Monthly Archives: December 2011

Merry Christmas, and some reflections on belief

I remember being touched by the Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus editorial as a kid. I’m not sure why. Certainly I believed in Santa Claus at the time, and it’s always nice to have one’s beliefs validated. But I think there’s more to it than that.

I read the editorial again about a year ago – it was my first time reading it for many years, as well as my first time reading it since becoming an atheist. I inwardly cringed at the part about the lawn fairies – how many bad arguments for the supernatural begin with “just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there”? But still, I found myself emotionally drawn to the message. The editorial as a whole gave me that warm, fuzzy feeling that, no doubt, is the reason for its popularity.

There is a value we attach to the ability to “just believe” in something. Recall the story, The Polar Express, in which a boy visits the North Pole and receives a bell from Santa Claus’ sleigh. When he returns home, he finds that he and his sister can hear the bell’s ring, but their parents cannot. The story ends with these now-famous lines:

Sleigh bellAt one time, most of my friends could hear the bell, but as years passed, it fell silent for all of them. Even Sarah found one Christmas that she could no longer hear its sweet sound. Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for all who truly believe.

Do you feel the emotional pull of that closing sentence? I feel it pulling me, and yet I don’t even know what it is about. What are we supposed to believe in?

Similarly, I recall an argument with a Christian friend of mine in which she remonstrated me, as an atheist, for “not believing in anything.” This is silly, because I believe in a great many things, but I think she meant it in more of a “you can no longer hear the bells ringing” sense. The message is that I am supposed to “just believe” in something – something magical, something improbable, something that requires faith rather than reason. Many people have a “belief in belief,”* and there is alleged to be something wrong with those of us who don’t.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus is about belief in belief. I read it again this year, and the coziness of the idea was gone for me. “The bell has gone silent,” as my Christian friend might say.

But it was an imaginary bell to begin with. The wonder and marvel of the actual universe we live in is represented by a million bells, each one ringing just as sweetly as any fiction.I don’t know why we are attached to the idea of believing in things we have no reason to think are true, but we need not be. We do not lose anything.

Greta Christina has done a lovely rewrite of the Yes, Virginia editorial this year which illustrates this point. It’s a message that both my heart and my head can get behind. Do give it a look.

And have a Merry Christmas.


*Credit goes to Daniel Dennett for this phrase.



Filed under Humanism, Reason

The Catholic Church is caught again

Another sexual abuse scandal involving tens of thousands of children, this time in the Netherlands.

The report estimates that 10,000-20,000 minors were abused in the care of Catholic institutions between 1945 and 1981, when the number of Church-run homes dropped. In the years between 1981 and 2011, several more thousands suffered at the hands of priests and others working for the Church.

Most of the cases involved mild to moderate abuse, such as touching, but the report estimated there were “several thousand” instances of rape.

Of course, what makes it a scandal isn’t that it happened, but that the Church did nothing about it until they were found out.

“The problem of sexual abuse was known in the orders and dioceses of the Dutch Catholic Church,” the commission says, according to news agency AFP, “but the appropriate actions were not undertaken.”

A bishops’ statement has said, “This episode fills us with shame and sorrow.” I doubt that. Did it fill you with shame and sorrow for the 66 years you knew about it? During which you did nothing? What an outrageous lie.

In response to this report, the Catholic Church will downplay the wickedness of what they’ve done, and attempt to protect their own reputation over anything else. It’s what they always do.

Here, one man speaks about the abuse he suffered at the hands of his priest.

(via Butterflies and Wheels)

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Filed under Catholic Church, News, Religion

The Kindle Touch saves Tim from a mountain of books

I have purchased a Kindle Touch! I have already breezed through one book using it, and am looking forward to starting several more.

I think the Touch is really going to have a big effect on my reading habits. Unconsciously, I think I’ve been avoiding buying new books partially because I’m opposed to the accumulation of stuff. I love having books, but I also hate the idea of needing a place to keep them, and having to transport them when I move to new locations. The Kindle takes care of all that. Granted, the Kindle isn’t good for when you have to flip around inside a book to reference parts you read previously, and books that are heavy on graphics become difficult to read as well. As such, I probably won’t read Steven Pinker’s new tome, The Better Angles of our Nature, on my Kindle. But I do foresee myself doing a lot more reading due to the convenience of it, and that makes me happy.

What technology has improved your life lately?


Filed under Books, Technology

All-American Muslim and the Florida Family Association

The Daily Show did a piece on Tuesday about a group known as the Florida Family Association (FFA), and their opposition to the TLC reality TV series, All-American Muslim. The show follows the daily lives of five American Muslims in Dearborn, Michigan.

What does the FFA object to about the show? Well, that it doesn’t depict the extremist side of Islam. That it doesn’t mention sharia law. Basically, that it accustoms Americans to a view of Muslims as normal, decent people. For shame!

The executive director of the FFA, David Canton, says in an interview:

This program creates an image that’s harmful, education-wise, to the belief structure and memories of millions of Americans who will look at this and say “well, all muslims are like that,” when it’s not accurate.

Yes! Many Americans are likely to make that mistake. After all, there’s been so little in the news and public discourse over the past ten years to remind us that there are dangerous Muslims out there! Islamic extremism has been such a low-key issue since 9/11.

Perhaps one of the side-effects of All-American Muslim (its principal aim being to make money) would be to break the involuntary association many Americans have no doubt developed between Islam and terrorism. We’ve seen so many images of evil Muslims, that it bears mention that there are many Muslims who are not like that. I see this as a worthwhile goal.

Now, this isn’t to say that Islam, as it is practiced in much of the world, isn’t a threat to human rights and civil society. Sharia law is a horrible collection of inhumane rules and punishments, with those who disobey suffering atrocious treatment at the hands of their fellow men. I have read the opinions of many humanists who believe that Islam in general is one of the more threatening religions in the world today because, unlike Christians who have largely separated themselves from many of the horrible rules and punishments laid out in their Bible, Muslims still take the inhumane parts of the Koran very seriously. In other words, Christianity has gone through a sort of enlightenment in which Christians have rejected many of the disgusting practices their holy book calls for (e.g. forcing rape victims to marry their rapists), whereas Islam, by-and-large, has not. I would say that concerns about Muslim beliefs regarding blasphemy, apostasy, the treatment of women, criminal punishment, etc. are quite legitimate, and deserve to be treated seriously.

But the FFA does not make a big deal about sharia because they have rational objections to it, stemming from a serious concern for human rights. A quick perusal of their website shows them to be a conservative Christian organization (surprise, surprise) with no concern for the rights of gays or pregnant women. Just like the Muslims they oppose, these Christians have their own code of rules that they would like to enforce on the rest of us. So why do they feel so threatened by Islam? Probably because they feel it is encroaching on their turf.

UPDATE: Apparently David Canton is not just the executive director of the FFA, he is the FFA. It is a one-man organization. A bit of a pathetic revelation, but not at all a surprising one.

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Filed under Human Rights, Islam, News, Religion

Why I will not donate to the Salvation Army

I won’t be donating any money to the Salvation Army this year (or any year for the foreseeable future). They are a religious group, with fittingly pernicious and bigoted beliefs. They describe openly on their website how they are against abortion, against homosexuality, against assisted dying, and more. Worse, these are not just the philosophical beliefs of an otherwise charitable organization. The Salvation Army attempts to effect real-world policy based on their religiously-inspired bigotry.

This article by Bil Browning points out just the ways in which the SA has acted (internationally!) to deny gays and lesbians their civil rights. Here’s one example:

Also in 2001, the evangelical charity actively lobbied to change how the Bush administration would distribute over $24 billion in grants and tax deductions by urging the White House deny funding to any cities or states that included LGBT non-discrimination laws. Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary, issued a statement saying the administration was denying a “regulation sought by the church to protect the right of taxpayer-funded religious organizations to discriminate against homosexuals.”

Not only does the Salvation Army lobby against gay rights, but if you donate to them, you’re helping to pay for that lobbying.

And the discrimination doesn’t stop at the level of political action. Even though the Salvation Army states that their services “are available to all who qualify, without regard to sexual orientation,” apparently that isn’t always true. According to Browning, the Salvation Army also discriminates in who they give aid to.

I’ve seen the discrimination the Salvation Army preaches first hand. When a former boyfriend and I were homeless, the Salvation Army insisted we break up before they’d offer assistance. We slept on the street instead and declined to break up as they demanded.

Admittedly, we don’t know how often this sort of thing happens. But the fact that it has happened at all is bad enough.

UPDATE: Here is another first-hand account of SA refusing aid to those who need it – this time on a larger scale.

So I do not plan on putting any money in the Salvation Army’s red kettles. If anyone’s looking for a charity to donate to that doesn’t practice bigotry, Browning provides a list. Phil Plait has also described a few of his favorite charities over at his blog.


Filed under Homosexuality, Human Rights, Religion