Thursday, June 18, 2015

Is Selflessness Consistent with Atheistic Darwinism?

            Have you seen this?

            To be blunt: that’s offensive as fuck.

            But I’m not going to dwell on how offended I am by that. Offense, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily compelling to everyone. What I am going to do, however, is address the incredible ignorance displayed by the kind of person who would write or perpetuate this particular meme.

            Firstly, “atheistic Darwinism,” seems to be a thing that exists only in the minds of creationist Christians. It is a philosophy with no actual adherents anywhere, a straw man constructed solely for the purpose of dehumanizing people who accept the theory of evolution. In this bizarre shadow-puppet philosophy, people who accept evolutionary reasoning are necessarily atheists, and necessarily abandon all compassion in pursuit of a twisted ideal in which only the strongest, most selfish, most vicious people deserve to survive. Which only goes to show that the people who live in, and perpetuate, the fear of this “atheistic Darwinism,” understand neither atheists nor the “Darwinistic” theory of evolution.

            But then, the goal of memes like these aren’t to understand or to promote understanding – their purpose is to promote fear and hatred of the “evil other.” Their purpose is to make people too afraid of us to even try and understand us. Their purpose is to turn us into something other than human in the eyes of believers, so that we can be automatically dismissed and diminished without consideration of our shared humanity or any possible merit to our outlook. This blog exists precisely because I’m not willing to just let that kind of thing pass.

            So here’s the thing: the theory of evolution – the real one, not the vicious straw man presented in this meme – is not a moral philosophy. It says nothing about how individual people ought to behave. It is only, and only ever has been, a body of scientific explanations for the observed fact that populations of organisms change over time in response to genetic variation and the effects of changing environment on relative survival rates. It is a description, not an instruction.

            And it’s worth noting that this description, properly understood, does not in any way preclude human compassion and risking ourselves to help others. In fact, it explains quite nicely why we have those traits. You see, the “survival of the fittest” principal does not say that only the strongest and most self-interested deserve to survive. It says that those organisms that possess traits which enhance their likelihood of survival are, in fact, more likely to survive (“deserve” has nothing to do with it). And this is a statistical effect over large numbers and long periods, saying little to nothing about individuals. In the case of humanity, it is precisely our willingness (even compulsion) to help each other survive that allows larger numbers of us to pass our genes on to the next generation than otherwise would. Even if that sometimes results in the death of the one trying to help, statistically it results in a greater overall rate of human survival. Humanity’s evolutionary success is owed in very large part to the development of those traits that this ridiculous meme claims it precludes us from having.

            In other words, the author of this meme is simply lying – either out of ignorance (willful or otherwise), or malice. I hope that it’s mere ignorance, because that can be cured with information.

            An atheist witnessing the drowning man in the meme example would feel the exact same surge of compassion and instinct to help that any theist would. It’s part of being human. It doesn’t matter whether we believe those emotions come from a god-given sense of the divinity of all people, or that it is the result of millions of years of evolutionary forces that rewarded populations of primates in which individuals were willing to risk themselves to save others and thus ensure the survival of greater numbers of their tribe. Those emotions remain real, and powerful, and there is strong rationale in either outlook for acting on them. An atheist is no less likely to save a drowning man than a theist, because we’re just as human as you are.

            So back to the title question: is selflessness consistent with atheistic Darwinism? If you understand “atheistic Darwinism” to mean “acceptance that evolutionary theory is an accurate description of the processes by which species change over time, coupled with a lack of belief in the existence of gods,” then you bet your ass it’s compatible!

Monday, June 15, 2015

Are Atheists Offended by your Belief in God?

            So, an acquaintance on Facebook posted this meme the other day.


            It’s not the first time I’ve seen it, but for some reason this time it got me to thinking instead of just dismissing it as I usually do. And as a result, you get another blog post. Aren’t you happy?

            The first sentence states “I’m not offended that Atheists don’t believe in God.” That’s fine, as far as it goes. I’ll happily grant that anyone who posts this meme means it in all sincerity. They’re not offended that we don’t believe. But they need to understand that they do not speak for every believer. Many theists are offended that atheists don’t believe in their god, and are quite vocal in expressing that fact; especially if we have the gall to say it out loud. Maybe that’s not you, in which case I’m very glad. But to act as though the fact that you, personally, aren’t offended by our lack of belief means that atheists never encounter people who are is turning a blind eye to reality.

            The second sentence… well, it’s kind of a trick question. “Why are Atheists offended that I do believe in God?” The question implies the accusation that atheists, as a group, are offended that people believe in God, when for the most part we just aren’t. Sure, there probably are some who are, but they’re hardly representative. I can get how encountering people like that could color your impressions of atheists in general, or how some of our positions could be mistaken for offense at your belief in a god. But the mere holding of such a belief isn’t particularly offensive to us.

            Questions like the one posed in this meme, though, aren’t really questions. They’re smokescreens. Aside from the implied accusation, a question like this is aimed at deflecting attention away from atheists’ actual objections to religion by minimizing them and misrepresenting them as mere offense at the fact that you believe.

            There are, however, quite a number of religiously supported positions we find offensive. And since these positions may seem inextricably tied to your belief in your god(s), it may be hard to see them as separate things.

            For example, if a Muslim believes women must be kept separate and in submission to the dominant male in their lives, I find that offensive and will oppose it. Or if a Christian believes that gay people should be punished and tormented for being gay, I find that offensive and will oppose it. If a Hindu believes people born in a “lower caste” deserve to be treated like dirt because of it, I find that offensive and will oppose it. From my perspective, those positions are what I object to. Not the belief in Allah or Jesus, or Krishna, or whoever. Anyone who believes in those gods, and yet does not hold that their belief gives them license to impose what I view as harmful ideologies on others, is not going to offend me by their belief in their god.

            If I can go Godwin here for a second… it’s the difference between being offended that people believe Adolf Hitler existed, versus being offended that some people actually think he had good ideas about how to treat ethnic and religious minorities. The latter is perfectly reasonable, and analogous to the kind of offense most atheists might experience when encountering religious beliefs. Whereas the former is kind of silly.

            Of course, I also get that from a believer’s perspective, they may believe that a god exists who holds the kinds of positions described above and has the authority to require people to hold them as well. Their belief in the positions that we find offensive is predicated entirely on their belief in the god who demands them. That’s where this gets thorny, because it’s hard to separate “I’m offended by the positions required by the god you believe in,” from “I’m offended by your belief in that god.” But they are separate things.

            So why do many atheists make a point of arguing against believing in gods in the first place, if that belief doesn’t offend them?

            Because beliefs have consequences. People make decisions based on their beliefs. If someone believes they must do something harmful or offensive because they believe in a god who wants it done and has the authority to demand they do it, we don’t have many options for persuading them not to. The only way to get at those kinds of decision processes is to attack the god-belief, either by persuading them to start believing in a god that doesn’t want those things (or doesn’t have the authority to demand them), or by persuading them not to believe in the god at all. The first approach, for us, would be a dishonest one at best, and still leaves open the possibility that a theist would simply transfer belief to a god that demands a different set of harmful behaviors. The second approach is the honest one and, to our minds at least, the path that also opens the door to taking a more reasoned approach to evaluating future actions.

            Does this make sense? I hope it does. I hope that you can see that what I’m talking about, while not necessarily straightforward, is not merely a semantic difference. We’re not offended by the belief in a god, but I think we still have good reason to argue against believing in one anyway.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

What is the Point of Praying over the Supreme Court?

            With the Supreme Court getting ready to rule on marriage equality, we’re starting to hear calls for prayer prayer rallies to affect the outcome. And I have to ask: what’s the point?

            Seriously. I really, really do not understand these things. What is supposed to be accomplished by this? Oh, sure, the organizer of the event in the link says what they are hoping for. It’s this: “…we're going to totally focus on Justice Kennedy, we believe he is the swing vote, and we're just going to ask the Lord to forgive us of our sins and turn the heart of Justice Kennedy that he might see the error of his ways and protect marriage." But what does that really mean?

            I’ll tell you what it sounds like to me. It sounds like Coach Dave believes that if Christians ask really, really hard, then God will mind-control Justice Kennedy to decide the way they want.

            To which I can only say… “huh?”

            Doesn’t Christianity believe in free will? Many, in fact, argue that the entire reason evil exists in the world at all is that God will not interfere with free will under any circumstances. Of course, that’s clearly contradicted by the Bible itself, but Christians claim it anyway. Or, as per the usual caveat, some versions of Christianity claim it. And if it’s the case that God won’t interfere with free will, what possible good could it do to hold rallies asking him to do just that?

            It’s also part of common Christian rhetoric that God’s will cannot be altered by us piddling human beings. That would suggest that, no matter what Justice Kennedy decides, whether God intervenes in that decision or not, it’s exactly according to the plan that God always had and was always going to have. Praying about it is… superfluous at best, isn’t it? Either God was going to allow Kennedy to decide for himself, or he wasn’t. Either God intends for marriage equality to happen, or he doesn’t. The prayer can’t move him to change his mind, so why bother?

            But let’s suppose these people have some reason to believe that God will actually change Justice Kennedy’s mind, but only if they pray for it. I suppose there’s room in the many variations of Christian belief for that particular theology. But then… isn’t that, well, really unethical? They’re essentially claiming to believe they have access to the power to control other people’s minds, and are willing to use it to achieve their political aims. That’s comic book super-villain territory. If they actually had that ability, it would be scary as hell. And yet ordinary, seemingly decent people not only don’t bat an eye at these public calls for magical mind-control, they actually feel virtuous about participating in them!

            If such a power existed, I’m sure it would be pretty tempting to use it. I’m sure there are uses to which many people could justify putting it. And it doesn’t say much about the people who believe they wield this power that this is the use to which they believe it ought to be put: preventing gay people from getting married. They’re not focusing their mind-control thought rays on preventing ISIS from beheading and raping people, or asking God to “change the hearts” of child molesters, or seeking to violate the free will of corporate CEOs for the purpose of getting them to pay their employees a living wage. Or, hell, if they’re really that convinced that being gay is so bad, and they’re already convinced that the solution is to ask God to violate the sovereignty of people’s minds, why aren’t they just asking him to make people stop feeling attracted to others of the same sex? At least then, they’d be using this power to alleviate suffering. But no, they pray to mind-control folks into perpetuating a situation where large numbers of people are in love and restricted from fully expressing it. They really, really think they have the power to alter people’s minds, and the use they choose to put it to is perpetuating misery? While at the same time crowing about their own virtue? That is really kind of messed up.

            Now, it may seem like I’m getting a bit worked up here. And maybe I am, a little. But there are limits to how upset I can really get. After all, as contemptible as I may think it is that people calling for these sorts of prayer rallies think they have the power to violate the minds of the Justices and choose to use it in this way, the fact is that I don’t believe they have it. These rallies are nothing more than religiously themed protests. And as such, the “power of prayer” the organizers go on about focusing on our government’s decision-makers is nothing more than the same power any protestor has in our democracy: the power to have their voices heard by the government.

            And I think we should all be very glad that we don’t appear to live in a world where there’s any more to it than that.

Monday, June 1, 2015

What Are Some Problems with Christian Evangelism?

            Now and then, one of my Christian friends will post some blog or article to their social media accounts in which a writer attempts to analyze issues within Christian evangelism. These are pretty much always authored by Christian evangelizers, and usually revolve around what it is the author feels the evangelists are doing wrong and/or what they believe such proselytizers ought to do to improve their outcomes. This one is a fairly recent example of the breed, titled “Five Problems with Christian Evangelism (and What to Do Instead).” Since it contains a lot of the elements shared by many similar articles, I figured I’d use it as an example for the sake of my discussion here. And the discussion I want to have is an outside perspective on these sorts of articles.

            So what are this author’s five problems? Allow me to summarize.

1)      We talk too much

The author chides evangelists for being more interested in telling their Jesus story than taking an interest in other people.

2)      Our script is tired

People are tired of hearing the same old stories from Christian evangelists. They’ve heard it all before.

3)      People think we’re bullies

The author thinks the message that we’re getting from Christian evangelists is that we need to become like them, or else…

4)      We haven’t earned the right

Basically, the idea here is that the author feels people react poorly to being evangelized by strangers they have no reason to trust. So get to know people and take an interest in them before proselytizing.

5)      People don’t see the difference

This criticism focuses on how people perceive Christians as being just like anybody else (at best), and therefore see no reason to think joining them will make a positive difference in ther own lives.


            Now, with all of that out of the way, what does the author recommend to do differently? Here are his two suggestions:

1)      Practice service evangelism.

The crux of this suggestion is that instead of going out and trying to convince people, Christians should become helpers of people across all kinds of social boundaries. The idea being that people will be so impressed with your helpfulness that they will want to find out what motivates you and then join the team.

2)      Treat it like a 12-step program

“Recovery” is something you do every day. You may “earn the right” (see above) to invite a new member to join you, but you shouldn’t pressure them.


            There are a plethora of similar articles exploring why various evangelism efforts may be failing, why church attendance is dropping, why young people seem less engaged with their religion, etcetera. They may have different takes on what is going wrong, or different suggestions for what to do (reference popular culture more/less, or make services more/less about entertainment, take more of a personal interest in the subjects of your evangelism, make friends with people before evangelizing, or don’t discuss facts – that last is one of my favorites). But the sampling of such articles I have read are very similar in one respect: they’re all about tone, not about content. They’re not about what believers say, they’re about how they say it. They all make the unquestioned assumption that people don’t want to hear your message (yet again) because they don’t like the presentation or presenter, rather than because they have made a reasoned rejection of the message itself.

            I know I’m not the target audience for these articles, obviously, but in a way I think that might put me in a position to give a bit of outsider perspective. So, what I would like to do is borrow the author’s format and list five problems I see with Christian evangelism – even (perhaps especially) of the “more friendly” sort embodied by his article. I will follow it up with my own suggestions of what new tactics it might be worthwhile to adopt.

1)      It devalues genuine relationships.

The author, and writers of many similar articles, advocates getting to know people, befriending them, earning their trust, and then proselytizing. This approach sounds lovely if your goal is to be a more successful evangelizer. Of course, it sounds deceitful and underhanded if you’re on the receiving end. The advice is essentially to build a relationship on the false pretense that you’re genuinely drawn to the company of the other person, when your true goal is to forge an emotional connection you can exploit to foist your religious agenda on them. I suppose a genuine respect and friendship might accidentally grow out of such a cynical beginning, but the odds aren’t good. The target certainly would have every right to feel deceived and betrayed should they ever discover the real motivation.

2)      It ignores the possibility that any other world view might be valid.

Interestingly, advice of this sort usually doesn’t even pay lip service to the idea that the “unsaved” target might have valid reasons for not already having accepted what the evangelist is trying to sell them. The focus is on how you can get to know them and slip past their emotional barriers before launching a surprise assault on their world view. These articles take it as axiomatic that your targets can be changed by you, but you can’t possibly be changed by them.

3)      It isn’t evidently true.

This is kind of a big one. Many of the articles giving advice on effective evangelism explicitly advise the proselytizer to avoid discussing facts. Which seems like a very odd piece of advice to give someone you think is trying to spread capital-T truth. In the words of atheist activist Aron Ra “The truth is what the facts are.” If you need to avoid the facts in order to spread your viewpoint, that is an admission that it can’t really be supported as true. Which makes the entire enterprise dishonest from the core.

4)      You target our children

Many evangelism efforts explicitly go after the children of nonbelievers and/or parents of different faiths. Witness the never-ending battles to plaster public schools with explicitly Christian messages and social pressures. Religious institutions already have plenty of opportunity to preach their messages, what with there being more churches than schools in this country. But the schools are targeted because they give something churches can’t give: access to a population of other people’s children isolated from the influence and protection of parents who might shield them from predatory proselytization efforts. Children are, by and large, more vulnerable to emotional manipulation (especially the horrific threats that are a primary tool of many evangelism efforts) and less able to separate fact from fantasy than are adults, which makes them prime targets for religious conversion. But I think we can all agree that there are few better ways to raise the ire of a parent than to target their children for something they see as harmful.

5)      The message, not the messenger

This is the other thing that gets ignored in the evangelism advice, and it’s the big elephant in the room for a lot of atheists: the content. Believe it or not, in America most adults have heard the message of Christianity. Or more accurately, the messages of the Christianities, since there are literally thousands of variations that simply cannot be parsed as to which is the “correct” form (yes, I know, it’s yours). Many of us have concluded that the message(s) is at best a relatively benign untruth, and at worst a horrific tool of manipulation, degradation, and hate-fueled tribalism, depending on which interpretation is presented and how strongly it is followed. Liking or disliking the way the story is presented, or the person presenting it, is just not a factor. There is no end of people I like, admire and even love that are Christian; I just think they’re wrong about their god. There are a number of people I dislike who are atheists, and that means absolutely nothing to me when it comes to evaluating the god claim. I don’t particularly care if the message is presented in dry recitation, or with electric guitar accompaniment. Content isn’t an afterthought; it is the only thing that matters.


            So now that I’ve laid out a (not exhaustive) list of five problems I see with Christian evangelism, I’m sure you’re dying to know what my suggestions are for doing it better. The first suggestion should come as no surprise: I’d rather you stopped doing it at all. But I also know that, for many forms of the faith, that’s not really an option. So I’ll give my second piece of advice: be honest and straightforward with people. Discuss the facts, and do so with adults with whom you have been fully honest about your intentions. Be prepared to take their viewpoint as seriously as you expect them to take yours, and if they don’t want to have that conversation, respect that decision. If someone tells you they still don’t believe, accept that they’re probably telling you the truth. And please, don’t ever use a false guise of friendship as a vehicle for proselytization.