Monday, April 21, 2014

How NOT To Build Our Community

I recently returned home from the American Atheists National Convention 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah. I'll be writing about my experiences soon. I had a great time with so many friends both new and old that I wanted the experience to keep going. To that end, I signed up for some upcoming meetups around metro Detroit. One of them, Detroit's newest group, the Black Nonbelievers of Detroit was a group I had been meaning to attend for quite some time. Upon sending RSVP for the next meetup, I was greeted by a new member posting as not attending with this:
Are you separating your selves by your skin color? That is almost like being RACIST. Blacks have the most racist er I mean black groups of all races. Does that make blacks the most racist people in America?
Needless to say, this was a letdown for me after experiencing such a rush of good feelings in Utah. To see this kind of staggering ignorance and selfishness on display is deeply troubling.

I'm very proud of the Black Nonbelievers here in Detroit as well as in the other states. Rather than "separating themselves by their skin color" they have created a community where people can celebrate their freedom from religion and theism, meet other like-minded individuals, feel welcomed into atheist groups, and contribute to our larger community. Indeed the future success of our community demands that we grow into inclusiveness and not regress into exclusivity. To say nothing of the moral obligation.

On the topic of "RACIST", racism is indeed related to the formation of these groups albeit not in the way described. Because of our racist society it is necessary to have spaces for marginalized groups, much in the same way that we have atheist places that are not meant for believers. It doesn't mean that others are not welcome, simply that they are not the focus. Even so, I have felt welcome at every event or group that focuses on the black atheist experience. In certain cases, more so than at certain predominately white groups or events.

I sat down and contemplated how selfish a person must be to have thousands, literally thousands, of secular groups available that focus on them and to object in such a manner to the one group they could find that doesn't specifically focus on them. And some say that atheists can't experience being awestruck.

I wondered if this person could just be trolling. But then I remembered that it happened in Hemant's comment thread just last year. I wanted very much to think this person wasn't a freethinking humanist interested in actual intellectual discussion. The name is redacted due to BNOD's rules. Sure enough, interests listed ranged from Humanism to Secularism and Freethinker.

This kind of behavior is so disappointing to see from my own community. This is why we need codes of conduct and anti-harrassment policies along with effective and strong leadership that follows through on such things. We need to encourage the growth of our community by enforcing positive values and cleaning up the bigotry that threatens our shared goals.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Internet And Atheism

I recently read a review of a study published in the MIT Technology Review that suggests that the internet is killing religion slowly. I've suggested in the past that the fossil fuels of religious fervor are fear and ignorance - and the internet is rapidly removing the latter from our society. I've seen atheists malign the internet in casual conversation as if it has no relevance to the community. This is ironic when these people took their first steps away from religion using the internet as their research tool. It reminds me of the hypocrisy of former Christian atheists that suggest that Christians can't learn or change their mind. This distrust of the internet within the community has always befuddled me given that there exists strong reasons to think that the recent decline of religious observance in the states is due to the internet. This report strengthens my previous conviction that the internet is a very powerful tool for atheist activism.
That’s a fascinating result. It implies that since 1990, the increase in Internet use has had as powerful an influence on religious affiliation as the drop in religious upbringing.
I agree with this part very much in that the internet usage of my generation has had a profound impact on our lack of religiosity. This doesn't necessarily imply that the internet produces atheists, only that it produces less religiosity. I think the latter can sometimes generate more of the former, but I'm satisfied with seeing religiosity decline nonetheless. I think also that this demonstrates that people are able to change their mind and evaluate evidence better than we give them credit for.
But there is something else going on here too. Downey has found three factors—the drop in religious upbringing, the increase in college-level education and the increase in Internet use—that together explain about 50 percent of the drop in religious affiliation.
But what of the other 50 percent? In the data, the only factor that correlates with this is date of birth—people born later are less likely to have a religious affiliation. But as Downey points out, year of birth cannot be a causal factor. “So about half of the observed change remains unexplained,” he says.
At the same time, it appears that almost half of the suggested causes of the decline of religion are unknown. My own personal opinion on this is that the entrance of the religious right into politics is embarrassing the religious youth right out of the their own religion. I've noticed that the most famous Christians are not seen as heroes by the younger Christians. This tells me that the religious themselves are causing some of their own problems with keeping people interested in religion.

This is one of the reasons that I blog, other than getting some of my own anti-religious frustration out of my system. It's why I use social networks like Facebook and Twitter as well. My own initial introduction to atheism using that word was through a poker forum on the internet (the legendary 2+2 forums). So I continue to think the internet is a big part of fighting religion.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Speaking In Ohio

Next week on Monday, March 10 I'll be speaking in Toledo, Ohio at the Sanger Branch Library to the Great Lakes Atheists. I wrote about this group when they held their convention last year, and I've been meaning to get back to see them all. Traveling around and meeting different atheists from various locations around the country and keeping in touch is becoming one of my more rewarding experiences within our community.

I don't know what I'm going to talk about when I get there, either a rehash of a talk I gave at Michigan Atheists about Fake Christian Medical Insurance or perhaps something about the Kalei Wilson affair with the SSA group in North Carolina. Either way it will be a great time and I'm happy to get back there so soon as it's a great group of people and I've missed them since the convention.

Great Lakes Atheists
March 10, 6:00 PM
Sanger Public Library
3030 West Central Ave, Toledo OH

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Why The Nye-Ham Evolution Debate Was Worthwhile

Billy Nye explains that the Earth
isn't 6000 years old to Ken Ham.
Bill Nye, the Science Guy debated Ken Ham the founder of Answers in Genesis yesterday. By all accounts Bill Nye won the debate with the standard scientific case for evolution using evidence. Ken Ham relied on the bible and probably gave his supporters what they wanted to see and hear and got some publicity for his creationism museum.

My Facebook feed was chock full of status updates in the hours following the debate, and most of what I saw was slightly negative. Some secularists/science enthusiasts thought the debate was a bad idea because they thought it gave credibility to Ken Ham and creationism. Others saw it as simply an excuse to point and laugh at the stupidity of the creationists. I was disappointed that these two sentiments overshadowed the important science advocacy of Nye.

At first I am somewhat inclined to agree that it seems like such a waste to have science advocates in a debate setting with people who get their facts from a book written three thousand years ago. I can see how some think that gives credibility to the other side. But someone needs to engage these people, and offer the case for science to the audience whether they be physically present or watching via webcast like the 750k viewers did yesterday.

If scientists refuse to debate creationists or intelligent design advocates, then it seems like they are scared. The credibility objection doesn't work because of this. Simply listening to any conspiracy theory will convince yourself of this. It is better to use these debates as ways to show that science is indeed the method for obtaining knowledge and that revelation doesn't work. Nye did a great job of this, and although many short-sighted people don't think so, he changed minds. I can guarantee that there is a group of people in that 750k figure that are now going to read books on evolution because their viewpoints were successfully challenged.

I don't think that the task of challenging people to learn about their origins demands that we make a laughingstock of them. I saw a lot of sneering in my Facebook feed that day and I can see how counter-productive this is when I look at the people in this article. Some of the questions are creationist gotcha-type questions. But many of them strike me as coming from a real curiosity and an interest in finding out what evidence really supports evolutionary theory.

I realize that it is probably religious beliefs that are keeping people from understanding the foundational principle of an entire field of science. They are hard to change, but not impossible. Most non-believers I know including myself started out on the opposite side. It is obvious to me that people can change their minds, however tiresome the process seems to observers. I think Nye holds that the people that watched the debate are worth educating, or at least giving them a chance to see the explanatory power of science.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Top Five Atheist Blogs of 2013

I decided to write this post over my vacation but I got sick and it never got done. One of the great things about a new year is the lists we go through of the past twelve months. I wanted to highlight the best atheist blogs I've been reading over the past year that I think taught me the most new things or made me think about things differently. Not all of these focus on atheism exclusively but they are part of the overall secular online community. I read all of them regular though.

1. Camels With Hammers - Dan Fincke's blog posts in 2013 probably were my favorite. To get a taste of some of his work I'd recommend Stop Calling People Stupid.

2. Love, Joy, Feminism - Libby Anne's blog has grown so steadily in popularity and it isn't hard to see why. She has one of the few 'Parenting Without God' type sections that I've seen and I recommend it to people when they ask.

3. Brute Reason - Miriam Mogilevsky is my favorite blogger on the freethoughtblogs network. This past year's content has been thought-provoking and I highly recommend it. You can find her own list of favorite post from 2013 here.

4. Richard Carrier Blogs - I've been a fan of his since I first found his blog and I return to it from time to time. It's one of the few that I like getting an email about new posts from time to time. Enjoy a sample with 'Ergo God Maximally Enjoys Getting Gangbanged'.

5. Friendly Atheist - I always stop by Hemant's site from time to time because it's such a good source of information. Sometimes I will spot a news article that I want to write about, and within hours the same story is being covered there. You can follow along here.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Writer Thinks Atheism Is a National Religion

The Coloradoan publishes the opinions of its readers from time to time. Recently they published an article by Neil Mccaffrey entitled Soapbox: Atheism becoming national religion of U.S. This kind of ignorance of our viewpoints as well as of the historical wisdom of church/state separation in our country is a deep problem. At no point in the article does the author demonstrate even introductory level knowledge about atheism, separation of church and state, or what secular activists do and want. The article is short, so I want to go over most of it here.
“Atheist mega-churches take root across US, world” reads a recent AP headline. Therein hangs the problem facing America today as we grapple with “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting free exercise thereof.” The atheist ethos that drives so much of the attack on religion in public life is itself a religion, or more to the point, a loosely-connected cabal of religions.
Atheism is not a religion. There is no organized ethos, moral philosophy, world view, or set of behaviors that set us apart as a unique group. The only thing you know about an atheist is that they lack a belief in a personal god, that they do not hold a positive belief in theism. This is not necessarily true of atheistic organizations, which may have different sets of rules, behaviors and aims. But they are no different than other secular organizations like the Girl Scouts or Red Cross, neither or which can not be reasonably called a religion.
The very people who cry foul whenever God finds his way into public view are themselves establishing churches, even as they continue to assert preeminence in the religious freedom debate.
I am aware of the organization of churches and congregations within the secular community. First off, just because they exist does not mean that most atheists desire this or support it. In my experience, we do not generally like this as a group. It would have been beneficial if Mccaffrey were to actually ask us about our sentiments on particular topics instead of just assuming that a single group in city X of America that started a church speaks for all atheists. They are also not mega-churches, as a couple of hundred of people doesn't qualify. Secondly, when atheists do choose to organize themselves into a congregation, they still support the separation of church and state. For example, the Ethical Societies have been classified as a religion but they exhibit respect for church and state separation.
It is an illogical situation. The Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project survey on U.S. religions indicates that more than 80 percent of us are Christian (78.4 percent), Jewish (1.7 percent), or Muslim (0.6 percent). Yet God is stricken from the public debate. A tiny minority ties up the courts and forces their religion, their belief system,on the rest of America.
The separation of church and state is not an atheistic position, it is a secular one. Atheists that happen to be secular activists are not advancing the teaching of atheism in the public schools or the privileging of atheism as a religious viewpoint over all others. Atheists are also not the only group within the secular community. There are plenty of theists, including Christians, that work hard to preserve the separation of church and state. It's a matter of equality and respect for all people's given identifications, not a matter of forcing a belief system onto America.
By removing God little by little from the public square, the courts — note, not Congress — are in fact establishing the religion of atheism as our national religion.
I already corrected Mccaffrey on his mistake of thinking atheism is a religion. He also seems to think that Congress can pass unconstitutional laws that will override the basic concept of separation of church and state. That's not how rights work. He also seems to think that there is one 'god'. Which god should be invoked by the government? Satanists, Wiccans, Muslims, and other believers like him have different opinions. This is why the separation of church and state is such a good idea, we don't have to worry about the harmful mixing of religious faiths with our government.
Why should one person’s belief trump mine, or that of my neighbor, simply because that belief substitutes some personal god in place of God?
I agree with Mccaffrey on this point. No religious faith or belief should trump any other conviction when it comes to our government. It appears he at least has the same kinds of worries that our founding fathers had when they dealt with this issue, but for some reason he can't come to the obvious conclusion that separation of church and state solves the issue.
The public debate must be on fair and equal footing. Atheism constitutes a belief system. Indeed, that same Pew Research survey shows that 1.6 percent identify themselves as “atheist.” With the advent of these mega-churches, atheism is now in fact being properly recognized as a religion by both adherents and critics. Once the courts recognize that, perhaps they will leave well enough alone. Stop wasting time and energy removing the word God from this and that; and stop the removal of minimal prayer, which no one is forced to say, from the public forum. That will save the various courts’ valuable time.
Atheism is not a system of belief, anymore than "off" is a television channel or not playing tennis is a sport. Repeating something over and over doesn't make it true. The figure given excludes agnostics and those without a religion or who don't bother to answer the question, which makes the 1.6 figure appear much lower than it really is. In reality the secular viewpoint is as high as 15-20% of Americans.

As for the court's wasting valuable time and energy, the country's Christians could solve this problem overnight. They could stop attempting to privilege their religion over others in the public square. If this happened, the courts wouldn't be forced to police their bad behavior any more. I wonder if Mccaffrey would approve of "minimal prayer" coming from a Satanic priest at public schools, even if "no one is forced to say" it. I highly doubt he would object to the inevitable lawsuits that secular organizations would launch to stop this from happening. I would expect he would support church/state separation in that instance, but only dislikes it when it applies to his specific religion.
 It is always important to revisit the fact that our Founding Fathers themselves asserted that the government finds its legitimacy in God. In fact, they underscored the importance of both faith and prayer by visiting a different church en masse each morning to pray for guidance as they crafted the Declaration of Independence.
Many of them hated Christianity as a religion as well. But all of them agreed that the separation of church and state was a good idea that solved the problem for all identifications. Carl Sagan once pointed out that the Bill of Rights has many historic signs that indicate it was crafted with the witch-hunts and inquisitions of Europe fresh in the lawmaker's minds. Whether or not some of the founding fathers had a private faith is of no relevance to anything.
A clever bumper sticker provides a fitting summary to this endless debate: “God is dead” (Nietzsche) … “Nietzsche is dead” (God). 
I find it somewhat humorous when religious folk bring this old phrase up like this. It shows how unwilling they are to do a little bit of hard work or to think critically. In order to think this is funny, you have to think that Nietzsche was saying that god did not exist in some sense. But he wasn't talking about death in the usual sense of the word. He meant that because of the enlightenment, the subject of theism and other supernatural superstitions would never again be viable in the academic world among intellectuals in the fields of the sciences or philosophy. And this is actually true to this day.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Christians In Africa Push Prayer, Not Drugs For HIV Treatment

A few weeks ago I watched The Dallas Buyers Club. In the movie, a group of AIDS patients form their own private group for the purpose of purchasing a variety of treatments for their disease that were not approved by the FDA. One of the things I remember from the movie was the suffering of the patients depicted, and how much of a toll that disease takes on the body. I left the theater with a heightened appreciation of our anti-AIDS efforts and the medical professionals that work so hard to find a solution to this problem.

It seems a group of Pentecostal pastors have came up with a solution of their own to this problem, and it doesn't involve drugs or anything related to modern medicine at all. It involves patients participating in a public prayer healing, after which their HIV medication is destroyed by the pastor. You might imagine that they are doing this from the goodness of their hearts for free.
The “cure” is not free, and some people say they shell out their life savings to receive a miracle blessing and quit taking the drugs.
Of course not. The prayer healing ceremony costs money, and then they actually charge these poor patients for the burning of their own life-sustaining drugs. This reminds me of the Catholic church's activities in Africa, where the pope lied to people there promising them that condoms don't prevent sexually transmitted diseases but increase the rate of infection. In a place where people suffer so much from a lack of infrastructure, disease, poverty and overpopulation this is the height of malevolent behavior.