cosmos-slice

My favorite fact of science

One of the fan questions in last night’s COSMOS panel (live streamed on Tuesday night ahead of the TV première of COSMOS 2104 on Sunday) was about the panel member’s favorite fact about science. It’s such a huge question that it would be hard to answer on the spot. My answer to this (after some thought), is that science is weird beyond what we can imagine and yet it is everyday, and all around us. Ever think about why, when you put your hand on a tabletop your hand does not just slip right though, although supposedly the atoms both are made of are mostly empty space? It’s because the electrons in the tightly packed atoms of your hand repel the electrons in the tightly packed atoms that make up the table—what you feel is the result of electromagnetic repulsion. I know I’m a big geek but when I first read about that I started tapping my hand against the table and felt slightly giddy with fascination. (NOTE: My understanding of how that actually works is not precise. Feel free to send corrections my way if I have described it incorrectly.)

Then there is that favorite fact that I learned first from my astronomy prof at UofL, and then heard again from Carl Sagan, that we are made of “starstuff.” It’s a bit of a romantic notion since people have long mystified the stars, but there is such an incredible depth to the idea that I never entirely get used to it. It encompasses the Big Bang and the formation of the simplest atoms of hydrogen. Those hydrogen atoms then clump together from gravity (since the expansion of matter from the Big Bang was not entirely uniform) into big balls of gas so massive that the pressure of gravity at their centers started smashing those hydrogen atoms together so hard that they fused together to make helium—producing vast amounts of heat and light in the process. Then the new star took billions of years to burn up all its hydrogen, so it then starts fusing the hydrogen into carbon—the basic elemental building block for life—and then carbon into iron (assuming it was a really massive star) and then exploded as a supernova since a star can’t sustain itself on iron fusion. And the heat and pressure from the supernova (which sometimes outshine their entire galaxy!) finishes the job and fuses the elements that are heavier than iron. *Deep breath, ‘cause that was a mouthful.* The supernova blasted those atoms out into space where they eventually formed dust clouds and new stars and solar systems, and…us. The wonder of massive stars far away and long, long ago, and the strangeness of atoms and nuclear processes, time scales beyond our innate comprehension…that’s what we’re made of. When you really get it, doesn’t it make your heart pound?

For a more technical and in-depth, yet simple and concise, explanation of the life cycle of stars and the building of elements, visit http://burro.astr.cwru.edu/stu/stars_lifedeath.html.

You can also view the panel discussion for Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey online at COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY Live Event.

My Faith, a poem

Are we all…

Unworthy?
Sinners?
Lost?
Corrupted?
Needy?

You say I should get my eyes off myself and look to God?

NO!

Don’t tell me to look away, don’t you dare!
I have my faith
Faith that I can not only look at myself
But that I can turn that magnifying glass deep inside

Insecurity?
Doubt?
Fear?

Take it all in

Risk it
Accept it
Embrace it

And Then Look Deeper

I find Goodness inside of me
Compassion
Hope
Love

I will not turn away
I will not avert my eyes
I am worthy

And I am not afraid

Afterlife Video by The Thinking Atheist

Apologies for the lack of new content as of late. For the past couple of months I’ve put most of my website and blogging energies into the sites for Louisville Atheists and Freethinkers and the Kentucky Secular Society.

In the meantime, until I get a new blog post cooked up, here is a touching video from the Thinking Atheist about the idea of an afterlife and about what gives meaning and purpose to life. Enjoy :)

 

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Living the Life of Reason

To live more rationally.

It’s not really a New Year’s Resolution, but something that has been on my mind a lot lately. What does it mean to live the life of Reason? Yea, I capitalized it, though that seems a bit archaic and, well, 18th century. I am not a woman of faith, but of reason. Truth is I never put much store by faith. I will accept something tentatively without evidence or reason for a while, but if evidence is not forthcoming I will eventually drop it and move on to something else. With a mindset like that, it is only natural that I rejected religion and am now an atheist.

I was raised to accept things by faith. It is easy. Lazy even. When I was a child I naturally believed what the authority figures told me, whether they ware teachers, parents, or the evening news. Questioning did not come naturally to me, at least not until what I was being told felt bad or contradicted what I wished to be true. What I thought should be true. I would accept things on faith. When I prayed and I felt good and felt forgiven it was proof to me that the prayer was effective and that the God I prayed to was real. But as I got older this “proof” became less and less effective, as it was not backed up by anything else that I did not recognize as my own internal state.

I still feel the influence of these teaching of faith, and I face daily the temptation to believe things based on how I feel at the moment. That can be maddening at times, since I have some crazy mood swings. There are days when I am energized and want to take on the world, and there are other days when the world is black and I wish I could just sleep and never wake up. Of course, I have never actually tried to prevent myself from waking up, because I always have Reason to tell me that I am in a depressed state and the world will look brighter tomorrow. Reason is the beam of light at the end of the tunnel.

My decision making is still largely based on how I feel in the moment. My tendency is to gather information and analyze up to a certain point, then I get overwhelmed by the information and the work and end up just deciding based on how I feel. This method has actually served me well in many decisions. It saves time and effort. In some cases though, I need more information, and more analysis. Should I change careers? Would I be happier and more satisfied doing something else? What about going back to college? I’ve found this in my professional life too…making assumptions about what feels reasonable can come back and bite you later. It HAS come back and bit me.

To me, living the life of Reason means more than merely rejecting superstition. That is now the easy part, second nature (though it was not easy at first!). It’s time to move on now, and keep applying Reason to all my other beliefs. Beliefs about myself. About politics, environmentalism, finances, everything. About morality, ethics, human rights, feminism, daily living. Assume nothing. Question everything.

So, as part of my New Year reflections, I am pondering what it means to live the Life of Reason.

What it means:

  • Pausing to think though my actions, rather than just being compelled by the feeling of the moment.
  • Riding out mood swings with a sense of sanity.
  • Being more in control of myself.
  • Pausing to question and check up on claims before believing them and sharing them on Facebook.
  • Always learning more.
  • Having the courage to scratch the surface of my core beliefs without fear of falling into a void (or going to hell, whether in the metaphorical or literal sense).

What it does not mean:

  • Requiring absolute certainty before making a decision. That way leads to paralysis.
  • Rejecting emotion. Emotion is important, and necessary for decision making. Logic is important, but without emotion and compelling reasons to act it is blind and lame.
  • Being an insufferable know-it-all.

I’ll probably think of more things that living the life of Reason means over the next few days, but this is a start.

dawn

2012 Reflections

I have a short memory. I usually roll along in the moment, taking in questions, problems, and ideas as they come to me. More than once in the past few weeks I have had a conversation with a friend or coworker, only to have them come back to continue the conversation after a pause of a few minutes, but my mind has already moved on to something else. What were we talking about? I’m not sure if this is a symptom of our fast-paced short-attention-span society or if it’s just how my mind works anyway.

So, with that in mind I thought it would be a good idea to take a good look at what happened in 2012, so as not to rush headlong into 2013 without pausing for a moment’s reflection. After taking some time to brainstorm and look though my old posts, here is a summary of what happened in my life over the past year in rough chronological order.

Lasik – January

This time last year, I was preparing to go under the laser in early January. I have been dependent on glasses for all daily activities that require sight since I was about eight years old, and I got tired of it. In late 2010 I decided to ask my optometrist about the possibility of getting Lasik surgery, and that got the ball rolling. After a few months my vision finally stabilized. My eyes are no longer dry, and I will be going to the optometrist for my one-year Lasik checkup in about a month. I have loved living without relying on glasses!

You can read about my Lasik experiences here: Tag Archives: Lasik

Reason Rally – March

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In March I had the great pleasure of attending the Reason Rally, the largest gathering of atheists and non-religious people ever. And it was a blast! Even after going to atheist conferences and been quite used to having atheist company for years, it was quite a wonderful experience to be surrounded by such a sea of secularism. For more about the Reason Rally, check out The Reason Rally: No Fair-weather Atheists Here!

Reasonable Living – March

Starting in March, a former Baptist teacher/minister who has been a member of the Louisville Atheists and Freethinkers for some time now started a Sunday morning group to discuss Humanist ethics, values, and how to live the good secular life. Since then, this group has been a regular part of my life, and it deserves a mention in the top events of my life in 2012. You can read more about Reasonable Living here: Reasonable Living and Intentional Community.

Women in Secularism Conference – May

In May I got to attend the Women in Secularism Conference, which was also my first conference with the Center for Inquiry. This was a unique conference to discuss the contributions and roles of women in the secular movement. I wrote about my experiences and ideas from this conference in Ideas from the Women in Secularism Conference.

Doctor Who – May

I started watching Doctor Who in May. Actually, I was watching The Empty Child from season 1 on the airplane home from the Women in Secularism Conference, and that was the episode (along with The Doctor Dances) that got me hooked. Thanks to Doctor Who and Tumblr, I have learned such concepts as “fandom” and “cosplay.” I have TARDIS Christmas tree lights, and my stepkids got my a cardboard standup TARDIS for Christmas. Yep, I am having a lot of fun with this.

Marriage on my Birthday – June

In June, one of my husband’s older sons got married, and on the same day as my birthday, too. It wasn’t planned that way, but it was a great party. :)

Kentucky Freethought Convention – October

In October, I got to help out with the planning and execution of the first ever Kentucky Freethought Convention which was a great success!  You can view the presentation videos on Vimeo, and read about it at Kentucky Freethought Convention Wrapup.

I bought a car! – October

In October, I bought my first new car! It’s a Subaru Outback, and I am very pleased with it. :)

Skepticon V – November

Ed and I attended Skepticon in Springfield, MO for the second year in a row this year. Skepticon is always a great time! You can read all about it at Skepticon 5: Science, Atheism, and Doctor Who?

The world didn’t end! – December

Despite all the doomsday prophecies, the world did not end on December 21, 2012. Still we had a great End of the World/Holiday Party at my place on the Winter Solstice.

Now, on to 2013! 

Reasonable Living and Intentional Community

Why do people go to church?

Of course, since my background is Christian I will write in “church” terms, but the same applies to the people who meet together in any type of religion, whether Nazarene, Catholic, Mormon or Hindu or Muslim or anything else. The same principles apply regardless of the specific beliefs.

We’ve all heard many times over that humans are social beings. We need each other and we need some sort of rule set and cultural framework to structure our lives. We like to “hang out” with people who think the way we do, for better or worse. It has been my observation that churches and other such organizations exist not out of the commands or needs of any God or gods but rather to fit the needs for human beings for belonging and social structure. After all, what do a large part of church activities have to do with theology? What do basketball courts, walking tracks and youth trips to amusement parks have to do with religion? They are attractions, side benefits to membership (or potential membership) that are used to draw people in with the hopes that they will join and stay and buy into the theology.

Unfortunately, the community benefits of churches and religious organizations come at a serious cost to those who do not buy into the theological baggage that comes with it. Constant messages saying that you are a sinner, that you should believe. The idea that you are incomplete and sick and doomed to failure unless you can believe something no matter how absurd and impossible. Being around people who tell you these things, implicitly or explicitly, can wear one down incredibly even if you are certain you are right. And the believers in a church environment usually don’t get it. Even if they sincerely love and accept you as an atheist, their insistence that “God loves you anyway” and “you are still welcome here” amounts to nothing more than a massive (and massively absurd) guilt trip. It’s not that we think we are too dirty and “sinful” to be accepted by your God. It’s that we really don’t think your God is real at all.

So what is a community-craving atheist to do? Some people are thick-skinned and nonconformist enough to put up with the negative messages about non-belief from the religious with no problem. But the rest us need the sort of community that churches and religious organizations have monopolized for so long.

In order to meet this need, one of the more recent offerings of the Louisville Atheists and Freethinkers group is a weekly Sunday morning small group meeting called Reasonable Living. It was founded and is lead by a former Baptist minister, and we (half-jokingly) refer to the meetings as our “secular Sunday School.” We have been meeting for the past few months, and on some weeks we have almost outgrown our meeting area. In the meetings, the topics of discussion are ideas like how do we balance societal responsibility with personal responsibility, what is the role of an individual in society, how we deal with life and death issues. Studies have usually been modeled around a book, and for the past several weeks we have been studying “Living without God: New Directions for Atheists, Agnostics, Secularists, and the Undecided.” It’s a great opportunity to discuss some interesting topics and sharpen your own thinking. If you are in the Louisville area and are interested in discussing the secular life, come and join us!

(Cross-posted at LouisvilleAtheists.com)

Happy New Year!

There is nothing really special about New Year’s day. We add 1 to the number that represents the year, life goes on, and somewhere around March we start writing the dates correctly on our checks. (Assuming we still write checks :)). But regardless of the total arbitrariness of the day, it is still a great time to reflect on the past 12 months and make plans and goals for the next.
Here I have listed a few of my reflections on the past year, and my goals and aspirations for the next.

Highlights of 2011:

  • Record attendance at the best American Atheists convention ever, at which my husband and I signed on as life members.
    English: The American Atheists atom symbol wit...
  • My first time to attend Skepticon!
  • Kentucky Secular Society was granted official non-profit status from the IRS (even after some rather humourous questions in their letter requesting further information).
  • For the first time, we hosted the family Thanksgiving at my house, and I roasted my first turkey. And was very pleased with how it turned out. :-)
  • And, of course, the word did not end nor did the rapture happen, much to the disappointment of the followers of Harold Camping.

My Goals and Aspirations for 2012:
  • Getting my vision corrected with Lasik in January! For once I will be able to see clearly as soon as my eyes open in the morning. That is something I have not had since before I was eight years old, and I am excited.
  • Attend the Reason Rally in March!
  • Attend Skepticon V.
  • Continue to write more in the blog. For most of 2011 I neglected to write much of anything, but I have started to turn this around in December. I intend to continue to write frequently using series such as “Why I am an Atheist” and in dialogue with other bloggers such as The Warrioress.
  • In general to focus more on the positive and uplifting in my inner thought life, and less on the negative.

Here’s to a happy, sucessful, prosperous, godless New Year!

Atheist Satire

I have found that the funniest comedy is subversive comedy. What I mean is that the best comedy takes the taboo, the holy, and the unquestioned and drags it right out into the open, warts and all, for everyone to see. Makes it not quite so high and mighty. And you see this in politics, from political satirists like Stephen Colbert to court jesters in times past. If you have the skill to make people laugh, you might just get them to rexamine ideas and beliefs that they would otherwise protect with an unpenatrable wall of offense.

Douglas Adams did this for me in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I was still a Christian when I first read Hitchhiker’s Guide, and I was listening to a very well-done audio book which enhanced the effect of the humor. It’s not like this is a good argument (in fact, it is totally absurd), but it did get me to laugh even if a bit akwardly at the fact that he was basically turning the “Design Argument for God” (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teleological_argument) on it’s head. How ridiculous to say that the unlikelihood that a creature could evolve by chance would prove that God doesn’t exist!

I didn’t become an atheist merely because of this sort of thing, but since it made me laugh by it’s absurdity it got me to lower my guard just a bit. It made the very thought (plausible or not) of God not existing just a bit less threatening to me.

BABEL FISH :

The Babel fish is small, yellow and leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the Universe. It feeds on brainwave energy recieved not from its own carrier but from those around it, It absorbs all unconscious mental frequencies from this brainwave energy to nourish itself with. the practical upshot of this is that if you stick a Babel fish in your ear you can instantly understand anything said to you in any language.

Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anhthing so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by chance that some thinkers have chosen to see as a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God. The argument goes like this : “I refuse to prove that I exist”, says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”

“But”, says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway isn’t it? it could not have evolved by chance. it proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.”

“Oh dear”, says God, “I hadn’t thought of that,” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

“Oh that was easy” says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.

Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.

(Text borrowed from http://homepage.eircom.net/~odyssey/Quotes/Popular/SciFi/Douglas_Adams.html where you can find many more great Douglas Adams quotes.)

The subversive nature of comedy means, pretty much inevitably, that the best humor is going to offend someone who thinks that certain things ought to remain taboo, holy, and unquestioned. Naturally, not everyone is going to find the same things funny. In the worst of scenarios, where the freedom of speech is not recognised, it might even lead to terrorism, imprisionment, and/or a death sentence for the comedian. (I’m thinking of Dutch cartoons, though there are plenty of other examples.) After the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie came out, one of the critisisms I heard of it was that it is anti-religious. Faith does not like to be taken lightly. I have my own thoughts as to why that is, and you can probably guess what they are, but I will leave you to your own conclusions.

And with that said, I will conclude with a bit of atheistic satire that is targeted mainly at a particular audience: atheists, especially those who grew up in a charasmatic Christian religous environment. It is an atheist version of a “holly roller” revival service in which I was in the audience in Skepticon IV, which I mentioned this in my post on Skepticon from a few days ago.

WARNING: If you are of the type mentioned above who are offended when religion is mocked or satirized, please do yourself a favor and do not watch this video. Seriously.

On Hosting Thanksgiving in an Atheist Home

This year will be a big first for me–we will be hosting Thanksgiving in our home this year. We have plenty of space, and we have some time since my husband and I both decided to take vacation on the week after Skepticon. So, for that and for a few other reasons we decided we would go ahead and host the meal here. This will be generally for my family, since my husband’s family lives in Texas.

After getting the OK from my parents, I started going though my head of the things we would need to prepare and come up with a general timeline in which things need to be done. And then I thought, what about the Thanksgiving grace?

Odd, you may think, that an atheist is worrying about the “blessing” but it is actually a big deal to me. Every Thanksgiving meal I have ever attended has involved a prayer of thanks over the food, and even if I have not completely participated in the praying for the last ten years or so I still think it is good to pause for a moment of reflection before digging into the turkey on Thanksgiving. And I want to be courteous to my more religious guest who are probably be wondering what to do as well when we sit at the table.

I hate sermonizing and grandstanding, and I sure did not invite my parents over so that I could push atheism on them. I am thinking of a few options for what could be done for a few moments of grateful reflection before digging in. I just want to have a statement that directs the thanks to people who deserve it, and not to a mythical figure.

  • Saying a few words myself before starting the meal, something along the lines of “I would like to take a few moments on this day devoted to giving thanks to remember that we have all been affected positively by events we could not control, and people we do not know and will never meet. Before we dig in today let’s remember that none of us can take sole credit for where we are in life, and remember that the actions that we take in life will affect others around us in ways we may never know.” Or something like that…I’m still thinking this though.
  • Allow everyone at the table a moment to say what they are thankful for.
  • Have a moment of reflective silence?

If anyone else has ideas of what we could do or say feel free to post in the comments. Especially if you will actually be coming over tomorrow :)

EDIT: As it turned out, I need not have worried. The only formality we followed in the meal was waiting for everyone to sit before digging in, and conversations already in progress blended right into the start of the meal. It would have been akward to inject any kind of a ritual. So it was all good :)

My Values

What are my values, and where do I get them? I get questions from theists stopping by our atheist booth at the Kentucky State Fair at times wanting to know from where we atheists get our values. There seems to be this sense, for so many people, that once one discards belief in a god, all desire for that person to live in harmonious relationships with other humans goes out the window. This leads me to think that most theists who ask these questions have not really thought much about what they are asking. As I told one visitor with whom I was discussing the values on which America was founded, the things that he was referring to as “Judeo-Christian values” are nothing more than human values.

For an example, consider Japan. (Many other societies could also be used.) Japan is not, in any sense of the word, a Christian nation yet consider the values that are supported there. From what I have heard of Japanese culture, things like family, hard work, honesty, integrity, and loyalty are highly prized. Yet these values obviously didn’t come from a “Judeo-Christian” framework. So clearly, neither Christianity nor Judaism can claim any ownership rights at all for these values. They are not values that belong to Christianity or to any religion. They are the sort of human values which arise anywhere that humans need to live together in harmony in society.

Another point to be made is that at the founding of the United States of America, we were breaking free from Christian Britain and Christian Europe. Why would it be that American Christian values are so different from the old European Christian values? The divine right of kings is a Christian value after all, and is supported by the Bible. Who where the founding fathers of the United States to rebel against the king God had appointed to rule over them? (For reference, see Romans 13) The Bible also commands slaves to obey their masters. (Ephesians 6:5) Don’t get me started on the value of freedom of religion when the kings in the Bible who most pleased God were the ones who tore down the shrines of rival religions and killed their priests and followers.(One example of many: 2 Chronicles 34) When did this “Judeo-Christian” God start smiling on religious tolerance? For that matter where in the Bible is there any mention at all of democracy or of human rights? I challenge you to find any, and feel free to post in the comments if you do.

Thinking about my own personal values, I have brainstormed a short list below of the first things that came to my mind. This isn’t comprehensive of course. I gathered these values from a mix of my innate nature, some from my parents and adults I knew growing up, maybe some others from society at large. They have everything to do with human relationships and harmony, and with living a good life, and nothing to so with the supernatural or with God.

Fairness
Justice
Autonomy
Independence
Love
Discovery
Beauty
Compassion
Personal Growth
Rationality
Truth

I remember some Gospel song I heard once that stated in the lyrics that if all the claims of Christianity were false and there were no heaven or hell the singer would still live by the same values because they are good. That is a paraphrase of the song since I can barely remember it at all, but the very idea made an impression on me. It is probably the most true and honest things I ever heard in a Gospel song. If you have any idea what song I am talking about, please mention it in the comments as well. :)