Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Does an Atheist Life Have Meaning?

            As we come to the beginning of a new year, a time that many people traditionally treat as an opportunity to take stock of their lives, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on what gives our lives meaning.

            One of the theist criticisms of atheism that seems to come up with great frequency is that atheism makes life meaningless. I always find it odd when this criticism is brought up in debates about the existence of gods, since it’s a complete non sequitur. Whether or not a god can give your life meaning has no bearing at all on whether a god exists.

            But I’m not going to go into a detailed discussion on the problems with that line of argument. This post isn’t about that. It’s about how I, as an atheist, deal with the question of meaning in my life. It’s a question that so many people ask themselves in the course of their lives, and one with many see as an obstacle to adopting an atheistic world view: what does my life mean?

            I’ll come right out and say this up front: atheism cannot tell you what your life means. It cannot even tell you that your life has any objective meaning whatsoever. So, if you’re looking to be told what your life means, it’s not going to happen here. For that matter, I’m not even going to tell you what my life means. And it’s not that I’m keeping anything from you, but rather that I can’t tell you what it means.

            The reason for this is fairly simple: meaning is inherently subjective. Nothing in all the world means anything, unless it means something to someone. What’s more, most anything you can think of won’t mean the same thing to everyone, nor will it mean the same thing to you at different points in your life. As far as I can tell, the whole idea of “objective meaning” may very well be nonsense. I’m not even sure that it’s something that’s desirable, especially not for something as complex as a human life. Can you imagine how unutterably dull it would be for the meaning your life to be able to be boiled down to something simple enough to be understood exactly the same way by everyone regardless of their perspective? Isn’t that what an objective meaning would be? I actually find that idea rather bleak and colorless.

            My life, and its meaning, is constantly evolving even just with respect to me. I understand myself differently now than I did last year, which was different from how I understood myself ten years ago. Everyone whose life has touched mine has left some of their influence behind, and taken away some of my influence with them. The meaning of my life will be different for them than it has been for me. The girl to whom I was a lousy boyfriend in high school will assign different meaning to my life than will my son or daughter. I don’t see any reason to want to erase all that different perspective, the rich interplay of how lives affect each other, how meanings interweave throughout our lives, in favor of some idea of “objective meaning” that I can only think cheapens the whole notion of meaning.

            Some argue that the temporary nature of an atheist existence renders all of this ultimately meaningless. To this mindset, only an eternal existence beyond mere materiality has any meaning at all, by virtue of its permanence. I don’t see it. Given eternity, it’s a virtual certainty that eventually all that can be done will be, all meaning that can be mined will be, and then still you’re left existing on and on. That doesn’t seem any more meaningful to me than a temporary existence. Actually, it seems less meaningful to me.

            In this life, I will never learn what “everything means.” And, probably, nobody else will either. But that’s because meaning will be constantly changing, constantly evolving. There are always new meanings for everyone to find, for everyone to create, and yes, for everyone to forget only to be discovered anew by someone further down the line. I want my life to mean something positive to as many people as it can, but I also want it to mean something different to as many people as it can. Meaning is dynamic, subjective, and yes, temporary. In my mind, that’s what makes it beautiful and, not to put too fine a point on it, meaningful.

Friday, December 12, 2014

What War on Christmas?

            I guess I’m a bad little atheist culture warrior. Here it is, mid-December already, and while conservative Christians were already declaring the onset of hostilities all the way back in October, I still haven’t fired a single shot in the War on Christmas. I haven’t demanded that a single church take down its nativity scene, or threated to boycott a store because their greeter or cashier said “Merry Christmas,” to me. I haven’t even vandalized any baby Jesus statues. It’s almost like I’m not fighting the War at all! Why not? Am I just bad at this atheism thing?

            Or am I just like the vast majority of atheists, who aren’t waging a war on Christmas at all? Who do, in fact, find the very notion of such a war absurd? You do know, don’t you, that when Bill O’Reilly announces the War on Christmas every year, the only notice most atheists give to the idea is to make a passing joke? You know that, right?

            The War on Christmas is a joke. Sure, one side (I’ll give you a hint: not the atheists) thinks it’s a real serious thingTM, but to the rest of us, it’s a joke. And it’s not even a “Flying Spaghetti Monster,” kind of joke, where we actively participate in writing it and spreading it. It’s the kind where all we have to do is sit back and watch the one and only side actively participating in their own made-up war stumbling around jousting at shadowy caricatures and taking it all oh-so-seriously. The participants make a joke of themselves, and we laugh.

            “But wait!” you may say, “Atheists really do try to take down nativity scenes, and people really do try to make stores say ‘Happy Holidays,’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas!’”

            You’re right, of course. But these things have nothing to do with a War on Christmas.

            Let’s talk about nativity scenes, to start. This is a straight-up church/state separation issue, and has nothing to do with trying to get rid of Christmas. Any person, business, church, private organization, whatever, has every right to put whatever religious iconography they choose on their private property. You may see an individual atheist here and there getting indignant over them, but by and large we really don’t care. In fact, I happen to like Christmas decorations and fully endorse such displays. When it becomes an issue, when lawsuits get involved, is when nativity scenes are put on public property (by which I mean “property held by the government,” not “property that happens to be in a publicly visible place,”) to the exclusion of all other religious messages. It has nothing to do with Christmas itself, and everything to do with the government endorsing a particular religious belief over all others.

            Moving on, we can talk about store greeters saying “Happy Holidays,” or “Seasons Greetings,” instead of “Merry Christmas.” This is, of course, related to a couple little secrets that are known to only a very select few people, so of course you can be forgiven if you don’t know about them. The first secret is this: there is more than one holiday being celebrated at this time of year (for example: Chanukah, Yule, Solstice, Kwanzaa, New Year, etc.). The second, even more deeply held secret, is that not everybody celebrates Christmas!

It may be appropriate to take a pause here while you pick yourself up off the floor, and to let those two secrets sink in.

            OK now? Are you ready to move on to thinking about the implications? Here are a few of them that you may want to chew over. You see, by and large the greeters and cashiers at the store (especially the big chain ones) don’t know every – or even a large percentage – of the people who come through. They don’t know what holidays you do or do not celebrate. Saying “Merry Christmas,” to a complete stranger who might be, say, Jewish, or Muslim, or Wiccan, or even a Christian of a denomination that doesn’t celebrate Christmas, would be a complete non sequitur. As would be saying “Happy Chanukah” to a Christian. But “Happy Holidays” covers just about everyone (even people who don’t celebrate any of the seasonal holidays, since they’ll probably be getting a holiday off of work at the very least). It even includes Christians. It is not an attempt to erase Christmas, it’s an attempt to include non-Christians in the generally festive atmosphere engendered by having so many seasonal celebrations clustered together.

            I am not saying that “Merry Christmas,” is offensive. I am saying it’s not necessarily an appropriate thing to say to a stranger who might not celebrate it. Especially if it’s not even Christmas Day – and remember, retailers are spreading out the holiday buying season over longer and longer periods of time. If you’re not careful, you’ll be saying “Merry Christmas” to a Jewish person in the middle of Chanukah, three weeks before Christmas, and making yourself (and, by extension, your employer) look like a complete tool. If, like most businesses, your goal is to appeal positively to the widest possible selection of customers, “Happy Holidays,” only makes sense.

            When you demand, on threat of boycott, that stores acknowledge your holiday and only your holiday to the exclusion of everyone else’s (which is what demands for greeters to say “Merry Christmas” amount to), you are not defending your faith from attack. You are demanding that it be privileged above everyone else’s beliefs. That’s not a War on Christmas, it’s a War by Christmas on all other holidays. I’m quite certain there are many Christians who are fully aware of this, and press the war anyway because they believe it is only right and proper for their beliefs to dominate and overshadow all others. But many actually do seem to believe that there is an active effort to destroy or erase their holiday. I want to assure them that this just isn’t so.

            Having discussed those two issues, I’d just like to say a little something about Christmas itself. Most Americans – including many non-Christians – celebrate some version of Christmas. Some of us love the heck out of it. A war on something we celebrate and enjoy would be nonsensical in the extreme. Sure, we may not celebrate for the same reasons Christians do, but here’s the thing: we’re not obligated to. Culturally, Christmas has come to signify family togetherness, and a celebration of love and generosity both within your family and within the wider community. But you’re not obligated to see it that way if you’d rather focus on its religious side. I really can’t stress enough how much it really, really doesn’t bother us if religious people want to celebrate a religious Christmas. It’s the constant demands that people who don’t share your beliefs behave as if they do, and that their own beliefs are and ought to be invisible, that prompts the kinds of pushback you receive.

            In the end, secular America is not trying to take Christmas away from you. We’re not trying to tell you that you can’t have Christ in your Christmas. You can have your pageants, and your extra church services, and your nativity displays, and none of us have much to say about it other than “enjoy!” In the meantime, I will celebrate my Christmas how I choose, and I will happily wish everyone the greatest possible enjoyment of whatever version of whatever holiday they happen to be celebrating this time of year.

            Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

What Would Change Your Mind?

Atheists are often asked what it would take to convince us that a god exists.

There are a number of throwaway answers to that question that it might be tempting to give you. Perhaps if the moon were suddenly covered in flaming letters readable in every language simultaneously, or if the stars suddenly rearranged themselves to spell out a divine message, that would be convincing. Perhaps if God himself descended in glorious flames to tell me personally that he was there, I could be persuaded. And really, I could toss any of those out as the answer to the question, but I think it would be dishonest to do so. Because I don’t know that any of them would convince me.

After all, depending how these various revelations might manifest themselves, there could be natural explanations for any of them. These might range from hallucination, to natural phenomenon, to intervention by ultra-advanced aliens, to some explanation that I haven’t yet even conceived.

There’s this concept/joke in engineering: unobtainium (yes, the word existed before James Cameron created his MacGuffin for the Avatar movie). It refers to a hypothetical material that has all the properties you need in order to solve an engineering problem, except for the fact that it doesn’t (and often can’t) exist. It’s called unobtainium because it’s literally not obtainable, and that’s why appealing to it is a joke. I kind of see appealing to God as an explanation for a mystery as being like designing for unobtainium. Except that if I suggest that I can solve a problem with unobtainium, the other engineers laugh and then we go find a real solution. If I suggest that I can explain a mystery with God, large portions of the population not only take that as a real explanation, they will act as if it is nigh criminal to set that aside and go looking for a real explanation.

The thing is, no engineering problem has ever been solved by sticking with unobtainium. Nobody ever built a bridge or flew a rocket into orbit by throwing up their hands and declaring that it simply couldn’t be done until we discover unobtainium. And nobody ever made a discovery about how the world works by throwing up their hands and declaring the mystery couldn’t be solved without a god. All of our experience tells us that it’s irresponsible to declare “God did it,” and stop looking for any other explanation.

And here’s the thing: we will never discover unobtainium. By it’s nature, it’s undefined because it is literally whatever is needed to solve whatever problem you have. If we have a problem, and discover a material that solves it, that material will be something defined. It wouldn’t qualify as unobtainium. And God is the same way: the concept, at least in Abrahamic religions, has evolved to become the being that has whatever properties are needed to solve any mystery (and yes, I do mean evolved – the earliest portions of the Bible don’t really describe the sort of being modern Christians describe when arguing for their God). That means it is inherently undefined, so how would you ever identify it if you saw it?

So what it all comes down to is that I don’t see how I could be convinced to change my mind. I can only imagine it would have to be some sort of experience so emotionally overwhelming that it overrides the sorts of concerns I’ve raised here and elsewhere. I won’t say that it’s impossible that I might have such an experience, because absolute certainties are few and far between in life, if any exist at all.

On the other hand, all Abrahamic religions and many others as well feature rather prominently at least one character who knows absolutely what it would take to convince me: their god. I would think that an omniscient god would know exactly what would convince me that it exists, an omnipotent one would be able to do it, and an omnibenevolent one would want to do it. So maybe that’s in my future.

But I don’t think it’s likely.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Is the Constitution Based on the Ten Commandments?

One of the more ridiculous claims one sometimes comes across in church/state separation debates is that the US Constitution is based on the Biblical Ten Commandments. This is one of those claims that makes you wonder how anyone can confidently make assertions about the content of the documents, when those assertions make it plain that they haven’t read either of them. And that’s leaving aside the question of what the Ten Commandments actually are; there are multiple different versions based on which version of the Torah/Bible you’re reading, aside from the fact that the collection we think of as the Ten Commandments aren't actually what the Bible identifies as the Ten Commandments. But put that aside, and let’s take a look at how the Ten Commandments are reflected in the Constitution, shall we?

Commandment 1: I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.

No portion of the Constitution names Yahweh, or any other god, as an object of religious devotion, and it acknowledges only “We, the People…” as the source of authority for the government. In fact, there’s only one mention of any religious subject anywhere in the Constitution. It appears in Article VI, and it reads like this:

“The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

That explicitly forbids the government from requiring a particular religious profession from any of its members. In other words, any member of the government is explicitly allowed to place other gods before the Biblical one if they so choose, or to have no god whatsoever. They don’t even need to know anything about any religion, much less a specific one. But what about the rest of the people?


Well, the Founders took care of that one, too, with the First Amendment which reads:


Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.


That explicitly forbids the government from requiring a particular religious belief or practice. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States explicitly gives its citizens the right to violate the First Commandment. Government enforcement of the First Commandment anywhere in the US is absolutely illegal. Clearly, the First Commandment has no support in the Constitution whatsoever, so we’ll move on to the second.


Commandment 2: You shall not make for yourself any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in the heavens above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, Yahweh your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

This one forbids the practice of idolatry. It is clearly contradicted by the First Amendment as well, which denies the government the ability to limit either your religious beliefs or your speech (which is usually interpreted to cover artistic expression). The US government employs many symbols embodying “images or likenesses…” of things that are “in the heavens above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth,” (e.g. the Great Seal of the United States), and none of this is even remotely suggested to be forbidden by the Constitution. So we can only conclude that the Second Commandment is also entirely unrepresented, and its legal enforcement forbidden, by the Constitution.


The Ten Commandments are now zero for two. Let’s move on to the third.


Commandment 3: You shall not take the name of Yahweh your God in vain, for Yahweh will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.

What does this even mean, to “take the name of God in vain?” Some people toss the phrase around as if it refers to any direct verbal reference to God (whether by name or by title), whereas others seem to treat this as violating an oath sworn to God. If we’re talking about that first sense, quite clearly that’s First Amendment territory once again and the government is forbidden from enforcing it. The second sense is a little more complicated, in that the Constitution does require things like oaths and affirmations for certain offices and treats these as legally binding promises. Bear in mind, though, that everywhere that the Constitution requires an oath, it explicitly allows the alternative of affirmations. Affirmations are secular promises, and are always treated in the Constitution as legally equal to oaths to God. So the Constitution doesn’t seem to treat “taking God’s name in vain” in the promissory sense as being any different or more serious than violating any other legal promise. So I’m gonna go ahead and score this one as a zero in the Constitution as well.


Commandment 4: Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to Yahweh your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days Yahweh made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore Yahweh blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

Yeah, this doesn’t get even a mention in any way whatsoever. Zero for four.


Commandment 5: Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that Yahweh your god is giving you.

Also not mentioned in the Constitution. Zero for five!


Commandment 6: You shall not murder.

This may come as a surprise to many of you, but the Constitution does not forbid murder. There’s a good reason for that, of course: the Constitution does not define the behavior of the citizenry so much as define the structure and powers of the government. While it does give the government authority to pass laws for the common good (and forbidding murder is obviously in the interests of the common good), the Constitution itself does not forbid it. So believe it or not, zero for six!


Commandment 7: You shall not commit adultery.

Also not mentioned in the Constitution. Zero for seven!


Commandment 8: You shall not steal.

Finally! One that sort of gets a mention without being outright prohibited! The Constitution gives Congress the authority to raise a navy for the purpose of preventing piracy. Piracy is a form of theft. So for the first time in the Constitution, we see that something the Commandments forbid is actually mandated to be prevented. Of course, piracy is really only a narrow subset of theft. We’ll be generous and score this one at half a point.


Commandment 9: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Perjury! Perjury is bad! Perjury is… not mentioned in the Constitution.


Commandment 10: You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.

This is what’s called a “thought crime.” As in, it tries to directly forbid a certain kind of thought: namely, coveting. Not only is this not covered in the Constitution directly, it is utterly unenforceable. Indirectly speaking, it must clearly also be contradicted by the First Amendment, since in order to have the right to speak any idea you must also have the right to think any idea. Also, coveting what other people have is a major motivation behind the US economic system. Once again, a big fat zero.


Total score for the Ten Commandments versus the Constitution? 0.5/10. If I’m being generous. I actually don’t think it would be out of line to score those Commandments whose enforcement is outright forbidden by the Constitution as negative numbers, rather than the zeros I gave them. And in that case you’d be looking at a total score as low as -2.5/10.


I hope by now that it’s clear that the Constitution is not based on the Ten Commandments. And don’t just take my word for it; read them both for yourself. Most of the Commandments get no mention at all, and the majority of those that get addressed in any form are specifically forbidden from receiving government backing. They do fare a little better when you get into the body of law that has grown up around the Constitution, in that those laws do forbid murder and theft, recognize parental sovereignty over their children (within limits), and view adultery as valid grounds for divorce (but not for the death penalty, as the portion of the Bible containing the Ten Commandments does). Of course, that’s true of pretty much every society that has ever grown large enough to need laws, whether or not they’d ever heard of the Bible. Any honest observer can only conclude that the Constitution has absolutely nothing to do with the Ten Commandments.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Why Do Atheists Pick on Christians?

You’ve probably noticed that most of the time, when I mention a particular religion on this blog, it’s some form of Christianity. And, in America, most of the criticism and political opposition expressed by atheists gets aimed squarely at Christianity as well. This often prompts Christians to question why we only “pick on” them. Of course, some like to propose their own theories on why, which usually feature some version of claiming that it’s because Christianity is somehow special or unique. The most laughable extremes of these claims say that atheists pick on Christianity because we know it’s true. These theories tend to overlook the simple, obvious, and actually true answer: ubiquity.

The simple fact is that in America, Christianity as both dominant and domineering.

It’s dominant in that more than three quarters of the American population claims to be some variety of Christian. More than nine tenths of our elected officials do the same, with many of them openly pandering to Christian constituents. Even the rapidly growing category of “nones,” (people who claim no religious affiliation) mostly come from Christian backgrounds, and what vague residual spirituality they may retain is informed largely by a Christian outlook. Even most of us who firmly identify as atheists tend to come from Christian families. Christianity pervades Western literature, art, and culture. You can’t drive two blocks in most towns in America without passing the church of some Christian denomination.

This means that atheists in America, aside from encountering Christianity on a daily basis and therefore having more opportunity to argue with its adherents, are also likely to simply be more knowledgeable about it than other religions. I, personally, don’t feel I’m really in a position to make detailed criticisms of Islam, or Hinduism, or Jainism, or Sikhism, or Shintoism, or Buddhism, or any of the nigh uncountable other religions that populate the world. I don’t believe any of them, either, but I just don’t know enough about them to have the kind of detailed conversation that I might have about Christianity. So it would be awful presumptuous of me to write as if I could.

But Christianity is not merely dominant in America, it is domineering. Not content to merely be the dominant cultural touchstone of the nation, agents of Christianity are constantly seeking to control the institutions of society for the explicit purpose of promoting their religion and compelling those who don’t share their belief to follow its behavioral dictates anyway. If someone in America is trying to use public schools to proselytize to your kids, that person is almost certainly Christian. Trying to replace science with sectarian theology in public schools? Christian. Passing legislation to mark government property with explicit totems of their mythology, like a dog peeing on a tree to mark its territory? Christian. Compelling people with business before the government to sit through sectarian religious practices before they can be heard? Christian. Passing laws that compel government to interfere in the most intimate relationships of people’s lives? Christian. Demanding that legislators pretend climate change isn’t real because the science predicts increased floods and “my god promised not to destroy the word with a flood again,” or to ignore it because “my god’s gonna end the world before it matters anyway?” Christian. Christianity is simply the greatest threat to religious pluralism, secular government, and scientific literacy in America. Nothing else is even close.

That’s not to say that there aren’t people of other religions that might support any or all of these things, or other equally ridiculous agendas, if they had the power. But in America, they simply don’t have that ability. Christianity is the only religious interest in America with the numbers and the power to do these things with any kind of large scale success. And so Christianity necessarily gets the most pushback from atheists in America. It’s simply a practical reality.

It’s also not to say that all, or even most, Christians pursue such agendas. It’s just that the vast majority of the people that do pursue them, and virtually all of them that gain any widespread traction, are Christian.

By the way, did you notice how I keep throwing the words “in America,” in there?

In other parts of the world, where other religions dominate, those other religions are the ones that come in for the most criticism from atheists. On occasion I’ll read the blogs of atheists native to places like Iran or Egypt, and I can promise you that those atheists are not spending most of their time criticizing Christianity. They’re “picking on” Islam. Because it’s the religion they grew up with, the religion they know, and the religion that is negatively impacting their lives the most. Everything I said about Christianity in America is true for Islam in those countries, and then ramped up an order of magnitude by the fact that many of them are explicit theocracies.

And I’ll come right out and say it: those people are much braver than I am. You think I’m passionate about what I write? I don’t know that I’d have the balls to do it at all if I lived in a theocracy that gives explicit legal sanction to killing me for it. These people do, and my hat’s off to them.

Of course, it should go without saying that we don’t believe in any other religions either. And that if laws were going to be passed justified solely on the religious precepts of Islam or Native American shamanism, or if our kids’ public school teachers and coaches were setting aside class time to pray to Cybele or Ra, or if our legislators were trying to mark government buildings with “Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn,” we’d be opposing those things too. But most of the time it can go without saying because none of those things are a danger in this country.

For that matter, if atheist public school teachers were taking up class time to tell students that their gods don’t exist, I’d be opposed to that as well.

This is kind of similar to the reasoning on why atheists speak out about religion at all. It’s because it affects our lives. Not because any of the religions seem to be true or special, but because of the actions that their followers take in society on behalf of those beliefs. American atheists speak out most about Christianity because Christians are the actors that most affect our lives. Atheists in Muslim countries speak about Islam because Moslems are the actors that affect their lives. It has nothing to do with “picking on” a religion; it’s simply the cultural and geographic realities we have to deal with day-to-day.

That’s really all there is to it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Are Christians Homophobic?

I’m going to start out by saying that this is probably directed more at fellow atheists and liberal theists than anyone else: the kind of people who are likely to end up in arguments with more fundamentalist sorts regarding the topic of homosexuality. I suspect that there’s a distinct possibility that it may come off as condescending toward people who hold the beliefs I’ll be discussing, but that’s not my intent and I apologize in advance if it does. I just think it needs to be said.

We hear all the time about people taking stands against homosexuality based on their religious beliefs. In America, of course, it’s generally Christians we hear about, but many other religions take similar positions for similar reasons (e.g. Islam). Often, these stands can be pretty emotional and extreme, even violent. And it is tempting to label Christians hateful and homophobic for these positions.

But I don’t really believe that.

Well, for the most part. I’m sure there are some for whom the driving emotions really are fear and hatred. Some people really are just assholes, and that kind of transcends religious beliefs. But for many, when they say their actions at suppressing, humiliating, abusing, and rejecting homosexuals – however hateful and mean-spirited they may seem to those of us on the outside – are motivated by love, I tend to believe them.

How can that be?

Well, you have to really consider the belief system and have enough empathy to imagine what it would be like to believe it. Because make no mistake about it: the god of the Bible is violently homophobic. He does call homosexual acts an abomination, and he does demand the death penalty for them. It’s rather strongly implied in passages that allowing people to become gay is something God inflicts on them as a punishment in and of itself, as an outward sign of their separation from him. The Yahweh character really, really hates himself some gay.

And in Christianity, people that God hates go to hell. I’ve talked about hell a little bit in the past, and suffice to say that it is supposed to make all possible earthly suffering look like a walk in the park. And it goes on for eternity.

Now try to imagine what it would be like to really believe that this is actually the way the world works.

What would it mean to you to have someone tell you that they’re gay? If you really, genuinely loved that person, and you really, genuinely believed that they were going to burn in agony for all of eternity, how desperate would you be to save them? What would you be willing to do, if it offered even the smallest hope of saving a loved one from that fate? Could any amount of suffering you might inflict on them in an effort to deflect them from that path possibly compare to that from which you hope to save them? What tactics would you be willing to employ? Would you be willing to lie? Berate? Ostracize? Even torture? Can you honestly say that if you really and truly believed that the alternative to “conversion therapy” was “eternal agonizing torture,” you wouldn’t still advocate for it no matter how abysmal its success rate or how much psychological damage it caused? After all, you believe that no suffering you could possibly inflict can hold a candle to the suffering your loved one is in for if they don’t change.

Imagine, also, that you encounter others who are trying to stop you from “saving” your loved one. For all intents and purposes, could you say you wouldn’t see those people as an active threat to someone you love? Could you say you wouldn’t hate someone who, from your perspective, is trying to send a beloved family member to a torture chamber?

Of course, you might point out that even if any of this were true, that torture comes about solely due to the arbitrary whim of their god. He declares the restriction, and mandates and enforces the punishment, and all for no justified reason. Shouldn’t he be the one to hold responsible for the eternal torture of your loved ones? But then, you have to remember that in religions like Christianity, that is a prohibited belief. You are literally not allowed to hold beliefs critical of your god. You are, in fact, subject to constant reinforcement of the idea that your god needs to be loved and praised not only in spite of his clear dedication to inflicting arbitrary suffering and his literally infinite cruelty in doing so, but because of it. And even if you were to be so bold as to object, there’s nothing you could do about it anyway.

Are you absolutely sure you wouldn’t lash out? If you really, really believed that, can you be sure you wouldn’t?

So yeah, when I hear anti-gay Christians tell me that their bigoted behavior, however hateful it may seem, is motivated by love I tend to believe them. And yes, after going on at length about how I believe they’re being honest when saying their actions are motivated by love, I have reintroduced the “b” word to the conversation. And that’s because it is still bigotry. Their love is forced to manifest in hateful action because their god hates with infinite abandon.

It’s easy to forget that, when we consider said god to be a fiction. It’s easy to lay that hate squarely at the feet of those who are forced by their beliefs to act it out, and to respond in kind. And it can be hard, at times, to separate those whose love is twisted by fear of the cruel dictates of a made-up desert specter from those who really just revel in hatred itself. But I think it serves us all a little better to try and have some compassion for them. To try and acknowledge the fear and pain it must cause to truly believe that you must savage those you love in order to save them from the infinitely greater savagery meted out by a power you have no hope of opposing.

And remember, also, that most of them didn’t choose to believe these things. The vast majority of people express the religious beliefs of the community they were raised in; they’ve been indoctrinated with these beliefs since they were too young to remember. Steeped in these beliefs, often constantly reinforced by others who were also raised in the same, they never really perceived an opportunity to make a choice about them.

Many forms of Christianity are not homophobic. But many of them are, and they compel their followers to act on that homophobia in spite of themselves; twisting feelings of love and compassion into actions of hate and cruelty. And it’s not merely limited to homosexuality – I use that as a jumping-off point for this discussion only because it’s a topic that is so much a part of the modern social landscape and is so clearly condemned on religious bases.

Atheists who speak out are often asked why we care what people believe. For me, this is a major reason why. It is painful to me to see the suffering many religious people seem compelled to inflict not only on others, but on themselves because of something I see no reason to believe is real. It just doesn’t have to be that way. And, in writing this, I not only hope to remind fellow atheists to be a little more understanding when confronting people who hold these beliefs, but to remind myself. I know that sometimes I fall into the trap of condescension and anger. Hopefully, having taken the time to think about this and write it down will serve as a reminder of why to keep the conversation going, and also to try and show a little more care in doing so.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Was I Unfair?

In a recent Facebook post, I posted a link to an article about a Catholic priest who barred a gay couple from receiving sacraments and volunteering at their church because they had gotten married. The Bishop of their diocese then required them to sign a document asserting the sinful nature of their relationship as a precondition to being allowed to resume membership, but the priest was insisting on adding further conditions (including the initiation of divorce proceedings). I accompanied that post with the comment “…*fuck* the Catholic Church!”

A number of respondents to my post pointed out that this was a case of the priest being a jerk, and that it was unfair and offensive for me to condemn all Catholics for his behavior. I tried to clarify what I was saying in the comments, but Facebook is really not the best medium for that sort of conversation. So I thought it might be worth a blog post.

First and foremost, I want it to be absolutely clear that I was not condemning all Catholics. That’s why I said “the Catholic Church,” and not “Catholics.” While I understand that there are many who would interpret the phrase “Catholic Church” to encompass the institution itself, the priesthood, and every person claiming membership in the Catholic faith, I was in this case referring only to the institution. I have nothing against Catholic people, or even Catholic priests. In most cases, I believe them to be better people than their church would have them be.

If you interpreted me to be insulting Catholics, then I apologize unreservedly. My phrasing was created in anger and ill-considered, leaving open the interpretation that I was condemning people who might in no way agree with the behavior I was attacking. I am sorry for that.

But that still leaves open the question of whether my outburst was fair to the intended target: the institution of the Catholic Church. So let’s examine that in greater detail.

When I say “the Catholic Church,” I refer to the body of rules and theological interpretations that make up official Catholic doctrine, along with the official structures that enable the transmission and enforcement of that doctrine. And yes, that does include some people: the people who developed and wrote those doctrines, and who created and occupy the structures that transmit it.

So why should the actions of this priest and his immediate superior prompt me to exclaim “fuck the Catholic Church!?” After all, it’s the priest being an ass. It’s the Bishop being an ass. Why does this reflect on the institution?

Because their actions are fully supported by the doctrine of the Catholic Church. The doctrine of the Catholic Church teaches them that anti-gay bigotry is, in some cases, not only acceptable but mandatory. The structure of the Catholic Church gives them the authority to penalize gay members of their flocks with ostracism from their faith communities.

To see what I mean, let’s look at the body of Catholic law – the Catechism – as displayed on the Vatican website. On the subject of homosexuality, it says:

“Chastity and homosexuality

2357 Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity,141 tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered."142 They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.”

(Emphasis mine)

There is a separate section in the catechism discussing the Sacrament of the Eucharist, also known as Communion. This is the specific sacrament being denied to the couple in question. The description is pretty long and at times vague, but it does state a couple times that parishioners who are not “in a state of grace,” or in “full unity with the church” may not participate unless they complete a Sacrament of Reconciliation. The full text is located at and I invite you to read it rather than rely on my interpretation here. However, the FAQ on the site summarizes the relevant portions thusly:

“The Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist cannot be administered to those who voluntarily continue to live in grave sin.”

Yes, there is a line in the discussion on homosexuality about avoiding “unjust discrimination,” but if you read the whole thing and digest it, you’ll see that this would not regard the priest’s actions as being “unjust discrimination.” It takes the tack that being gay is ok, as long as you suffer for it and live a life of self-denial as a result. If you accept it and act on it, well, then you’re a bad person. Taken together, the discussions on homosexuality and the Eucharist make it clear that the priest’s actions are wholly justified by Catholic doctrine. The Catholic church defines homosexual acts to be gravely sinful (and a disorder), and states that people “…who voluntarily continue to live in grave sin,” can be denied the Eucharist (and, by extension, full unity in Catholic congregations). The gay couple got married voluntarily. Ergo, the priest was fully justified in denying them Communion, and the Bishop was fully justified in demanding they repudiate their relationship as part of their reconciliation.

You can say that they might have been jerks to actually apply the rules of the Catholic Church in this way. But you cannot say that, by the doctrine of the Catholic Church, they were not right to do so.

I don’t even doubt that the priest and the Bishop in this case actually think they’re doing the good and compassionate thing. Sure, they uprooted an elderly couple from their community for the crime of loving one another, and used the threat of permanent ostracism from full inclusion that community in the waning years of their lives to force them to deny their relationship. But in their mind, they probably think are doing a good thing. And if they do, then it is because the Catholic Church trained them to think that. If they don’t believe that, and are just assholes, then it is the Catholic Church that gave them the doctrinal cover and the authority to act on it.

Either way, yes, “fuck the Catholic Church.”

And I do get that the Catholic Church does do a lot of good things. It provides comfort to people, it does charity work, it funds hospitals and relief organizations the world over. For those things, I applaud them. But it also pressures people into not using contraceptives, thus encouraging both overpopulation and the spread of deadly sexually transmitted diseases. It provides cover for pedophile priests because it is more interested in protecting its reputation than its children. It is neither wholly good, nor wholly bad.

But on the specific position of homosexuality, I think it is poison. It comes back, once again, to the tendency of religions to tie bad ideas to good ideas, and demand that they all be accepted together as good.

So anyway, that’s my argument. Do you think I’m being unfair?

Monday, September 8, 2014

Would You Want to Live in an Atheist World

So this was an interesting question I've heard discussed by a couple different atheist commentators recently. The question of whether they would want to live in an entirely atheist world. So I've thought about it a little myself. And after some consideration, the answer I came up with was a resounding "yes, but..."

But what?

I'm so glad you asked!

It's not enough, really, for people just to be atheist. If I could wave a magic wand and turn everyone into an atheist right this second, I wouldn't do it. Nor would I enact laws to forbid religious belief. Because I happen to believe that how we get there matters.

I would want to live in an atheist world that arrived at that state through rational thought and mutual discourse. In that way, I have hope that we as a society would understand why we gave up religion and superstition. And that in understanding our reasons, we would also be better able to transform societies in reasonable and sustainable ways. An atheism imposed by fiat is an unconsidered position that rests on nothing and can simply be overturned by replacing the imposing authority with a different one.

Also, such a transition would of necessity be gradual, and so provide time to develop new ways of supporting the positives that religions currently supply. See, I'm not so naive as to believe that the simple banishment of religion will cause all of our problems to vanish as well. Nor am I so blind as to fail to see that religious organizations fulfill some important roles in our society such as community-building and charitable work. Simply abolishing religion would create a void in those areas that may be worse than the current negatives of religiosity.

What I'm getting at is that I hope to see a gradual, reasoned decline in religiosity obtained by people becoming convinced to abandon it and to take up more reasonable alternative outlooks. I may not be able to get that, but it would be ideal.

What I would like, ultimately, is to live in a world where "atheist" is no longer a useful term. Where we regard it as a quaint historical word in the same way we regard "abolitionist," today. Nobody calls themselves an abolitionist anymore, even though most of us would fit the definition. Opposition to slavery is so ingrained in our consciousness and culture that nobody needs the title anymore; indeed, it would be shocking for most of us to encounter an American who espoused the opposite view. That's the atheist world I'd like to live in: one where not believing in gods is so much the norm that it seems quaint that there once had to be a word for it. Preferably without any devastating wars having to be fought over it.

There's an additional caveat: I would want to live in an atheist world only so long as atheism remains a provisional position. It, like any position, should remain open to question and to being changed by new evidence. That's another reason I wouldn't want atheism to become legally enforced. I don't want a world of dogmatic assertion. I want a world where human minds are free to explore the universe and let our understanding follow where the evidence leads. Even if the evidence somehow, someday, points conclusively to the existence of a god.

In other words: I would like to live in a society where atheism is the norm, but only so long as we live in a world where atheism remains reasonable. Denying reality for the sake of a dogma is not a good thing, even if the dogma is my own.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

What if Your House Was on Fire?

     An interesting metaphor that occasionally comes up when we complain about proselytizing is that of the burning house. As in, "If I knew you were asleep in a burning house, you'd want me to wake you up and get you out, right?" Occasionally, a similar metaphor is made with the idea of a plane going down and handing us a parachute.

     And you know what? That makes sense. I fully understand why you would want to get someone out of a burning house, or off of a crashing plane. But let's extend the metaphor into a parable, shall we?
     Bob bolted up from his bed, thrust into panicked wakefulness by the hand violently shaking his shoulder.

     "Bob! You have to get out of the house! It's on fire!"

     His heart hammered even harder in his chest at those words. Adrenaline burned the weight of sleep from his limbs, driving him to fling back the covers and leap to the floor. He stumbled in the darkness, lurching and almost falling before being caught by a man's arm. The dim light spilling in from the window wasn't quite enough for him to make out who it was, and his sleep-fogged mind hadn't quite caught up to the furious action of his body well enough to identify the familiar-sounding voice.

     "I'll wake Donna," the mysterious figure hissed, "you get the kids and get them out!"

     Bob nodded his head and stumbled out into the hallway. A shock of pain lanced up his leg as he stubbed his toe on the door frame, and he cursed under his breath. He fumbled the light on and, squinting his eyes against the sudden brightness, limped quickly toward the kids' rooms.

     "Wake up! Fire!"

     Dimly he was aware that the smoke alarm wasn't going off, but spared only a moment of gratitude toward the unknown man who'd woken him. If the smoke detector was faulty, they might all have died in their sleep!

     A few minutes later, the whole family was gathered out on the street, huddled together and shaking in reaction. David, the five-year-old, was snuffling back frightened tears. Other than than the soothing sounds Bob and his wife Donna were making to reassure the children, no other sound could be heard on the street.

     No other sound?

     Bob cast a confused glance at the figure who had roused them from their beds, a figure he now recognized as their neighbor Matt.

     "Did you call the fire department?" he asked.

     Matt looked back at him, the smile if evident relief on his face fading a little at the question. Then he shook his head. "No."

     Bob frowned and fumbled at the pockets of his pajamas, but of course he'd left his phone behind in the rush to escape the house. He sighed, looking back at their home regretfully. Faint light shown steadily from the upstairs windows and from the front door, which they'd left open when they burst out onto the lawn.

     Bob's regretful expression dissolved into a thoughtful frown as he regarded the steady spill of incandescent light from the house. His gaze flickered over the windows, starting upstairs and ending with the darkened basement windows.

     "Honey," he glanced over at his wife, who raised her head from where she had still been involved in comforting their frightened children. "Do you see any flames?"

      She looked back at him, nonplussed by the question, before turning her face toward the house. After a moment's frowning concentration, she shook her head.

     "Maybe in back?" she ventured uncertainly.

     Bob's stubbed toe throbbed painfully. A light breeze wafted from the direction of their house, tinged with the scent of the honeysuckle that grew along the backyard fence. He didn't smell any smoke.

     "Matt, are you sure there's a fire?"

     "Oh, absolutely! Can't you tell?" Matt gestured toward the house emphatically, as if inviting Bob and Donna to see for themselves. "Bright orange flames! You guys would have died for sure if I hadn't gotten you out!"

     Puzzled, the couple looked back at the house, then at each other.

     "Matt..." Donna ventured uncertainly. "I don't see any flames."

     "I don't smell smoke, either." Bob added.

     Matt seemed unphased by their skeptical replies. "Oh, no, you wouldn't. They're invisible, smokeless flames. But trust me, the house is fully engulfed. You're really lucky I was here to save you!"

     Bob and Donna stared at Matt for a moment, as if he'd grown a second head. Even the children seemed to snap out of their fear reactions at the man's words.

     "Invisible... flames?" Bob finally ground out. "Invisible... smokeless... flames?!" his voice began to climb in volume.

     "Yep." Matt nodded, seeming for the moment to be unaware of Bob's rising irritation as he fished inside the pocket of his blue robe to produce a piece of paper. "Just like it says here."

     Bob stared incredulously at the flyer Matt now held out in front of him. It was titled "Everybody's House is on Fire." A bunch of them had been spread around the neighborhood over the previous week, but Bob had taken them for some kind of goof and had simply thrown out the one that had appeared in his own mailbox. Nobody could have taken the nonsense written on them seriously, could they?

     "That's insane, Matt!" he burst out, gesticulating toward his clearly-not-burning home. "Just look at the house! There's no fire!" Just then Alice, Matt's wife, came rushing up from the direction of the neighbor's home. She was dressed in her own red robe, feet clad in slippers, her face wide-eyed and voice breathless.

     "Oh, thank God, Matt! You got them out in time!"

     Bob could only stare at the couple for a moment, his mouth opening and closing wordlessly as he struggled to comprehend their behavior. "You... you think the house is on fire, too?"

     "Oh, yes!" Alice nodded emphatically in response as her husband slipped an arm around her shoulders. "Evil-looking blue flames, all over the house!"

     Bob muttered something under his breath, looking again at the house.

     "What was that?" asked Matt?

     "You said they were orange flames, Matt."

     "Oh, no!" Alice piped up. "They're definitely blue, just like it says on the flyer!" Bob had read the flyer; it didn't say anything about the color of the flames. "Because they're, you know, spiritual! What other color could they be but blue?" Her tone denoted utter incredulity that anyone could possibly have disagreed with her.

     "By which she means orange, of course, just like the flyer says." Matt squeezed his wife's shoulder affectionately. She looked up at him in perplexity, opening her mouth as if to say something. but Bob wasn't about to watch them argue over the color of invisible flames, and turned back toward his own family. He spread his arms in a herding motion, gesturing them back toward the house.

     "Right... everyone back to bed."

     This cut off the budding disagreement between his neighbors as they both leapt forward to grab at his arms.

     "No! You can't go back in there! You'll all die!"

     Bob tore himself loose and whirled back toward them. "There's no fire!" he yelled, spreading his arms again - this time in a protective gesture meant to gather his family behind him and separate them from his neighbors. He was drawing breath to continue when he was interrupted by Donna's gentle touch his shoulder.

     "Honey, the kids are scared."

     The angry words stopped in his throat, and he looked back at the children. They were both crying now. Amy, his seven-year-old daughter, snuffled quietly "I don't want to burn to death!"

     His children's distress heightened his anger, but at the same time sharpened his focus so he could channel it into something productive. So after casting a glare a Matt and Alice, he crouched down next to his kids and made a conscious effort to force calm into his voice.

     "There isn't a fire. Daddy is going to go look through the house and make sure it's safe, OK? I won't let anything happen to you."

     It took a few more soothing words, but at last the children were calmed down enough to let him go. While Donna stood between the kids and their neighbors, Bob went back into the house. A thorough exploration of all floors revealed no fire, and no signs of smoke. He finished the search in his bedroom, where he retrieved his cell phone from the nightstand. He noted with some irritation that it was past two in the morning before heading back downstairs and outside to rejoin his family.

     Donna was engaged in an animated exchange with the neighbors as he approached, and he could tell from her voice and body language that she was not a happy woman even before he got close enough to make out the words. Matt seemed to be trying to hand her a piece of paper, which she repeatedly pushed away.

     "No, I will not sign your petition!" Donna was on the verge of outright yelling by the time Bob was in earshot. he stepped up his pace to join her more quickly.

     "What is it now?"

     "They want me to sign their petition to get invisible flame safety courses taught at school!" Donna replied. He could tell she was struggling to maintain her temper.

     "Right... that's enough," Bob growled, pointing his phone at Matt and Alice. "I've been through the house. It's fine, and we're going back to bed."

     Matt stepped toward them with a distressed expression, only to stop short when Bob thrust the phone aggressively toward him.

     "Geeze, Bob? Why are you so mad? We're just trying to help."

     "Why am I mad?! I have to work in the morning. Donna has to work in the morning! The kids have school, and you've got them so scared it'll be a miracle if I can get them back to sleep at all! Over NOTHING!" Even as Bob spoke, he and Donna were bundling the kids back toward the house and away from the other couple. Matt and Alice started to take another step after them, but Bob held up a hand. "And I swear, if you don't back off right now I'm gonna call the police!"

      The next night, Bob climbed exhaustedly into bed next to his wife. She was already asleep, and Bob was dragging heavily. It had taken forever to get the kids to sleep the night before, and they'd only managed it by letting the children come in to share the bed with them. Out of an abundance of caution, Bob had called the fire department first thing in the morning to have them send someone out to inspect the house. They'd found nothing, of course, but the delay had meant he was late for work and had to stay late as a result. So it was with a sense of great relief that he pulled the covers up and rolled onto his side to close his eyes for some much-needed sleep.

     Suddenly, his phone started blaring on the nightstand. His eyes flew open, and he fumbled the phone to his ear. "Hello?"

     "Bob! You have to get out of the house! It's on fire!"

Monday, August 11, 2014

What’s With All the Questions?

You may have noticed that all of my post titles take the form of questions. My usual format is to pose a question in the title – either one that I have heard from religious people about atheistic topics, or that I have about some aspect of religiosity. In the first case, I try to answer the question to the best of my ability, and in the second I will explain why I have the question and/or pose hypothetical answers of my own.

Why do I do it that way?

I’ll be honest with you. At first, it wasn’t a conscious choice. I think that it wasn’t until after I put up my third post that I realized I was even doing it. At that point I actually started thinking about it, and I realized that it was wholly appropriate for a number of reasons.

For one thing, asking questions is exactly how many atheists reach that position in the first place. It’s a very common story, when listening to an atheist describe how they left religion behind, that it started when they began asking questions about their world and about their religion. Many will tell how the answers they got from the religious perspective were unsatisfying or illogical, and in the worst cases the response they got wasn’t an answer at all; just a pat admonition that they weren’t to question. So in many ways, the asking of questions is the signature activity of the atheist.

Also, I ask questions because I’m curious about the answers. What do you mean by objective morality? Why do you believe what’s in your holy book? What don’t you understand about my world view? What don’t I understand about yours? Am I asking the right questions? Do my answers make any sense? A question is an invitation to engage, to better our understanding of each other and the world we live in.

My blog takes the form of questions because it’s not really meant to be a one-way street. The point isn’t just for me to pontificate at you. I mean, I can do that, sure. I’m now twenty-four posts in to doing that (for the most part). And I enjoy writing it. I hope you enjoy reading it. But it’s not yet everything I hope that it can be.

So I guess what I’m saying is: ask your own questions!