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. :)

ssa_uofl

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

ssa_uofl

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.

SendAtheistToChurchGraph

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.

 

“Community Tree” has Christians fuming in Louisville, KY

Apparently, the supposed “War on Christmas” has already come to my home city, even before Thanksgiving. A press release went out calling Louisville’s big Light Up Louisville spruce a “Community Tree.” And this has stirred controversy and hurt feelings.

It’s Called the Community Christmas Tree - WDRB.com

But not to worry, the city is not going to be “PC” or anything horrid like that. The tree is going to be called the “Community Christmas Tree.”

Don’t misunderstand, I have no problem with calling it a Christmas tree. It would still be a Christmas tree to me even if the city did officially call it a “Community Tree.” I am, after all, a product of a Christian upbringing and I have plenty of warm fuzzy memories of sitting under the Christmas tree. What shocks me (though maybe it shouldn’t by now) is the response of the Christians in this city to the naming of a tree. I have a small sampling of reactions pulled from Mayor Fisher’s Facebook wall (names masked for privacy, of course). Most are negative reactions, though I threw a couple of interesting positive reactions in for balance.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

My favorite negative comment is the “what have we turned into??” comment. I mean, what have we become for calling a Christmas tree a Community tree? A bit more pluralistic? Many of the comments make it clear that the authors think that the city Christmas celebration ought to be a blatant state endorsement of their religion. After all, it’s tradition, right? And tradition is always right. /sarcasm.

It’s not just Louisville of course. Any time a government pronouncement around the winter holidays does not explicitly endorse CHRISTmas, this happens. There is no pronouncement coming from our government regarding how or when or why anyone will be allowed to observe Christmas or any other holiday. America has no government religion, and any county, city, state, or national observance has to be for all citizens, not just the traditional majority. Neither belief in, nor deference to, Christianity or any other religion is required for full participation in civic life in this country. And that, my friends, is the core of our beloved religious freedom.

See also: Wiki Article on Christian Privilege.

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.

Dawin_profile

Questions from Ky State Fair Visitors

 

Tonight I had my second shift volunteering at the KySS/LAF Kentucky State Fair booth. It was a great evening, and there was lots of great conversations with both believers and unbelievers alike. Somewhat in contrast to last year, we have gotten less of the “drive by’s” (as described in my last post) and more Christians (and one Jewish guy) coming to chat and ask a lot of questions. I’m not sure if it is because we are doing something different a bit different this year or if the visitors at the fair are getting more used to our presence, but I have detected less hostility this year and a lot more of apparently honest and curious questions from the religious.

This is a sampling of the questions that fair visitors asked me while this year (and a brief version of my typical answer):

  • Are you atheists?

Yes, we are atheists.

  • Why don’t you believe in God?

Lack of any evidence or reasons to believe that such a person or being exists. This is not how I worded it, and I went into rather more detail in the booth, but it essentially comes down to this.

  • How do you know what is good without God?

We define “good” in human terms. We don’t need a god to know what is good.

  • So you believe the apes came first? (I had to pause a moment to avoid laughing at this one.)

Yes, I accept the theory of evolution as the best scientific explanation we have of how we came to be.

  • What does he (referring to the Darwin statue) have to do with the rest of this (referring to the rest of the booth)?

Darwin was an agnostic atheist (during at least the later part of his life) who made great scientific contributions to the world. Our booth features atheists and freethinkers who have contributed to the sciences, arts, and the advancement of human rights.

Watching unsuspecting state fair visitor’s reactions to the very lifelike statue of Charles Darwin standing in front of our booth…priceless.

  • What do you think happens when you die? (I was asked this at least 4 times by different people tonight.)

I think that when we die we cease to exist, same as the state we were in before we were born. The only part of us that lives on is the change that we made in the world. And I am totally content with that.

  • If there is no God then where did we come from?

Generally though natural scientific processes like evolution, but I don’t really have a quick and easy answer to that question. And I don’t need to have a quick and easy answer to that question. Just because we don’t know all the answers does not mean we should fall back on “God did it.”

  • If there is no God where did the universe come from?

I don’t know. And answering a question that you don’t know the answer to with “God did it” is a very poor way of dealing with the question.

  • Do you believe in the Big Bang?

I understand the Big Bang as the best supported scientific explanation so far of how the universe came to be. And then I explained some about the cosmic background radiation, expansion of the universe, the predictive power of scientific theory, and a bit about why scientists mostly accept the Big Bang today.

EDIT: Here are a couple of questions I was asked by a couple of Christian teenaged girls that found their way to our booth. (They also repeated some of the questions above.) I forgot to include these last night but that I don’t want to leave them out.  

  • Why are you here (that is, why do you have a booth at the state fair)?

Our primary reason for being here is to reach out other atheists and freethinkers who are surrounded by religion in their daily lives and may not know that there are other people in this state who see the world the way that they do. The social and psychological pressures on atheists can be enormous in a situation where we must hold our thoughts to ourselves for fear of judgment or worse, sometimes from people like parents and bosses who hold a lot of power over our lives.

  • (As a followup to the question above) What was the reaction from your family when they found out you were an atheist?

In answer to this I briefly recalled the story about how my Mom found “infidels.org” in our computer history and asking me why I had chosen the “church of the infidel.” Yes, my newly-found perspective on the truth was not well received in my childhood home, though I know of others who have received much worse from going against the religious opinions of their parents. It caused a lot of tension until I finally moved out and got my own place, and it was helpful for me to find other people that I could talk to about it. Fortunately today I have a good relationship with my Mom and we generally avoid talking about our disagreements on religion.

In general these were nice, productive exchanges and I have a feeling that several believers left the fair with at least one positive experience with an atheist.

 

Update to the Atheist Christmas Display Post

In order to set the record straight, I have edited the post I wrote last December about atheist Christmas displays. As it turns out, the most outrageous of the displays was not put up by atheists at all (as I had even thought at the time) but by a local Christian. For more details see the revised post here:
What’s the point of atheist Christmas displays?

The “god virus” and American Culture

In the environment where I grew up, ideas of patriotism were mixed in closely with those of Christianity. It was “one nation under God” and after I came to disbelieve in God it took me a while to stop seeing the American Flag as a Christian symbol.
American flag

Not a Christian symbol.

In the book The God Virus, Darrel Ray use a model of a “virus” to describe how religious ideas “infect” people and attempt to gain control and then spread to others. In case you are unfamiliar with the concept of the meme you can think of it this way: Meme theory compares ideas (or pop song hooks, or jingles, etc) with viruses that infect the mind, duplicate themselves and then try to spread to other minds. For instance, when you get a song stuck in your head, you might start singing it out loud within the hearing of others who might get the tune stuck in their heads. If you have ever heard of a YouTube video going “viral,” you have seen this metaphor at work.

Like a biological virus, a meme does not have thought or intention of its own. It’s almost a tautology that the better the idea is at spreading in a population of minds, the more successful it will be. The “virus” only “cares” about replicating itself and staying around as long as possible–it does not necessarily care about the happiness or well-being of the host mind. How often has your mind been infected with a pop tune that you absolutely despise?

English: A simplified diagram of the Hepatitis...

In Chapter 3 of The God Virus, Ray talks about the ways that “god viruses” try to gain a safe and secure place in society by integrating themselves with the broader culture. I have long thought that religion and culture were inseparable, but this book has caused me to question that notion. If a religion can so integrate itself with a culture, to the point where it is impossible to live in that culture without being affected and controlled by it, an environment can be developed where few people would be willing to question that virus for fear of repercussions both external and internal. For a contemporary example of this, take a look at Saudi Arabia, and some other Muslim nations, where violation of religious rules comes with strict civil penalties.

For the past few decades, the Christian virus has worked really hard to get itself inseparably coupled to the American culture and way of life. Hence the difficulty I had in my earliest years as an atheist with decoupling Christian ideals from the meme of the American Flag, as I had seen the two memes meshed together so much that I had come to associate them. Even today, there are powerful forces trying to equate Christian religion with American life, from attempts to place Ten Commandments plaques and statues in courthouses, to GOP presidential candidates practically falling over each other to prove their Christian credentials. In recent news, the Catholic Church is attempting to enforce its religious directives on the lives of the employees of Catholic-affiliated hospitals, schools, and charities, under the guise of the American ideal of religious freedom. (I doubt that the Catholic hierarchy cares nearly as much about religious freedom in the countries in which it is fully entrenched, but fitting right in the metaphor, the virus will make concessions in specific environments if that is what it takes to survive.)

Ever since Europeans landed on the American continents, the god virus tried to mesh itself with the newly developing cultures, and with some success. In various colonies, religious tests for office or even for full citizenry were established. Baptist minister Roger Williams, the originator of the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” and founder of the state of Rhode Island, recognized that there were serious problems with meshing civil law and religious life. And for this, he was banished from the Puritan colony of Massachusetts. I was told repeatedly as a child that the Puritans and other non-Anglican groups came to America for religious freedom, but in large part it looks like they came to try and do the same thing to other religions that the Anglican Church had done to them in England. After all the worst enemy of a god virus is a competing god virus, and no virus is totally secure in an environment where all virus can compete freely.

Roger Williams statue in visitor center of Rog...

A civil sword (as woeful experience in all ages has proved) is so far from bringing or helping forward an opposite in religion to repentance that magistrates sin grievously against the work of God and blood of souls by such proceedings… Religion cannot be true which needs such instruments of violence to uphold it so. -Roger Williams (source)

We should not be surprised that religious groups are jockeying for control of the American political system, nor that religious groups that were once vicious enemies due to theological differences are now banding together to reach for power. And it is not only legislative and judicial power that are being targeted. Recent claims that America is a “Christian Nation” imply that one cannot fully participate in American life unless one accepts and acknowledges a particular Christian version of the god virus. Difficulties and dangers faced by people who dare to be openly atheistic in certain regions of the country (see Atheism in America for examples) testify to the non-official power that religion can get in a culture. Religious freedom is a beautiful ideal that allows everyone to follow and be influenced by a religion if they wish, or also to avoid religious influence if they do not wish. But an environment of full religious freedom hinders the efforts of individual god viruses to gain dominance and maximum conversion of a population. Therefore we should expect these grabs at power by religous groups that perceive themselves to be in a place to obtain it.
photo_15567_20091124

Why I am an Atheist: The superfluousness of the soul

Souls

It’s perfectly natural to think of ourselves as something separate from our bodies. I’d bet that a major factor in the starting of religions thousands of years ago was the uncanny sense that we each have a “self” floating somewhere behind our eyes. Surely our vast range of emotions, mental capacity to contemplate the universe, empathy and communication with other people, and the whole of our personalities are evidence of a special spark of the supernatural inside each of us that goes beyond what is possible in the mere physical world.

Yet, even before I gave up my belief in Christianity, I concluded that the whole concept of the soul was totally superfluous.

A number of things that I learned in my college classes regarding philosophy and psychology caused me to question the existence of immortal and immaterial souls. It was in a class on psychology at my Nazarene University that I was first exposed to the concept that some people think that the mind is identical to the brain, with no soul needed. Being that this was a Christian university, the idea was quickly glossed over and was apparently only mentioned for completeness, but the idea stuck with me. It shocked me.

The same semester, in an introductory philosophy class, we discussed Descartes and the ways he tried to figure out how an immaterial soul could influence a physical body. Descartes thought that the soul interacted with the body though the penial gland. Everyone in the class thought this was funny, but the question was interesting. And it got me thinking: How would an immaterial soul interact with an influence human flesh? Did it even make sense at all?

Back in Psychology, the professor had the class watch a video recreation of the story of Phineas Gage. This particular event sticks out in my memory, not least because one of the students in the class fainted when the metal bar shot though Gage’s head up through his cheek and out the top of his head. (The prof warned us this could happen, and had happened before. I heard this was the last time he showed the video in class.) The most amazing thing about the Phineas Gage story is not that he survived, and was conscious and coherent even in the minutes right after the rod blew through his brain. It was the way this injury totally and irrevocably changed his personality and his character (though I have also read since that the changes were not fully documented and may have been exaggerated). If both his personality and character changed due to a physical injury, that must mean those things are contained in the brain and not in an immaterial soul.

And it’s not just Phineas Gage, but look at all the people who take drugs that affect mood, personality, and a range of other mental characteristics. What about people who lose their memories due to a blow to the head? Assuming there were an immortal soul, does that mean that when we die we lose all of our memory since memory is stored in the brain and dies along with our body? If an immortal soul lives on, but without our memories or personality, then what would that even mean? Would that thing that survived my death even be me at all?

What about animals? It’s clear that our mammalian relatives have emotions and personality. Chimps, for example, have been observed to show compassion and empathy towards one another and even at times towards members of other species — impulses once thought to be the domain of humankind alone. Yet I still hear from time to time that the thing that separates humans from animals is that we have souls, and they do not. What sense does it make to try to prove our uniqueness by claiming that they don’t have something that we cannot even clearly define or prove we have ourselves?

I mentioned above that I stopped believing in immaterial souls while I still was a Christian, which may be puzzling to some of my readers. But the thing is, Christianity has never had a hard-line, consistent, explanation of what is supposed to happen to our soul after we die. Some Christians believe that the soul goes directly to heaven or hell after death. But others believe that after you die, you “sleep” until the resurrection at the end of time. So when I no longer believed in the soul, the second option made the most sense to me. However, I eventually gave up all those beliefs using the same type of reasoning that lead me to doubt the soul.I think that the concept of the soul is a wonderful metaphor for who we are inside, even if I don’t believe such a thing literally exists. We can use the concept of the soul just like astronomers use constellations, even though the stars that make up these shapes really have nothing to do with each other. There is not really a lion in the night sky, or a hunter, or a bull. Constellations are intuitive and useful, even if not actually real. Such it is with the soul.

My disbelief in the soul did not directly lead me to atheism, but it was a step in that direction. The same method of thinking that lead me to conclude that the soul is superfluous and probably made up was the same type of thinking that lead me to conclude the same about God.