What I learned at Skepticon 7

I just got back home from Skepticon 7 late last night, and now is the time to recover and reflect. (If you don’t know what Skepticon is, visit http://skepticon.org/what/.) This year they had lots of speakers that I had not heard before (despite having gone to plenty of atheist conventions and hearing the most famous speakers multiple times). There was a very good variety of speakers and I commend the organizers for putting together such a fantastic lineup!

Here are some of the main ideas and learnings that I took away from Skepticon 7.

I learned about Ben’s firsthand experience of a Humanist Service Trip with the Pathfinders Project. The trip included teaching kids, helping villages develop a system to access clean water, a visit to a camp for accused witches in Uganda (and the heartbreaking results of superstition), and building latrines in Haiti. Also, a dangerous bout with malaria, reinterpreted as a process of personal transformation. Honestly, I am starting to cry as I write this, it was so heartwrenching and inspiring at the same time. So go to http://pathfindersproject.com and check out what they are doing. (Ben ‘Sweatervest’ Blanchard)

I learned that experiments with rats that show them helping other rats get out of a trap show that empathy and helping are hard-wired into mammals and do not require fancy cognition or culture. (Peggy Mason)

I learned that a careful analysis of studies that address the correlation of religion and wellbeing shows that when atheists are actually included in the studies and when the survey questions are relevant to atheists, the commonly media-touted claims about the religious being mentally healthier than atheists falls apart. It is a stable worldview is correlated to mental wellbeing, not a commited faith. (Melanie Brewster)

I also learned a concept of ‘minority stress’ that can affect atheists because of pervasive religous and anti-atheist prejudices in American culture. When atheists are compelled to self-censor out of fear of social censure from religous family or neighbors, and when they are exposed to frequent anti-atheist comments, the stress can cause mental and emotional damage. This is the major reason why atheist meetups and communities are important — they are safe spaces where atheists can get away from the sources of minority stress. (Melanie Brewster)

The distinction between natural and supernatural claims — between scientific and religous claims — is an illusion. There is no good reason not to think of the ‘supernatural’ (if it exists) as a natural realm that follows rules just like the natural world that we know. This idea has interesting implications for the sorts of claims that the religous make about God. (Scott Clifton)

I learned about ‘citizen science’ and there are websites like http://scistarter.com that anyone can go to to participate in the data-gathering process for scientific experiements, and participate in a casual or commited way depending on their own motivation and time. (Nichole Gigliucci)

I learned how an outsider to our culture can give a fresh perspective on the taboos and unspoken rules of our culture. (Heina Dababhoy)

I learned that ‘genderqueer’ is a gender category. I’d encountered the term before in blogs and speeches, but I never quite had a clear idea what it actually meant. I also learned that if you see something like ‘they/them’ in an online profile that means that those are the pronouns that the person wishes to be addressed by instead of ‘he’ or ‘she.’ Also, that it is appropriate to ask a person identifying as genderqueer what pronouns they prefer if you are not sure. (Twitter conversations in the #sk7 hashtag)

And last but not least, I learned that Skepticon organizers and participants put on the best Prom ever! XD

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.

wsbc

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. :)

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.

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 :)

 

What I Want for Christmas

Christmas TreeThis speech by Robert G. Ingersoll was printed in 1897, and is as fresh today as ever. Unfortunately Ingersoll has not yet gotten his Christmas wish, but perhaps this next year we can get a bit closer to attaining it.

WHAT I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS.

If I had the power to produce exactly what I want for next
Christmas, I would have all the kings and emperors resign and allow
the people to govern themselves.

I would have all the nobility crop their titles and give their
lands back to the people. I would have the Pope throw away his
tiara, take off his sacred vestments, and admit that he is not
acting for God — is not infallible — but is just an ordinary
Italian. I would have all the cardinals, archbishops, bishops,
priests and clergymen admit that they know nothing about theology,
nothing about hell or heaven, nothing about the destiny of the
human race, nothing about devils or ghosts, gods or angels. I would
have them tell all their “flocks” to think for themselves, to be
manly men and womanly women, and to do all in their power to
increase the sum of human happiness.

I would have all the professors in colleges, all the teachers
in schools of every kind, including those in Sunday schools, agree
that they would teach only what they know, that they would not palm
off guesses as demonstrated truths.

I would like to see all the politicians changed to statesmen,
— to men who long to make their country great and free, — to men
who care more for public good than private gain — men who long to
be of use.

I would like to see all the editors of papers and magazines
agree to print the truth and nothing but the truth, to avoid all
slander and misrepresentation, and to let the private affairs of
the people alone.

I would like to see drunkenness and prohibition both
abolished.

I would like to see corporal punishment done away with in
every home, in every school, in every asylum, reformatory, and
prison. Cruelty hardens and degrades, kindness reforms and
ennobles.

I would like to see the millionaires unite and form a trust
for the public good.

I would like to see a fair division of profits between capital
and labor, so that the toiler could save enough to mingle a little
June with the December of his life.

I would like to see an international court established in
which to settle disputes between nations, so that armies could be
disbanded and the great navies allowed to rust and rot in perfect
peace.

I would like to see the whole world free — free from
injustice — free from superstition.

This will do for next Christmas. The following Christmas, I
may want more.

The Arena, Boston, December 1897.

from: http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/robert_ingersoll/for_christmas.html

Thanks for the text goes to the Bank of Wisdom for converting the text to electronic form, and The Secular Web for posting it online.

Don’t need God to tell us what is good

“How do you know what is good without God?”

This is a question that one of the visitors to the Louisville Atheists booth at the Ky State Fair asked me after he read our banner slogan “Millions are good without God!” It was not hard for me to come up with a quick answer. “We define ‘good’ in human terms. We don’t need a God to tell us what is good.”

I’d like to expand on that answer a bit. After spending 10+ years as an atheist, it still shocks me a bit that some religious people seem to think we require supernatural revelation to tell us what is good.  When you eat a delicious and satisfying meal, do you need someone to tell you that it is good? When you feel wonderful about yourself after helping someone in need, do you need someone to tell you that your action was good? If you are angry and lash out at another person in your anger, do you need supernatural revelation to tell you that your action was not good?

I think not, and it doesn’t matter if you believe in any gods or not. We know that there are certain things and actions that bring love, and happiness, and fulfillment, and we call these things “good.” Others bring fear, and hate, and disgust, and we call these things “bad.” A large number of things and actions bring a bit of both good and bad into the world, and there we need to made a judgement call on whether the good is worth the bad.

During my conversation with this state fair visitor, I asked him if he saw any problem in the bad things in the Bible that God reportedly commanded. In particular, about the genocides described against the Amalekites and other “pagans” that God commanded the Israelites to destroy. His answer was the usual “God’s ways are higher than our ways,” and I think this simple yet mind-boggling phrase highlights what Christians means when they say we cannot know what is good without God’s help. Everyone knows that delicious food, funny jokes, and helpful actions are good, but what about all those things we would never guess could be good expect by divine revelation?

Things like:

  • Genocide (1 Samuel 15)
  • Sexism (1 Corinthians 11:7-12)
  • Homophobia (Romans 1:18-32)
  • Blood Sacrifice (recurring theme, specific examples probably not needed)
  • Substitutionary atonement, or the punishment of an innocent victim to pay for the wrongdoings of the guilty. (See also: scapegoating). This is the theological principle underlying the Christian notion that Jesus “died for our sins.”
  • Hell (need I say more?)

Even today, on the fringes of Christianity, there are parents who sincerely believe it is bad to take their sick child to the doctor, and good to beat their child for disobeying them.

There are things that under normal circumstances, any reasonably intelligent and honest person would see as harmful and bad. However, when it is presented to a person as part of their inherited or chosen religious tradition, that person will absolutely bend over backwards to justify these things and make them “good.” After all, God’s ways are higher, right?

So, we don’t need a God or any authority outside our own minds (individually or collectively) to tell us what is good, unless there is some motivation to present things that are really bad as good.