The Feeling of Firebrand Atheism

I have recently read Fighting God, by David Silverman. The topic of the book is firebrand atheism, and the normalization of atheism in American society, from the perspective of the president of American Atheists. It’s an interesting and unique read and I recommend anyone to pick it up. But this isn’t a book review.

I have been thinking lately about firebrand atheism. Loud, proud, unapologetic atheism. A little over ten years ago when I first came out as an atheist, I was really enthused about my new take on the world and ready to go to bat for it. I was still angry at the idea that some people in my life apparently thought that I should keep quiet in the face of what I saw as ridiculous superstition, and keep the obvious truth to myself. As if in the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, the child had been reprimanded and punished for speaking up rather than affirmed by all the adults who had been fearfully silent about the obvious truth.

I’ve calmed down since then, and the thought of sticking my neck out in an uncertain situation to defend an unpopular idea gives me a tight feeling around my chest and stomach area. You know what I am talking about–anxiety. I don’t like conflict, though debating can be fun when I am pretty confident I am right. What I have discovered over and over is that the feeling is the same whether I am right or wrong to speak up. Since it is the same feeling, it can be hard to tell sometimes when it is caused by my cowardice or lack of self-confidence when I should be bold, or if it is a sign that something is not quite right with what I am saying. Maybe sometimes it means that there is an inconsistency in my argument and I should be quiet until I sharpen my point a bit more. Or that being right–perhaps in a discussion with a family member–is not the top priority at the moment.

The quote below from Bertrand Russell resonates with me and gets at the heart of what I am trying to say.

“Ever since puberty I have believed in the value of two things: kindness and clear thinking. At first these two remained more or less distinct; when I felt triumphant I believed most in clear thinking, and in the opposite mood I believed most in kindness.”
― Bertrand RussellThe Autobiography of Bertrand Russell

However there is more to the quote after that.

“Gradually, the two have come more and more together in my feelings. I find that much unclear thought exists as an excuse for cruelty, and that much cruelty is prompted by superstitious beliefs.”

Like Christopher Hitchens would say, “religion poisons everything.” People act in harmful ways sometimes because they hold superstitious beliefs, even though they believe themselves to be doing good. For now my strategy has been boldness in the public arena–online and among strangers–and more meekness among people I know and care about personally.

Where do you think you should draw the line between respect for people and criticism of beliefs and ideas?

Today’s Church Experience

Today I attended Sunday morning services with four other atheists from the Secular Student Alliance at the University of Louisville. For an explanation of what we were doing in a church, see my post immediately before this one: I am going to church tomorrow and here’s why. If you haven’t read that one yet, I recommend it for the back story before you continue with this post.

The church we attended was Walnut Street Baptist Church in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. The service was very typical of my experiences both growing up in the Church of the Nazarene and in visiting Baptist churches when I was looking for something different. The sizable sanctuary was well filled with mostly white  but also a scattering of black middle-class families, mostly dressed in casual and semi-dressy clothes. As far as looks go, our group fit right in. No one would have known we were not typical church-goers unless they recognized us or heard our post-service conversation.


This is the view from where we were sitting. This photo was taken while the choir was singing.

The order of the service was as I expected, except that the taking of the offering happened at the end just before the benediction, and not right after the congregational singing. Otherwise the service was pretty much identical to the ones I had grown up in. The call to worship (the opening song) was “Because of Who You Are,” and it felt surreal to me to sit and listen to it because I used to be incredibly moved by that song but now I was just rather bored and waiting for it to end. I thought the same of most of the song service, which was a mix of contemporary songs and hymns. The one song that I enjoyed was “It is Well With My Soul.” It is a pretty song and was always one of my favorites. It started out with a trumpet solo and then the congregation joined in and I sang as well. It was the best part of the entire service.

The sermon was about worry and anxiety, and drew from Matthew 6:25-34. It started with an anecdote about distraction, namely the distraction of the pastor himself when he was a young child on a baseball team. As we all know, very young children are very distractible. He transitions into the rest of the sermon by saying the things that distract Christians the most from following Jesus are worry and anxiety. Without reproducing the entire sermon, which was fairly well organized with three sets of three points each, I’ll jump straight to the main point. According to this sermon, anxiety is experienced by Christians who forget to keep their focus on Jesus and instead worry about making preparations for their future. The point of the passage is that we should not worry about what will happen tomorrow or what we will eat or wear, since God will take care of all that. And Jesus is good and doesn’t want us to be anxious. Given that everyone in that congregation looked pretty well fed and clothed, I doubt that this pastor was making points about basic sustenance (like Jesus was) as much as about desiring the best clothes or the best food–things not necessary for survival and a basic level of sustenance and personal security.  I assume that at least the adults in the congregation are not so naïve as to think that they should not therefore store up provisions for the future for themselves and their children. After all, even the bird of the air starve to death when there is a drought or overpopulation or other such misfortune. In part because, as the Bible says, they don’t store up in barns. Perhaps we should be more like the squirrels of the trees than the birds of the air…but now I am getting off topic.

The part of the sermon that bothered me the most was the pastor’s response to the obvious objection to his message: What about when God is NOT providing for me what I need? After all, there are a lot of starving people in the world, and some of them are Christians. Here is his answer: “God will provide what is sufficient to do what he wants us to do.” In other words, if you are praying and begging and not getting what you need, it’s all part of God’s plan. He will reward you in the afterlife. Oh, also “your definition of good is not the same as God’s.” Well then. Stop complaining and trust the one who is invisible and inaudible. Just don’t worry.

I was also disappointed to not hear him mention the real things that any person, Christian or not, can do to help deal with anxiety: taking to friends, journaling/blogging, not procrastinating, avoiding negative thinking, and even seeing a therapist and taking medication in extreme cases. If all you knew about anxiety and its causes came from this sermon, the take away message would be that the reason you are anxious because you do not have enough faith in Jesus. It’s long been my problem with preachers that they are very good at times at pointing out real problems, but their advice usually misses the mark by so much that it would be laughable if it was not so sad. I always got frustrated with sermons because I have expected them to give a rational and persuasive case, but most church sermons are not persuasive speeches. You just either just believe what the pastor says, or you don’t.

It was an interesting experience to see church though the eyes of a total nonbeliever, as an open atheist. As expected the people were precious and I would have no problem associating with any of them. But (most of the) music and the doctrine and sermons are clearly not for me. But I don’t mind attending to raise money for a worthy cause. :)

I am going to church tomorrow and here’s why.


Over the past few weeks, the Secular Student Alliance at the University of Louisville held a fundraiser called “Send an Atheist to Church.” Here is the basic idea. There is a fundraising jar for four different religious groups: Baptist, Mormon, Muslim, and Catholic. Anyone could “vote” for groups with their dollars and whichever group had the most money in their jar at the end of the fundraiser would get to have some atheists attend a service at their place of worship. The money the fundraiser will be donated to the Kid’s Center for Pediatric Therapy.

The chart below shows the progress of fundraising from the start to the end of the fundraiser. The line at the top is a total of funds raised, and the other four lines correspond by color with groups listed below. End the end, $170 dollars was donated to the Kid’s Center for Pediatric Therapy and the Baptists came out on top. Tomorrow is the planned day for a few members of the SSA at UofL to uphold their end of the bargain and attend  Sunday services at a local Baptist church.


I graduated from UofL several years ago, before there was a Secular Student Alliance there, so I am not a member of the SSA myself. However, as they have invited members of the Louisville Atheists and Freethinkers to participate I have decided to join in. I have pretty clear expectations for what the service will be like, because I was raised in The Church of the Nazarene which is very similar in service style to the Baptists. I expect the service will go something like this: announcements, then song service, offering, about a 30-40 minute sermon, prayer, and benediction. I expect the people will generally be friendly and welcoming. What will make this church visit different than all the previous times I have gone is that I will be going as a known atheist and I expect that will have some effect on the tone of interactions with the people there. I wonder if the paster will make any changes to the sermon in light of the fact that there will be a handful of open atheists among the congregation. In fact, I expect the people will probably be extra friendly for that reason in order to put on a good impressions and make sure we know that Jesus loves us.

I’ll post an update tomorrow on how it goes.


a response to lukewilson27

Recently in response to my post Religion and Violence, I got a very lengthy comment from lukewilson27. As I do not approve of my blog being hijacked by massive essays from anyone out there on the interwebs, I cut it short after the first paragraph and provided an explanation that said I have copied the comment into a document and will read when I have more time, and that it would be best if he posted his own lengthy posts on his own blog. This was (sadly predictably) followed by an additional comment from this person suggesting that my own intellectual capacity and level of education must just be too low to comprehend the information that he had so generously provided. I can’t resist the temptation to respond. So in this blog post I will post the edited comment in its entirety along with my responses.

Salvation is an internal struggle…a personal thing and each of one of us have to work out our own…without passing judgement on others…it is not fighting to resist the world like so many think. You cannot take one part of the bible and use it for arguments…it is a developing story of God, His creation and the fall of man and his redemption. You can’t take a person who professes they are a Christ follower, then look at their sins and use it as some kind of argument. Is any of us without sin? imperfections? faults? God did everything he could to save us…pride comes…then the fall….every time…and we still want to be gods for some reason, yet we die and have no idea where we go? Does this not concern you? Is this all life is? Birth then death, constant struggle and loss? If I only believe in that which I can only see, touch, taste, smell, feel…I am automatically limited…I have no way of achieving anything outside of my limitations. Look at us…look at the human race on a global scale…we are all sick! Every last one of us, not one of us knows anything really…do you read philosophy? Metaphysics?

As this is mainly just a big block of religious claims and such, I’m not even sure where to begin. First of all, your personal idea of what salvation means is quite irrelevant to me. Just sticking to Christianity, there are tens of thousands of different denominations and sects of that define salvation and the proper means to salvation a bit differently. I know some people who profess to be Christians (or Christ followers? Same to me) are hypocrites, and do not represent their religion as well as others. The losses and struggles of this life, as well as the joys and triumphs, fit perfectly into a scientific and evolutionary view of the world and require no supernatural explanation at all. I am perfectly aware of the faults and fallacies of human beings, but I do not accept your religious assumption that the imperfection of humanity points to the truth of Christian doctrine. Have you ever read anything outside your religious bubble about evolution, science, and how the mind works?

Aristotle’s Metaphysics was divided into three parts, which are now regarded as the proper branches of traditional Western metaphysics:
The study of being and existence; includes the definition and classification of entities, physical or mental, the nature of their properties, and the nature of change.
Natural Theology
The study of a God or Gods; involves many topics, including among others the nature of religion and the world, existence of the divine, questions about Creation, and the numerous religious or spiritual issues that concern humankind in general.
You especially need to read this closely, the logic part…then we can debate…because I have not seen you use good logic yet, it is built on a shaky foundation. Please present a logical argument and case.
Universal science
The study of first principles, such as the law of non-contradiction (logic), which Aristotle believed were the foundation of all other inquiries.
The classical “Three Laws of Thought” are the three fundamental linguistic principles without which there could be no intelligible communication. Their formal expression is generally attributed to Aristotle, and they were foundational in later scholastic logic. The Law of Identity is the most fundamental of the three, the Law of Non-contradiction and Law of Excluded Middle being merely corollaries.
The law of identity states: “that every thing is the same with itself and different from another”: A is A and not ~A.
In logic, the Law of Non-contradiction … states, in the words of Aristotle, that:
“one cannot say of something that it is and that it is not in the same respect and at the same time”.
Aristotle wrote of the Law of Excluded Middle:
“But on the other hand there cannot be an intermediate between contradictions, but of one subject we must either affirm or deny any one predicate. This is clear, in the first place, if we define what the true and the false are. To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true; so that he who says of anything that it is, or that it is not, will say either what is true or what is false; …”

Thanks, I guess, for the basic primer in Aristotle’s logic. I actually know these things already from basic undergraduate classes I have taken in philosophy and logic. You claim that I have not used good logic in my posts, so I would surely be interested in your specific examples of where I been guilty of logical fallacies. I know I am not perfect, so perhaps if you could break down this case I am making into its logical components and show me where I went wrong, I could correct my error. If not, I’ll assume your accusation has no basis in reality.

Do you truly know the origins of knowledge and truth? Or are you simply bound by your reason and intellect and a few monkeys who came up with a theory? Are you educated? I studied at a very prestigious university and I think you have a very limited and very infant idea of what it means to be spiritual. Religion is shit. Christ was a teacher, he was the ultimate example of love and laying down his selfishness for others…he never encouraged anyone to do anything bad or evil, he loved everyone, and he was the personification of good. I can go all day and all night…you have nothing that can disprove anything. Once you realize that, you will become humble and realize that not everybody is going to be like you…why attack Christianity? It teaches people to love another? God hated sin in the Old Testament…but gave His own son in the New Testament…what more do you want from Christianity? People that kill, hurt, and destroy in the name of Jesus are not representing Him. They are MISREPRESENTING Him, it’s a shame too…but what can we do? What can we do with the evil in the world? You think atheism is going to cure us? I think that is absurd, becasue it has absolutely no foundation whatsoever except that which we currently know…it does not answer any questions unless it is some twisted view of human experience as a prison of our own minds and bodies… You need to read my friend and educate yourself on human history and look at where we are headed as a civilization….history repeats…and it keeps repeating…open your eyes and stop roaming in the darkness of uncertainty…He is real…He lives in each one of us.

Words, words, words and more words. I see a load of religious claims and assumptions here, but nothing actually based in the logic primer you produced before. Sure, I do not know the “origins of logic and truth” but such knowledge is not necessary for basic critical thinking. And we don’t have to have perfect knowledge before we can have reasonably good verifiable knowledge  of lot and lots of things. I also don’t care what “prestigious university” you studied at as if this automatically qualifies you as an authority is anything whatsoever.

If you’re totally honest with me and yourself, can you say you never talk to God? When you’re alone? You’re just trapped in your own mind?

Quite honestly, I don’t. I quite enjoy the privacy of my own mind. I would resent the accusation that I really do believe in and long for God deep down in my soul if I didn’t also realize that this assumption is apparently part and parcel to your view of the world. Wouldn’t it blow your mind to know that I really, truly, and honestly don’t believe in your God? And that I do no suffer no negative psychological consequences from my disbelief?

God is speaking to each one of us, in subtle ways, in big ways, in many different ways…but we are too prideful to listen. Where did we come from? What is life? Is there a battle going on between good and evil? Of course there is…turn your TV on….I promise you we can’t fix it and we will destroy ourselves….because hate dominates…yet I as Christ follower accepts everyone with open arms…so tell me…where do I fit in in all this? Do you accept me for my beliefs? Do you respect me? I respect you and your beliefs, but I have my beliefs…every time I have challenged you to answer any of my questions you attack religion (I’m not religious, I am a philosopher with a very open mind for discussion)….but don’t answer any of my questions. I’ll say again religion is crap…and Jesus hated it too! Our beliefs are simple: a PERSONAL relationship with God that teaches love and acceptance of all….what is wrong with that? Don’t let all these idiots that misrepresent Christianity ruin it….because it really does answer a lot of questions on a philosophical level. You don’t seem to grasp philosophy and the question of where knowledge comes from….there are many schools of thought, yet none of them answer any of the questions…they only uncover questions that still remain….so, would you like to hear my case and argument on the philosophical answers that I have come to on my journey? Or do you only respect some asshole with a PhD. I have a Master’s Degree, is that good enough for you? I also read a lot, more than most do….everything…not just the Bible. My IQ is much higher than most, 139 last time I tested….some PhD student that published research is dime a dozen….I would own him in an intellectual discussion. The logic and basis of the arguments assume that Christians who do evil deeds must get their evil from the Bible….and that is hilarious and funny to a Christian who knows it is a story meant to be read in its entirety…not picked and chosen from. Then drafting the BIG PICTURE of it all is what most have a hard time with….because they pick and choose….and do crazy things like claim they have encountered some other way to answer the problem of life, death, sin, evil, pride, greed, lust for power and control…form their own religion or church…you name it. Church of Christ, Church of God, Catholic, bla…bla…bla…every last one of them put their own spin on a historically accurate text that has survived the ages. Still printing strong today…and atheist tend to hate us…yet we love you….it makes no sense. Most Christians are self loathing, selfish, judgmental, prideful, arrogant….yet none of these qualities are taught as a path to enlightenment in the New Testament. Strange huh? ever think that these people are just wrong as an individual and it has nothing to do with Jesus?

This is just more preaching and religious claims and assumptions, and little of worth to me. Lots and lots of words, very little rational content for me to actually engage with. I do not care what your IQ number is. (I took an online IQ test the other day that said my IQ is 140. I don’t put much stock in the number, but I was curious.) I also read a lot, lead a book club, and have experienced numerous Christian churches and teachings. I don’t accept your assertion that you are not religious, only that you have rejected the label “religious.” Religious means different things to different people, but I have heard way too many Christians claim that what they believe is not religion, what they believe is truth! What they believe transcends religion, and all these other people just got it wrong. I just shrug my shoulders and say whatever. I could not care less what you believe since beliefs are just opinions and everyone has them. I am much more interested in what you do and what you can demonstrate that you know.

Could we ever be friends? Would you ever except me? Or would you like to see us eradicated? Or better yet…would you like me to disown my spirituality and conform to your way of thinking? It would be really awesome if you actually answer my questions this time so we can have a real debate.

Possibly we could be friends if I actually knew you in real life, but I find your discussion online to be much more condescending than I would tolerate in any real-life friendship. I think if you came to my way of thinking you would be quite surprised that my mindset is nothing like you have assumed it to be. You really think I would have you “eradicated”? Seriously? Have you actually read anything I have written? And don’t forget–I am not the one who came to you to browbeat you out of your beliefs. You came to me.

In the context of academic degrees, the term “philosophy” does not refer solely to the field of philosophy, but is used in a broader sense in accordance with its original Greek meaning, which is “love of wisdom”. In most of Europe, all fields other than theology, law and medicine were traditionally known as philosophy, and in Germany the basic faculty of (liberal) arts was known as the faculty of philosophy. The doctorate of philosophy as it exists today thus originated as a doctorate in the liberal arts at the Humboldt University of Berlin, becoming common in large parts of the world in the 20th century.[1] In many countries, the doctorate of philosophy is still awarded only in philosophy, i.e. liberal arts.
Please understand, I am simply a a person who seeks wisdom or enlightenment a scholar, a thinker, a student of philosophy, a person whose philosophical perspective makes meeting trouble with equanimity easier and an expounder of a theory in a particular area of experience…My expertise is in spirituality and life and the meaning of our existence. Expand your mind, free your mind from it’s very prison that we create in our senseless notion of who and what we are…we are much more than we have observed, thus it is intuition that guides us down the paths we cannot understand.
: quick and ready insight
a : immediate apprehension or cognition
b : knowledge or conviction gained by intuition
c : the power or faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference (powerful huh?) ever heard of Noam Chomsky? The study of our own language and communication: linguistics, answers a lot too…YouTube him….
See yourself to the exit.
We can’t afford to watch you resort to this
Even hope hides in the shadows!!!!
Nothing is real.
Color is black, is white, is color blind.
Tucking away what’s true, what’s tangible.
You’re crashing faster,
And there won’t be pieces to piece back together this time.
Can’t you see you’re ringing? You’re ringing out.
This is dissonance. This is dissonance.
It’s in the quiet of this place
That all things come to life.
All that is real is blurred by your notion of reality.
Nothing is real.
Color is black, is white, is color blind.
Tucking away what’s true, what’s tangible.
You skeptic, you. You believe in unbelief.
You skeptic, you. Now you’re the hypocrite.
You can’t hide from this.
One of my favorite songs…great lyrics…thought provoking…and very open minded. It addresses rationality and intuition.
Please read the following:
Have a blessed day and I pray that God opens your eyes to so much more than this horrible world full of hate, sickness and death….it is merely a fleeting glimpse of eternity, a time in our existence where we must choose our path.
Two paths:
1. To myself
2. To enlightenment, aka God

So you are a philosopher. Good for you! So you advise that I expand my mind and I respond back yes! I am always striving to learn new things about the world and new ways of thinking. And I extend the very same advice back to you. I hope I have not been too harsh in my criticism, but if you can dole it out I’m sure you can take it as well.

Religion and Violence

Dr. Avalos is a professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University and the author of several books about religion. He is a former Pentecostal preacher and child evangelist. He has a Doctor of Philosophy in Hebrew Bible and Near Eastern Studies from Harvard University, a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from the University of Arizona. Avalos is an internationally recognized opponent of neo-creationism and the intelligent design movement, and is frequently linked to Guillermo Gonzalez, an astrophysicist and proponent of intelligent design who was denied tenure at Iowa State University in 2007.

Dr. Avalos is a professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University and the author of several books about religion. He is a former Pentecostal preacher and child evangelist. He has a Doctor of Philosophy in Hebrew Bible and Near Eastern Studies from Harvard University, a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from the University of Arizona. Avalos is an internationally recognized opponent of neo-creationism and the intelligent design movement, and is frequently linked to Guillermo Gonzalez, an astrophysicist and proponent of intelligent design who was denied tenure at Iowa State University in 2007.

This post is a continuation of my learnings from the 2013 American Atheists Convention. The next speaker I will discuss is Hector Avalos, and his ideas on how religion can be a cause of violence.

I always brace a bit when the subject of religion and violence come up, as I have from time to time heard some hyperbolic statements about how all wars are caused by religion. Such statements are not true historically or in any other way, and Dr. Avalos made it clear that he was not proposing that all violence is caused by religion or that religion does always leads to violence.

With that being said, Hector rejects up front the claims of the moderately and liberally religious that the violent fanatics are not following a true form of their religion, on the basis that this is merely a faith-based claim and not grounded in any evidence. You could make just as valid a case to say that the more violent version of the religion is the true form, and that the peaceful members are hertics and hypocrites. It is a wonderful thing for religious believers to be peaceful, but this in and of itself does not prove that it is the ideas of the religion lead to their peaceful behavior.

The core idea of Hector’s talk is that when religious ideas cause violence, it is because they have created a scarce resource. Things like water, oil, and diamonds are normally what people think of as resources over which wars may be fought; however, the scarce resources created by religion are usually much more ethereal then any of those items. Here is a short list.

  • Salvation
  • Sacred Space/Land
  • Group privilege
  • Access to God’s will.

As an example of how violence can be caused around “access to God’s will,” read Deuteronomy 18:20.

But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I [God] have not commanded, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death.”

One has to wonder how would anyone else, not themselves being privy to what God might have spoken to this person, would know which prophets are true and which were lying. And of course anyone speaking in the name of one of those other gods was automatically out. And notice that the penalty against such people who spoke for God without proper authorization was the ultimate in violent acts. They will be put to death.

Dr. Avalos also cited a similar text from the Koran.

For an example of how sacred land can be a scarce resource over which the religious wage battle, one only needs to look at the current and ongoing situation in Israel/Palestine. The fact that rival religious groups hold sacred claims to the same land, on which they are therefore unwilling to compromise because the claims are sacred, is clear enough to demonstrate that religion can cause and perpetuate violence over such a scarce resource.

Salvation, at least as taught in non-Universalist Christian churches, is a scarce resource as it is considered vitally important to a person’s temporal and eternal well-being and is not evenly distributed. Christian teachings (which vary depending on the sect) teach that one must do and believe certain things in order to obtain it. One kind of example of violence brought on by belief in non-universal salvation can be seen in the behavior of certain parents who abuse or abandon their non-believing children. And not even necessarily because the parents don’t love their kids, but due to the idea that if the kids do not believe the parent’s religion they are in danger of eternal damnation if drastic and harsh measures are not taken by the parents. Even in less drastic situations, differences in opinion about religious claims can lead to tremendous amounts to hurt and anger. If it were not for such uncompromising and “sacred” claims about the ethereal and unknown, much suffering could be avoided.

In response to the ways religions can and do cause violence, Dr. Avalos recommends that we totally repudiate and reject any and all scriptures that advise or excuse violence, and not try to reinterpret them as the moderate and liberal religious do. For the record, I think he is right.

From The Thinking Atheist: The Phone Call

This conversation, in who knows how may houses across America? How many grown sons and daughters get guilt and shame from their parents just for coming to their own conclusions about religion? How many families divided over differences of opinions on the invisible and unknowable?  For deciding that what they were taught about an invisible divine being makes no sense? For being atheists? It’s all too familiar, and breaks my heart.