Friday, March 27, 2015

What’s Wrong with That Duck Guy?

            Well, it looks like that raging homophobe and professional caricature, Phil Robertson (of Duck Dynasty fame) is back in the news for saying stupid and prejudicial things again. This time, he’s branched out from his usual homophobia into the realm of atheophobia (is that a word? Can I go ahead and claim it now?). Speaking at a prayer breakfast in Florida this past week, ol’ Phil unloaded this little gem:
            “Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him.
            "And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot 'em and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at him and say, 'Isn't it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn't it great that there's nothing wrong with this? There's no right or wrong, now is it dude?'
            “Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say, 'Wouldn't it be something if this was something wrong with this? But you’re the one who says there is no God, there’s no right, there’s no wrong, so we’re just having fun. We’re sick in the head, have a nice day.
            “If it happened to them, they would probably say ‘Something about this just ain't right.'"
            I’ll skip past the issue of the fact that this little speech uses the suffering of the female characters as mere props to teach the atheist man a lesson – others have written more eloquently and knowledgeably on that point than I could - and just get right to the point of my writing this. What the hell is wrong with this man?! And why, oh why, does anyone think he’s some kind of hero? Why does anyone pay him to speak in public? Who actually takes pleasure in hearing this man spout deranged fantasies of horrific violence inflicted on people to make a bullshit point?
            And yes, I get that he thinks he has a point. Of course, he only thinks he has a point because he couldn’t tell one from a duck call in the first place. He thinks he’s refuting the atheist position that “there’s nothing wrong with this,” with the claim that “But you’d sure think it was wrong if it happened to you.” Except that’s not the atheist position in the first place! And what drives it farther out from even being within shouting distance of a point, even if you accept his implication that the lack of a god renders his scenario more plausible than the presence of one, it has absolutely nothing to do with whether one actually exists.
            But let’s clear something up right here, right now: he is damn right that atheists would think that situation “ain’t right,” if it happened to them. Most of us also think that situation “ain’t right,” if it happened to anyone. You’d be hard pressed to find the atheist who thinks the behavior of the attackers in Mister Robertson’s story is in any way acceptable, that it shouldn’t be prevented, or that it shouldn’t be punished if it does happen. And even if you could find that atheist, I can guarantee you that their views would not be welcomed or shared by the larger atheist community.
            On the other hand, if you believe this fellow’s holy book, the being he worships has ordered actions at least as horrific as the ones Mr. Robertson describes. And the Bible lauds as heroes the men who carried them out, while absolutely condemning the men who failed to commit fully to perpetrating such crimes. Belief in Phil Robertson’s favorite fiction is no panacea against horrific acts, as history has shown us time and time again.
            But the fact that he makes statements like these – and is applauded by certain segments of the population for making them – raises once again the serious concerns that atheists have about the outlook they evidence. Do Phil, and his coreligionists, really envision themselves as people who would indulge in pointless violence, rape, and murder if they didn’t have god beliefs restraining them? Is that why they make these claims – because belief in eternal punishment really is the only thing holding them in check? Or do they never seriously contemplate stooping to such behavior, but for some reason they assume themselves to be the exception while everyone outside their belief system may just be biding their time before unleashing this kind of screaming depravity on them? I hope you can see why all of those possibilities are unnerving to us on the outside.
            Atheists do have moral beliefs. They just have different reasons than religious people for holding them (and yes, in many cases these do result in us reaching different moral conclusions, both from each other and from the religious). I’ve spoken about them in other posts, and no doubt I will speak of them again in the future. That’s not really the issue of this post. The issue is that the kind of “othering,” evidenced by these speeches – the treating of other people as if they were alien and dangerous simply because they are “the other,” – is harmful and dishonest. For all of our sakes, I hope that we can repudiate such views and remember that we’re all in this life together.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Have You Heard These 10 Questions?

            I recently came across this posting claiming to pose “Some Questions Atheist Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer! Which leads to some interesting conclusions…” Incidentally, that quote there is the entirety of the introduction, and the “interesting conclusions,” it alludes to are never addressed at all. The post then goes on to list ten questions. So, shall we see if I, as an atheist, can truly, honestly, and really answer them?

1.       How Did You Become an Atheist?

             Okay, so right out of the gate, we can see that the poster isn’t taking this seriously. Is his claim really that atheists cannot honestly answer this question? The only possible way he could make that claim is to assume right off the bat that we’re lying no matter what we say. I would ordinarily have taken this as a sincere question, were it not for the author’s assertion that atheists cannot answer any of these honestly.

            But, to treat the question seriously, I became an atheist because I never had any real reason to believe in a god. My parents tried to convince me to believe in a version of the Christian one, and when I was young and more insecure I tried to believe for them. But it never really stuck. By my late teens, I had stopped trying to pretend I believed it.

2.       What happens when we die?

            Decomposition, mostly. Depending on circumstances, perhaps mummification or some other form of physical preservation. If we have loved ones, they will likely mourn for a time. Hopefully, they will carry positive effects from my influence on their lives, and will go on to be happy in their own right without me.

            I suppose, though, that the thrust of the question is more about what happens to us, by which I mean our thoughts, memories, and personalities. Well, so far as I know, they end. All that made me a person will be gone. I could be wrong about that, and I’m perfectly willing to change my mind should someone be able to demonstrate convincingly that something else happens. But I don’t have any reason to believe it yet.

3.       What if you’re wrong? And there is a Heaven? And there is a HELL!

            If I’m wrong about the existence of a god, I’d be interested to know which one(s) I’m wrong about. But given that this list came from a Christian site, I assume the author is talking about Yahweh. And if I’m wrong about his existence, I still know nothing about what will happen to me because there are so many contradictory interpretations of what the Christian god proposes to do with us all that it just amounts to random guessing anyway. I suppose it’s possible I’ll go to hell, but it seems like such a remote and unknowable possibility that it’s just not worth rearranging the life I know I have over it.

4.       Without God, where do you get your morality from?

            The same place you do: a combination of moral precepts taught to me when I was younger, my innate empathy for other people, and my observations and reasoning about the consequences of certain behaviors.

5.       If there is no God, can we do what we want? Are we free to murder and rape? While good deeds are unrewarded?

            That depends on what you mean by “free.” Most interpretations of the Christian god suggest that we’re free to do what we want anyway. There’s just some ultimate reward/punishment system for those actions that is claimed to be perfect but is conveniently removed beyond the ability of any living person to ever verify that it functions. Many interpretations suggest that we are free to commit any atrocity whatsoever with absolute abandon, since the only determinant between eternal bliss or torment is asking God to handwave the badness away.

            Meanwhile, in the real world, there are consequences for our behavior. People don’t like getting murdered or raped, so they tend to fight back. And societies tend to set up systems of mutual support to help more people avoid having those things done to them and to punish the people who commit the crimes. Sure, they’re not perfect and the results aren’t always in perfect accord with the severity of the offenses, but at least everyone can see that they exist.

            Plus, I don’t know about the author, but I don’t want to murder or rape anyone. And I don’t necessarily expect to get rewarded for behaving decently, or carry around a load of resentment when I don’t get rewarded.

6.       If there is no god, how does your life have any meaning?

            Because I choose to give it meaning. Because it means something to the people whose lives I affect. What more do you need?

7.       Where did the universe come from?

            I don’t know. I just have no reason to believe that it had to come from an infinitely powerful being who somehow doesn’t need to have come from anywhere, and who is obsessively interested in the sex lives of a miniscule percentage of the biological products of a single planet orbiting a single sun among the hundreds of billions present in a galaxy that is itself only one among hundreds of billions.

8.       What about miracles? What all the people who claim to have a connection with Jesus? What about those who claim to have seen saints or angels?

            What about them? Thus far, I have little to suggest that any of these things are more than delusions, or unfounded interpretations of natural phenomena and unusual brain states. And since they are reported within pretty much every faith, they certainly aren’t evidence in favor of choosing any one religious belief over any other.

9.       What’s your view of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris?

            Okay, once again I can see that the author is not taking this seriously. He is making the claim that I cannot give an honest answer to a question about my opinion. Or he’s making a claim that I cannot have an opinion at all, which would be even more asinine. But, again, I will treat the question as if he had asked it in good faith.

            My view of Richard Dawkins is that he is highly intelligent, witty, well-spoken, a wonderful communicator of science (particularly biological evolution), but possibly a bit of a dick. I wouldn’t mind meeting him, but I suspect we wouldn’t choose to hang out with each other socially. I could be wrong.

            My view of Christopher Hitchens is that he was also highly intelligent, witty, and a great communicator. A bit more strident and intense than I’m comfortable with, and more politically hawkish than I’d like, but altogether I think we’re better off for having had him around than if we hadn’t. It’s a shame he died so young.

            I don’t really know enough about Sam Harris to have much of an opinion. On some subjects we seem to agree, and on some we don’t, but I haven’t invested a lot of time in getting to know about him.

            All of those opinions are subject to change. Also, I should point out, I don’t know a whole lot about any of those men beyond their public statements (and in some cases not even much about those). My atheism is in no way founded on what I think about any of them; I had already been an atheist for years before I ever heard any of their names or their arguments. Which kind of makes me wonder what the point is to this question in the first place. Does the author think atheism is founded on these people? Or that atheists are somehow obligated to support everything about these guys just because we happen to agree with them about the nonexistence of gods? If so, it just shows that he doesn’t really understand atheism or atheists.

10.   If there is no God, then why does every society have a religion?

            If there is a God, why have no two societies independently discovered and worshipped the exact same one? And why is it that many religions, while they may feature a vast array of spiritual beings, don’t actually reference anything really identifiable as a god?

            People are curious and crave answers to their questions. People are fearful, and crave a sense of control over circumstances they don’t necessarily understand. People encounter situations for which they have no ready explanation all the time, and in the absence of the tools necessary to find the physical reasons they often default to superstitious ones. And people, especially children, are kind of wired to trust what other people tell them, especially if it’s expressed confidently. Religions also serve a socialization and organizational role that can be quite powerful. All of these are just universal parts of being human beings, so it’s hardly surprising that religions should be the outgrowth. It’s really, really not hard to think of reasons why religions would form in the absence of actual gods. But since I’m not an anthropologist, they’re pretty much just conjecture on my part.

            Incidentally, check out these guys. They’re an Amazon tribe that has no concept of a god or gods. Be careful with the word “every.”

            So that’s it. I’ve answered all ten questions. You’ll just have to take my word for it that I did so honestly. In many cases, the answers I provided here are just pocket notes versions of subjects I’ve covered elsewhere in this blog. If you’re unsatisfied with any of them, you’re welcome to ask for clarification; I’m happy to oblige.
            By the way, if you’re interested check out Godless Mom for another set of answers to the same questions. Her blog is where I first found out about this list, and this blog post is kind of my way of accepting her invitation to readers to give our own answers. Just be warned that she has a somewhat more colorful writing style than I do.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Do Comparisons to Fictional Characters Offend You?

            From time to time in this blog and the conversations it spawns, I compare gods to fictional characters. I have, at various times, explicitly compared gods to Voldemort, Emperor Palpatine, Frodo Baggins, Nurse Ratched, and probably any of a number of other characters from literary and cinematic fiction. Well, a little while back, one of my friends mentioned to me that this is the one aspect of my blog that they find utterly offensive. This person did go on to say that they understand why I do it, but that it sets their teeth on edge every time anyway.

            That got me wondering whether the practice is similarly offensive to any of my other readers, and whether everyone understands why I do it. Because, I assure, you, it is not done for the sake of being offensive. So I figured I’d dedicate an article to explaining why I compare God to fictional characters, and why I will almost certainly continue to do so.

            Of course, the first and most obvious reason is that, as far as I can tell, gods are fictional characters. From my perspective, speaking of them in the same vein as Simba the Lion King, Spock, or Maleficent is just a matter of addressing them in their appropriate context. Yahweh, Freddy Krueger, Odin, Cruella De Vil, Ra, Spiderman, Llugh, Pinocchio, Allah, Gandalf; they relate to each other in the same way that bananas, apples, grapes, and kiwis relate to each other. They’re just individual members of the same category. So in one sense, in my mind I’m not making a comparison at all.

            But it goes further than that. I’m not merely categorizing things in this blog; I’m trying to communicate a perspective. I know that all of you reading this, religious and nonreligious alike, understand why, when Obi Wan Kenobi advises another character to “use the Force,” none of us in the real world should take that as serious life advice. You get that. I don’t even need to explain that. What I’m trying to get across is that when you tell me I should pray or practice some ritual or do anything else solely because your god has spoken out on the subject in your holy book, that means exactly as much to me as Kenobi’s observations on the nature of the Force.

            When someone says we need to have “In God We Trust,” on our courthouses, that carries as much weight for me as saying we need to inscribe “Harry Potter Rules,” on our courthouses (which would be a colossal waste of time and money in addition to alienating non-fans. Get it?). Claiming America is a Christian nation is like saying America is a Star Wars Fandom nation. If you tell me I’m going to hell, that’s just as frightening as telling me Jareth the Goblin King is going to kidnap me in my sleep. Saying that the purpose of our lives is to serve and worship God because Jesus said so in the Bible is exactly as meaningful to me as if you said that the answer to life, the universe, and everything really is forty-two because Deep Thought said so in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

            Or, to paraphrase Russell Glasser’s Star Trek Rule: “Think about what you’re saying to me. If it wouldn’t sound just as compelling coming from Captain Kirk as it does coming from your god, you probably need to take a different tack because it’s not going to convince me.”

            I’m not saying this to be offensive, and I’m not saying it to be mocking. I get that people are heavily invested in their religious beliefs. I get that religious people don’t see it anywhere near the same way I do. But I’m not here to tell you how you feel about your religion, or even how you should feel. I’m here to give my perspective in a way that I hope you can understand. I make the comparison because I believe you understand why the mere fact that Voldemort gives an order in the Harry Potter books is no reason for you to follow it in the real world. I make the comparison to help you understand that these are the exact same reasons I feel no compulsion to do anything simply because Yahweh says to in the Bible. Or because Allah says to in the Koran. Or because Krishna says to in the Vedas.

            I make the comparison to help you understand that when atheists say we do not believe gods are real, we’re really not kidding. And I do it to help you to understand what that really implies about how we view religious dictates. I do it, not to offend, but because I want us to understand each other.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Who Will Never Disappoint You?

            A few years ago, my uncle died of a particularly aggressive brain tumor called a glioblastoma.

            I’m not bringing this up as an example of the sort of traumatic experience that led to my atheism. I had already been calling myself an atheist for several years before this event, and had long since become comfortable with it. No, I bring it up because it created one of the rare situations in my adult life where I actually attended a church service. It was right after the funeral, and we went with my grandmother to church because it was important to her.

            I also bring it up because, not only is it a lead-in for why I was present for this particular sermon topic, but because the point I want to make gels so perfectly with the circumstances. You see, the topic of the sermon that day was how God/Jesus is the only one in your life who never lets you down.

            This actually isn’t all that unusual a message in Christian churches. In fact, I hear it all the time even as a non-churchgoer. The way this particular pastor phrased it wasn’t even all that unusual; it was just the weird incongruity between message and circumstances that made this particular episode stand out in my mind. He started out by saying that there is no human being who will not disappoint you at some point or another. Which is true enough, I suppose, but kind of trivial. But he really had to hammer the point home, so he took it to the next level with the claim that even if someone could somehow always be there for you in every circumstance throughout their entire life, they would still let you down by dying.

            Imagine my incredulity. This was my grandmother’s pastor. He knew what she had been going through. He knew she had just buried her youngest son that weekend. And here he was, standing up in front of his congregation to tell everyone that her son – a generous, fun-loving and active man who had spent better than a year fighting one of the most aggressive cancers known, enduring surgeries and experimental treatments, hallucinations, loss of vitality, and personality alterations as he struggled to defeat the disease that was claiming his life – had failed her by dying.

            Having made that awful point, the pastor then went on to preach about how there was one person who would always be there for you, never disappoint you, never fail you, and of course that person is God. This same sermon, I should mention, made the point that while God is always there for you he doesn’t always give you what you want or think you need. He trotted out the old cliché that “God answers all prayers; just sometimes the answer is ‘no,’” and went on to the usual dreck about how you just have to believe that God has a plan for you that is far better than any petty needs you may think you have.

            From my perspective, this whole spiel was outrageous nonsense. Here we have a man standing up in front of people who trust him belittling the struggle of a very real, and now very dead, man in order to prop up respect for his fictional being. Manipulating the grief of his fellow human beings for the sake of his imagined god. “Be disappointed in the guy who died on you in spite of his heroic efforts not to, but you can’t be disappointed in the dude I claim could have saved him and didn’t because He had other plans.”

            But let’s take a moment to think about the full message is here. Of course, the observation that all humans will let you down at some point is true, as I pointed out before. Everybody is limited, so even those with the best intentions will probably, at some time, simply not have the emotional or physical resources to be there for you in some way or another. Maybe your friend misses your wedding because they are too burnt out from school finals. Maybe your sister doesn’t have fifty bucks to lend you to get that mortgage payment in on time. Everybody, absolutely everybody, disappoints you at some point or another because they’re human.

            But God? God is always there. Sure, he didn’t lend you that fifty bucks either. And while you’re disappointed in your sister for it, you can’t be disappointed in him. Because he’s “there for you” in your head, and maybe he has a plan for you that will be wonderful and somehow depends on you getting your house foreclosed on. You just don’t get to know the details, or at least not until maybe after you’re dead. When, you know, nobody will ever get to verify all this goodness that will happen to you.

            See, it’s a ridiculous double-standard. You can be disappointed in people when they somehow fail to live up to your expectations. You often get to know the reasons for those failures (at least in part) and make a judgment about whether they are justified. But for God? He can fail you in the exact same way, and you never get to know the reasons, but you’re not allowed to be disappointed in him?

            It’s self-evident that you can’t be disappointed in someone when you’re not allowed to have expectations of them.

            That’s what it comes down to. You’re allowed to have expectations of people, and when they fail to meet them you can be disappointed. You’re not allowed to have expectations of God, so his failure to meet them can’t disappoint you. Then the pastor pulls a bait-and-switch, trying to sell you the idea that not being disappointed because you have no expectations is exactly the same as not being disappointed because your expectations have been fulfilled. He tells you that “I’m there for you by having a really good, secret reason for letting your kid die slowly and painfully from cancer I could easily prevent,” is exactly the same as “I’m there for you by bringing you food when you’re too down to cook for yourself,” and the amazing thing is that people buy it. They’re not the same thing, and it’s a lie to suggest that they are.

            Why? I ask in all seriousness. Why do people believe any of this?

            Mind you, I’m not saying it’s bad to have no expectations of God. I certainly have none, any more than I have expectations of Frodo Baggins. Sometimes good things happen, and sometimes bad, and we deal with those things as they come. If we’re lucky, we’ll have real flesh-and-blood people there to help us get through when the bad happens, and to celebrate the good with us. What gets me off on this little rant is the naked hypocrisy of people who sell this “God is the only one who will never disappoint you,” line to people. Especially when, in doing so, they belittle the real people in our lives and the real struggles they go through all for the sake of propping it up. If God were real, and you could have expectations of him like you do with people, then he would be a huge disappointment. If he’s not real, or you’re not allowed to have expectations, then we’re not even talking about the same thing as human disappointment. Comparing the two as if they were the same is deceitful.

            There is nobody who won’t disappoint you. We’re all limited in some way, and some of us simply don’t try as hard as we should. Try to practice real compassion for real people; don’t belittle them by comparing them to someone you imagine is perfect simply because you’ve chosen to give them a free pass.