Category Archives: Atheism

What I’ve been working on

Blog posts have been few and far between lately, and there are a few reasons for this.

I effected a big change in my life back in November when I chose to attend a four-day rationality workshop north of the city. Such workshops are essentially about productivity, learning about one’s motivations for doing things, expanding one’s comfort zone, and generally decreasing the gap between what you want to accomplish and what you do accomplish. The workshops are run by the Center for Applied Rationality. It’s a science-based effort, and the staff are all amazing people who do a great job, so check that out if it sounds appealing.

StudyAs a result of learning more about my own motivations for doing things, some of my behaviors have changed. First, I haven’t been keeping up with the atheist/humanist blogosphere as much as before. I found that I often read blog posts as a distraction from doing other things, and so I wanted to cut back, and use my valuable time to do things that were really important to me. Reading blogs has been put on the back burner, and I am happy with the decision. Instead I’m spending more time singing, playing guitar, studying new things (online courses are big for me right now), dating, etc.

I’ve also tentatively changed my mind about the effectiveness of blogs such as this one. I have learned a good deal about thinking rationally, lately. There are many things we can do to bring our beliefs more in line with reality, as well as sharpen our thinking on all kinds of matters. I’m talking about learning ways to avoid cognitive biases, studying probability theory, learning when our intuitions are giving us bad information, investigating ideas that make us feel uncomfortable, etc. The human failure to think rationally forms the basis of religious belief, but it also forms the basis of many other less-than-ideal thoughts and behaviors (e.g. belief in pseudoscience, or not wearing a seatbelt, or putting off writing this blog post all weekend just to do it in a hurry on Monday morning). Combatting “religion” doesn’t seem to combat the fundamental problem. Furthermore, the atheist effort sometimes seems to assert itself as this: “let’s find the next stupid thing that religious people have done, and blog about it.” I don’t know that such banging on about religion is a very helpful way to do it.

Of course, I know that many atheist/humanist blogs have helped and educated people, and given them a community to be a part of. I think that’s great, and I hope they will continue to do good work.

My personal focus right now is on two things: 1) learning to think better, and 2) learning to decrease the gap between what I want to accomplish and what I do accomplish. As a result, I may not have much to write here in the future. I may start another blog for the purpose of writing more about rationality or some related subject. We’ll see where this goes.

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Does it matter if atheism has a terrible retention rate?

In my last post I examined the question, Was the US founded as a christian nation? The point of the post wasn’t to answer the question, but to examine the implications of the possible answers. If the answer to the question were “yes,” what would this entail? If the answer were “no,” what would this entail? I decided that the question didn’t have great implications for how we should run our government today, even though in political debates it is often assumed to be decisive. The fact is that there are ways of governing that work demonstrably better than others. We should do what works, not do what we did in the past simply because of tradition.

The point I tried to make is that not only do people skew facts to support their argument – they skew facts to support their argument even when doing so doesn’t actually support it. “The United States government was based on christian principles, therefore it should still be based on those today” is a logical fallacy. It is an argument from tradition. Nonetheless, people are swayed by such arguments, and that is why people like David Barton distort the facts about US history (as I linked in my previous post) in order to affect decisions about government today.

Another arena where you can see this logic at play is in statistics about religion. There are all sorts of (reputable) statistics out there, about what percentage of Americans are Protestant, about how many Catholics follow Catholic doctrine, about how the various religions are increasing or decreasing in number of members. These facts, too, can be cause for alarm. “My religious sect is losing adherents! That could mean there is something wrong with my beliefs! I must explain away this data somehow!”

As I noted in my previous post, I have definitely felt this urge to “explain away.” Most recently was when I saw this data showing that atheists have the lowest retention rate of all religions surveyed (and it was accompanied by the obligatory “this proves there’s something wrong with atheism” shtick by religious bloggers.)

US Religious Retention Rates

Here was my initial thought process: “Oh no! Only 30% of Americans raised as atheists remain atheists as adults! I must defend atheism!”

…But do I really need to defend atheism because of some statistics about retention rates? (And I will assume for now that the statistics are accurate, even though they may be somewhat off.) Again, the best way to think about these things is to set aside the facts for a moment, and think in hypothetical terms. Does it matter if a particular religion or non-religion loses child adherents as they become adults? Why do we think this happens? What does it mean?

The first thing to observe is that atheism’s low retention rate has no bearing on the fact that it’s true. There really isn’t any credible evidence for the existence of the supernatural (or as I often say, “the supernatural” isn’t even a coherent concept). So whatever popularity means, it isn’t an indicator of truth.

The next thing to consider is that there must be many factors that influence retention rates – culture (is questioning of authority encouraged?), the presence or absence of competing religious ideas, degree of religiosity (Mormons may be more religious than Methodists), the degree of social pressure to remain in the religion, etc. A low (or high) retention rate could mean a lot of things. We simply don’t know – but that doesn’t mean we should try to explain it away.

Now it just so happens that the proportion of atheists is increasing, both in the United States and in the world. Children “raised as atheists” (read: taught to think) may not always remain atheists, but this is made up for by all the adherents of other religions who convert to atheism (see the graphic at the bottom). This doesn’t mean atheism is true, but it demonstrates that retention rates are not the only thing to look at when you want to know how a religion is “doing.” So sometimes what the data entails is that… you need to look at more data.

One final comment: there may be studies that have been done, or could be done, to find out why so many children “raised as atheists” become religious adults. If we knew the answer to this question, we might be able to do something about it. And considering that atheists are better at acting in accordance with evidence than members of any religious group, this seems like an issue we’re well-suited to addressing.

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August 14, 2012 · 9:00 am

A tribute to Hitch

Here is the tribute to Christopher Hitchens that was shown at the Global Atheist Convention last weekend.

One of the things I loved about Hitch was his ability to pick out the precise facts from science and history that demonstrate why a particular religious belief is so absurd. He gets to the heart of the matter, every time. You’ll see lots of that in this video.

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Filed under Atheism, Creationism, Evolution, Humanism, Morality, Reason, Religion, Science, Sex

People recount how they became atheists

A while ago, PZ Myers made a request for people to send him letters answering the question, “Why I am an atheist.” He was promptly inundated, and has been posting one letter every day or so.

I’ve been keeping up with the letters, reading many of them as they are posted. Many of the writers very eloquently express why religion is problematic, and how their experiences with it have led them to atheism. I’d like to highlight a few of my favorites.

Erin Breda writes about a topic that I care a lot about myself – how Christian teachings about sex conflict with more reasonable, humanistic views.

I lost my virginity at 17 to another virgin, who was likewise the child of evangelical parents. The next day, he was aghast at our transgression and swore we would never commit this crime again until our marriage. After a year of dating, the situation had so deteriorated in the home where I lived with my father and stepmother (who would later be diagnosed with a variety of mental disorders) that I moved in with my boyfriend’s parents. At first I was moved by their warm charity in welcoming me into their home. But from the moment I entered it, I soon discovered that every movement my boyfriend and I made was being scrutinized for signs of sexual behavior. Even though he slept in a separate room, accusations were constantly flung about. Feeling I had nowhere else to turn, after months of overwhelming pressure and condemnation, I agreed to legitimize our relationship through marriage. I was married on the morning of my senior prom in his parents’ living room, after which we returned to school on Monday as if nothing had happened.

Such tyrannical restrictions cannot be good for anyone. Fortunately, Erin’s story has a happy ending.

I learned that all of the guilt and shame I felt had really been self-inflicted. There is no Jesus to be disappointed in me when I break rules recorded thousands of years ago in a scattered collection of parchment. Once lifted of this irrational burden, I was free to exercise my own considerable rational faculties in further testing the religion I had always known. Everywhere I poked, I found the fabric of arguments I’d always accepted to be thin as tissue paper. I would continue my sentence a few more months before gathering enough courage to leave my husband for good. I moved in with my mother until the new semester started and then returned to my studies at university. There I took a minor in Women’s Studies, learning a great deal about sexuality, gender, and how humans have felt and expressed the same stirrings in myriad ways for thousands of years. After graduation, I moved to Boston, where I am now married to a wonderful man who shares my open-minded, voracious curiosity, and together we vet the various claims of the world based on sound, logical principles.

Kristen G writes about her opposition to the Christian teaching that men have more authority than women (another issue that sticks in my craw).

When I was 13 years old and still interested in being a good Presbyterian, I came across a few issues with my Bible that no one was willing to discuss with me. I kept finding lines telling me that I was inferior to men, that I should submit to their instructions and desires, that I should accept and learn from my father’s or my husband’s punishments, like a child should from its parents and a slave should from its master.

Her youth group leader did not see a problem with that, and this did not go over well with Kristen.

I told my youth group leader I could never tolerate that, that no man would ever be the boss of me and would certainly never punish me. If I ever got married it would be as an equal partner in a loving, mutually-respectful pairing, and I would file for divorce at the first inkling that my husband thought our family had a hierarchy.

The realization that many religious rules were written for the express purpose of repressing me unclouded my vision regarding the church. After the credibility of their central text collapsed it was then really only a matter of time before the rest of my mind found peace and sense in atheism.

My last favorite is by Jim Martin, who empathizes with the very human writings that comprise the Bible, but who nonetheless finds the ideas therein unacceptable.

I struggled with my faith for a long time, but it was a religious program that ultimately shattered it. It was a Sunday in the early afternoon, and these guys were talking about the story of Samson, and how he was God’s avenging fist against the Philistines. The story never sat well with me, because Samson really comes off like a prick to me. Sure, he’s killing the enemies of God, but they weren’t his enemies until he gave them his ridiculous and impossible riddle to solve. He then, to continue his tantrum, burns the crops of the innocent people who didn’t actually have anything to do with threats to his wife, then murders 3000 more people, and that’s just the start of the story. He didn’t seem to me to be motivated by God so much as an incurable and disgusting rage that just happened to work out good for the Jews.

That got me thinking about all of the stories, and none of them really makes any sense. I don’t mean in the “it seems nonsensical to have a talking snake tempting Adam and Eve” sort of logistical sense, I mean that almost all of the stories can be explained easiliy away as the stories of an uneducated people who were largely living in slavery and dreaming of the time when their God was going to fix everything for them. And I get that. They are the stories you tell at the end of the day when your life feels like crap, and you just want to have something to believe in that keeps you going and offers some hope.

That afternoon, watching that show, I recognized the Bible for what it is. It’s a collection of pipe dreams from a broken people wishing for something better. In a sense, that’s very beautiful, so long as you avoid the angel rapists, the instructions on slavery, the murder of homosexuals, the wrath of God, the ridiculous fables of floods, the horrifying letters to early Christians admonishing them for every last mistake they made, the brutality of the crucifiction, and pricks like Samson.

Indeed. As Christopher Hitchens often said, religion is man-made, and palpably so.

If you’re at all interested in these people’s stories, do give them a read in their entirety – they aren’t very long. And if you want to see more of these, just search PZ’s site for “Why I am an atheist” (here, I’ve constructed the search for you.)

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Being honest about who’s having sex

Bah, there have been a whole bunch of good articles and blog posts that I’ve wanted to comment on over the past couple of weeks, and I haven’t had the time! So for the next couple of days, I’m going to try and crank the posts out, so that my comments end up only being slightly dated. ;)

The first thing I want to do is share with you a thought experiment that Greta Christina stole from Darrell Ray. In this post, Greta was explaining how the research on sex shows that religious people (who have multifarious rules about sex) have just as much sex and break just as many of those “rules” as non-religious people.

Believers and atheists have about the same kinds of sex at about the same rate: they’re just about as likely to have gay sex, have extra-marital sex, have kinky sex, watch porn, masturbate, etc.

This is true. For example, 95% of Americans have had premarital sex. This is morally wrong according to much more than 5% of the country, but we do it anyway, and we’ve been doing it since at least the 1950’s.

So religious people have made up these rules for themselves, but they by-and-large do not follow them! And what Darrell Ray has provided is an interesting way of picturing this. According to Greta, Ray was giving a talk at an atheist conference last month, and he asked the audience, “How many of you masturbate? How many of you have had extra-marital sex? How many of you have watched porn?” Most people unabashedly put their hands up. Ray then pointed out that this absolutely would not have happened if he’d asked the question at any church, synagogue, or mosque. However, we know from research on sexual activity that the answers would have been the same! Just as many people would have been required to put their hands up! The main difference between the religious and the non-religious isn’t what sexual acts they engage in, but the fact that former feel ashamed for doing it.

This is a powerful image for me. I imagine a speaker asking these questions at mass at the church I used to go to, and the vast majority of the adults in the room raising their hands. I say to myself, “Most of these people think they’re wrong for having done this!”

But are they? If you’re religious, imagine this scene at your own place of worship. The people raising their hands are your friends, family members, and neighbors, people who do good things in their personal lives and in your community. Is there really a problem with this picture? Have they really done anything that they should be ashamed of?

I would say “no.” There’s nothing wrong with enjoying sex for its own sake… with a friend, with a fling, or with the love of your life. What matters is whether or not you treated the other person well (and why wouldn’t you? You’re a good person!) What matters is being honest, communicative, thoughtful, and giving towards your partner. That’s what real morality is all about.

So how about we all just admit that we like sex, and that’s okay. Then we can start talking about how to treat others well, and making sure we’re treated well in return.

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Making sense of Christianity

I like this a lot.

Dear Evangelical Christians:

God here.

First, I do not exist. The concept of a 13,700,000,000 year old being, capable of creating the entire universe and its billions of galaxies, monitoring simultaneously the thoughts and actions of the 7 billion human beings on this planet is ludicrous. Grow a brain.

Second, if I did, I would have left you a book a little more consistent, timeless and independently verifiable than the collection of Iron Age Middle Eastern mythology you call the Bible. Hell, I bet you cannot tell me one thing about any of its authors, their credibility or their possible ulterior motives, yet you cite them for the most extraordinary of claims…

Click here for the rest.

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William Lane Craig explains how he gave up on reason to become a Christian

William Lane Craig is a well-known theologian, author, and Christian apologist. People I associate with tend not to like him very much, because he ignores the substance of his opponents’ arguments during debates, he’s a pompous windbag, and he thinks genocide and infanticide are a-okay if God says so. (This article explains the last two.)

But I’ve just come across the story of how Craig became a Christian (it’s part of a Q&A on his website), and it’s quite amazing. In his answer to a Christian asking him how he deals with doubt, Craig admits: he didn’t accept Christianity because of the evidence, he wanted very badly for Christianity to be true, and ignoring reason played a large part in his conversion. This is fascinating, because in debates Craig always attempts to give a strong rational argument for why his religion must be true, and yet in this letter he admits that his beliefs do not rest on reason at all – but on the intricate machinery of self-deception. Craig tells us all this without seeming to understand how damning an admission it is!

The Q&A begins with a question from a 21-year-old Christian, named Steven, who asks Craig how he deals with doubt. Steven is very honest:

Right now it feels like I believe in God on a good day but doubt His existence on another day. But even on those good days it only really feels like I take comfort in the prospect of God’s existence and it’s not that I actually believe in Him. I want to believe in God more than anything. I understand what happens if God doesn’t exist and I can’t live with thinking that. But the thing is I can’t force myself into belief. There will be days when I have to tell myself there’s meaning just so I can take joy in being with my family and friends, that it isn’t all pointless. It’s as if I’m in a balance of belief and non-belief, tipping back and forth as the days go by.

Bravo to Steven for his intellectual honesty! He desperately wants to believe in God, but he just doesn’t find the idea convincing. It’s a shame he thinks “it’s all pointless” without God, because as millions of affirmed atheists around the world can tell him – it isn’t. But if I were to give Steven advice, I would say it’s important to recognize that the only reason he’s still searching for evidence for God is because doesn’t like the alternative. He’s not searching for evidence because he thinks there’s anything to find – but because he wants to escape a conclusion that he finds unappealing. It’s a bad idea to let your emotions influence you in this way if what you’re interested in is truth.

Enter Craig, with an account of how he dealt with doubt on his own road to evangelical Christianity.

Craig starts off by admitting that he became a Christian not because it made sense, but because it made him feel good.

…I became a Christian my third year of high school, not through any careful consideration of the evidence, but because the Christian students who shared the Gospel with me seemed to be living on a different plane of reality than I was. Their faith in Christ imparted meaning to their lives along with a joyous peace, which I craved.

After high school, Craig went off to study theology at Wheaton College, where the prevailing atmosphere was that one’s beliefs should be based on argument and evidence. One of Craig’s theology professors commented that if he thought Christianity were unreasonable, he would renounce it. Sounds like a good idea to me, especially if you’re interested in whether or not Christianity is true.

This commitment to reason scared Craig, however, and he did the thing that many religious people do when they find the evidence for their beliefs lacking: he gave up on reason.

Now that frightened and troubled me. For me, Christ was so real and had invested my life with such significance that I could not make the confession of my professor. If somehow through my studies my reason were to turn against my faith, then so much the worse for my reason! It would only mean that I had made some mistake in my reasoning.

If you give up on reason, then how do you know whether what you believe is true? What else can “faith” mean here other than “what I want to believe, because it feels safe and comfortable”? Craig seems to think it is convincing proof of Christianity that the idea of Christ invested his life with such significance – as if no person has ever made themselves feel better with a lie. Surely this must be what Craig thinks every member of every other religion is doing – deluding themselves, deriving meaning and comfort from mistaken beliefs about reality. How does Craig know he isn’t doing the same? Reason and evidence are the tools he would have needed to distinguish between truth and self-delusion. But Craig threw those tools away so that he wouldn’t have to question the beliefs that were so important to him.

Then Craig denigrates the very concept of evidence:

God has provided a more secure foundation for our faith than the shifting sands of evidence and argument.

Ah, yes – the troublesome “shifting sands” of evidence. Never mind that these shifting sands have given us knowledge that is rock-solid enough to eradicate smallpox, put humans on the moon, and calculate how old the universe is. It is the sands of evidence for Christianity and other superstitions in particular that seem to keep shifting. Has Craig ever considered that this might be because there is no evidence?

So what are Craig’s beliefs based on if not evidence? The answer is: feelings.

I hold that argument and evidence play an essential role in our showing Christianity to be true, but a contingent and secondary role in our personally knowing Christianity to be true. The proper ground of our knowing Christianity to be true is the inner work of the Holy Spirit…

Also:

[God] has given us the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit as the proper foundation for our knowledge of the great truths of the Gospel.

Basically, you just feel it in your heart that two thousand years ago the son of God was born of a human virgin, performed miracles, absolved us of our sins when he died, and then rose bodily into an ethereal other realm. That’s some pretty specific information to derive from a feeling! But no matter, Craig says it can happen. It’s fine with me if people claim to have such feelings, but again, how do we know these feelings tell us something that’s true? How can we differentiate between the people who feel Krishna or Allah in their hearts (who are clearly mistaken), and the people who feel Jesus? The “testimony of the holy spirit” is hardly a foundation for knowledge if you have no reason to believe it exists.

Nonetheless, Craig advises fledgling Christians to assume that the holy spirit exists, to invite God into their hearts, read the Bible, pray, confess their sins, and go to church – basically to be Christian – and then the holy spirit will make itself known to them.

Of course, people have done this. People have earnestly and honestly asked God to come into their hearts, and still been left out in the cold (I really urge you to read this short, yet powerful story of such by Langston Hughes.)

Craig would blame these people for their failure to believe. Their mind wasn’t truly open to the holy spirit!

But why does the holy spirit need such assistance? Having an open mind means not ruling out possibilities before you’ve started your investigation. Craig, however, wants us to rule out the possibility of Christianity being false! He advises us to assume that God is real, to have conversations with him, and to socialize with other humans having the same delusion… and then we will come to believe!

Is it any wonder?

Yes, human psychology is such that if you bias the mind in this way, especially if you have people act as if something is true, their thoughts will come to coincide with their actions. You hardly need a magical spirit for this to occur – wishful thinking, socialization, and dissonance reduction will do it for you.

Keep in mind that every non-religious truth that humans have discovered did not require a mind biased in favor of that truth to accept. One does not have to assume the existence of atoms or continental plates to be convinced they are real – the evidence is convincing enough, and it has convinced even those who did not want to be (aka those who were biased against the hypothesis.) One wonders why God cannot be more convincing than plate tectonics.

In the end, Craig not only eschews the need for evidence of God, but he makes belief in God completely unfalsifiable!

Be on guard for Satan’s deceptions. Never lose sight of the fact that you are involved in a spiritual warfare and that there is an enemy of your soul who hates you intensely, whose goal is your destruction, and who will stop at nothing to destroy you. Which leads me to ask: why are you reading those infidel websites anyway, when you know how destructive they are to your faith? These sites are literally pornographic (evil writing) and so ought in general to be shunned. Sure, somebody has to read them and refute them; but why does it have to be you? Let somebody else, who can handle it, do it. Remember: Doubt is not just a matter of academic debate or disinterested intellectual discussion; it involves a battle for your very soul, and if Satan can use doubt to immobilize you or destroy you, then he will.

Yes! Once you become convinced that Christianity is true, you must be sure to never think too hard again, because what looks like reasonable doubt might actually be Satan!

And thus is Craig’s abrogation of reason complete. In his account, Craig made it clear that he accepted belief in Christianity because it gave him comfort, and he looked for ways to sustain that belief in spite of what his intelligent mind was telling him. Now, he is so committed to maintaining that delusion that he has come up with ways to justify never questioning his beliefs again.

If you see Craig in a debate, or read one of his books in which he lays out arguments for God’s existence, keep in mind that his belief does not actually rest on evidence or reason. He merely uses arguments to win people over to his side.

(h/t Dia Pente)

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