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!

We get mail!

Ed and I got a letter in the mail today! Apparently someone is concerned about our immortal souls, though they apparently wish to express this concern anonymously. Here is the scan of the entire letter for your amusement.

I wonder who it could be from, and why he/she felt it necessary to hide his/her identities? (Though I figure this is at least a middle-aged person if they are making reference to “Let’s Make a Deal.”) I’d like to ask them what makes them think that it is in the nature of “creatures” to be “mastered.” Why don’t they recognize that we have lots of options in life, not just two? (Infantile black/white thinking here.) And why they think that quoting the Bible at an atheist is going to make any difference?

Oh, and here is the facepalm quote of the day: “We can be slaves to a loving God, or slaves to sin.”

Well, at least it isn’t a death threat. :-/

Ghosts of Christmas Past

I used to have a Christmas tree ornament that I would hold and ponder at this time of the year. I no longer have it, and I’m not sure if I threw it away, or just left it in some dusty corner of my childhood home. It looked very much like this.

(Image from http://www.booksofthebible.com/p3140.html)

That’s right. A thick, long iron nail (maybe pewter, in this case). The whole point is that back when I was a Christian I saw Christmas mainly as a foreshadowing of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The nail was to remind me of death and sin and blood in the midst of all the cheer and warmth and celebration of Christmas. I would hold it and ponder my sinfulness and complicity in the killing of Jesus (nevermind that the event, if it is not only mythology, happened thousands of years before I was born.) What sweet thoughts.

I used to think that these dreary thoughts were profound and edifying. Now I’m just horrified by the very idea that I ever thought that way. Christmas is a season of hope, though now for me it is about the hope that light and warmth will come again even though it is now so cold and dark. The lights on the houses remind that light is not gone from the world, even if our hemisphere tilted away from the sun’s rays for the time being. This need for hope in dark times is, I think, the root of all the winter holidays. The sun, and our longing for it, is the reason for the season.

“Tell them true stories”

I was told a whopper as a child. I was taught that there was a great being who created the entire universe, all the stars and planets and galaxies in the infinite reaches of space. Then I was told that this being had created me for a purpose that he had in mind, and that he would always be with me (yes, oddly enough, this being was always described as “he”). And I had to believe it, as a real and objective truth, and reject anything I found that contradicted it. As I grew up I realised that these claims had as flimsy of a backing as the stories of the jolly elf that brings presents each Christmas, but somehow there must be something to it because all the adults I knew believed it. Any of these adults, naturally, would easily tell me that Santa Claus was only a fairy story. But God and Jesus? Totally true.

Now I see the only difference between the two stories is that the one about God and Jesus happens to have a whole religious establishment dedicated to holding it up and shielding it from the truth. But that somehow didn’t stop me from finding out.

Finding out was rough in that it involved having my whole worldview turned upon its head, shaken and disordered, and left me sitting in the rubble trying to sort everything out. Which, while it was difficult, was a good thing since it allowed me to discover my own opinions and views rather than continuing the parrot those of someone else. But there are some assumptions that go deep, having been imprinted since earliest childhood, that are hardest to shake and hardest to figure out after the upheaval. What do I do about meaning and purpose? What do I have to keep myself going when the days are bleak, I feel depressed, and when all seems to be going wrong?

The myths in a religion may not be literally true, even to (many) followers of the religion, but what they do is provide a framework for thinking about who we are and why we are here and why we should carry on when things are tough. There is something just a bit flimsy about deriving your ideas of purpose from stories that you really don’t quite believe are true. Regardless, myths are a good way to communicate rather abstract ideas and ways of thinking that an individual person may never come up with on their own. Myths can be true stories in a sense, if they give good lessons and good guidance for life situations. Taking a look at the characters in fictional stories and seeing what they do, and why they do it, and what the outcomes are can help guide our thinking when we are faced with real-life dilemmas. The power of myth is the power of imagination: we can work out scenarios in our heads and think about the likely outcomes before taking real action.

For an example of a modern myth, I love Philip Pullman’s idea of the “republic of Heaven.” This idea is built and elaborated on in the “His Dark Materials” trilogy (best known for The Golden Compass), particularly in the final book The Amber Spyglass. This idea is analogous to the idea of the “Kingdom of Heaven” in Christianity, except that rather than being servants and subjects we are free citizens. And, of course, there is no king. How much better this sort of myth is for a modern world of democracy and individual liberty!

A great example of the difference between the “Kingdom of Heaven” and the “republic of Heaven” is shown by a passage from C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia.” Having grown up loving CS Lewis’s fiction, this is particularly meaningful to me. I was always a bit sad and confused about Susan in the end of the series, and I think Pullman’s analysis makes perfect sense.

Here is a nonrepublican view of stockings from C. S. Lewis. Near the end of The Last Battle, the final book in the Narnia series, Susan is refused entry to the stable, which represents salvation, because, as Peter says, “My sister . . . is no longer a friend of Narnia.” “Oh Susan!” says Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.” In other words, normal human development, which includes a growing awareness of your body and its effect on the opposite sex, is something from which Lewis’s narrative, and what he would like us to think is the Kingdom of Heaven, turns with horror.

[from The Republic of Heaven by Philip Pullman. Bold is mine]

How is this different from the attitudes of the Magisterium toward children in The Golden Compass? That growing up is a bad thing? Let’s all stay childlike and pliable and humble and subject to authority. Cut away those daemons! (If this makes no sense to you, you need to read the “His Dark Materials” trilogy.)

We desperately need new myths, and true stories. Stories suitable for free a people, with free minds.

(Oh, and be sure to read the rest of Philip Pullman’s article The Republic of Heaven. It goes in much more depth than what I have represented here.)

Science and religious ignorance

The emerging picture of the early Solar System does not resemble a stately progression of events designed to form the Earth. Instead it looks as if our planet was made, and survived, by mere lucky chance, amid unbelievable violence. Our world does not seem to have been crafted by a master craftsman. Here too, there is no hint of a Universe made for us. -Carl Sagan, from Pale Blue Dot

I am currently reading Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan, and I have just finished the chapter called “Routine Planetary Violence.” This chapter highlights the violent history of the solar system, and the creation of rings around the huge gas giants. The thing that inspired this writing was the part about the impact of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 on Jupiter in 1994.

Unlike many of the events that Sagan recalls in this book, this event happened within my teen years and was all over the news of the day. So I remember it distinctly. I was 14 years old, in the midst of my fundamentalist Christian homeshool lessons from Christian Liberty Academy. I was a committed Christian and a creationist at the time, and was used to interpreting just about everything in terms of Christian belief and the Bible. Including the Shoemaker-Levy 9 incident. So, to my scientifically interested but poorly educated mind, this “shaking of the heavens”* was part of the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy and a sign of the coming rapture. I thought it was a confirmation of the Bible.

Of course now I know it ain’t so, and it boggles the mind that I ever thought such things. But it is not surprising that I did because it was all I knew. The Christian leaders and teachers I trusted talked in such terms, and I was much more likely to distrust the adults that give a more simply scientific account of such events. After all, there are those out there who would deceive us…unfortunately at the time I was mistaken about which set of people deserved the label of “deceiver.”

The Shoemaker-Levy 9 crash into Jupiter really was a perfectly straight-forward, and basically routine (on the timescale of about 5 billion years), scientific happening. I wonder if I would have ever realized that if I had not gone on to get a decent college education and find out the scientific facts of the matter. It reminds me of a woman who came to speak with (actually more like scold and preach at) me at the KY State Fair. She said she knew someone who had died at a hospital and had been brought back to life, and that this confirmed that God was real (or something like that). When I asked her about it (“Did her brain actually die?”) she looked like no one had ever questioned her story before and said that her friend’s heart had stopped momentarily and then had been restarted. Of course, a person’s heart can stop without them dying, as long as it is started back up before tissues start dying of oxygen deprivation. At the end of our conversation she just huffed something about atheists having no hope and stormed away. It’s amazing how a person’s mind can be so clouded by religious mythology and superstition that they really can’t see what’s really going on around them. I was a teenager during the Shoemaker-Levy event but I got over the superstitious thinking by the time I was out of college. This woman was middle-aged. I can only guess that, even that that age, this kind of thinking must be all she knows.

*A reference to Mark 13:25