Monday, December 27, 2010

Children learning the scientific method

Biology Letters, a peer-reviewed journal from Britain's prestigious Royal Society, published a report Wednesday conducted and written by a group of 8- to 10-year-olds from an English elementary school investigating the way bumblebees see colors and patterns (see the story on Yahoo). The scientific organization — which is more than three centuries old and includes some of the world's most eminent scientists — said the children reported findings that were a "genuine advance" in the field of insect color and pattern vision. "The experimenters have asked a scientific question and answered it well," neuroscientists Laurence Maloney and Natalie Hempel wrote in commentary alongside the children's report.

I love this story so much: children learning and applying the scientific method. Learning how to make a fact-based argument. And learning that anyone can discover something important. When you use the scientific method, you constantly form and test a hypothesis - and proving your hypothesis wrong is still a positive, because it's lead to the truth -- they learned that lesson too!

I don't care if these children are, or turn into, Atheists, but I do care that they have learned what science and academic research is, and what it is not.

The sad reality is that, even when presented with concrete and irrefutable evidence, there is a growing number religious adults who will still choose belief over facts - that the Sun goes around the Earth and the Earth is only a few thousand years old and all you need is prayer to cure an illness or injury, because that's what's in, or inferred in, the Bible - and who insist that those beliefs are on the same level as science, and should be treated with the same respect. They want those beliefs taught in schools, presented as equal to science, and balk at the idea of having standards for scientific research and scientific reporting. They promote pseudoscience, "a claim, belief, or practice which is presented as scientific, but which does not adhere to a valid scientific methodology, lacks supporting evidence or plausibility, cannot be reliably tested, or otherwise lacks scientific status," and they want such in our classrooms.

Creationism is not a scientific alternative to natural selection any more than the stork "theory" is an alternative to the sexual reproduction "theory" (Hayes, Judith. In God We Trust: But Which One? (Madison Wisconsin: Freedom From Religion Foundation, 1996).

In the essay "In Front of Your Nose," George Orwell wrote, "We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue. And then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield."

Ofcourse, not all Christians, Muslims and others think their faith is incompatible with science. There are many churches in the USA that celebrate Darwin Day on February 12, for instance.
Many religious people adhere to theistic evolution, such as the Episcopal Church, which has said that the theory of evolution does not conflict with Christian faith: In 2006, the General Convention said, via Resolution A129, that "the theory of evolution provides a fruitful and unifying scientific explanation for the emergence of life on earth, that many theological interpretations of origins can readily embrace an evolutionary outlook, and that an acceptance of evolution is entirely compatible with an authentic and living Christian faith."

There's some great web sites out there where you can download scientific worksheets to use with children to help them learn about science-based investigations. In fact, there is a great web page on how to teach students to debate, to facilitate analytical thinking.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

I can witness too

My Christian friends sometimes post acknowledgments of their faith on their Facebook status updates. Same for my Muslim friends. They will post how grateful they are to their god, how much they hope everyone will pray for them or someone else in need, a favorite verse from the Bible or the Koran, etc. It's usually an expression of their happiness or an invitation for support from their friends. It's most definitely a witnessing for their faith.

Sometimes I like to post particularly exciting science news to my Facebook status, or a quote that I find really inspiring or comforting, or a link to something that's made me feel really good and that I'm thankful for, like that fantastic Holiday Message from Ricky Gervais "Why I'm An Atheist". I guess I also sometimes post for the same reasons they do: as an expression of my happiness or as an invitation for support from friends.

One of my Christian friends posted this in response to my comments and link to the Gervais essay:
Who really cares what anyone believes. I don't!!

He would never post this in response to any of his Christian friends' affirmations of their faith. Yet, he saw nothing wrong with this as a response to my post celebrating my values.

I fully admit that, in many of these posts, I'm not just celebrating feeling good; I am trying to make a point. I am challenging people to think. I'm witnessing for my lack of faith.

But the idea that Atheists are rude when they talk about their values and try to promote them, but for religious people, it's just dandy to do, really irks me.

I found this December 10 blog from the Friendly Atheist, which reads, in part:

I’m so sick of hearing that argument. Why do you atheists have to tear everyone else down? If you don’t believe in god, fine, but just sit there and shut up about it.

We actively fight against extraordinary claims like the ones in the poster because those claims cause harm.

They can drain your wallet.

They will waste your time.

They can become the basis for irrational, unnecessary, and dangerous laws.

They offer false hope that will never come to fruition.

They can make you kill or hate or injure others.

They can make you take placebos when actual medicines are available.

They make you believe in fiction.

They make you fight against reality.

They brainwash children and adults alike.

... no one is flying planes into buildings because they don’t like basketball.

We can’t “live and let live” when we see how much damage these beliefs — as silly as some might seem — have inflicted on people we love, and how much pain these beliefs have caused by people who took them too seriously.

Yeah, that's it. Me too.

Read the entire blog from the Friendly Atheist for more.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

There Were Pageants Before Christmas

In a story about the Winter solstice, NPR asks, "Why do we celebrate Christmas just a few days after the winter solstice when almost no one thinks Jesus was born on December 25th?"

The lights on houses, the decorated trees, the Yule log, the holly, the mistletoe - these are all pre-Christian traditions associated with celebrations of the solstice, in celebration of pre-Christian Gods. After at least a few hundred years of practice, these tradition were adopted by Christians for a holiday that gained its current popularity only in the last two hundred years (Christmas celebrations were banned by the Puritans in the USA because of the pagan practices associated with such; Christmas gained ground as a big holy day -or "holiday"- in the USA in the 1800s). I don't mind one religion appropriating the practices of another -- it happens all the time -- but I don't understand why Christians say things like, "Christ is the reason for the season." Do they really not know that not even most Christian theologians think Jesus was born in December?

Why is it okay for so many Christians to practice winter pagan traditions, Christianizing them for their own purposes, but it's not okay to do the same thing with the traditions for Halloween? I have more respect for someone who believes their religion prevents them from engaging in any of these rituals rather than deciding Christmas is okay but Halloween is evil.

Cue Dar Williams.

On a side note: I met my husband because we were both visiting the Neolithic monument at Newgrange, which is profiled in the NPR story. Love you, babe.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Thank you, Ricky Gervais!

In the Wall Street Journal yesterday, there is this: A Holiday Message from Ricky Gervais: Why I'm An Atheist. It's beautiful. I hope people of faith in particular will read it -- not to convince them that their imaginary friend is, well, imaginary, but rather, so they can perhaps, finally, understand who we, Atheists, really are.

I'd quote my favorite part, but that would require me re-posting the entire thing.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Fishy Feasibility Study for the Ark Encounter

The Barefoot and Progressive blog, originating from and focused on my home state of Kentucky, wants to know why the media is ignoring credibility questions surrounding the Ark's Encounter's "extensive independent feasibility study" by "the renowned America's Research Group" that Governor Steve Beshear has repeatedly cited as the reason the state is supporting this religion-based project with $37.5 million in tax incentives. The study was conducted by Ark Encounter Ken Ham's fundamentalist friend and business partner, yet even local papers like the Herald Leader or Courier Journal have shared this tiny bit of information with their readers.

The blog then does what the media need to be doing: it compares the Ark Encounter's staffing and visitor projections against non-religious based, much-more-popular theme parks and attractions. And it blows holes in those projections. You won't find any such questioning in the mainstream corporate media, of course.

Once again, the Kentucky media -- and Kentucky elected officials -- are letting us down. Is it fear of religious-based voters? Incompetence? Laziness?

Friday, December 10, 2010

The right to criticize religion

A lot of Americans are outraged when people criticize Christianity. Kathy Griffin has taken a huge amount of heat for her comments, as has Bill Maher. But most of those same Americans who are oh-so-upset by these criticisms also begrudgingly say that, indeed, in our country, these two, and everyone else, has the legal right to say what they say about religion, including to insult adherents. In the USA, we can shun those we disagree with, we can encourage TV shows not to book them, we can encourage people to not buy their books or go to their movies, and we can respond verbally however we want, short of threats of physical harm -- but Kathy Griffin and Bill Maher and others aren't under any threat of arrest in the USA for their comments about Christianity.

(Full disclosure: I adore Kathy Griffin and Bill Maher)

A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant, is a satirical musical play that will be staged this month at American Stage Theatre in St. Petersburg, Florida. It's about L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology. It features characters of famous Scientologists, including John Travolta, Tom Cruise and Kristie Alley, and most of the dialogue comes from the writings of Hubbard and church literature. Sure to offend some and delight others. Editorials will be written. There may even be protests. Regardless, it's completely legal to write, produce and talk about this play in the USA (although the Church of Scientology will probably sue for copyright infringement - their favorite way to shut down criticism of their church).

Sadly, the freedom to criticize -- even to insult -- religion is not something that is found worldwide. In fact, many countries want to stop all criticism of religion. These countries have pushed a UN Human Rights Council draft resolution on “Combating defamation of religions” that would, if adopted by the UN General Assembly, encourage governments around the world to create (if they don't have such already) and enforce blasphemy laws, which outlaw any criticism of a country's dominant religion. In the name of preventing religious discrimination, the resolution would add legitimacy to individual country laws that insulate religious orthodoxy from all criticism -- and imprison those who dare to challenge that orthodoxy.

Dan Shapiro, a research associate with the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership, said this in a commentary for Troy Media:

The resolution claims, disingenuously, that it aims to combat discrimination based on religion. Of course, we should combat actual religious discrimination. For example, if you don’t get a job because you are Muslim or a Jew, that is unjustifiable discrimination. But this doesn’t mean that Islam or Judaism should be protected from criticism and debate.

In an Op Ed piece in The New York Times, Paula Schriefer of Freedom House says:

Because no one can agree on what constitutes blasphemy, laws that attempt to ban it are themselves vague, highly prone to arbitrary enforcement and are used to stifle everything from political opposition to religious inquiry. Particularly when applied in countries with weak democratic safeguards — e.g., strong executives, subservient judiciaries, corrupt law enforcement — blasphemy laws do nothing to achieve their supposed goals of promoting religious tolerance and harmony and instead are disproportionally used to suppress the freedom of religious minorities or members of the majority religion that hold views considered unorthodox.

While UN General Assembly resolutions are utterly unbinding -- they have no legal standing whatsoever and most are ignored by the majority of governments -- they are purposeful, deliberate statements by a group of people representing their governments. They often don't even represent the views of UN staff . But they do represent the views of the delegates that voted for them, as well as the governments they represent. So I'm not angry at the UN, per se -- rather, I'm angry at the member countries that voted for this reprehensible resolution.

December 10 is International Human Rights Day, as declared by -- guess who? -- the UN General Assembly. And on this day, I celebrate the global human right of freedom of thought and freedom of speech -- including to think and say disrespectful things about religion. Or Atheists, for that matter. I look forward to the day this right is recognized all over the world.

Monday, December 6, 2010

What Atheists & Religious People Don't Know About Each Other

Atheists, Secular Humanists, Non-Theists -- whatever it is that I am and others like me are -- are an incredibly diverse group when it comes to how we view religion and how we view ourselves. Most Christians and Muslims -- and probably other religions -- don't realize there is such diversity among Atheists in terms of how we view people of faith, how we do (or do not) congregate or work together, etc.
  • There are some Atheists actively trying to encourage people to abandon their religions, but a lot, and maybe most, are like me -- we're not.

  • Some Atheists join an association (or even more than one) of people who also do not believe in invisible friends, but the vast majority do not.

  • There's no one spokesperson or one organization for Atheists. There are lots of outspoken Atheists and there are a log of organizations for such. But not only are most Atheists a member of an Atheist group -- they don't even know about Atheists pundits, bloggers, etc.

  • Some Atheists would never walk into a church or mosque for a religious service; some Atheists are happy to observe such (I do -- I find it interesting, even when I disagree with some, most or all of what is said).
As I said in my very first blog here: While I wouldn't mind at all being responsible for turning people of away from fundamentalist religious beliefs that promote things like the enslavement and oppression of women, that cultivate hatred of gays, that discourage an understanding of science, that encourage revisions of history to be kinder to their religious beliefs despite the facts, etc., I'd be perfectly content if those folks didn't abandon religion altogether and, instead, all became oh-so-tolerant and reasonable Universal Unitarians, Sufi Muslims, adherents to Confucianism, etc. In my experience, those people who believe there are many paths to a god or gods tend not to block the teaching of scientific principles like biological evolution and plate tectonics, tend not to encourage gay teens to kill themselves, and tend not to tell women who have HIV positive husbands that they are forbidden from using condoms, and I really appreciate them for that. We can co-exist quite well.

The discovery at Mono Lake, California of what is apparently an entirely new form of life -- a bacteria based on toxic arsenic rather than phosphorus, one of the six building blocks of all life on Earth -- has set many abuzz. It's a confirmation of biological evolution -- of biological adaptability -- and the discovery has LONG been predicted (I can't count how many times it's been talked about as only-a-matter-of-time on oh-so-many science shows I've watched), either on our own planet in some extreme environment (which is exactly what happened) or on another planet. For a religious person who doesn't believe the Earth is flat, who doesn't believe the Sun goes around the Earth, and who doesn't believe the Earth was created in six days and is just a few thousand years old, this discovery is not a challenge to their faith at all: they don't see science as in opposition to their faith in some kind of conscious meaning behind the universe, because they don't take their religious scriptures literally. Like Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit at the Vatican Observatory, (the Catholic Church has, thankfully, accepted the teachings of Galileo and other scientists they formerly persecuted); he wrote this in an email to a religious blog: "Any scientific discovery that broadens our knowledge of creation, deepens our understanding of the Creator." That's not a person I worry about trying to keep science out of schools, who is going to use religion to shut down scientific discovery and innovation entirely (although what his views are on stem cell research would probably make me shudder, so let's not go there).

A lot of Atheists don't know that there are Christians or Muslims or other religious adherents like this -- people who believe in science, including evolution, that don't see faith in an invisible friend and science as enemies, and think scientific discover and innovation are just dandy. Those Atheists don't know this for two reasons: because so many newspaper and television reporters and producers get comments from only extreme and/or fundamentalist religious folks, and because many science-adhering religious folks do not speak out in support of science.

Maybe this latest news can encourage religious folks who support the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment to speak out, now and in the future, about the importance of science education and exploration? Myself and many other atheists would welcome that!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Religious do not have monopoly on virtue, says Queen

The Queen of England told the Church of England's governing body, the General Synod, that believers and atheists were equally able to contribute to the prosperity and wellbeing of the country. "In our more diverse and secular society, the place of religion has come to be a matter of lively discussion. It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue and that the wellbeing and prosperity of the nation depend on the contribution of individuals and groups of all faiths and none." You can read the article about the event here.

Wow. To have such a high-profile public figure say such to a church's governing body is astounding -- and hugely appreciated by this Atheist. This is a moment that's up there with President Obama's inauguration, when he said, “We know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and non-believers.” As the International Humanist and Ethical Union put it, "It was the first time a U.S. President had acknowledged atheists and agnostics in an inauguration speech, and one of few times a politician had referenced non-theists in an inclusive, positive light."

I love my country, and I'm passionate about contributing to variety of causes, financially, as a volunteer and through my career. It's terrific for such non-theist-based contributions to be acknowledged!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

John Shore's Two Big Failures

In response to Atheism’s Two Big Failures.

Christian blogger John Shore fails in these two ways in his most recent blog: by claiming Atheists cannot be in love—nor passionate, joyful, enraged, depressed, moved by art, or inspired, and are, therefore, out of touch with their emotions. And by claiming it's more desirable to believe we have an invisible, omnipotent friend watching over us (and not just any invisible, omnipotent friend, but John Shore's specific invisible, omnipotent friend) than it is to be an Atheist.

I have no idea if it's more desirable, on a personal level, to believe we have an invisible, omnipotent friend watching over the World than not to. I know some really joyless, uptight, hate-filled Christians and some really loving, fun Secular Humanists, but I also know some happy Christians and some cranky Atheists. Believe it or not, I know a LOT of cranky Buddhists. I also know some eternally-happy mentally-impaired people -- doesn't mean I want to be one.

In his recent blog, Shore paints a picture of Atheists as joyless, emotionless drones who have never danced on a table. I guarantee you that there are many Atheists and Secular Humanists that dance on tables as much, if not more often, than Christians. Some of us have wept at the Grand Canyon or Jasper National Monument or a documentary about the planets on the History Channel. Some of us have decided it would be really cool to be irrational and sing or dance while in public, just because we're in the mood at that moment (yes, I have). None of these acts are rational, but they are a heck of a lot of fun. You see, we don't need to believe in a bearded man on a throne in order to enjoy the splendor and wonder that the universe can hold. Perhaps we non-theists are even more wowed by reality, by all of the billions and billions of years and all the various natural forces that have lead us here.

Do all Christians think like John Shore? I hope not. I know that many of my Christian friends -- and Muslim friends, for that matter -- wish I was a believer, so we can all be raptured up together (you knew Muslims believed in the "Rapture", right?). And I respect their wish as a desire to continually hang out with me, and I just can't be offended by anyone wanting to continually hang out with me (unless that person is creepy). But I would be really hurt -- and have to rethink our friendships -- if I found out my Christian or Muslim friends think like John Shore: that I never experience silly, mindless joy, that they think I am incapable of being thrilled to the point of doing a cartwheel... though I am, indeed, now incapable of actually doing a cartwheel...

It isn't the first time he's grossly mischaracterized Atheists. It won't be the last.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Governor of Kentucky is anti-science

I just wrote the following to Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear, via this contact page. The message explains why:

I just read that you will appear at a press conference with Cary Summers, consultant to Ark Encounter LLC, Mike Zovath, senior vice president of Answers in Genesis and head of the Creation Museum project, and Grant County Judge/Executive Darrell Link. You will be there to support the expansion of Mr. Zovath's anti-science endeavors in Kentucky.

I am beyond saddened by and ashamed of your support of this anti-education project, and your contribution to the stereotype of Kentuckians as ignorant religious fundamentalists who are decades behind the rest of the USA. Your support of such movements further diminishes the public's -- and, particularly, children's -- understanding of science and, indeed, the virtues of systematic logical investigation as the best way to gain knowledge. It demonizes scientists and their findings -- meaning that people will feel that empirical findings are mere belief systems.

Shame on you, Governor Beshear!

Read more about it in the Cincinnati Enquirer.

What's next? Taliban Land?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Supporting the JRE Foundation

The James Randi Educational Foundation is in the midst of its annual fundraising campaign, running from November 15, 2010 through January 15, 2011.

Last year’s Season of Reason campaign raised thousands of dollars, which was used to help establish the JREF’s new Education Department and get a number of new programs off the ground. This year, JREF is hoping to raise $100,000 to support the further development of the educational programs that will be the backbone of the JREF’s work in 2011. Such support helps the JREF to continue to extend the important work of James Randi, influential skeptic and social critic who has for decades stood against the prevailing cults of nonsense and supernatural charlatans of every stripe.

The JREF needs your help to improve critical thinking and science education in schools and communities throughout North America and around the world. Your donation will increase its efforts to promote skepticism to new people through the expansion of JREF’s educational and outreach work, such as through:

  • Educator Grants

  • Scholarships for Academics

  • Regional Skeptics Workshops

  • The new JREF in the Classroom Program

  • Digital Publishing

  • Smartphone Skepticism Apps

Donate today to help JREF reach its goal!

Make an ongoing monthly pledge of $25 or more, or make a one-time donation of $100 or more during the 2010 Season of Reason: A Bright Future campaign and you will receive a limited-number Surly-Ramics holiday ornament, especially hand-made for the 2010 Season of Reason. The image on the ornament is James Randi flying a JREF sleigh pulled by a flying pigasus. See it here!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The war on science

Cenk Uygur, host of The Young Turks, talks with Chris Mooney on how more and more Americans are rejecting science. Scary, but true:

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


The word holiday came from a mispronunciation of the word holy day (or, as it was spelled in Old English, hāligdæg).

So it confuses me when Christians get upset at being wished Happy Holidays (or Happy Holy Days) instead of Merry Christmas. How in the world is saying Happy Holidays secularizing Christmas?!? What part of holy don't they get?

I'm an Atheist, yet I'm not offended when someone wishes me Happy Holidays, even though the days aren't at all holy to me. I'm not offended when someone wishes me Merry Christmas either. Or salam walaikum, for that matter (it means peace be with you or peace be upon you, in case you didn't know). Heck, I don't even get upset when someone says, Bless you. I take any of these greetings as good will gestures - people wishing me happiness. And the world needs more good will, no question.

What do I say? I'll say just about anything to wish someone a happy day:
  • Happy Eid
  • Happy Hanukkah
  • Happy New Year (Lunar, Persian or Gregorian calendar)
  • Merry Christmas
  • Joyous Yule
  • Happy Festivus
I just want you to have a happy day, with or without a belief in an invisible friend. I hope you will wish the same for me.

And in case you are wondering: yes, we'll be having turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, steamed green beans, and cream of tomato soup on Thursday. Turns out it all tastes just as good without God. We'll be thankful to the farmers, supermarket workers, truckers and other food producers and shippers that made our meal possible. We'll be counting up the good things that have happened, through our own hard work, through the help of others, and through chance. And drinking heavily. We might even take some time to think about scientists, inventors, engineers, researchers, activists and others who have helped our world and our lives. And, yes, we'll still call it Thanksgiving - we'll just be thankful to humans rather than an invisible friend.

Friday, November 19, 2010

oh-so-fantastic documentary How the Earth Was Made

Whether its the pilot from 2007 or an individual episode of the 2009 series, I love love love the History Channel's How the Earth Was Made. These documentaries take the 4.5 billion year history of the Earth and turn it into a glorious tribute to the natural forces of the universe, giving the viewer a sense of wonder and awe. It's impossible to multi-task while watching the show -- put your laptop or smart phone away and drink in those visuals while the wonders of science get explained in an easy-to-understand way. Earth science has often been beyond my grasp because of boring presentation; How the Earth Was Made takes that information and presents it in a way that is absolutely accessible and wondrous.

In addition to the feast of visuals and information these documentaries provide, the information sticks with you, making hiking/walking through natural landscapes an even more awe-inspiring experience.

The show also presents the stories of the various scientists, professional and amateur, who have helped us understand historical geology, including plate tectonics, through the scientific method.

Great stuff! These are frequently shown on the History Channel - check your listings!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Fear of a Bible-Based Nation

Christians are terrified of Sharia (Islamic) law. You can hear the wail and hysterics about the evils of Sharia law frequently on Fox News and in Christian pulpits across the USA. In Oklahoma, voters overwhelmingly passed a ballot measure that orders judges not to consider Islamic or international law when deciding cases.

Never mind that Sharia laws are almost exactly the same to those proposed in the Bible's Old Testament. And never mind that, if you vote to ban judges from not considering Sharia law when deciding a case, as they have done in Oklahoma, it pretty much nixes any chance of a judge legally considering Biblical law, including the Ten Commandments (which, BTW, are a part of Sharia law), when considering cases.

As an Atheist, I don't want any religious texts used when considering legal cases in the USA. Or government decisions. The terror Christians feel for Sharia law is the terror I feel of Christians talking about restoring or building a Bible-based nation: whenever Christians rally in front of a court house demanding a big marble monument to the Ten Commandments be re-installed. Or Kentucky passing an anti-terrorism law that requires the state's Office of Homeland Security to acknowledge it can't keep the state safe without "God"'s help. Or Representative John Shimkus (R-IL) insisting in an official congressional session that we shouldn't be concerned about global warming because his "God" promised Noah it wouldn't happen again (FYI, Shimkus wants to be Chair of House Energy and Commerce Committee).

So, Christians, you fear Sharia law. Well, I happen to fear YOUR law for all the same reasons. Bible-based government is a terrifying idea.

Christians say that mainstream and progressive Muslims don't speak out enough against militant and/or fundamentalist Muslims. So, where are the mainstream and progressive Christians speaking out against this frightening idea of making legal and government decisions based on the Bible in the USA? Surely the idea is frightening to mainstream and progressive Christians? Where is your outrage?

I remember reading The Handmaid's Tale the first time. I enjoyed it, but thought it was way, way out there. Impossible to happen now. By contrast, I re-read it 12 years later and thought it was absolutely prescient. How I wish that book, and Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan Jacoby, were required reading in schools in the USA.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

You think the Koran is violent? Have you read the Bible?!

I was raised in a Christian household, in a Christian community, in the Bible Belt. The faction of choice, for the most part: General Baptist, though there was a lot of Methodist meeting attendance also going on. That means there were at least weekly Bible readings going on (often more). I knew a lot of the bible by my teen years, but I decided reading excerpts at least twice a week wasn't enough to really understand it, and so I went through the whole enchilada, cover-to-cover. And as I read, I realized, more and more, that I didn't believe. Reading the Bible over several weeks, cover-to-cover, helped me come to terms with my disbelief -- which I'd always had but would never admit to. I was officially an un-believer shortly after that, per a phone call from a church youth leader asking me to come to church camp, and my saying, for the first time out loud (but not the last), that I am not a Christian.

For various reasons, about 20 years later, I decided to do it again: read the Bible cover-to-cover. I needed a refresher course to keep me sharp for comments like, "Jesus said homosexuality is a sin" (he never did, actually). I remembered that the Bible had made me uncomfortable, even angry, as a teen, for some of its assertions, but as an adult, I was absolutely flabbergasted at how incredibly violent and woman-hating the text is, over and over again. I had remembered the hate of the Bible from the first time around, here and there, but the text is permeated with it, and the violence -- wow. I hadn't remembered that from the first time around. Horrific. And nothing I wanted any part of!

(I have to admit that, on this second reading, I gave up at Revelation -- it's just too crazy to get through)

A couple of years later, I decided to read the Koran. All sorts of Christians were telling me it was oh-so-violent and women-hating, and so I wanted to see for myself. And... I was shocked at how far, far less violent it is than the Bible. It is far from woman-hating, as the Bible is. In fact, it does, quite often, lay out the rights of women -- something the Bible never does. "There are at least 30 verses in the Koran that support equality between women and men and that refer to women's rights in various aspects of life." (reference). Further research showed that Islamic cultures that are anti-women base their beliefs on Hadith, an oral tradition of quotes attributed to the Prophet Muhammad but that are in wide dispute as to which are authentic, on ideas they think are in the Koran but aren't (a lot like Christians who think Jesus commented on homosexuals -- which he never did), and on cultural practices that preceded Islam. While I'm still no fan of the religion (any religion), it's a shame that militants are taking over a religion whose basis for belief is actually far more peace-promoting than the Bible.

In short, Christians certainly have plenty of Biblical basis to beat their wives, rape women, keep their wives and daughters hidden at home, beat their children, and kill whomever they deem as a non-Believer. To have these same Christians claim the Koran is violent shows a jaw-dropping duplicity. By all means, condemn violence and justifications for such -- but condemn ALL justifications for such. Condemn the 911 hijackers -- and the men who blew up clinics and shot doctors in Christ's name. And if you want to say that And if they give birth, I will slaughter their beloved children. (Hosea 9:16 NLT) shouldn't be taken literally, fine -- but you have to say the same for the Koran. If you want to claim that when Paul says oh-so-clearly in 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 that women should be silent in church that, really, he's just saying women only have to be silent when tongues or prophecy is happening, then you ALSO have to acknowledge that the Koran is ALSO open to interpretation.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Boom De Ah Dah!

The first time I saw this video, I wept.

Yes, ofcourse, non-Atheists like it too. They see a creator behind it all. But even if you don't see a creator behind it all, you get to still enjoy the splendor and wonder that the universe can hold -- and, perhaps, be even more wowed by it, by all of the billions and billions of years and all the various natural forces that have lead us here.

Boom De Ah Dah!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Why do Atheists get married?

Christians love to say that the purpose of marriage is to get your union recognized by God and to have children. Therefore, marriage is only for Christians -- or at least only for "believers" (Muslims, Jews, Hindus, etc.). It also means that marriage is only for people who can bear children or, at least, will adopt children.

It's a fascinating, narrow view of marriage since, according to the earliest references in the Bible, the joining of a husband and wife wasn't at all religious -- it was about ownership, about property, and often made official through sexual intercourse, including rape. It was about owning a woman and ensuring all her kids were her owner's -- her husband's -- through exclusive sexual relations. In fact, the earliest references to loving partnerships in the Bible aren't between a man and a woman; they are between people of the same sexes, first Ruth to Naomi (in the Book of Ruth, 1:16-18) and then Jonathan and David (in the First Book of Samuel, 20:41-42). Marriage doesn't evolve into a sacrament until much later in the Bible (yup, I've read it -- more on that in a later blog).

Yet, I'm married. We had a fantastic secular ceremony where there was nary a mention of a magical invisible friend, but where I did wear a fabulous dress (a green sari, actually), followed by a kickin' catered celebration with our friends and family -- and a LOT of wine, just like Jesus would have wanted!

As an Atheist, why did I want to get married? It certainly wasn't for religious reasons. It also wasn't to have children. And I certainly am not owned by my husband (which he would be only too happy to enthusiastically affirm).

I got married because I want this guy that is now my husband
  • to be able to see me in the hospital no matter what, and vice versa.
  • so that one of us can put the other on the company health insurance as soon as one of us works for a company that offers insurance.
  • so that he has access to all my assets and vice versa.
  • so that we can live in each other's countries oh-so-easily (he's German).
  • to be able to legally call each other family and have all the legal rights and privileges that come with that designation.
My husband and I didn't need marriage to love each other nor to live with each other, at least not in most countries. But we did need marriage so that in every circumstance life might throw at us, whatever government or company bureaucracy we deal with will see us as a family. And you only get that through being married. Or adoption. We went with marriage.

If any religion doesn't want to recognize our marriage because it in no way involves God or children, that's fine with me. I don't care whether or not they do. But if they try to deny us any of the benefits for which we got married, there will be Hell on Earth to pay -- and I will be the one to bring it.

It's one of the reasons I'm such an adamant supporter of marriage rights for gay people. I would be enraged if I didn't have access to my husband in the hospital, if an insurance company said, "We don't recognize your partnership as a family" -- or if a religious institution got the official word as to whether or not I have the legal right to marry. Yet that's exactly what happens to gay people. And if a government can decide that gay people can't marry because that's what the Christians say, it's only a matter of time before they decide atheists can't marry either. Scary.

On a side note: we really love our marriage vows, which we wrote ourselves. If you are looking for some inspiration for a secular wedding ceremony, drop me a line!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Happy Carl Sagan Day!

"The brain is like a muscle. When it is in use we feel very good. Understanding is joyous."

Carl Sagan said that. And today is Carl Sagan's birthday. And Carl Sagan is worth celebrating.

The first time I heard Carl Sagan describe a scientific theory, I wept. I was watching a rerun of Cosmos. I was so blown away. It was poetry. It was gorgeous. And it was so incredibly understandable.

If you have never seen him, look at this YouTube video of him explaining the Scientific Theory of Evolution. Or watch his video of people's belief in "God and Gods." Great stuff. Beautiful stuff. Science and exploration as poetry. A celebration of humanity. It makes me feel inspired to face my day.

Understanding is joyous! And the seeking of understanding can be rapturous.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

What "Imagine" really means

I love the song "Imagine" by John Lennon. You all know the lyrics, so I won't quote them. Plus, if I do, Yoko Ono might sue me. And I don't want that.

It's amusing what meaning some people assign to this song.

The song is, IMO, quite clear: imagine taking away all the silly, imaginary reasons that people wage war over and, therefore, imagine living in peace.

And it often sends a lot of people into a frenzy. Religious people have a melt down because they do not believe that love, respect, joy and tolerance is possible without a belief in God (example: John Shore's What Atheists Have Dead Wrong About Religion). Patriots believe you are saying that you want to burn the national flag, do away with national borders, and not fight back against, say, invading hoards of Cannibalistic Canadians. Capitalists believe you want to institute Communism and take away all their stuff.

I don't think "Imagine" is an Atheist anthem. I know a LOT of Atheists who love their possessions and don't want anyone messing with such, myself included. And we certainly didn't see John Lennon giving away all of his wealth and possessions -- the rent at the Dakota was NOT cheap!

The song's point is simply: think about what we fight over, and consider if it's really worth fighting for, and realize that so much of what we fight over is just an idea, and that's dumb.

The song isn't saying that some things aren't worth fighting for. I certainly believe there are things worth fighting for. Repelling the Nazis was most definitely worth fighting for, but I'm not sure anything in World War I was. Women's rights in Afghanistan is, IMO, worth fighting for, and there are times I wish we were arming the women there. When the Cannibalistic Canadians show up, I'll fight, I promise.

But haven't you ever read about a conflict between two groups in a land far, far away from you, your country, your culture, and maybe even your present time period and thought, geesh, what a stupid thing to fight over!? Even in the conflicts I've named earlier, even those involving Cannibalistic Canadians, aren't there always early opportunities to derail hateful momentum, before we cross the line where war might become necessary? That, I believe, is the point of the song.

People seem to always be able to find a reason to hate each other, even when there is no threat from that person whatsoever. Sometimes the reason is where or to whom the person was born, or the color of his or her skin, or his or her language. But if the reason for conflict isn't born from religion, it is all too often fueled by religion -- by a belief in a god or gods. Belief in deities and a belief that those who don't believe the same way are evil has fueled -- if not caused -- genocides and acts of terrorism the world over. And the sad reality is that we hear and see far more of these hateful, "godly" people, and feel their impact more, than we do of those who claim their religion is an instrument only of peace and transformation. Far more.

It's fascinating to hear religious people say that someone who is hateful, or a movement that wanted to make war on another group, was already full of hate and just used religion as a justification for acting on that hate -- but who attribute anything good that is done to a deity. Couldn't it also be true that good people might already be full of love and just needed religion as a justification for doing good that? If the religion wasn't there, couldn't a good person then also say, "It was my duty to my country" or "It was for the honor of my family" and right on down the line?

I wish I could say that a belief in God, patriotism and family loyalty were always -- or even usually -- forces for good. But, sadly, what I see far more, what I experience far more, is that they are forces for evil.

What Religious People Have Dead Wrong About Atheists

Religious people believe all good things -- joy, love, compassion -- come from a deity, or a group of deities. And so, religious people believe that Atheists such as myself cannot be good without "god." They believe that Atheists cannot experience true joy, love or compassion -- or at least not as much as a religious person -- because, according to the believers, Atheists deny the source of these.

Christians, Muslims and other religious people take this reasoning further and believe Atheists don't volunteer, don't care for their fellow man, and aren't bothered by human suffering. How can they? Atheists don't believe in a a deity, or a group of deities, and all of these values for helping other people come from a belief in a magical, invisible friend -- or group of such!

Religious people keep going with this thinking and say that Atheists cannot have values, since all codes of proper human conduct come from a deity, a group of deities. Atheists have no morality, since they have no magical invisible friend -- or group of friends -- feeding them these.

And then religious people take this even further, and say that Atheists have no sense of wonder and awe. They'll claim atheists can't look up into the starry sky and say, "Wow!" Instead, we say, "I see that several thousand massive, luminous balls of plasma held together by gravity are visible tonight." If a god or group of gods didn't make all that is seen and felt, then it cannot be seen as marvelous or astonishing, according to the believers.

Of course, Christians, Muslims and so many other religious people have it dead wrong about atheists regarding all of the above. True joy, love, and compassion is possible without religion -- I have certainly experienced all of these much more once I embraced my Atheism than when I was trying to believe in a magical, invisible friend.

I've dedicated a large part -- and maybe most -- of my life trying to make a positive difference in the world, trying to help others, trying to alleviate suffering and trying to help people have access to what they need to experience joyful, prosperous lives. I have morals that guide my life and my actions, and a philosophy that compels me to do certain things in order to have meaning and joy in my life. The source of my morals and philosophy is not a magical, invisible being (I'll blog in the future about where Atheist ethics come from, for those of you who don't know already).

And I most certainly look up into the starry sky and say "Wow." I don't attribute what I'm seeing to a deity or deities, but to the entirely natural forces of science -- and that, for me, has made the world no less wondrous than when I was trying to believe it was a god that did it all.

Unfortunately, we Atheists haven't written songs and chants about our reverence for rational, independent thought, the joys of intellectual exploration, the peace of studied comprehension, the rapture of scientific revelation, or the thrill of finding out there is still so much more to learn. We also don't have nearly enough pot lucks. We Atheists really need to celebrate who we are more!

Introduction to Your Atheist Muse

I'm an Atheist. I'm a Secular Humanist. Both titles are just dandy to describe me.

There are a lot of Atheist-based and Secular Humanist blogs, and their numbers are growing. I think there are a lot of reasons this is happening:
  • Atheists are starting to feel more comfortable about declaring their lack of faith.

  • Atheist bloggers are realizing that there are a *lot* of misconceptions about atheists among non-Atheists, many of them downright insulting and potentially harmful, and its in our own best interests to counter these misconceptions.

  • Atheist bloggers are becoming frightened at the rhetoric and actions of many people of faith who are working to suppress science, knowledge, and even basic freedoms and human rights.

  • Atheists bloggers are hoping to bring some comfort to fellow atheists out there, particularly those who are feeling alone in their lack of faith, surrounded by people who, consciously or not, maliciously or lovingly, keep trying to convert them to a faith-based belief system.

  • Atheists bloggers are not always comfortable with this or that atheist speaking on behalf of ALL atheists, -- and want the diversity of Atheist voices to be heard.

  • Atheists bloggers are realizing that they like being atheists and that they want to share that joy with others, Atheist or not.

  • Some Atheists bloggers are actively trying to encourage people to abandon their religions.

Which of those are my reasons for having this blog? Probably all of those but the last one. While I wouldn't mind at all being responsible for turning people of away from fundamentalist religious beliefs that promote the enslavement and oppression of women, cultivate hatred of gays, discourage an understanding of science, encourage revisions of history to be kinder to their religious beliefs, etc., I'd be perfectly content if they all became oh-so-tolerant and reasonable Universal Unitarians, Sufi Muslims, adherents to Confucianism, etc. -- those people who believe there are many paths to "God" tend not to block the teaching of scientific principles like biological evolution and plate tectonics, and tend not to encourage gay teens to kill themselves, and I really like them for that.

I decided to start this blog when a Christian blogger I thought was a pretty decent guy, and often downright reasonable, posted a blog entry called What Atheists Have Dead Wrong About Religion. As I read the blog, it dawned on me that he really has no idea what an Atheist is. None. I started reading his previous posts and further realized that, as much as I didn't want to believe it, this guy is just like most other Christians: he lumps all non-Christians, including Atheists, into one category -- and we're all secretly miserable because we don't share his faith in his particular magical, invisible friend.

So, to this Christian blogger and other Christians: yes, indeed, we Atheists are non-Christians. But so are Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and lots of other religious folks, and those folks most certainly are NOT atheists. They have much more in common with you, the Christian, than with me, the Atheist. Like it or not, if there really could be only two football teams, they would be on YOUR team, not mine.

So, here's yet another blog by an Atheist/Secular Humanist, about being an Atheist/Secular Humanist.
  • It's for people who are realizing their own Atheism and need some comfort to know they aren't alone. - It's for Atheists who are feeling under siege by religious people, who also want to know they aren't alone.

  • It's for people of faith, especially Christians in the USA, so that they understand what Atheism is, not as defined by their pastor, but by an actual Atheist. Maybe that will dispel some myths they have been told. Maybe it will encourage them to think for themselves.

But what's my name? Because of the nature of my work that takes me to many developing countries where one's political or religious views can put one in danger, I cannot associate my name directly with this blog -- which means I can't put my name on it. However, it's rather easy to figure out who I am, if you don't know already. If you write me, I'm happy to use my real name in corresponding.

And a side note to those of you wanting a career in international humanitarian development: be careful regarding your online public declarations of your political beliefs, government criticisms and religious views; there are employers, including the Peace Corps, who turn candidates away (like Derek Volkart) for saying the wrong thing online. Here is more advice on pursuing a career in international humanitarian and development efforts.