Upcoming Series: Why I am an atheist.

“Why are you an atheist?”

“Why don’t you believe in God?”

I have gotten these questions before. I actually have quite a lot of reasons that I am an atheist, but I’ve found that when someone just asks me point blank I freeze up because I can’t think of where to start. Because I’m not always sure of which reason would be the most effective for the asker to understand, because I don’t usually know their background or what their concept of “god” looks like. While considering this situation, I thought maybe instead of trying to jam my reasons for being an atheist into a single post why not have a series of posts where I can address each reason one by one? So, over the course of the next few months I will be writing and posting a series of essays on the various reasons why I am an atheist.

As a preview, here are some of the reasons I am looking forward to explaining:

  • The conspicuous absence of God, and my repeated observations of God being “given the glory” for human actions and chance events.
  •  The historically dubious origins of Christian doctrines, including early church disputes about the nature of Jesus himself.
  • Moral philosophy and the “Divine Command” theory.
  • The soul: how I became convinced that mind=brain and that the idea of the soul is superfluous.
  • Sexism and injustice in the Bible (probably other holy books too, but I don’t know the other books well enough to comment on them.)
  • The constant replacement of supernatural and religious explanations with understandable scientific ones.
  • Evolution, the origins of life, and creationist lies I was told when I was young.

And this list may change during the series, as I think of other things. If any of these intrigues you, make a note in the comment section and I will try to get to that reason sooner rather than later.

My Take on the “Straw Vulcan”

I was thinking of doing a bit of a writeup on the “Straw Vulcan” talk but it looks like Greta Christina beat me to the punch. I hate to merely regurgitate what I have read on someone else’s blog, but I do have a bit to add from personal experience. I have always been a bit puzzled and irritated by depictions of reason and logic as being cold, inhumane, and totally oblivious to all human desire and opposed to all emotion. Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek is a good example (though I think the character has improved with time), but I can think of another more recent example in the movies. I am thinking of a scene in I, Robot (2004, staring Will Smith).

The movie is not based exactly on Isaac Asimov’s book I, Robot but it does borrow from his famous “Three Laws of Robotics.” A robot in Asimov’s model must obey these laws because they are built into their positronic brains. If a robot were to somehow fail to obey one of these laws, for instance if a robot fails to prevent harm from coming to a human being, it causes a conflict in the brain that can totally destroy the robot. Most of Asimov’s stories center around robots being put into situations where they face a dilemma in obeying the Three Laws.

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

To make a long story short, the society in which Detective Spooner (Will Smith) lives is manufacturing and using a bunch of pretty humanoid robots to do errands, housework, etc, for their human owners. Spooner does not like the robots, and it turns out he is right to be a bit paranoid. The robots are all hooked up to a huge super-smart, super-logical supercomputer called V.I.K.I. (acronym for something, but I do not remember what), who, after much thought, comes to the conclusion that humans are a danger to themselves and that the only way for “her” to obey the First Law of Robotics is to make all humans captives in their homes so that they cannot harm themselves or others. She claims that her logic is perfect, and no one ever challenges her on that front. (Sonny, BTW, is a robot in the story who was programmed to “evolve” by his maker and has developed human-like feeling and self-identity. For more information, just watch the movie.)

V.I.K.I.: Do you not see the logic of my plan?
Sonny: Yes, but it just seems too heartless.

Movie quotes from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0343818/quotes

This bothered me. V.I.K.I.’s logic is NOT perfect here, as it is clearly based on a two-dimensional misunderstanding of humanity. Locking up humans against their will does do them harm, but no one seems to think of explaining that to V.I.K.I. Maybe if they had, she might have frozen up from inability to obey the First Law. Her conclusions were way off, and therefore her logic was clearly not perfect.

But is this how our society views logic and reason? I should hope not.

Anyway, here is a link to Greta Christina’s blog post, and below I have also posted the video of the original talk at Skepticon. Enjoy :)

The Atheist Booth at the Kentucky State Fair

KySS KY State Fair Booth 2011For the second year in a row, there is a atheist-themed booth at the Kentucky State Fair. Last year, there was a billboard sponsored by the Coalition of Reason posted right outside the fairgrounds though the entire month of August that declared “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone.” The billboard is what prompted the idea for us to have a matching state fair booth at the fair, along with a banner to match the billboard (now being displayed in our current booth at the front of the display table.

Last year we got some media attention, mainly around the billboard but also with the fair booth as a followup story. But don’t think we are saddened by the lack of media attention this year–when people are no longer shocked at the “atheist booth” and get used to the fact that we are here, that is a sign of progress.

My first shift at the booth was on Friday evening, from 6-10. The way the shifts are scheduled, there are 2-3 people there for each shift. Just as last year, we have had no trouble at all finding members who are willing to step up and volunteer, and the shift schedule was filled out just about a week in advance of the fair’s opening date. Having multiple volunteers there makes it a lot more fun than if there were only one person, and it is invaluable for moral support and input in case any debates arise, and they always do. There is one main purpose to the booth, to reach out to our fellow secular citizens and let them know we are here. However we also make the most of the discussions with those who disagree with us. With Kentucky being a majority Christian state, we always have people coming by our booth who are not so pleased at our message. The responses have ranged from a puckered facial expression after they read our banner to declarations that “one day every knee will bow!” And of course, we do get asked from time to time if we are worried about hell, to which I would say “there is no hell.” We also have had long and frank and civil discussions about everything from where morals and values come from to the reliability (or lack thereof) of the Bible to whether or not America is a Christian nation. And the way I see it, regardless of the outcomes of these discussions it is a very positive thing for the religious to be in discussions with atheists in person, rather than only hearing what the preachers and the media have to say about us. We are putting a live, breathing, speaking human face on atheism in Kentucky.

And the discussions are great, but the best reward that we see daily are the surprised “thumbs-ups” and the grateful expressions of someone coming by and saying “I thought I was the only atheist in Kentucky.” This is the prize that makes all of the effort and debating worth it.

If you are interested in meeting with atheists and freethinkers in Louisville or in other areas of Kentucky, take a look at The Kentucky Secular Society and Louisville Atheists and Freethinkers.

Confessions of an Emotional Atheist

I have a confession to make. I am emotional. In fact, very often when I am presented with new information, I have to process though my feelings before I can even start to think logically about it. That is to say, I am not the very model of a modern rational atheist. :-p

Reason and logic are things that I value very highly. But removing myself from the equation and consider things objectively is something I have to work very hard at–it does not come naturally. When you think about it, this is why we even have things like the scientific method. We humans have such a hard time seeing reality without coloring it with our biases and subjectivity, we need to use hard, cold facts to help us see things as they are.

It can be a fine line to walk. No one really likes to be questioned. And I really don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, because that makes me feel bad. On the other hand, I am a natural questioner, and when someone gets all offended and emotional because I questioned their idea that makes me….well, quite often offended and emotional. The good news now is that hanging around a bunch of atheists and skeptics has started to get me used to being questioned, and has taken away some of the sting and helped me to think more clearly when my assumptions are questioned. And since I value logic and reason as the best tools to help one see the world clearly, I think that is a good thing.

I had actually started this post before I found this video, but I thought it fit in pretty well. It features the cool, rational atheist and the overemotional theist. However, I suspect that when you dare question anything that someone identifies with, religious or not, the same sort of dynamic can result.

IUS Darwin Day 2011

Last night I had the great pleasure of going to a Darwin Day event with the Freethinkers for Education and Morality at Indiana University Southeast. Yep, now that I am four years out of college new campus Freethought groups are sprouting everywhere, and I am excited! I am particular proud of this event since I introduced the idea and helped plan it.

There were actually two events. At lunchtime, the students set up a booth in the cafeteria to help educate and inform students while they were hanging around between classes. Unfortunately I was busy at work and could not go. However, Ed did go, and from what I heard he was a wonderful source of information and conversation. There students who came to the booth ranged in their responses from “this is cool!” to “Isn’t Darwin that evil guy?” to “Who is Darwin?” It really was a wonderful opportunity to reach out and promote scientific literacy and knowledge of the world.

The evening event included a presentation on the evidence for evolution by Ed, including a discussion of some of the best books to read to satiate one’s curiosity on the topic. Amber, president of the IUS Freethinkers group, talked about the lunchtime event and lead a discussion on learning and educating others in evolution. It was a lot of fun, and I am looking forward to participating in more groups like these in the future.

I have posted pictures of the event at my facebook page: The Skeptical Seeker. Perhaps soon I will have the pictures from the lunchtime event, and I will post them too.

Next, to plan Darwin Day with the UofL Society of Secular Students!