Archive for July, 2010

Afterlife fiction (redundant, I know)

This isn’t exactly etiquette-related, but it seems like the kind of thing that might be interesting to people who visit here.

Even if there’s no afterlife, most of us have been brought up with some notion of one, typically more the “St. Peter at the Pearly Gates” vision of popular culture than any actual version from an actual religion.

And it can be fun to play around with that notion, as a couple of authors have done recently in these two short stories: “The Egg” by Andrew Weir (notable for its use of the rare 1st-person omniscient POV) and “The Damnation of Richard Gillman” by Greg Knauss (notable for its appropriation of the absurd yet widespread notion that everyone goes to heaven, if only they believe in some deity of some sort or another).

(link via Waxy, pic via Zazzle)

Sunday Sermon: Growing a pair

New Scientist’s book editor, Amanda Gefter (right), writes an article on spotting religious agendas in books about science. It has some nice tips on red-flag terms like “scientific materialism” and “Darwinism” that tend to indicate the author is probably promoting some creationist or “Intelligent Design” or other anti-evolutionary nonsense.

Then they get an angry letter from the lawyer for one of the authors mentioned in the article (James Le Fanu, whose “Why Us?” was specifically called out by name).

So they pull the article, then¬† later restore it, without explaining the details or reasoning behind either decision. I’m guessing what happened was the lawyer wanted to play it safe by complying with the request (lawyers are hired to keep you out of trouble, and there’s no downside for them if you play it too safe), and eventually someone figured out that it was an empty threat.

I mean, what’s the guy going to do, sue them for defamation? For claiming he’s got a religious agenda? That would mean claiming that having a religious agenda is such a bad thing that to accuse someone of it is an act of defamation. And I’m guessing this guy doesn’t actually see a religious agenda as a bad thing. Hence the mention of his book in the first place.

At any rate, it’s nice to see reason and intelligence prevailing in the end, even if it took a more circuitous path than I would have preferred.

(Amanda Gefter pic via

Dry humor

So, Edwin Kagin has been in the news recently for his blow-dryer debaptisms. This is the kind of thing that lends itself to ridicule and marginalization — “look at these wacky atheists, borrowing the same rituals they claim to despise,” etc. — but I can see the point of it.

For one thing, they’re using the trappings of ritual to make fun of the ritual. And even if they’re doing it (at least in part) to exploit our natural human tendency to respond strongly to ritualistic ceremonies, I don’t see how that’s any worse than the original baptism ceremonies that are being mocked.

A good case can be made that we have an emotional need for ritual and ceremony (like our need for myth), and that performing a ritualized “de-baptism” ceremony helps people overcome some vestiges of religious indoctrination that are still rattling around in their heads.

On the other hand, there’s also a lot to be said for the notion that outgrowing religion also involves outgrowing the childlike response to ceremony, ritual and ersatz authority that this “de-baptism” apparently seeks to invoke (or at least evoke). And, of course, adopting the trappings of religion gives strength to the ludicrous argument that “atheism is a religion,” and all that.

But on the other (other) hand, rituals like this can help point out that part of the reason for religion’s success isn’t that it puts humans in touch with deeper truths, but merely that it satisfies their emotional craving for ritual and ceremony.

Sunday Sermon: Mind those gaps

Reza Aslan has a particularly clueless article in today’s A few points:

The parallels with religious fundamentalism are obvious and startling: the conviction that they are in sole possession of truth (scientific or otherwise), the troubling lack of tolerance for the views of their critics (Dawkins has compared creationists to Holocaust deniers), the insistence on a literalist reading of scripture (more literalist, in fact, than one finds among most religious fundamentalists), the simplistic reductionism of the religious phenomenon, and, perhaps most bizarrely, their overwhelming sense of siege: the belief that they have been oppressed and marginalized by Western societies and are just not going to take it anymore.

First, I don’t know of any “New Atheists” claiming sole possession of the truth — and pointing out that science has a really good track record isn’t tantamount to doing so. It’s not Dawkins’ fault that creationists strongly resemble Holocaust deniers, and it’s not the fault of any atheist that even most fundamentalists back off from taking the Bible as literally as they claim to. And it’s not a “belief” that atheists have been oppressed and marginalized, it’s just an observation of fact.

Of course, positing the existence of a transcendent reality that exists beyond our material experiences does not necessarily imply the existence of a Divine Personality, or God. (In some ways, the idea of God is merely the personal affirmation of the transcendent experience.) But what if did?

If it did, then you’d begin to have a point. As soon as you have evidence that it does, bring it forth for discussion. But don’t berate people for dismissing that which does not appear to exist.

The new atheists will say that religion is not just wrong but evil, as if religion has a monopoly on radicalism and violence; if one is to blame religion for acts of violence carried out in religion’s name then one must also blame nationalism for fascism, socialism for Nazism, communism for Stalinism, even science for eugenics.

Sorry, no. “X is evil” does not equal or imply “X is the only evil.” And while Nazism was “Socialist” in name only, nationalism certainly shares blame for fascism, and communism for Stalinism. The “science” used to justify eugenics was generally an afterthought generated by the desire for eugenics (see Stephen Jay Gould’s excellent “The Mismeasure of Man”), so I’d be hesitant to place blame in that instance. But I wouldn’t hesitate to admit that science may have had some unwholesome fruits here and there, and I don’t know of anyone refusing to acknowledge that possibility.

The new atheists claim that people of faith are not just misguided but stupid–the stock response of any absolutist.

Really? I’m pretty sure I’ve seen Dawkins and others acknowledge that there are religious people — even fundamentalist 6-day creationists — with high intelligence.

What the new atheists do not do, and what makes them so much like the religious fundamentalists they abhor, is admit that all metaphysical claims–be they about the possibility of a transcendent presence in the universe or the birth of the incarnate God on earth–are ultimately unknowable and, perhaps, beyond the purview of science.

Well, now, is the efficacy of prayer a metaphysical claim? Is that untestable by science? Perhaps there are areas that science can’t reach (and yes, I’m aware that some “New Atheists” would dispute that), but science can reduce, and has reduced, the “gap” in which the god of such arguments resides.

(pic via AtheistKiwi)

A myth take

Atheism doesn’t necessarily imply skepticism (one could be dogmatically atheist), but they do sort of go together. But skepticism includes much more than merely the question of deities. There are lots of myths that don’t involve gods or ghosts or magic or anything purportedly supernatural.

We humans are natural mythmakers, because of the way stories tend to get exaggerated over time, and because we like to attribute mythical qualities to our heroes (of whatever sort). We like true stories, but we really, really like a good story. Being a skeptic means rejecting myth, favoring the true story over the good story.

When I watch documentaries on rock music, for example, there are certain people that just strike me as exceptionally good mythmakers. John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) of the Sex Pistols and Ray Manzarek of the Doors are two great examples. Also Pete Townshend of The Who, and Bob Dylan (just look at “The Kids are Alright” or “Don’t Look Back” to see how they craft their image when the cameras are on them).

History abounds with myths as well, such as the Pony Express, which was a lot less mythic in real life than the way it’s almost always portrayed.

(pic of phony Pony Express ad via Dan the Man Trivia)

Sunday non-Sermon: Turning down the stereotypes

Normally I use my Sunday posts to rant about aspects of religion I find particularly objectionable. But today I’m just in too good a mood.

Yesterday I attended a wedding and reception for one of my wife’s former students, a hardcore born-again Christian. The wedding was full of the usual excessive God-bothering you find at such affairs (including the bit from Ephesians about how wives should submit to their husbands’ leadership). But the reception … ah, the reception!

My first clue that it wouldn’t be as excruciating as the wedding was the Bob Marley being blasted at the house where the reception was held (the bride’s parents’ house — I attended her graduation party there a couple years ago). But really, my first clue perhaps should have been the “Hawaiian luau” theme announced for the party — and the wedding itself. It was fun to walk into a church wearing a Hawaiian shirt, and actually being slightly overdressed (I chickened out on wearing shorts).

So I had some inkling that this might not be the sort of uptight, painfully wholesome event I’d been fearing. But the Marley was the hint that the music for the shindig wouldn’t be the same godawful (um, so to speak) music they’d played in the church (one song was about the body of Christ being beautiful — I couldn’t help but think, “if I said Christ had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?”).

And it turned out not to be an aberration. The DJ followed up with some Motown soul, some party-friendly country (“Friends In Low Places,” “Five O’Clock Somewhere”), some hip-hop (some weird line dance that was almost as confusing to me as to the little kids trying to dance to it), and a few other staples of good times (including “Brown Eyed Girl,” possibly my favorite song to hear coming on the jukebox in a bar or party or other festive occasion).

And the people were having a good time as well. The bride and groom took a dunk in the pool, the best man (the groom’s son from an earlier marriage) gave a funny speech (the best part was “when I found out last night that I’m supposed to say something …”), and a good time was had by all. Just goes to show you, even people with seriously wacky beliefs can be cool people who can be fun to be with. Who knew?

(Luau line-dancing pic via Cleveland Line Dancing)

Comic relief

Hooray! Cectic, one of the best atheist/skeptic/just-plain-funny comics, is back after a long hiatus. Look forward to more skewering of religion, homeopathy, psychics, ghost-hunters and various other credulity-stretchers.

Sunday Sermon: Enter strawman

Oh, goody. Slate’s Ron Rosenbaum is proposing a “New Agnosticism” to combat the horrible “New Atheist” trend of actually expressing an opinion about religion. Yeah, there’s nothing like a bit of “plague on both your houses” when you’re trying to shift the Overton Window to frame your views in a more favorable light. But I don’t think that’s a good excuse to misrepresent people and then portray yourself as a victim of them.

Rosenbaum claims to be offended by the notion of agnosticism as “weak-tea atheism,” but then tries to claim the difference between agnostics and atheists is that agnostics don’t claim to know the answer to the God question — as if atheists automatically do (or think we do). “Atheists display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence,” he says.

Ironically, while accusing atheists of fundamentalism, Rosenbaum aligns himself pretty closely with the sort of fundamentalist who insists that nothing short of absolute certainty (or the illusion thereof) is worth bothering with. He demands that his atheists critics answer the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” as if failure to answer automatically requires being agnostic on the question of whether there are any magical deities hanging around.

Why is there something rather than nothing?¬† Beats me. But that doesn’t mean I can’t tentatively assume (based on their respective track records) that science has a better shot than religion at providing an answer. And it certainly doesn’t mean I have to assume supernatural causes until natural ones are discovered.

Also, he repeatedly asserts that atheists are like fundamentalists, but instead of citing examples of such atheists, he merely cites (numerous) examples of other people who agree with him that there are such. Is this guy actually putting forth an actual argument against any actual form of actual atheism? Or just setting up some “New Atheist” cartoon caricature of a “true unbeliever” to object to?

Would it be any less disingenuous of me to say I reject Christianity because I don’t want to be like one of those Christians who carries a bag of stones with them in case they see a gay person or someone working on Sunday?

(Robyn Hitchcock video via Clusterflock)

Rule #1, illustrated

I had to watch this “Don’t Be A Dick” video as soon as I saw the title, which echoes my Rule #1. Funny (and true, IMO), whether or not you agree with the motivation behind the being-nice-to-believers behavior. Honey is nicer than vinegar, even if you’re not trying to catch flies. (via Reddit)