Saturday, December 31, 2011

If there was a God, "Firefly" would still be on TV

I cannot think of a better way to end the year than with this wonderful video clip of Joss Whedon, "Atheist & Absurdist":

(I don't understand how anyone could think that Joss Whedon has something against Christians when he created one of the most loving AND Christian characters ever on TV - Shepherd Book).

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Picking & choosing morals?

A Tweet I read today:

Pope says atheists pick & choose their morals. Today I will be frowning on child abuse & not having a problem with homosexuality

And I laughed and laughed...

Even the Dali Lama says we can be good without God.

Where do my morals come from? From my own thoughts, which are much better expressed by Carl Sagan than me, such as in the text that goes along with this magnificent video.

In case you don't want to, or cannot, listen to the video, here is an except of the text read with the video:
From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity -- in all this vastness -- there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It's been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."

Friday, December 23, 2011

Dalai Lama says you can be good without "God"

I read a lot. A LOT. Including religious texts. I've read the Bible, cover to cover, twice, and look up things in it frequently (usually while arguing scripture with a Christian). I've read the Koran, cover to cover, once, and continue to look up things in it frequently (usually while arguing with a Christian about what they think is in the Koran). I've read a lot of Buddhist philosophy.

I'm not looking for God, because there is no God. I read religious texts because they are written by humans who are trying to make sense of the world and what is happening to them, their families and other humans. Reading religious texts helps me understand how humans reason, and helps me learn about commonly-held wisdom that can be found in a variety of cultures and a variety of eras. It helps me understand how people think and worry and dream and justify.

Sometimes what I read is pretty - poetic expressions of how people think and feel. I like that. Sometimes what I read leaves me in despair: the hatred of men to their fellow men, and to women especially, is overwhelming at times. But sometimes, my hope for humanity gets a boost as I read. I won't say I have faith in humanity, but I do have faith in humans having the capacity for kindness and responsibility to themselves, to others and our world - whether or not they realize or acknowledge that capacity. Religious texts never make me think there are invisible, magical super friends all around us or in the sky, but reading such does sometimes help me regarding what I want to believe regarding humans.

The Dalai Lama is not someone I agree with all the time: his views on abortion (doesn't believe women should ever choose this option) and homosexuality (thinks its unnatural and unhealthy) contribute the justification for the oppression of women and of gays and lesbians - even if he also says, "if two males or two females voluntarily agree to have mutual satisfaction without further implication of harming others, then it is okay". (OUT Magazine February/March 1994, as quoted at Wikipedia).

But he says a lot of things I do agree with.

Here are two quotes I agree with very much, from The Dalai Lama, A Policy of Kindness: An Anthology by and about the Dalai Lama (1990) edited by Sidney Piburn ISBN 8120815122

Whether one believes in a religion or not, and whether one believes in rebirth or not, there isn't anyone who doesn't appreciate kindness and compassion. (p. 47)

This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness. (p. 52)

I love it when a religious person acknowledges that there is no need for religion or a God in order to be good.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens is dead

Christopher Hitchens is dead. He died from pneumonia, a complication related to his esophageal cancer.

You can't say, "See, God punished Hitchens with cancer and death because he was an outspoken Atheist," because then, what are you going to say about all the devout Christians, devout Muslims, devout Jews and other devout religious people who have died from cancer or complications just like Hitchens?

I loathed Hitchens for his pro-war-in-Iraq stance and his pro George-Bush stance; had Bush been a Muslim, espousing exactly the same views about Christianity and the invasion of a nation made up largely of Christians, Hitchens would have foamed at the mouth. How Hitchens could be such a blind hypocrite regarding Iraq and Bush was astounding to me, because a few years before that, Hitchens had, literally, changed my life - for the better.

I will always be grateful to Hitchens for his exposing of Mother Teresa as a religious fanatic and a fraud in terms of truly helping people. I first read his criticisms back in the 1990s, after she died. It was the first time I had ever heard any criticism of her, let alone of any charity in the developing world. I was shocked. My first reaction, for several seconds, was, "What he is saying cannot be true." I remember my face feeling hot. Criticizing charity? Criticizing a woman whose name was seen as the definition of goodness by millions - and certainly characterized in the press that way?

But I kept reading.

(See an excerpt from a video from 1994, broadcast on the BBC, where Hitchens illustrates some of his criticisms.)

Over the months, as I read more and more, not only did my mind completely change about what Mother Teresa had done in India; my mindset about how to really help people living in extreme poverty changed. I realized that engaging only in charity, without addressing the reasons for poverty or a desperate situation, is mostly about making the giver feel good; a year later, all those poor people still need charity. Nothing changes. Nothing gets better. By contrast, changing political structures, educating people, EMPOWERING people - that changes things. That reduces poverty. That gives people options for employment, for health care, and for major life choices like marriage, pregnancy, moving... Pure charity, only charity, doesn't do those things. In fact, charity alone could even be said to keep people in poverty, forcing them to always be reliant on the kindness of others, never being able to take control of their own lives.

Five years after reading Hitchens' criticisms, when I found myself working for a UN-program and started my career in working for development agencies, my changed mindset helped me be much more effective in my job - and more effective to truly help others. To this day, I do not work the same way with nonprofits or non-governmental organizations (NGOs), nor donate to those organizations the same way, that I did before Hitchens' scathing criticisms of Mother Teresa. For instance, when I work with young people about volunteering, I don't just tell them how to do a one-day, feel good Habitat for Humanity build; I talk to them about organizations that are helping people learn to get out of debt, how to save, how to improve their job skills, etc., and how they could help those organizations as well. I'm outspoken about orphan tourism, and encourage those looking to volunteer abroad to engage in activities that don't take away local jobs and are focused on actually helping people in the long-term.

I'm not at all saying charity isn't a good thing to do. But it's not enough by itself. Hitchens played a huge role in my realizing that. I have to thank Christopher Hitchens for that start of the change in my mindset, and for helping to make me a better aid and development worker.

For a wonderful alternative to Mother Teresa and the Catholic Church's approaches to charity, which exploits the poor and doesn't change people's lives (but certainly raises a lot of money for their church), get to know Responsible Charity, which is working to raise some of the poorest people in India out of extreme poverty. Its Facebook page is a fantastic example of how a nonprofit can use the Internet to show its accountability and effectiveness.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Lots of ways to help others this season!

The reason for the season? The tilt of the Earth! No doubt the reason so many cultures in the Northern Hemisphere turned this time into a period of lights and celebration was as a way to maintain hope for warmer weather to come, and to give people a reason to be happy, rather than scared, in these darker days when so much dies outside. Whether it's carnival parties that begin in Germany in November, the burning of a log to celebrate the Nordic God "Yule", the ritual lighting of candles, or the birth of a God in December - Dionysus or Jesus, depending on your religion or period on Earth - all the gift giving, singing and celebrating is a great way to cope with this dark, cold season for much of the Earth's population.

There is a misconception that only people of faith in the supernatural -- Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc. -- engage in acts of charity, donate to humanitarian causes, and volunteer at this time of year. But the reality is that many people who are not religious, and people who do not believe in God, engage in acts of charity, donate to humanitarian causes, and volunteer to help the environment, help children, promote the arts, help the elderly, etc. - year round, as well as this season specifically.

There's lots of ways you can volunteer now, in secular programs rather than religious ones. In addition, there are some terrific organizations that would welcome your donations, including:
  • Kiva, which helps fund people in developing countries to start micro-enterprises, so that they don't need aid money eventually. And note the number one donating group on Kiva: it's the "Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-Religious" group.
  • Bpeace, which helps fund and support people in Afghanistan and Rwanda to grow small businesses and employ more people.
  • CARE International, which is focused on giving access to education, employment, health care and nutrition.
  • Knowbility, a nonprofit based in Austin, Texas that promotes access to computer and Internet technology and related education for people with disabilities.
  • Goodwill, a national nonprofit with locations all over the USA that helps people trying to enter or re-enter the work place. Their thrift stores not only generate income to fund their training programs; they also provide a training ground for the people they are trying to help. Unlike the Salvation Army, the organization is secular and does not discriminate on the basis of religion or sexual orientation.
  • Join the Reddit atheist community in giving to Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres; the 2011 campaign has raised almost $200,000 for the organization.
  • Planned Parenthood.
  • Your nearest animal shelter, which is no doubt DESPERATE for funds right now.

Expect snarky comments from friends and family that believe in an invisible magical friend to say things like I think if I was an atheist I'd just figure what's the use? Lol, as someone did on my Facebook page recently. They don't understand why a human would be good to another human without a belief in an invisible magical friend who will reward you for your philanthropy, or punish you, after you die (great reasons to help - for gifts or out of fear. Whatever).

Maybe my desire to help is driven by evolution: humans prosper together, rather than singularly. Maybe my desire to help is driven by logic: the world is more peaceful and happy when people are content. All I know is that helping others makes the world a better place, and while I'm here on Earth, I'd like to enjoy my time here.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Contrary to what the Catholic League says, I believe in so much...

Catholic League president Bill Donohue is starting a new campaign to... well, I'm not entirely sure what it's supposed to do. He seems to think that Atheists are just kidding, that we're closeted Christians. We're not, of course. But for the launch of this campaign, he asserts that Atheists are people who “believe in nothing, stand for nothing and are good for nothing.”

With this campaign, the Catholic League confirms so much of what I believe about the Catholic Church. In addition, I also believe that every person who covers up child sexual abuse should be in prison, I believe condoms save lives, I believe women should have control of their uterus rather than your church, I believe the Catholic church should NOT get to decide who is and isn't married, I believe in love, honesty, integrity, reason and freedom from religion, and I believe the numbers of people who also believe like me are growing. And I believe you can pray for me to your magical invisible friend until the cows come home and it won't change a thing.

It's an arrogance that makes Christians oh-so-loathesome. And if he thinks this is what his God wants, then it's no wonder his church is losing members in DROVES.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

What does the Bible say about Christmas traditions?

How much do you know about the characters and events associated with Christmas that are in the Bible? Or the origins of various Christmas traditions? Take this quiz and find out. It's particularly fun to share with Christian friends who say they take the Bible literally.