Mocking faith?

I found this on my Facebook wall today, though I’m not exactly sure where it originated. Nor have I heard of Simon Amstell before today. I do like this quote though, and I think it captures perfectly what Richard Dawkins had to say at the Reason Rally about how to deal with faith. I don’t think I would ever talk to a religious person (or any adult) as a child, and I’m sure Simon is making a joke here (he is a comedian, after all). But seriously, is there not a large grain of truth to this?

 

Memorable Moments from the American Atheists National Convention

I have the privilege of attending the American Atheists national convention this year after the Reason Rally. Following the trend of the past couple years, AACON 2012 was the best attended AA conference yet. And, if I heard correctly, the largest atheist conference ever! It was too much for me to give a comprehensive report, but below I have posted my favorite parts of the conference with pictures where I was able to get them.

  • Taslima Nasrin describing her story of exile from her native country of Bangladesh for daring to speak out and write about the oppression of women due to religious customs there.
  • Keynote by Richard Dawkins, where he discusses (among other things) the fine line between being too strident and not strident enough.
Richard Dawkins at AACON 2012
  • Christina Rad was totally impressive, and also managed to sneak in two different topics: the state of and importance of religious liberty around the world, and a statistical demonstration of why US criminalization of drug use is failing compared to other countries that do not criminalize drug use.
  • The coming out of the pastors from the Clergy Project, including one on the panel who came out for the first time at the convention. The female pastor pictured below made a surprise coming out as an atheist for the first time using her real name rather than the pseudonym she had been using with the Clergy Project.
  • Impromptu breakout sessions at the last session to help coach anyone desiring to come out as an atheist to their friends and family and painlessly as possible.
  • Lawrence Krauss explaining why it is plausible that our universe came from nothing, because the more we learn about the universe “nothing” is a lot more interesting and dynamic than always we thought it was.

Lawrence Krauss at AACON2012

  • Sam Singleton comedy night!
  • Costume party! And I got to get my picture with Thor (aka AronRa)

  • Poetry by Victor Harris.
  • On the way home: Airport security officer in the DC Airport stopped me briefly to read my convention t-shirt. He approved 100% and was pleased to find out that atheists have conventions.

These are my top 10 favorite memories from  the American Atheists national convention. I am looking forward to next year in Austin, TX!

The Reason Rally: No Fair-weather Atheists Here!

Despite the cool temperatures and intermittent rain, a crowd numbering from 20,000-25,000 gathered on the National Mall to celebrate reason, science, and godlessness. And I was very pleased and proud to be there among them.

My husband and I at the Reason Rally.

It was quite an experience to be at the largest freethought gathering of all time, and I can only imagine what it was like for those who had never come to an atheist gathering. The first time I met another person that I could speak with about atheism, I was thrilled beyond belief. Walking into a room with a few hundred atheists at my first American Atheists convention three years ago was like a dream. But this was an experience beyond all of that.

The speakers were of a variety from scientists and professors like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers to singers like Shelly Segal and comedians like Eddie Izzard and Tim Minchin. This was a Rally for Reason, but not a dry intellectual unfeeling type of reason. It marks a landmark in a trend I have seen in the atheist movement. We are continuing to move beyond the intellectual halls and into the experience of everyday life. This movement is about reason and intellectualism, but also about community and life and emotion. The life of reason includes all of these things too. This is the “New Atheism.”

Bad Religion rocking the Reason Rally

You can find more information about the Reason Rally, and pictures of the speakers, performers, and massive crowd at ReasonRally.org.

Richard Dawkins is good for the Reason Rally

I have noticed something in the attitudes of atheists and other freethinkers toward religion, that it is strongly influenced by the experiences that person has had with religion in the past. Those with a fundamentalist or evangelical background have experienced the suppression of thought and fear of external ideas that goes with fundamentalist indoctrination, and may have seen families, possibly even their own, torn apart by religious differences. They are more likely to be strongly anti-religious, even if they self-censor at times to keep the peace. In fact, the perceived need for self-censorship leads to a great deal of resentment towards the very thought of religion. Religion as they have experienced it is thought-suppressing, guilt-inducing, fanaticism filled bunk. And they rage against it. Understandably.

On the other hand, those from a more liberal and open religious background seem to not quite understand what these former fundamentalists are all worked up about. Or those who have never been religious, but have had lots of experience with reasonable, accepting religious people who you can tell you are an atheist without them making faces at you like they are going to be sick or faint or go berserk on you. Lucky for them.

Somehow, I get the idea that Barbara J. King is likely to fall into the later description, even though I’m not sure what her background is. She is the author of a recent article on the NPR blog titled “Will Richard Dawkins Drive A Stake Through The Heart Of The ‘Reason Rally’?

She seems to think that Richard Dawkins’s outspoken criticism of religion is going to somehow work against the goals of the Reason Rally to combat negative stereotypes of atheists. I, probably the same as Richard Dawkins, does not think that the way for us to combat negative ideas of atheism is for the atheists to make ourselves quieter on the subject of religion, as if it were actually superior to be a religionist (of whatever kind) than to be an atheist as so many apparently assume.

From the article:

In a 2006 interview with Steve Paulson at Salon (during his tenure as professor of public understanding of science), Dawkins suggested that greater intelligence is correlated with atheism. He also said that when it encourages belief in the absence of evidence, “there’s something very evil about faith.”

Slam. That noise you hear is the sound of thousands of minds closing down and turning away from anything that Dawkins might go on to say about science.

By choosing words hurtful and harsh, Dawkins closes off a potential channel of communication about science with people who hold faith dear in their lives.

What does she think Dawkins means by faith, I wonder? She makes clear elsewhere in the article that she is a science-minded person herself and just as frustrated as anyone by the antics of the creationists to sell pseudoscientific crap to children. (My words, not hers.) Surely she does not consider it virtuous to believe claims that have not been proven, or that have been shown to be out of step with modern knowledge of the world? Once again, I think, the problem comes down to “tone.” Saying things like “faith is evil” is going to turn off religious people who have a very rosy view of the virtue of believing unquestioningly in things that one has not seen (see John 20:29). Nevermind that the belief in the virtue of such “faith” is exactly what is at the heart of the harm done in the world in the name of religion, from suicide bombers to Catholic parents who believe the word of the religious authority over that of their hurt child. This is the sort of thing that leads Dawkins and others like him to make such “hurtful and harsh” statements about faith. The hurt that has been perpetuated in the name of faith has been much worse.

I think I know where she is coming from. Sure, there are plenty of people out there who consider themselves believers in a religious tradition but are at the same time pro-science, pro-reason people. At the same time, these are the people who use their reason and learning to reject or reinterpret portions of their religious tradition to make it compatible with a rational life in the modern world. Their traditions have been influenced by secular thought in the direction of progress. Surely we should not isolate ourselves from those who follow the nicer parts of religious tradition and still hold common cause with us secular people.

On the other hand, we are not going to improve the cause of secularism and acceptance of atheists by muzzling the atheist’s criticism of religion. That does not lead to any progress at all, in fact, that just keeps us where we are right now. We will never have an equal place for atheists in society until we get rid of the fear of blasphemy and offense of the religious and lay out all these ideas on the table for open discussion.

Richard Dawkins has given the secular community a great boost, being the first (as far as I know) to stick out his neck and publish a book about atheism with a major publishing company. He’s not going to damage our cause by speaking his mind at the Reason Rally.

Me at a book signing with Dawkins on his tour for The Greatest Show on Earth.

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Why I am An Atheist: Science is better than Faith

Since I am recently talking about The God Virus, it bears mention that religion is not the only viral idea out there. In my youngest years the “god virus” (to use the metaphor) was not the only viral idea I was exposed to. I was also infected at a young age with a high regard and respect for science and for logic. For a long time I thought these two ideas, the religious idea and the scientific and logical idea, were in no conflict with each other because, naturally, Truth cannot contradict truth.

Throughout my life I have been driven by the search for answers. Not just any answers, but answers that make sense, answers that I can understand well enough that I can competently explain and defend to another person. According to the evangelical religious tradition in which I was raised, it was my duty to “witness” to anyone that I could to bring them into the fold of Christianity so that they would be saved. But I had a problem….even at the point when I most deeply believed, when I tried to speak the ideas out loud I felt a conflict, like there was something unfathomable that was just not right. I didn’t really understand this thing that I was trying to convince others to believe, and I could just imagine all the ways in which a non-believer could shoot down every argument I had in my arsenal. This bothered me immensely. I had to resort to just parroting what others had told me, or just skip the theology completely and just invite my target to come to church with me. My lacking witnessing skills guilted me tremendously, and I prayed fervently that God would grant me boldness and tell me what to say.

So, in my search for sensible answers, I dug into apologetics books by authors like C.S. Lewis, Josh McDowell, Ravi Zacharias, and Max Lucado. Without going into the details of each one, I found the following pattern nearly every time: I would read the book and it would bolster my faith and make me feel good about what I believed. Then, a week or two later the doubts and uncertainties would creep in again and I would read another apologetics book and feel good again…then go back to doubting again in about a week. I ran to the apologists and gobbled up their encouraging words, but didn’t really examine the arguments they were using. I so wanted to believe their conclusions that I didn’t really care if their arguments made sense or not. So when I tried to explain to myself what I had learned from them later I remembered the conclusions and good feelings, but still couldn’t reconstruct the arguments behind the conclusions. So back into doubt I would slide. After several cycles of this I started to get really frustrated. 

Little did I realize, I had two conflicting viruses vying for dominance in my mind. I wanted verifiable, scientific, logical answers and I just was not getting what I needed from the previously mentioned apologists. Then I got into creationist literature, including my heavily anti-evolution home-school biology text, and thought for a while that I found what I needed. That science really did support the Bible and Christianity.

I found bits of the truth about evolution and creationism later in college, with the help of Astronomy 101 which explained to me about the Big Bang, and showed me a timeline of the universe including that of life on Earth. That piqued by curiosity and lead me to read more on my own. I was furious at first and felt I had been misled on clear scientific matters by Christian authors I had trusted in the name of God. I gave up on the apologists and creationists and started perusing the science section at our small local library. That is where I found the book form of Cosmos by Carl Sagan, and River out of Eden by Richard Dawkins. And I was hooked.

Cosmos (book)

I started checking out all the books in the local library I could find on both cosmology and evolution. I would bring them home read them guiltily in my room, hiding them under the covers when my parents knocked at the door for fear of their disapproval (I was a bit paranoid perhaps?). This was my rebellion, searching outside the family religion to find my explanations in science. Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins and other science writers I discovered didn’t simply rush to a desired conclusion. They actually explained each step in the progression of their arguments in a way that I could grasp, slowly building up to the conclusion while I followed along. And it made sense, and still made sense a week later (though I usually had to go back and review.) I was actually learning new things when I read, unlike when I read the apologists, and the new understanding I found was intoxicating. The more I learned, the more my former supernatural beliefs fell away in favor of natural scientific explanations, all the way back to the origin of humanity and the origin of the universe. I could see that there were still gaps in scientific knowledge of course, but science had replaced the supernatural explanations so many times in the past. I couldn’t see any sense in posing supernatural explanations for what we didn’t know yet. To insert “God did it” anywhere in the natural world just made no sense.

The viral idea that truth cannot contradict truth lead me to embrace science and reason over faith.

Happy Darwin Day!