Monthly Archives: August 2011

Posts on Google+

Google+You’ve probably heard about Google’s new social networking site, Google+, which has been up and running for a while in beta. I’ve been playing around with it recently, and I think it could be very useful. Unlike Facebook, where you friend someone to make a two-way connection with them, Google+ allows one-way connections. Instead of deciding who you want to friend, you decide who you want to follow (similar to Buzz or Twitter). You can see updates from people you follow (if security settings allow it), and others can choose to follow you, or just look at your public profile, if they want to see your updates.

I’ve decided to play around with this a bit, so I’ve added a link to my Google+ profile in the sidebar. Oftentimes I come across interesting articles or media on the Internet that I’d like to share, but that don’t warrant a full blog post. I’m going to try posting these things to my Google+ profile. If you find them interesting, you can follow me, or you can just click the link to my profile whenever you feel like it to see what’s new.

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The Thinking Atheist on unfalsifiable faith claims

TheThinkingAtheist (aka Seth) gave an excellent lecture at the Oklahoma Freethought Convention last month, on the topic of challenging faith claims made by the religious. The whole thing is worth a listen, but I was particularly impressed with the first sixteen minutes, in which Seth lucidly showed why claims by religious people that God answers prayers and works miracles here on earth do not make any sense – in fact, such claims are unfalsifiable to begin with.

For example, Seth talks about a hypothetical American teenage boy who is the victim of a shooting. After being shot, the boy is rushed to the hospital, where one of several possible scenarios plays out.

  1. Imagine first that the boy makes a full recovery – the bullets missed all of his vital organs, thank God. He’ll need time to heal, but he won’t suffer any permanent damage. “It’s a miracle,” the religious will say. God is good.
  2. Second, imagine instead that one of the bullets had hit the boy’s spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed. He’ll have to live the rest of his life in a wheelchair… but he’s alive! “God must have had more work for him to do on this earth. Praise the Lord he’s still with us.” God is good.
  3. The worst-case scenario is that the boy dies. His wounds were too severe; the doctors couldn’t save him. “God must have been done with him here on this earth. He’s in a better place now, with no violence and no pain. He’s been called home.” God is good.

In each case down the line, the requirements are relaxed for what state of affairs would lead to the conclusion that God is good. By the time you get to the third scenario, you’re confronted with the fact that an innocent boy is dead, and God still gets credit for being good. At this point you have to admit that the statement has no requirements on its being true at all. It’s simply true no matter what happens- and so, what does it even mean to say that God is good? Apparently it means that the world will go on as it does. Your children might get shot in the street. Or they might not.

In his lecture Seth goes through many examples of this kind of thinking, drawn from his experiences as someone who was a fundamentalist Christian for thirty years. It’s very well presented – do check it out!

(via Friendly Atheist)

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Filed under Atheism, Freethought, Religion

‘We Are Atheism’ Campaign

We Are Atheism is a new campaign designed to encourage people to be up-front and open about their atheism. It isn’t always easy, which is why they’re asking atheists to make videos showing who they are. From the website:

We want to hear your story. There are millions of closeted atheists around the world that don’t believe in god but are afraid to say it. They feel scared to be an open freethinker. Let them know that living your life based on evidence, critical thinking, reason and science is nothing to be ashamed of. We live fulfilled lives without a god. You can “come out” and help others do the same!

Sounds good to me! Here’s my video. Check the website for how you can make your own and send it in!

UPDATE: My video has now been added to the We Are Atheism website!

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The science of guilt and pain

I recently came across a scientific paper, published back in January, demonstrating a psychological connection between guilt and pain. Many organized religions seem to draw on just such a connection, and this fact is what led researchers to test the phenomenon scientifically.

The original paper, called Cleansing the soul by hurting the flesh, is only two pages if you want to read it (though it is behind a paywall). For those who don’t have access, an article at The Economist does a very good job of summarizing the experiment and the results. Basically, the experiment found that participants who were primed to feel guilty by writing about a time when they behaved unethically were more likely to seek out pain than the control group, and report their guilt as having lessened because of it.

So it does seem that pain can assuage guilt. The authors of the study discuss their findings:

Pain has traditionally been understood as purely physical in nature, but it is more accurate to describe it as the intersection of body, mind, and culture. People give meaning to pain, and we argue that people interpret pain within a judicial model of pain as punishment. Our results suggest that the experience of pain has psychological currency in rebalancing the scales of justice—an interpretation of pain that is analogous to notions of retributive justice. Interpreted in this way, pain has the capacity to resolve guilt.

Indeed, humans not only seem to seek pain out when they feel guilty, but also feel the need to punish others with pain when they have transgressed.

People are socialized to understand pain within this judicial framework. Physical pain is employed as a penalty (e.g., spanking children for misbehavior), and unexplained pain is often understood as punishment from God. The judicial model is explicit in the Latin word for pain, poena, which means “to pay the penalty.” Understood this way, pain may be perceived as repayment for sin in three ways. First, pain is the embodiment of atonement. Just as physical cleansing washes away sin, physical pain is experienced as a penalty, and paying that penalty reestablishes moral purity. Second, subjecting oneself to pain communicates remorse to others (including God) and signals that one has paid for one’s sins, and this removes the threat of external punishment. Third, tolerating the punishment of pain is a test of one’s virtue, reaffirming one’s positive identity to oneself and others.

Religion takes advantage of all three of these – pain as a show of remorse, pain as an absolution, and pain as a demonstration of virtue.

While the connection between pain and guilt seems to be a real one, the question I would ask is, does focusing on it bring any benefit for humans or human societies? After all, guilt can also be assuaged by seeking forgiveness, attempting to right wrongs of the past, and accepting that one has made a mistake and trying harder the next time to do the right thing. These are all good things, and actually serve as a redress of harm – contrary to the infliction of pain, which serves mainly as a way of taking revenge on those who have wronged us.

When seen in this light, pain seems to be the least helpful or ethical way of dealing with unethical behavior. In focusing on pain, religion seems to be more concerned with fulfillment of our baser human desires for retribution and revenge than in making human societies any happier, healthier, or freer.

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Filed under Crime and Punishment, Morality, Psychology, Religion, Science

An unequal partnership

Annie Thomas is a science teacher (and, I’m guessing, an atheist) who has recently written about her trip to an evangelical Christian “marriage-strengthening event.”

The event, hosted by Kirk Cameron (yes, the kid from the Growing Pains), promised Bible-based instruction for how couples could strengthen and protect their marriage. Apparently, what this entails is the wives submitting to their husbands, and the husbands embracing their role as the leader, or “Jesus,” of the marriage. Some words from Cameron:

If something is wrong with a company, go to the CEO. If something is wrong with a team, go to the coach. Us men have been given by God the role of leadership.

Also (to the men):

When you married, you signed up to play the role of Jesus Christ to your wife. To the point of warring against sin. To treasure her, so she will be spotless and blameless.

Cameron is correct in saying that this view is Bible-based. He cites 1 Peter 3:7.

Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.

I would add that the Bible has plenty of similar things to say about the place of women in society and marriage.

There are more interesting details on the event in Thomas’ report (such as how the men received secret MANCARDS() which they were instructed not to show their wives.) Here I will just note that the teaching that women were created by God to be submissive to the greater authority of men is by no means a fringe view in Christianity. This teaching can be found in Catholicism and many Evangelical groups (as well as in Islam and some branches of Judaism).

More importantly, these ideas aren’t just academic, but we can see through events such as Cameron’s that this misogyny is accepted and practiced by large numbers of people. How many men and women are living worse lives because of their religion? The seriousness of the problem, at least in the United States, is brought home to me by a quote from someone running for the highest office in the land. Here is Michele Bachmann, a female leader who stands as a potential role model for young women around the country, declaring:

The Lord says: Be submissive, wives. You are to be submissive to your husbands.

Yes, this is a problem.

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Filed under Human Rights, Marriage, Relationships, Religion

We should always be free to ask questions

A recent post at the Friendly Atheist mentions what looks like an interesting book.  Christian blogger Anne Jackson asked readers to respond to the question, “What is one thing you feel you can’t say in church?” She published the responses in book form, and the excerpts over at the Friendly Atheist seem to confirm what many people already know – there are some questions it’s not okay to ask in church. For example:

My brother is gay and a Christian. I don’t feel that I can talk about it in church.
-Andy

If homosexuality is a moral wrong, as many Christians will claim, it should not be difficult to explain why. And yet, Andy apparently doesn’t feel comfortable asking for that explanation in his church. Could it be that questions on such matters are not welcomed?

We should always be free to ask questions. Life is a search for knowledge – to be able to conduct that search honestly is a basic human right.

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Filed under Books, Freethought, Human Rights, Religion

Catholic Church set to deny responsibility again

I was away for a wedding and some sightseeing in Finland last week. I had a wonderful time, but while I was away I missed the opportunity to highlight the latest news in the Irish government’s fight against pederast priests and the Catholic Church. (See here for previous posts.)

According to the latest, the Vatican is going to issue a “strong response” to the Cloyne Report sometime this month, in which they will rebuff  “the Taoiseach’s accusation [that] the Vatican undermined child protection guidelines.”

So, yeah… as expected, the Catholic Church is still going with “It’s not our fault.”

Also, in the wake of the Cloyne Report, Irish leaders are drafting legislation that would make it a crime not to report information pertaining to possible child abuse. Information obtained in a confessional would, of course, fall under this. What does the Church have to say about this?

The [Irish] Government will also be told that the seal of the confession is sacrosanct.

The Catholic Church thinks it is above the law. Sorry boys, the Republic of Ireland is a secular democracy, not a theocracy. You aren’t the law anymore.

With these statements from the Vatican, the Irish government essentially has its response. If I were them, I wouldn’t wait for something more “official” before condemning the Church further, and moving strongly to counter its influence in Ireland. It’s clear that they do not care a whit about those they’ve harmed, and are interested only in protecting themselves.

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