Archive for April, 2010

Differently labeled

John Wilkins is proposing “Affirmative Atheism” as a moniker for the “militant” or “strident” practice of standing up for one’s right to be godless. I like the term, but I have to say I don’t think it’s going to accomplish much, even if it does catch on.

I’m old enough (barely) to remember TV commercials for charities devoted to helping “crippled children” or “the crippled.” Shortly thereafter (roughly the early ’70s), they decided to change “crippled” to “handicapped,” since it was less queasy-making.

By the ’80s, “handicapped” had changed to “disabled,” and people were toying with awkward constructions like “differently abled” or “physically challenged.” The idea was to remove the stigma attached to a word by substituting a more palatable word. Instead, “challenged” and “special” became smirky insults.

The problem is, no matter what word you use for them, people with serious physical problems are always going to make lots of other people uncomfortable. Being reminded that you’re mortal, and vulnerable, isn’t a lot of fun, and for some people it’s really problematic. And changing the vocabulary isn’t going to help. The stigma doesn’t come from the word, it gets attached to the word.

What does this have to do with atheism? Well, the very idea of not believing in God, or an afterlife, or a soul, or something “spiritual” makes some people very, very uncomfortable. Giving it a nice-sounding name like “affirmative” isn’t going to change that.

(pic via Gasoline Alley Antiques)

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Sunday Sermon: Boobquake — everybody jump up and down

I heartily endorse “Boobquake,” and the fact that I’m a heterosexual male has absolutely nothing to do with my endorsement (that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it).

The whole thing started when Jen McCreight used her Blag Hag blog to poke fun at the Muslims after an Iranian cleric pulled a Pat Robertson by claiming earthquakes are caused by women wearing revealing clothing. McCreight suggested the women of the world put this, um “interesting” hypothesis to a scientific test by wearing revealing clothes en masse — tomorrow, April 26.

Since then, the campaign has taken on a life of its own, from coverage on CNN (and lots of other news outlets)to its very own Facebook page.

P.S. If you’re wondering about the headline on this post, it’s inspired by another kind of “quake.”

My “myth” take

So, the freethinking community is all abuzz over the case of a father who wants to ban a science textbook because it refers to the Biblical creation tale as “myth.”  Once again, it’s “accommodationists” vs. “militant” types, with most of the players familiar to those who follow such tiffs.

PZ has already weighed in, of course, as as Massimo Pigliucci (toward whom I confess a bias that may or may not be influenced by the fact that I once had dinner with him). And while I certainly don’t advocate giving an inch to creationists who are guaranteed to try to take a mile in response, I do have to admit that I think there’s something approaching a valid point.

A passage in a science textbook that explicitly calls a major religion’s teaching a “myth” is tangentially related to science at best, and at worst it’s a gratuitous slap that’s both rude and tactically unwise. Is the Bible’s creation story a myth? Of course it is. Is it polite to remind Christians that it’s a myth (especially when a significant minority of them don’t accept that)? I’d say no.

Catholics don’t refer to Jews and Protestants as “people who are going to hell” in polite conversation, even though that’s what Catholic doctrine says. And non-Catholics don’t politely refer to Catholics as “people whose donations have probably supported pedophilia coverups,” even though that’s an accurate description.

(pic via Living With Mormons)

Sunday Sermon: Ancient antics

One of my favorite strains of Christian apologia is the attempt to justify the barbaric acts committed (often at God’s behest) in the Old Testament by claiming that we shouldn’t expect more from such primitive, barbaric times.

After all, by today’s standards, ordering soldiers to go back and kill women and children they’d captured is pretty extreme. So is having a bear tear people apart because they mocked someone for being bald.

Christian apologists often talk about how we can’t judge these archaic actions by modern standards — the people living then hadn’t been exposed to the Enlightenment philosophy of Locke, Hobbes, etc. In a quirky burst of cultural relativism, they say we shouldn’t judge the people of those primitive, unenlightened times by our own civilized standards.

But the thing is, we’re not talking about some remote Pacific island tribe that never had any contact with any outside influences until being discovered a few years ago or something. We’re talking about the Israelites — the descendants of Abraham, who in turn was descended from Noah, who was descended from Adam and Eve. At least, that’s what the Bible says.

According to the Bible, God has been talking to humans, and giving them very specific instructions on how to live, since the first 2 humans walked the earth. So if the culture of 2000 or 4000 years ago was backward, primitive and barbaric, whose fault is that?

And if today’s society is much more enlightened than a society whose only guidance came from the Ten Commandments and such, what does that say about humans (or humanism)?

(“Life of Brian” pic via the awesome Steve Wells, whose “Skeptics Annotated Bible” I used for quick examples of Biblical barbarity)

Atheists and gays, redux

Atheist Revolution has some interesting points about what we atheists can learn from the gay-rights movement, about the value of standing up, coming out and being counted — or at least not ignored.

I think we can also learn a bit from some of the negative aspects of that history — conflict over “outings,” disputes between those who just want to get along and those who demand the respect they deserve, etc.

I think there’s a place for “strident” or “militant” atheists, or just people who get called that for nothing more than stating what they believe in. And I think there’s a place for accommodationists, for people who go out of their way to be friendly to believers, and even open to hearing about their beliefs.

Why? Because for one thing, it helps dispel the stereotype of atheists as being all one type of person (just as “straight-acting” gays help dispel stereotypes of gays). For another, if we want believers to be tolerant and accepting of those who are different from us, then it’s pretty hypocritical of us if we don’t accept and tolerate different attitudes and approaches from those within our own ranks.

(pic via Skepacabra)

Sunday Sermon: Is this guy for real?

I first had my attention called to the writings of one “Derek Van Buren” via Mark’s recounting of Derek’s hilarious take on “Zombie Jesus” jokes, which included the following (bold and italics in original):  Warning: The following images represent typical atheist depravity and are very offensive. Please order your women/children to exit the room before review.

Um “order”? Um, “your” women? Wow, just wow. This is the kind of Neanderthal nonsense Poe’s Law was invented for. Then I saw this wonderful piece on “vajazzling,” which included (along with the picture — and caption — at right) the following gem:

“I wish I could say I was surprised, but as should be known, it is rare to find a woman who does not have a cheating, slutty and whorish side to herself.”

He’s fretting because “adorning their erogenous suprapubic area with jewels, and then trying to tempt men to follow the sparkles right to a place where only the married belong. You get my drift.”

How do you break it to this guy that by the time his innocent college boy has seen the “vajazzling,” he’s probably already succumbed to temptation?

What it takes

I did a little rant a while back about the smug assertion that “it takes faith to be an atheist,” but now I think I’ve come up with a polite(ish) response:

“Well, I wouldn’t call it ‘faith’ — more like ‘confidence’ — but yeah, you’re right. It does take a certain something to go through life without picking a religion and its attendant afterlife to look forward to.

“Maybe that’s why I like to play the lottery — I’m probably not going to win, but it’s fun to fantasize about the cool life I could have if I did win, and having a tiny chance of having it happen makes the fantasizing more fun than if I didn’t buy a ticket and had no chance at all.

“Of course, buying lottery tickets is a choice, while believing in a deity or an afterlife is not, so I can’t really just take up Pascal on his famous wager and choose to believe.

“It’s definitely not for everyone. It can be tough to go through life relying only on yourself and other humans, having to face up to challenges by just tackling them, rather than telling yourself some story about how God won’t give you anything that’s too big to handle.

“And when a loved one dies, it would be nice to be able to revert to those warm-and-fuzzy childhood feelings about Nana sitting on a cloud looking down like in “Family Circus.” It can be difficult to put away those things.

“So yeah, it definitely takes something to be an atheist, but I wouldn’t exactly call it faith.”

(pic — and lots of other good philosophy stuff — at Gloucester County College)