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26 June 2008

10 myths—and 10 not-myths—About Atheism

First of all, I wanted to copy/paste this article in because it does seem to succinctly sum up so many things for me. I also wanted to post in this forum because for once it seems us atheists are the most vocal here. I am rather surprised at the total lack of responses many of the threads I have posted here have got.

10 myths—and 10 not-myths—About Atheism

By Sam Harris

December 24, 2006
The Los Angeles Times

SEVERAL POLLS indicate that the term “atheism” has acquired such an extraordinary stigma in the United States that being an atheist is now a perfect impediment to a career in politics (in a way that being black, Muslim or homosexual is not). According to a recent Newsweek poll, only 37% of Americans would vote for an otherwise qualified atheist for president.

Atheists are often imagined to be intolerant, immoral, depressed, blind to the beauty of nature and dogmatically closed to evidence of the supernatural.

Even John Locke, one of the great patriarchs of the Enlightenment, believed that atheism was “not at all to be tolerated” because, he said, “promises, covenants and oaths, which are the bonds of human societies, can have no hold upon an atheist.”

That was more than 300 years ago. But in the United States today, little seems to have changed. A remarkable 87% of the population claims “never to doubt” the existence of God; fewer than 10% identify themselves as atheists — and their reputation appears to be deteriorating.

Given that we know that atheists are often among the most intelligent and scientifically literate people in any society, it seems important to deflate the myths that prevent them from playing a larger role in our national discourse.

1) Atheists believe that life is meaningless.

On the contrary, religious people often worry that life is meaningless and imagine that it can only be redeemed by the promise of eternal happiness beyond the grave. Atheists tend to be quite sure that life is precious. Life is imbued with meaning by being really and fully lived. Our relationships with those we love are meaningful now; they need not last forever to be made so. Atheists tend to find this fear of meaninglessness … well … meaningless.

2) Atheism is responsible for the greatest crimes in human history.

People of faith often claim that the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were the inevitable product of unbelief. The problem with fascism and communism, however, is not that they are too critical of religion; the problem is that they are too much like religions. Such regimes are dogmatic to the core and generally give rise to personality cults that are indistinguishable from cults of religious hero worship. Auschwitz, the gulag and the killing fields were not examples of what happens when human beings reject religious dogma; they are examples of political, racial and nationalistic dogma run amok. There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.

3) Atheism is dogmatic

Jews, Christians and Muslims claim that their scriptures are so prescient of humanity’s needs that they could only have been written under the direction of an omniscient deity. An atheist is simply a person who has considered this claim, read the books and found the claim to be ridiculous. One doesn’t have to take anything on faith, or be otherwise dogmatic, to reject unjustified religious beliefs. As the historian Stephen Henry Roberts (1901-71) once said: “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

4) Atheists think everything in the universe arose by chance.

No one knows why the universe came into being. In fact, it is not entirely clear that we can coherently speak about the “beginning” or “creation” of the universe at all, as these ideas invoke the concept of time, and here we are talking about the origin of space-time itself.

The notion that atheists believe that everything was created by chance is also regularly thrown up as a criticism of Darwinian evolution. As Richard Dawkins explains in his marvelous book, “The God Delusion,” this represents an utter misunderstanding of evolutionary theory. Although we don’t know precisely how the Earth’s early chemistry begat biology, we know that the diversity and complexity we see in the living world is not a product of mere chance. Evolution is a combination of chance mutation and natural selection. Darwin arrived at the phrase “natural selection” by analogy to the “artificial selection” performed by breeders of livestock. In both cases, selection exerts a highly non-random effect on the development of any species.

5) Atheism has no connection to science.

Although it is possible to be a scientist and still believe in God — as some scientists seem to manage it — there is no question that an engagement with scientific thinking tends to erode, rather than support, religious faith. Taking the U.S. population as an example: Most polls show that about 90% of the general public believes in a personal God; yet 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences do not. This suggests that there are few modes of thinking less congenial to religious faith than science is.

6) Atheists are arrogant.

When scientists don’t know something — like why the universe came into being or how the first self-replicating molecules formed — they admit it. Pretending to know things one doesn’t know is a profound liability in science. And yet it is the life-blood of faith-based religion. One of the monumental ironies of religious discourse can be found in the frequency with which people of faith praise themselves for their humility, while claiming to know facts about cosmology, chemistry and biology that no scientist knows. When considering questions about the nature of the cosmos and our place within it, atheists tend to draw their opinions from science. This isn’t arrogance; it is intellectual honesty.

7) Atheists are closed to spiritual experience.

There is nothing that prevents an atheist from experiencing love, ecstasy, rapture and awe; atheists can value these experiences and seek them regularly. What atheists don’t tend to do is make unjustified (and unjustifiable) claims about the nature of reality on the basis of such experiences. There is no question that some Christians have transformed their lives for the better by reading the Bible and praying to Jesus. What does this prove? It proves that certain disciplines of attention and codes of conduct can have a profound effect upon the human mind. Do the positive experiences of Christians suggest that Jesus is the sole savior of humanity? Not even remotely — because Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and even atheists regularly have similar experiences.

There is, in fact, not a Christian on this Earth who can be certain that Jesus even wore a beard, much less that he was born of a virgin or rose from the dead. These are just not the sort of claims that spiritual experience can authenticate.

8) Atheists believe that there is nothing beyond human life and human understanding.

Atheists are free to admit the limits of human understanding in a way that religious people are not. It is obvious that we do not fully understand the universe; but it is even more obvious that neither the Bible nor the Koran reflects our best understanding of it. We do not know whether there is complex life elsewhere in the cosmos, but there might be. If there is, such beings could have developed an understanding of nature’s laws that vastly exceeds our own. Atheists can freely entertain such possibilities. They also can admit that if brilliant extraterrestrials exist, the contents of the Bible and the Koran will be even less impressive to them than they are to human atheists.

From the atheist point of view, the world’s religions utterly trivialize the real beauty and immensity of the universe. One doesn’t have to accept anything on insufficient evidence to make such an observation.

9) Atheists ignore the fact that religion is extremely beneficial to society.

Those who emphasize the good effects of religion never seem to realize that such effects fail to demonstrate the truth of any religious doctrine. This is why we have terms such as “wishful thinking” and “self-deception.” There is a profound distinction between a consoling delusion and the truth.

In any case, the good effects of religion can surely be disputed. In most cases, it seems that religion gives people bad reasons to behave well, when good reasons are actually available. Ask yourself, which is more moral, helping the poor out of concern for their suffering, or doing so because you think the creator of the universe wants you to do it, will reward you for doing it or will punish you for not doing it?

10) Atheism provides no basis for morality.

If a person doesn’t already understand that cruelty is wrong, he won’t discover this by reading the Bible or the Koran — as these books are bursting with celebrations of cruelty, both human and divine. We do not get our morality from religion. We decide what is good in our good books by recourse to moral intuitions that are (at some level) hard-wired in us and that have been refined by thousands of years of thinking about the causes and possibilities of human happiness.

We have made considerable moral progress over the years, and we didn’t make this progress by reading the Bible or the Koran more closely. Both books condone the practice of slavery — and yet every civilized human being now recognizes that slavery is an abomination. Whatever is good in scripture — like the golden rule — can be valued for its ethical wisdom without our believing that it was handed down to us by the creator of the universe.

25 June 2008

Beliefs, Opinions, Ideas Do Not Merit Automatic Respect - Not Even if Religious

There is an increasingly popular attitude that religion and theism deserve automatic respect and deference from everyone — even those who don't share that religion or that theism. People attack atheists for failing to show the "appropriate" respect to religious and theistic beliefs. Atheists shouldn't say things which constitute pointed, direct, or harsh challenges to religious and theistic claims. At the risk of further accusations of being intolerant and disrespectful, this is nonsense.

To be fair, religious theists typically put their religion and their theism at the center of their lives; when something is so important, it's natural to become defensive or upset when those beliefs are criticized at all, never mind harshly. However understandable such reactions may be, though, they aren't a good reason to insist the criticism not be made — just because a person takes criticism of their religion or theism personally doesn't mean that others are obligated to protect the believer's feelings by not speaking out.

First, religious believers who object to atheistic critiques of religion and theism, demanding more deference and respect, don't typically apply this standard consistently. They don't claim that political beliefs should be accorded more respect and not be criticized harshly. They don't demand that movie or restaurant reviews be less harsh and more deferential. Atheists' criticisms of religion aren't more harsh or intolerant than analogous political, movie, or restaurant criticisms.

Religious theists don't even apply this standard across the full spectrum of religious and theistic beliefs. Richard Dawkins writes in The God Delusion: "As long as we accept the principle that religious faith must be respected simply because it is religious faith, it is hard to withhold respect from the faith of Osama bin Laden and the suicide bombers." Most religious theists don't respect the beliefs of bin Laden; that, however, requires not treating religious beliefs as inherently and necessarily deserving of our automatic respect; instead, we evaluate those beliefs on their own merit and react accordingly. This is what the so-called "new atheists" or "militant atheists" do, but they do so to all religious and theistic beliefs.

Second, beliefs themselves do not merit automatic respect and deference. Humans certainly deserve some basic level of respect and respectful treatment, but beliefs aren't people. We should be polite and respectful towards the person, but we are justified in being harsh and critical of a person's claims. However much a person might take such criticism personally, we must separate ourselves from our beliefs. An attack on one shouldn't be treated as an attack on the other. If a belief or idea is to be respected, it must earn that respect.

Third, treating a belief with respect or deference sends the message that one considers the belief worthy of respect — that one holds the belief in high or special regard. Synonyms for "respect" include: admiration, esteem, favor, honor, and reverence. These may be the opposite of what an atheist critic really thinks; thus a demand that atheists show more respect towards religious and theistic beliefs is a demand that atheists change their minds about religion and theism, adopting a new perspective on them. This is not achieved through counter-arguments, refutations of, or rebuttals to any of the atheists' critiques; instead, it is achieved by insisting that insufficiently respectful "criticisms" need not be addressed at all. In a sense, religious theists are saying that unless you approach their religion and theism from something like their perspective, they can dismiss your comments without a second thought.

Fourth, the mere existence of atheists is considered an affront to some. We don't have to criticize their religion at all, much less harshly, in order to be treated as if we are insulting believers and their religion. Simply by calling ourselves atheists, we are telling people that we not only reject the important beliefs upon which their lives are based and don't place those beliefs at the center of our own lives, but we go out and live full, interesting, and happy lives without their religion or theism. We demonstrate that their religion and theism simply aren't necessary.

Atheists in America represent a specter of doubt, questioning, skepticism, criticism, and even blasphemy. Irreligious atheists are like metaphysical anarchists who do not submit to the authority of any religious institution, not even those of "false" religions, and thus feel free to criticize all religions. Irreligious atheists call into question the validity of religion generally by merely existing. Some people just can't handle this and that's why they object to people being vocal, unapologetic atheists at all. It's also why some people are bullied into not even admitting that they are atheists, preferring instead to use the label "agnostic" because it's perceived as more "polite."

Atheists are not responsible for making religious believers feel better about their religion or their theism. Atheists are not responsible for helping validate religious theism by treating it with a respect or deference that it hasn't earned. Atheists are not responsible for protecting the feelings of religious theists by not speaking out, showing where theists haven't supported their claims or where they have used poor arguments.

Theists who believe they can't handle pointed, direct, and even harsh criticism of their religious and theistic beliefs always have the option of just not bringing them up. This is precisely the same choice facing every person and every belief: you can either put your belief out in public for comment and critique, or you can keep it to yourself. You don't have the option of putting your belief out in public and then insisting that everyone respect it or not criticize it.

Disagreement is Not Intolerance; Saying Someone is Wrong is Not Intolerance

Many religious theists insist that irreligious atheists who criticize religion, religious beliefs, and theism are being intolerant and disrespectful. What are these irreligious atheists doing — are they calling for religion to be banned? For religious believers to be put in jail? No, nothing of the sort. All of this alleged intolerance and disrespect occurs because irreligious atheists disagree with religious theism, say it is wrong, argue that it's harmful, and want people to change.

For most religious theists, their religion and their belief in god are very important to them — even constituting the very center and focus of their lives. Given just how important religion and theism are to people, it's not surprising that people will react to criticism negatively and become defensive.

That, however, doesn't justify labeling disagreement and criticism as "intolerant."

The reasons people have for being atheists may be as numerous as atheists themselves, but in the West at least the irreligious atheists who are critical of religion tend to share a number of perspectives and attitudes — including with regards to religion. It would be fair to say that a significant majority regard religion and theism as wrong, irrational, unfounded, and at times silly or even dangerous (though to varying degrees).

They believe that religion and theism have been forces for violence, bigotry, and many other harms in society throughout human history. Their criticisms of religion are designed to explain what the problems are, why they are problems, and convince people to change by giving up religion and theism in exchange for secular, godless, atheistic philosophies.

Atheistic disagreement with religion and theism can range from mild to vociferous — even the same atheist may disagree with some religions much more strongly than others. None of this, however, is the same as "intolerance." Saying that someone is wrong is not intolerance. Telling a person that they have adopted a belief which is irrational, ill-founded, or even dangerous is not intolerance — even if the criticisms happen to be mistaken or stated too strongly.

Even mocking, ridiculing, and making fun of beliefs isn't intolerance. Some beliefs, claims, ideas, and opinions really are quite silly and deserve mockery. Sometimes, the absurdity of and idea is better demonstrated through mockery than through a reasoned, logical analysis. Sometimes, beliefs shouldn't be treated with the seriousness of a logical analysis because that imparts to them a respectability they don't deserve. Political humor and political cartoons are an entire genre of criticism that is founded upon just these principles and which, to my knowledge, no one has argued should be eliminated.

In fact, politics is an excellent example of how disagreement and criticism are not normally treated as forms of intolerance. If it's legitimate to use ridicule and mockery to point out problems in a political leader, institution, or ideology, why should it suddenly be illegitimate to do the same in the context of religion, religious leaders, religious institutions, and religious beliefs? Liberals aren't told that they shouldn't say conservatives are wrong. Conservatives aren't told that they shouldn't say liberals have adopted irrational beliefs. Democrats aren't told that they shouldn't say a Republican policy is ill-founded. Republicans aren't told that they are intolerant for making strong criticisms of Democrats.

It's true that politics and political attacks can get out of control, but if you look closely you'll find that "out of control" is a label applied most often when people engage in personal attacks, advocate violence, demonize opponents, or behave in other very extreme ways. Strong disagreements, harsh critiques, pointed criticism, and even irreverent mockery of political beliefs, ideas, principles, positions, and opinions are accepted as completely justified. Why? Because once a person places their political beliefs in the public arena, they have to expect all manner of criticism and cannot demand that others treat those beliefs as if they were special. There's no good reason to think that the standards and rules for dealing with religious beliefs should be any different.

Irreligious atheists should be fair in whatever criticisms they level against religion and theism. If ever they are shown to have made an error, they should accept this and retract any criticisms based on that error. Irreligious atheists should also strive to treat religious believers themselves with basic respect, dignity, and consideration — no matter how wrong they may be, being wrong doesn't mean that someone should be treated badly as a person. It's possible for "hating the sin" to become "hating the sinner" if a person is not careful, so while being critical of religion and religious beliefs is entirely justified, it's something that can go wrong if one isn't careful.

MORE Atheism quotes

"The only difference between religion and superstition is the spelling."

"A society without religion is like a maniac without a gun."

"A lie is at the heart of 'beLIEf.'"

"What happens when we're dead? The irony is that all our questions wil be answered after we die. We spend our whole life trying to figure out the truth and the only way we'll find out what it is, is to get hit by a bus. And the only comfort that religion offers is that God is driving that bus." - John Ryman, When Galaxies Collide

"To explain the unknown by the known is a logical procedure; to explain the known by the unknown is a form of theological lunacy." - David Brooks, The Necessity of Atheism

"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." - Paul of Tarsus, I Corinthians 13:11 (Especially relevant in light of those letters by Einstien)

"Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; Or he can, but does not want to; Or he cannot and does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. But, if God both can and wants to abolish evil, then how come evil is in the world?" - Epicurus

"Pray, v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy." - Ambrose Bierce

"We would be 1,500 years ahead if it hadn't been for the church dragging science back by its coattails and burning our best minds at the stake." - Catherine Fahringer

"If we are going to teach 'creation science' as an alternative to evolution, then we should also teach the stork theory as an alternative to biological reproduction." - Judith Hayes

"Good science should be independent of race, nationality, colour, politics, or religion. There is no such thing as science for Buddhists and science for Baptists. There is no such thing as Jewish science or atheist science. There is only science. Science should be understandable by anyone with the training and knowledge, you shouldn't need to "see the light" or "accept Christ" to be able to understand it." - Steven D'Aprano

"Most people would rather die than think; in fact, they do so." - Bertrand Russell

"A believer is not a thinker and a thinker is not a believer." - Marian Noel Sherman, M.D.

"Faith is often the boast of the man who is too lazy to investigate." - F. M. Knowles

"If God cannot be taken literally when He writes of the rising sun, then how can one insist that he be taken literally when writing of the rising of the Son?" - Professor Gerardus Bouw, Baldwin-Wallace College

"A believer is a bird in a cage, a freethinker is an eagle parting the clouds with tireless wing." - Robert Ingersoll, Individuality

"I have little confidence in any enterprise or business or investment that promises dividends only after the death of the stockholders." - Robert Ingersoll, "A Wooden God" letter to the Chicago Times, March 27, 1890

"Most people can't bear to sit in church for an hour on Sundays. How are they supposed to live somewhere very similar to it for eternity?" - Mark Twain

"Geology shows that fossils are of different ages. Paleontology shows a fossil sequence, the list of species represented changes through time. Taxonomy shows biological relationships among species. Evolution is the explanation that threads it all together. Creationism is the practice of squeezing one's eyes shut and wailing 'does not!'" -

"If god doesn't like the way I live, let him tell me, not you."

"Any belief worth having must survive doubt."

"Philosophy is questions that may never be answered. Religion is answers that may never be questioned." - Author Unknown

"Religion might be helpful in death, but education is helpful in life."

"Give a man a fish, and you'll feed him for a day; give him a religion, and he'll starve to death while praying for a fish." - Author Unknown

"Imagine the ego of the human race, to consider themselves so grand, as to warrant a creator worthy of praise." - Robert Brunswick Jr.

"It may be that our role on this planet is not to worship God, but to create him." - Arthur C. Clarke

"I have never seen the slightest scientific proof of the religious theories of heaven and hell, of future life for individuals, or of a personal God." - Thomas Edison

"I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect, had intended for us to forgo their use." - Galileo Galilei

"Organized religion: The world's largest pyramid scheme." - Bernard Katz

"Randomness scares people. Religion is a way to explain randomness." - Fran Lebowitz

"Suppose we've chosen the wrong god. Every time we go to church we're just making him madder and madder." - Homer Simpson

"I've yet to find anything convincing about the arguments Christians make for the existence of this God chap, and feel, that if he does exist, events such as the Holocaust, Cambodian massacres and Limp Bizkit illuminate the fact that he's been asleep at the wheel for quite some time." - Wil Forbis

"The church says the earth is flat, but I know that it is round, for I have seen the shadow on the moon, and I have more faith in a shadow than in the church." - Ferdinand Magellan

"I respect faith, but doubt is what gets you an education." - Wilson Mizner

"Faith: not wanting to know what is true." - Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

"One might be asked "How can you prove that a god does not exist?" One can only reply that it is scarcely necessary to disprove what has never been proved." - David A. Spitz

"I cannot believe in a God who wants to be praised all the time." - Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

"Atheism is a requirement for a complete human being. Religion is a crutch that is shackled to you, one you never really needed in the first place, but were convinced by others that you couldn't live without. Once you discover it's only an illusion, that it's not even a real crutch, you discard it gladly." - Brent Yaciw

"I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other gods you will understand why I dismiss yours." - Stephen F. Roberts

"We must question the story logic of having an all-knowing, all-powerful God, who creates faulty humans, and then blames them for his own mistakes." - Gene Roddenberry

"The only difference between a cult and a religion is the amount of real estate they own." - Frank Zappa

"It is an interesting and demonstrable fact, that all children are atheists and were religion not inculcated into their minds, they would remain so." - Ernestine Rose

"The idea that God is an oversized white male with a flowing beard who sits in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow is ludicrous. But if by 'God' one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying... it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity." - Carl Sagan

"It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring." - Carl Sagan

"I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking." - Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

"The world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better, it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look Death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides." - Carl Sagan, Billions and Billions

"God made me an atheist. Who are you to question his wisdom?"

"For most of human history we have searched for our place in the cosmos. Who are we? What are we? We find that we inhabit an insignificant planet of a hum-drum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxys than people. We make our world significant by the courage of our questions, and by the depth of our answers." - Carl Sagan

"The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality." - Albert Einstein

"Only the fool says in his heart: There is no god -- The wise says it to the world."

"Religion is excellent stuff for keeping common people quiet." - Napoleon Bonaparte

"Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful." - Seneca the Younger

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" - Carl Sagan

"To believe that consciousness can survive the wreck of the brain is like believing that 70 mph can survive the wreck of the car." - Frank Zindler

"My spell-checker lacks the word 'creationism' in its dictionary, so each time that word is encountered, an alternative pops up at the bottom of my screen, 'cretinism'" - E.T. Babinski

"Shake off all the fears of servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call on her tribunal for every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear." - Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Peter Carr, Aug. 10, 1787

"Our ignorance is God; what we know is science." - Robert Ingersoll

"This is my religion . . . joy and exaltation in my own existence... so go ahead and snarl... bite... howl, you Calvinistic divines and all you who say I am no Christian. I say you are not Christian." - John Adams

"The foolish reject what they see and not what they think; the wise reject what they think and not what they see." - Huang Po

"A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death." - Albert Einstein

"There once was a time when all people believed in God and the church ruled. This time was called the Dark Ages." - Richard Lederer, Anguished English

"An atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An Atheist believes that deed must be done instead of a prayer said. An Atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death. He wants disease conquered, poverty vanished, war eliminated." - Madalyn Murray O'Hair

"If Jesus had been killed 20 years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little Electric Chairs around their necks instead of crosses" - Lenny Bruce

"The contemplation of this world beckoned as a liberation (...)The road to this paradise was not as comfortable and alluring as the road to the religious paradise; but it has shown itself reliable, and I have never regretted having chosen it." - Albert Einstein, Autobiographical Notes

"Two hands working can do more than a thousand clasped in prayer."

"A preacher's wife proofread his Sunday sermon and wrote next to one paragraph: 'Weak point -- shout loud.'"

"Surgeon General's Warning: Quitting Religion Now Greatly Increases the Chances of World Peace."

"Why be born again, when you can just grow up?"

"Power corrupts; Absolute power corrupts absolutely; God is all-powerful. Draw your own conclusions."

"Organized religion is responsible for the brainwashing of millions of young children too young to know the difference between reality and the fantasies of millions. Save Yourself. Drop Christianity."

Bumper sticker seen:
"Geez if you believe in Honkus."

"Out of convicted rapists, 57% admitted to reading pornography. 95% admitted to reading the Bible."

"Theists think all gods but theirs are false. Atheists simply don't make an exception for the last one."

"If atheism is a religion, then bald is a hair color." - Mark Schnitzius

"Fundamentalism means never having to say 'I'm wrong.'"

"Man created God in his own image."

The Sophistry of xtians

An essay by Leah Ceccarelli. Leah Ceccarelli is an associate professor in the Communication Department at the University of Washington. She teaches rhetoric and is the author of the award-winning book Shaping Science with Rhetoric.
Manufactroversy (măn’yə-făk’-trə-vûr’sē)
N., pl. -sies.

1. A manufactured controversy that is motivated by profit or extreme ideology to intentionally create public confusion about an issue that is not in dispute.
2. Effort is often accompanied by imagined conspiracy theory and major marketing dollars involving fraud, deception and polemic rhetoric.

With all the sophisticated sophistry besieging mass audiences today, there is a need for the study of rhetoric now more than ever before. This is especially the case when it comes to the contemporary assault on science known as manufactured controversy: when significant disagreement doesn’t exist inside the scientific community, but is successfully invented for a public audience to achieve specific political ends.

Three recent examples of manufactured controversy are global warming skepticism, AIDS dissent in South Africa, and the intelligent design movement’s “teach the controversy” campaign. The first of these has been called an “epistemological filibuster” because it magnifies the uncertainty surrounding a scientific truth claim in order to delay the adoption of a policy that is warranted by that science. Languaging expert Frank Luntz admitted as much in his now infamous talking points memo on the environment, leaked to the public in 2002, where he confessed that the window for claiming controversy about global warming was closing, but he nonetheless urged Republican congressional and executive leaders “to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.” ExxonMobil was doing this when it published its “Unsettled Science” advertisement about climate science on the editorial pages of the New York Times in March 2000. A more recent guest editorial by a reader made the same claim in the pages of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in January 2008. All three seemed to be following the playbook of the tobacco industry when scientists discovered that their products cause cancer; when a threat to their interests arises from the scientific community, they declare “there are always two sides to a case” and then call for more study of the matter before action is taken.

South African President Thabo Mbeki’s support for AIDS dissent eight years ago is a similar case. Like global warming skepticism, this assault on the science of HIV/AIDS research ingeniously turned the scientific community’s values against it by drawing on the importance of rational open debate, a skeptical attitude, and the need for continued research. Mbeki alleged that the mainstream scientific community branded scientists who questioned the causal link between HIV and AIDS as “‘dangerous and discredited’ with whom nobody, including ourselves, should communicate or interact.” Claiming the successful dissident’s authority in post-apartheid South Africa, Mbeki condemned the mainstream scientific community for occupying “the frontline in the campaign of intellectual intimidation and terrorism which argues that the only freedom we have is to agree with what they decree to be established scientific truths.”

A parallel case is being made by the intelligent design movement in conjunction with its “teach the controversy” campaign against evolutionary biology. Ben Stein’s new movie, Expelled, portrays scientists as participating in a vast conspiracy to silence anyone who questions the Darwinian orthodoxy. This movie promises to be the most extreme application yet of the intelligent design movement’s “wedge” strategy to break the supremacy of evolutionary theory in contemporary science. Just as a wedge can be set into a c h i n k in a solid structure and, with the careful application of some concentrated force, will split that structure to pieces, so too do the producers of this movie hope that it can break the scientific community and allow for a change in how science is taught in America. Of course, any claim by biologists that there is no scientific controversy to teach merely feeds the conspiracy theory.

In light of this difficulty, some have suggested that the best response to manufactured controversy is no response at all. They say that countering such nonsense merely gives these modern-day sophists publicity and enables their continued efforts to reopen debate on settled science. I understand this impulse to remain silent in the face of foolishness, but as a professor of rhetoric, I think it’s shortsighted to cede the public stage to the anti-science forces in the naive hope that no one will pay attention to them. Ever since the field of rhetoric was born, there have been those who misuse the power of persuasion to mislead public audiences, and it has been only through vigilant counter-persuasion that such deception has been overcome.

The ancient sophists, or “wise men” (wise guys?) who taught the new art of rhetoric to those who would pay their fee in the 5th century BCE, included Gorgias, who was said to have boasted that he could persuade the multitude to ignore the expert and listen to him instead, and Protagoras, who claimed that there are always two sides to a case and it’s the sophist’s job to make the worse case appear the stronger. It was to oppose this kind of deception that Aristotle codified the art of Rhetoric in his treatise by that title. He recognized that before lay audiences “not even the possession of the exactest knowledge” ensures that a speaker will be persuasive, so Aristotle promoted the study of rhetoric so that experts could confute those who try to mislead public audiences.

As a scholar of rhetoric, I have studied some modern cases of manufactured controversy to discover how to best confute these contemporary sophists, and I have come up with some preliminary hypotheses about what makes their arguments so persuasive to a public audience. First, they skillfully invoke values that are shared by the scientific community and the American public alike, like free speech, skeptical inquiry, and the revolutionary force of new ideas against a repressive orthodoxy. It is difficult to argue against someone who invokes these values without seeming unscientific or un-American. Second, they exploit a tension between the technical and public spheres in postmodern American life; highly specialized scientific experts can’t spare the time to engage in careful public communication, and are then surprised when the public distrusts, fears, or opposes them. Third, today’s sophists exploit a public misconception about what science is, portraying it as a structure of complete consensus built from the steady accumulation of unassailable data; any dissent by any scientist is then seen as evidence that there’s no consensus, and thus truth must not have been discovered yet. A more accurate portrayal of science sees it as a process of debate among a community of experts in which one side outweighs the other in the balance of the argument, and that side is declared the winner; a few skeptics might remain, but they’re vastly outnumbered by the rest, and the democratic process of science moves forward with the collective weight of the majority of expert opinion. Scientists buy into this democratic process when they enter the profession, so that a call for the winning side to share power in the science classroom with the losers, or to continue debating an issue that has already been settled for the vast majority of scientists so that policy makers can delay taking action on their findings, seems particularly undemocratic to most of them.

Aristotle believed that things that are true “have a natural tendency to prevail over their opposites,” but that it takes a good rhetor to ensure that this happens when sophisticated sophistry is on the loose. I concur; only by exposing manufactured controversy for what it is, recognizing its rhetorical power and countering those who are skilled at getting the multitude to ignore the experts while imagining a scientific debate where none exists, can scientists and their allies use my field to achieve what Aristotle envisioned for it—a study that helps the argument that is in reality stronger also appear stronger before an audience of nonexperts.

Teaching Evolution in Public Schools

Due to the vast amount of fucktardery in Florida, I am going to be copy/pasting a lot of forum posts that onto my blog. This is one of them. I normally have a lot of these posts on the local newspaper's forum, but they have the worst software out there, so this will afford me a way to retrieve these posts.

There are a lot of Christians out there who object to the teaching of evolution in public schools. They want the subject removed from school science texts because they believe that the subject undermines True Christianity. Other believers argue that there is no conflict between religion and evolution, so it should be taught. Few if any secularists think that the presence or absence of conflict with religion is relevant — so long as it's science, it belongs in science classes.

Quite a few people fall for the "teach both sides" argument because it has the superficial sound of fairness about it. If there is disagreement, why not tell kids about both positions and let them make their own minds up. This might make sense if the disagreement in question were a matter of legitimate scientific debate, but there are no scientific grounds for disputing evolution — there are only scientific disagreements about some of the details.

It is also questionable how many kids would really be in a position to seriously weigh both sides and come to a sober, objective conclusion. It's far more likely that creationist parents would use the situation to further impress upon their children an anti-science and anti-rationalist perspective which fits with traditional superstition, but which is incompatible with modernity. Even worse, encouraging such ignorance and anti-intellectualism is touted as a "family value" in some circles.

15 June 2008

Why Atheists, Agnostics, and Skeptics Find Joy in a Godless Existence

It’s impossible to count how many times atheists, agnostics, secularists and freethinkers are told by religious folks of various faiths that we will regret our ‘godless’ or ‘sinful’ life sooner or later. I can honestly say I haven’t had any regrets for my decision to trade in what I perceived to be the miseries of traditional Catholicism for the pleasures of freethinking. Since no regrets have surfaced in the twenty-five years that have elapsed since making my secular choice, I doubt they will surface any time soon.

Theists often write and speak of the wonders and happiness their religion provides, citing miracles, doing good works for others, and security in the belief that they’ll ascend into a place called Heaven when their lives end. I have no doubts they’re sincere, and if this is what truly makes them happy, then it’s a good choice for them.

However, what many theists tend to overlook, either by accident or by design, is that atheists and agnostics are just as happy, and can find the same joy in our world without following a particular faith.

Most of us have been asked at some point what pleasure can we have in such a ‘godless’ existence. What happiness can we hope to find without a particular faith or god to guide us? Since there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, I can only explain the pleasures of life I experience myself, as spiritual outlooks vary from person to person.

Pleasure #1 - Kindness
A common misconception that many theists labor under is the belief that the only kind people are those who follow a particular god or religion. To this, any atheist or freethinker with common sense will no doubt reply ‘rubbish.’ British philosopher Bertrand Russell, a well-known secularist himself, made the following statement in his essay ‘The Faith of a Rationalist:’ “Men tend to have the beliefs that suit their passions. Cruel men believe in a cruel god and use their belief to excuse cruelty. Only kindly men believe in a kindly god, and they would be kindly in any case.” In other words, one doesn’t have to believe in a god to be a kind person. Many atrocities in past history have clearly demonstrated that religion and kindness were worlds apart.

Pleasure #2 - Knowledge
It is well known that traditional and fundamentalist religions place certain restrictions on the kinds of knowledge their members are allowed to pursue. Traditional Catholic and conservative Christian parents tend to isolate their children from their secular peers as much as possible so no “unwelcome elements” are allowed in. As a result, these children grow up ignorant in many things, which may severely limit them in terms of finding suitable employment when it is time for them to look for jobs. Some extremist faiths keep their girls and women ignorant of almost everything, believing that the only suitable occupations for women are marriage and motherhood. We have no such restrictions. In fact, we are free to obtain knowledge on any subject we want, to use for our benefit and often the benefit of others too.

Pleasure #3 - Happiness
What happiness would this be? This is simple; that which comes from the absence of stresses, anxieties, and worries burdening people who don’t have the freedom to make their own life decisions. For example, a couple with no ties to a conservative church or faith can decide for themselves whether they will become parents or not, and if they choose parenthood, how many children they can comfortably manage and afford. A traditional Catholic or conservative Christian couple generally feel they have no choice in the matters of sex and reproduction. Their faith demands that all sex must be ‘open to life.’ In other words, it means that sex must lead to children sooner or later, and preferably sooner.

If a couple is financially strapped with just the two of them working, things are going to get a lot worse when one or two children enter the marriage, especially if the wife’s income has to be sacrificed to become a stay-home mom. The husband may have to work one or two jobs to make ends meet after the wife’s income is lost, resulting in his being away from home more often and spending less time with the children he has. However, all of that means nothing to their church.

Obedience to the faith is the church’s primary concern, not the physical, emotional and financial comfort of individuals. I can’t imagine anything more unhappy for a married couple than having to bear more children than they can handle, both physically and financially. For a child growing up in such a home, maybe resented because she’s ‘another mouth to feed,’ chances for happiness are slim to none. For the Catholic church and other conservative faiths, personal happiness isn’t on the priority list for children or adults.

Pleasure #4 - Choice
Anyone who has voluntarily left Catholicism and other conservative faiths will no doubt cite lack of freedom to make individual choices as one of their chief reasons for seeking a different path. I was no exception. In my personal experience, there was no pleasure in being told that I would have to remain celibate until marriage, even if for some reason I chose never to marry. I didn’t see the point of having the church decide the circumstances under which I could have sex, whether it be as a single or married person. I thought it both absurd and intrusive that a church had the arrogance to tell me I should never use certain kinds of birth control to prevent pregnancy. Or that I couldn’t indulge in certain sexual acts that avoided pregnancy altogether.

Since I valued my freedom more than observing the arbitrary and cruel rules of Catholicism, secularism was by far the better choice.

Pleasure #5 - Power
Having the freedom to control our own destiny is very powerful indeed. Whether we use that power wisely is entirely up to us. We can use it to make good choices in life to benefit ourselves and others. Conservative religious leaders often argue that power should only be in their hands, and we must trust them to use the power they have for our benefit. What a terrible idea! Too often in past history, leaders such as Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin have used this power for cruel and terrible purposes. Those who trusted them paid the ultimate price, by sacrificing their own lives.

To surrender the power we have to others is a dangerous course of action, especially when leaders tend to have only their best interests at heart, not ours. Of course we’ll stumble and make bad choices sometimes, as a result of keeping our personal power. But we still must keep it ourselves, not hand it over to ‘leaders’ without question. We cannot, as Benjamin Franklin warned us against, give up our personal liberty to have a little safety. When we do, we usually end up losing both.

Pleasure #6 - Health
When we are free to make our own choices in life — within the bounds of secular law that is — we are in fact very healthy, both in body and in spirit. We don’t have priests or pastors looking over our shoulders telling us that what we are doing is ‘wrong’. We aren’t forced to attend church, since there are no civil laws on the books saying that church is a must on Sunday. Therefore, our Sundays are free to use as we choose, whether it’s to stay home and read a good book, indulge in wild, unrestrained sex with our spouses or significant others, have lunch in a good restaurant, or go to the beach in the summertime. We can dress in our nicest clothes, or wear little or no clothing at all. Naturally, the last option assumes we’re in the privacy of our homes at the time.

Pleasure #7 - Tolerance
The final pleasure of freethinking, as I see it, is the freedom to tolerate and accept philosophical or religious differences. Every secularist I’ve known is perfectly happy to allow others the liberty to practice their own faith or philosophy, as long as those others aren’t insisting we must trade our beliefs for theirs. Hard-line theists insist that secularism will eventually lead to anarchy. A few believe we already have it. If that is the case, I haven’t noticed.

Law breakers come in all shapes, sizes, philosophies and religions. Meaning some criminals will be atheists, while others won’t. Speaking for myself, I haven’t had as much as a traffic ticket, let alone committed a major crime. So let’s put the absurd notion that a theist is a better citizen than an atheist or secularist to rest, since there’s absolutely no truth in it.

Personally, I consider the pleasures of atheism to be far more effective as teaching tools than the ‘seven deadly sins’ associated with conservative and fundamentalist religions. The words kindness, knowledge, happiness, choice, power, health and tolerance reflect a far more positive outlook on life than the negative thoughts associated with ‘deadly sin.’ To atheists and secularists around the globe, they come together to shine on the most important pleasure; freedom. Is there anything better in the world to have?

14 June 2008

Atheist's Wager to oppose Pascal's Wager

Please, for the moment, discard all the problems with Pascal's Wager to begin with, and consider this:

Instead, my wager is that if there is a god, and it is a just god, then living a just and moral life will be acknowledged regardless of ones beliefs. If there exists an unjust or immoral god, then I could never satisfy both my conscience and such a god. My wager is that if the christians are right (or any of the other millions of religions mankind has thought of) about god being just and all-knowing and all-loving, I will be rewarded if I act in morally sound, justified ways.

I don’t have any evidence that there is a god (and neither does anyone else). To me, the idea of a god, or even of an afterlife pales in importance to what we experience everyday. Life. Life is the only thing that I “know” I have and when that is gone, I doubt I’ll be around to care, however, others will. I must live my life as I please, and since I believe I will only ever get one chance at it, I want to live it in the best manner that I can and help others do the same.

13 June 2008

More Florida Fucktardery

You may recall a blog I had a while ago on the Bay County Board of Education (or you may not). Well, it seems they are up to their old tricks again. Seems that this time the Bay County Board of Education banned a book! I know, I know, this is 2008, but apparently a Ms Pat Sabiston wants to enforce her morality because she has no actual brain with which to think! I am pleasantly SURPRISED to see that most of the comments in my local news rag are as dismayed by this as I am. I just want to point out that it is precisely this sort of fucktardery that turned me from being a nice quiet inoffensive atheist into a much more militant atheist.

That people think that they have some sort of lock on morality because they are bible thumping xtians sickens me. They are nothing more than thought police and assassins of any sort of free thought. Reminds me of a snarky expression: "The moral majority is neither!" All I can say is that I am glad my daughter is in the Okaloosa County School District, although I still have serious doubts about the entire American Education System (but that's a topic for another blog post).

In the meantime, ponder this if you think us godless atheists have no morals:

Without God, atheists have no reason to behavior morally. What's the point of being moral is there is no God?

The idea that atheists have no reason to be moral without a god or religion may be the most popular and repeated myth about atheism out there. It comes up in a variety of forms, but all of them are based on the assumption that the only valid source of morality is a theistic religion, preferably the religion of the speaker which is usually Christianity. Thus without Christianity, people cannot live moral lives. This is supposed to be a reason reject atheism and convert to Christianity.

First, it must be noted that there is no logical connection between this argument's premises and conclusion — it's not a valid argument. Even if we accept that it's true that there is no point in being moral if there is no God, this wouldn't be an argument against atheism in the sense of showing that atheism isn't true, rational, or justified. It wouldn't provide any reason to think that theism generally or Christianity in particular is likely true. It is logically possible that there is no God and that we have no good reasons to behave morally. At most this is a pragmatic reason to adopt some theistic religion, but we'd be doing so on the basis of its supposed usefulness, not because we think it's really true, and this would be contrary to what theistic religions normally teach.

There is also a serious but rarely noted problem with this myth in that it assumes that it doesn't matter that more people are happy and fewer people suffer if God does not exist. Consider that carefully for a moment: this myth can only be espoused by someone who doesn't consider either their happiness or their suffering to be especially important unless their god tells them to care. If you are happy, they don't necessarily care. If you suffer, they don't necessarily care. All that matters is whether that happiness or that suffering occurs in the context of the existence of their God or not. If it does, then presumably that happiness and that suffering serve some purpose and so that's OK — otherwise, they're irrelevant.

If a person only refrains from killing because they believe they are so ordered, and the suffering that murder would cause is irrelevant, then what happens when that person starts to think that they have new orders to actually go out and kill? Because the suffering of the victims was never a dispositive issue, what would stop them? This strikes me as an indication that a person is sociopathic. It is, after all, a key characteristic of sociopaths that they are unable to empathize with the feelings of others and, hence, aren't especially concerned if others suffer. I not only reject the assumption that God is necessary to making morality relevant as being illogical, I also reject the implication that the happiness and suffering of others isn't very important as being immoral itself.

Now religious theists are certainly entitled to insist that, without orders, they have no good reason to refrain from rape and murder or to help people in need — if the actual suffering of others is completely irrelevant to them, then we should all hope that they continue to believe that they are receiving divine orders to be "good." However irrational or unfounded theism may be, it's preferable that people hold on to these beliefs than that they go around acting on their genuine and sociopathic attitudes. The rest of us, however, are under no obligation to accept the same premises as they — and it probably wouldn't be a good idea to try. If the rest of us are able to behave morally without orders or threats from gods, then we should continue to do so and not be dragged down to others' level.

Morally speaking, it really shouldn't matter whether any gods exist or not — the happiness and suffering of others should play an important role in our decision making either way. The existence of this or that god could, in theory, also have an impact upon our decisions — it all really depends upon how this "god" is defined. When you get right down to it, though, the existence of a god can't make it right to cause people suffering or make it wrong to cause people to be more happy. If a person is not a sociopath and is genuinely moral, such that the happiness and suffering of others really matters to them, then neither the presence of absence of any gods will fundamentally change anything for them in terms of moral decisions.

So what's the point of being moral if God doesn't exist? It's the same "point" that people should acknowledge if God does exist: because the happiness and suffering of other human beings matter to us such that we should seek, whenever possible, to increase their happiness and decrease their suffering. It's also the "point" that morality is required for human social structures and human communities to survive at all. Neither the presence nor the absence of any gods can change this, and while religious theists may find that their beliefs impact their moral decisions, they cannot claim that their beliefs are prerequisites for making any moral decisions at all.