone to overshare. But a person who asks why you don’t believe in God isn’t necessarily (or, indeed, probably) being deliberately rude, and they may be genuinely interested in deep discussion (the sort that leaves behind niceties like etiquette, not to be rude but to be serious).

So, in answering such a question, the issue is whether to answer in the manner of an intellectual debate or as a personal journey (what Christians call “testimony”). Either option allows you to be politely vague about your reasons/experiences, although talking about your experience is less likely to come across as confrontational.

But any way you slice it, explaining why you don’t believe what someone else believes, or how you used to believe it but don’t anymore, is likely to come across as some sort of criticism of that person’s belief.

If you explain yourself in a relatively non-confrontational way (e.g. “I just found religious answers less and less satisfying as I went along in life,” or “I was raised that way” or even “I’m still looking for evidence of some deity’s existence”), and your questioner still tries to take offense, you can politely explain that you’re only answering the question they themselves asked. If they didn’t want an explanation of why you found theism to be inadequate or illogical or just plain silly, they shouldn’t have raised the question in the first place.

BTW, my own best answer to the question is this: Either human psychology was created by an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God, or said omni-max deity was created by human psychology. The more I learn about human psychology, the more the latter proposition makes sense.

(cartoon via Chris Madden)

Sunday Sermon: Stupid is as stupid is

ignorant_religionLots of people enjoyed the Mormon episode of “South Park” (you can watch it here), and its (highly accurate) recounting of Joseph Smith’s story about divinely engraved golden plates that only he could read. And lots of the same people enjoy ridiculing Scientology, with its tales of an alien species who colonized earth in spaceships shaped like DC-8 airplanes.

But if you really think about any religion, whether it’s the more mystical Asian versions (Hinduism, Buddhism) or the monothestic Abrahamic ones (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), the story doesn’t really make any more sense.

Hinduism says the physical world is all a “Matrix”-like illusion, only without the evil aliens keeping people in pods. But if that’s the case, how come you sometimes get surprised going down stairs in the dark when the last step is one earlier or later than you thought it would be? If it’s all in your mind, how could that happen?

The Abrahamic religions take their name from Abraham, who was so devout that he was willing to slaughter his son with a knife on a dare from God (good thing they didn’t have airplanes and boxcutters back then).