Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Boston Atheists Report 1.6

Our end-of-March podcast, recorded 3/28/2009. Topics: Religion and atheism in death; pilots and crashes and religion, oh my; integrating Islam and Western society; misguided Texas laws and education guidelines; fundamentalists' amusing uses for technology.

[Edited on October 7, 2009, to remove link to live download: Only the most current ten episodes of the Boston Atheists Report are available for immediate streaming. Please email us if you'd like to be sent earlier episodes.]

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Family Guy and Atheism

I love Seth McFarlane. Family Guy is one of my favorite comedies despite not being able to keep up with it thanks to not having cable for a long time. Of course I noticed that all the atheist blogs I read are buxxing about the Family Guy episode in which Brian comes out as an atheist. The episode is really awesome and really gets atheism in how we view things but how hard it is to be an atheist around so many theists. If you haven't seen it, it's on Hulu

As it turns out Seth is an atheist which is really nice to find out. I always focus on the careers on actors or singers I like because I not only respect their privacy, but I don't want to find out if they're into things like Scientology or vaccine denial. But still, it's not a bad thing to find out someone you're a fan of shares some of your views, especially when that view is highly contentious and demonized by society.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Is nothing Sacred? In which I defame religion

The Human Rights Council yesterday voted to pass a non-binding resolution, that is, a statement without legal force, which condemns defamation of religion. 23 countries voted in favor. Current member nations of the UNHRC are Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Canada, China, Cuba, Djibouti, Germany, Jordan, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mexico, Nigeria, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Switzerland, and Uruguay. How countries like Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, China, Nigeria, and Cuba get on the Human Rights Council is not mysterious; that they nonetheless are members, and that their membership is no mystery, induces despair. (Washington Times editorial; Associated Press report)

It should be noted that earlier this week, the Main Assembly of the UN rejected proposed blasphemy "legislation" and upheld freedom of speech (read more at UN Watch). Nonetheless, the resolution which was passed indicates that the representatives of Armageddon and fantasy are yet marginally more effective than those of us with a reality-based worldview.

While I still have the liberty to make my views on the matter known, I would like to observe that Muhammad was warlike and unpoetic, and he most certainly did not have any special relationship with supernatural powers. Neither did the Buddha, who was mostly an unsagacious ninny; nor Jesus, whose teachings were at best derivative and at worst reprehensible. The Hindu pantheon is silly. The Jewish people would be more interesting without theism. Zen is nonsense; the Tao that is Tao is nonsense, too.

I could -- and usually do -- offer similar put-downs for all kinds of religious belief. Deities are psychosocial constructs with no reality outside of the human mind. To think otherwise is to be, unequivocally, wrong. To address such wrongness as "the pluralism of an enlightened society" is to deny that the terms truth, reason, civilization, and enlightenment have any meaning beyond their pious use in politics.

To follow the specific examples into general principles: All varieties of theistic and supernatural belief are unmerited and dangerous. It is doubly dangerous to fuse the moral authority of any institution of values (e.g., religion, though there are others) with the legally sanctioned authority of violence -- i.e., government. We are duty-bound to remain vigilant against such fusion: and are all responsible, when vigilance goes slack and the people with the guns gain the right to dispense moral judgment. You don't want the people with the guns making such calls.

The right to defame, electively and without sanction, must be defended; freedom of speech means less and less as the fictitious right not to be offended continues to ascend.

More on this topic in the next Boston Atheists podcast, as we explore the meaning and implications of Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders' op-ed in the March 8 Boston Globe, on the topic of Islam and freedom of speech. The right to defame, electively and without sanction, must be defended; freedom of speech means less and less as the fictitious right not to be offended continues to ascend. I am unsure how I can respond effectively, as an individual. Suggestions are welcome -- let me, us, know what you think on the Meetup message board, or here at the BA blog.

Recommended reviewing: Christopher Hitchens, in a panel discussion with Shashi Tharoor, eloquently argues for the eradication of all taboos.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Atheists in Foxholes

Who hasn't heard the saying "There are no atheists in a foxhole"? It's a sounbite argument meant to show that when you're in one of the worst possible situations it's God that you will turn to for help. The fact of the matter is that there are in fact atheists in the armed forces, but it doesn't end there.

Who hasn't heard of the Miracle on the Hudson in which a quick thinking and logical pilot was able to land a plane by focusing on the task at hand? Since then there have been other plane crashes in which God simply chose not to intervene. One recently involved the death of seven children. In fact there is even the case of a pilot stopping to pray instead of following emergency procedures. This resulted in the death of 16 people. He has since been sentenced 10 years in jail.

Just another reason why the analogy fails completely.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Randi: Amazing. The Bible: Not so much.

There are many claims in the Bible, and in this YouTube video, James Randi casts a critical eye on the "facts" therein. It seems that the archeological record and the Biblical record are somewhat at odds, and despite protests from religious "scholars," the evidence points to the idea that Nazareth, for example, did not exist as portrayed. (from a post by Jeff Wagg on the James Randi Educational Foundation website blog)

The JREF is an educational resources on the paranormal, pseudoscientific, and the supernatural -- the blog and the discussion forum are excellent destinations for anyone interested in learning more about skepticism.

Study: Psychology and Belief

Garrett Kennedy, a Counseling Psychologist-in-training at the University of Wolverhampton (UK) is carrying out research in religious, spiritual and personal beliefs. Participation is through an online text-based survey investigating how personal beliefs operate in times of stress and difficulty. He's seeking as wide a range of participants as possible. Anyone interested may find more information at the study's website.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"There’s a new power in America – atheism"

"The faithless are a growing force as the churches duck the challenges of the age," according to an article by Andrew Sullivan in the Times. What follows are excerpts from his article with a few very brief comments. - ZB
There is one thing that is not allowed in American national politics – and that is atheism. “In God We Trust” is on the currency; and the number of congressional members who avow no faith at all are about as plentiful as those who are openly gay (none in the Senate; five in the House).
As more Americans identify as godless, it will become safer to challenge these manifestations of the irrationalist status quo.
Americans are losing faith, though; and those who have it are moving out of established churches. The nonreligious are now the third biggest grouping in the US, after Catholics and Baptists, according to the just-released American Religious Identification Survey. The bulk of this shift occurred in the 1990s, when they jumped from 8% to 14% of the population – but they have consolidated in the past decade to 15%.
Every loss in faith is a gain for reality-based perspectives.
It is impossible to know where this is heading, but the latest survey is a reminder to exercise a little scepticism when you hear of America’s religious exceptionalism. Yes, America is far more devout than most of western Europe; but it is not immune to the broader crises facing established religion in the West. The days when America’s leading intellectuals contained a strong cadre of serious Christians are over. There is no Thomas Merton in our day; no Reinhold Niebuhr, Walker Percy or Flannery O’Connor. In the arguments spawned by the new atheist wave, the Christian respondents have been underwhelming. As one evangelical noted in The Christian Science Monitor last week, “being against gay marriage and being rhetorically pro-life will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of evangelicals can’t articulate the Gospel with any coherence”.
It is hard to muster more whelming arguments in defense of an ethically and intellectually incoherent tradition. That apologists are balking at the task of wedging their deity into increasing narrow gaps just shows that not even apologists are entirely resistant to reality-based thinking.
What one yearns for is a resuscitation of a via media in American religious life – the role that the established Protestant churches once played. Or at least an understanding that religion must absorb and explain the new facts of modernity: the deepening of the Darwinian consensus in the sciences, the irrefutable scriptural scholarship that makes biblical literalism intellectually contemptible, the shifting shape of family life, the new reality of openly gay people, the fact of gender equality in the secular world. It seems to me that American Christianity, despite so many resources, has ignored its intellectual responsibility. And atheists, if this continues much longer, will continue to pick up that slack.
The cost of admission at any church is that one leave intellectual responsibility at the door.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Pubbing with Tim Farley, Rebecca Watson, and the Boston Skeptics

On February 23rd, a large contingent of Boston Atheists joined the Boston Skeptics at one of their monthly Skeptics in the Pub gatherings. Early in the evening all the booths near the stage at Tommy Doyle’s Pub were already filled up with eager skeptics; those who didn’t get a seat stood at the back around the bar.

The indomitable, industrious Rebecca Watson of Skepchicks was Master (or Mistress?) of Ceremonies, introducing the guest speaker for the evening, Tim Farley, who runs whatstheharm.net. Tim started What’s the Harm after attending one of James Randi’s Amaz!ng Meeting, an annual conference of Skeptics organized by the James Randi Educational Foundation and featuring notable skeptics and critical thinkers. Here he met the Penn Jillette who served as one source of inspiration for What’s The Harm.

What, then, is What’s the Harm? As Farley explained, it’s a website he’s put together, along with help from contributors, recording cases of people who have been duped, scammed, harmed, or directly or indirectly killed by various forms of pseudoscience and other dubious practices. While this site is merely anecdotal – a fact that Penn Jilette points out while praising Farley’s site – it is meant to be an eye-opener and offer a quick response to anyone who has ever been asked What’s the harm of homeopathy, detox programs, chiropractic treatments, and over seventy other practices.

Farley had a projector set up in the pub and flashed a few sad cases up for his audience: the young woman who had died of a stroke soon after receiving “chiropractic adjustment” on her neck, the young child who died of malnutrition after her parents put her on a stringent vegetarian diet without consulting a doctor, the people who followed their faulty navigation systems against their better judgment, driving their cars right into rivers. Farley points out that in all these cases, critical thinking and some research might have prevented disaster.

Read more at whatstheharm.net.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Why Does the Church Hate Rape Victims?

I was looking around on CNN.com and saw in the top 10 stories column an article mentioning that an abortion doctor was lauded...lauded? When do you ever see lauded and abortion doctor in the same sentence? Of course this article was about the doctor who performed the abortion for a 9 year old girl in Brazil. The girl was raped and pregnant with twins and because of her age unable to bring the twins to term without dying and the twins dying as well. This was the pinnacle of worst case scenarios you could ever possibly have regarding the abortion issue, and how does the Catholic Church react? They Excommunicated those involved with the abortion. Was the stepfather, who committed this heinous act against a 9 year old excommunicated? No. The Archbishop Sobrinho stated, "The law of God is higher than any human."

So let's be clear, the Catholic Church in all it's wisdom excommunicated the people involved in an abortion that I think most sane people can agree was absolutely necessary regardless of moral inclinations. Not only do they cause more anguish for the family and people involved, they have caused a private matter to become world news. Essentially they made a horrible situation absolutely worse. This also coming from a church that has been riddled with sex abuse scandals for quite some time now. The depths that this church can sink seem to be completely bottomless.

Oh, and by the way, they want your money too.

The Misperceived Cheeto Jesus

Over at YouTube, “Finally Tonight, Jesus…” is a compilation of the many, many moments of local news coverage given over to reports of religious apparitions in 2008.

We’ve all encountered theists whose best reason for believing the way they do is personal experience – the voice they hear in the back of their mind, the role they feel their deity plays in their life, the glimpses of the supernatural they see in the world around them. All of which are either signs of gods, or, erroneous interpretations of normal, non-spooky phenomena. Among the false interpretations theists put upon natural happenings, none is more comical than the idea that the all-powerful Author of the Cosmos would choose to reveal himself in a taco shell. And reporters love to meet people who see Jesus in a taco shell.

The widespread and hilarious habit of seeing messiahs in toast is a product of pareidolia. From the Skeptic’s Dictionary:
Pareidolia is a type of illusion or misperception involving a vague or obscure stimulus being perceived as something clear and distinct. For example, in the discolorations of a burnt tortilla one sees the face of Jesus Christ. Or one sees the image of Mother Teresa or Ronald Reagan in a cinnamon bun. . .
The reason you don’t see are Atheists on the 5 o’clock news, claiming to have seen Darwin’s beardy face peering out the woodwork just waiting for a more theatrical revelation, e.g. the simultaneous appearance of the word “GOD IS REAL” in flaming violet letters, six hundred feet tall, in the sky above every major city of the world. Of course, that is the kind of evidence that no rational person could deny. If the evidence for the existence for a deity were logically compelling (as flaming violent letters would be), then belief in that deity would be logically compulsory, and free will would be subverted, and any religion pretending that free will is compatible with the existence of their favorite god would have to revise their doctrines. Following this line of reasoning, Christians should expect exactly what we see: that the existence of their God will only ever be substantiated by unimpressive evidence. Anything less would be an attack upon free will!

Shoddy ad hoc apologetics aside, the real reason Atheists and rationalists don’t see Jesus in their Cheetos is that people who lack belief in the supernatural aren’t likely to attribute to the divine what can more readily be understood as common cognitive misfiring.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Boston Atheists Report 1.5

Our mid-March podcast, recorded 3/8/2009. Topics: New buses and billboards; secular founding fathers; demographics of atheist groups; religious and secular reactions to loss; cultural aspects of institutions like churches.

[Edited on September 18, 2009, to remove link to live download: Only the most current ten episodes of the Boston Atheists Report are available for immediate streaming. Please email us if you'd like to be sent earlier episodes.]

Sources Cited:

On trends

The United States is by an impressive margin the most religious of the developed nations. This should not be a source of national pride. I think, optimistically, that Americans have more common sense and fortitude than our purported piety implies, and that eventually we will slough off superstition and embrace more rational worldviews. The just-released results of the American Religious Identification Survey suggest that my optimism is not misguided: since 1990, Christian belief in this country has declined by 11%, and the percentage of Americans identified as non-religious has doubled.

I note that the Boston Globe reported on Catholicism’s decline (“Number of N.E. Catholics tumbles,” 3/9/09), but did no reporting on the growth of Atheism. The ARIS report indicates that 16% of Massachusetts residents profess “no religion,” meaning that about one million non-believers work, raise families, vote, and volunteer here in the Commonwealth. In light of that omission, I’d like to share a few thoughts about what this huge number of non-believers means – and what it doesn’t mean.

What it doesn’t mean is that the nation is experiencing the effects of new, terrible developments in war or famine, the kinds of trauma that lead people away from belief in gods. Rather, we are beginning to see what happens when the single greatest obstacle to Atheism is removed. Until very recently, people who shrugged off the received wisdom about deities faced a dilemma: either profess false belief and be accepted, or be shunned as an arrogant and probably communist apostate. Enter the Internet. Information technology now provided almost every American with an exit from religious isolation, and with a portal to the information and community available online. My hypothesis is that as technology improves, religion loses its stick and rationality gets the carrot.

I don’t believe this demographic trend is temporary or cyclical. We Atheists have always been here – indeed, it is insulting, even slanderous, to suggest that everyone who has ever professed religious belief actually believes it – but truth be told it hasn’t always been polite, or safe, to make ourselves known. Now that it is easier and more comfortable to admit to disbelief, we are coming out of the woodwork. And the more of us that do, the more able we will be to offer a sense of community to those others who have yet to come out.

News of this survey may well embolden more Atheists to come out of the closet. They should know that groups such as the Humanist Association of Massachusetts, the Ethical Society of Boston, and our own Boston Atheists (a local affiliate of American Atheists), are always pleased to welcome new members. As for myself, I welcome these data as evidence that our society is becoming more tolerant and more rational… and that the increasingly vocal and visible Atheist constituency continues to grow into a thriving community.