Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Skepticism of skepticism of skepticism, and wi-fi woo-woo

One often meets a theist who believes, erroneously, that atheism is in all its forms accounted for by a hatred for whichever deity failed to deliver on the wanted goods. This is an unfortunate assumption, however common -- it presumes that there couldn't possibly be reasonable reasons for one's disbelief. Contrary to their theory about our collective god-hating, the majority of atheists I've known arrived at their position via a process of self-inquiry, consideration of the evidence, and skeptical thought. That is, their atheism is more of a judgment arrived at, rather than a reaction brought about by fear or anger. When I try to explain the true origins of such atheism to the folks who think we're just irritated that our prayers weren't answered, I encounter an interesting attitude: skepticism of skepticism.

This recursive skepticism is terrifically convenient for theistic apologists, double-standard though it is, since it de-legitimatizes skepticism as a way of considering the question of the existence of gods, while reserving the right to exercise skepticism to cast doubt on any claim skeptical of theism. It reminds one of the old atheistic bromide -- "We are both atheists, my dear Christian. I simply believe in one less god than you" -- turned on its head "We are both skeptics, my dear atheist. I simply am skeptical of one more thing than you are, that is, I am skeptical of your skepticism." We might fall into a recursive tumble chamber here, flexing our own reciprocal skepticism at this skepticism of skepticism, and so on, if we didn't sit up right straight and say: hey, this is wolfish disingenuity in skeptic's clothing. Skepticism is a tool for evaluating claims, and as there is a right way to employ it, there certainly are wrong ways. One of those wrong ways is to impishly turn this tool of inquiry upon itself, and call the entire scheme of rationality into question.

Of course, if we abandon skepticism, we have few other options aside from dogmatism and relativism, the former being the principle that certain things are true because someone said so a long time ago in an impressive way, the latter being the principle that anything a body says is true because, well, who are we to say otherwise. These are dangerous enemies, these too, and recent news from England gives us a reminder of how seemingly innocuous skepticism of skepticism can allow nonsense to flourish and bear alarming fruit.

The headline reads: "Mystics Combat Wi-Fi With Orgone"

In the alternative health-crazed community of Glastonbury, "healers" are demanding the removal of the nation's first free community wi-fi network. Their protest is grounded in concern for public health, they say; for the radiation emitted from and electromagnetic fields generated by the various wi-fi components are disrupting the energy balance of human bodies and the living earth. Chakra pollution and ley line imbalance have prompted all kinds of complaints, from headache and soreness, to fatigue and, er, headache.

Matt Todd, identified by the Telegraph as a campaigner against electromagnetic fields (is he boycotting the sun, as well?) has responded to these health complaints by planting orgone generators around the town: "The pyramid-like machines use quartz crystals, selenite (a clear form of the mineral gypsum), semi-precious lapis lazuli stones, gold leaf and copper coil to absorb and recycle the supposedly-negative energy."

Todd and other alternative health advocates have bought into Wilhelm Reich's orgone theory, which posits the existence of a biological energy flowing through and vitalizing all living things, including the good green Earth. This orgone flow is unfortunately vulnerable to disruption by our modern savage gadgetry. Sounds reasonable, no? Electrons flow through metal, orgones flow through marrow, nucleons flow through nuclei, bobitrons flow through roberts, all is right with the world.

Or perhaps it sounds incredible to you -- there wasn't any mention of orgone energy in freshman bio that I recall. But don't bother bringing your skepticism to bear on these claims, since orgone theory isn't empirically valid. It is dogmatic -- Reich made his claims, and his followers accepted and continue to promote them, and there is nary a moment to ask about "evidence." Ah -- but such proponents are terrifically skeptical when asked whether the complete absence of orgone theory in science and industry implies anything about its credibility. Says Mr. Todd in the Telegraph article, "The science hasn't really got into the mainstream because the Government won't make decisions which will affect big business, even if it concerns everyone's health."

The scenario plays out as follows: The government constructs a free wi-fi network for common good. The dogmatic orgonians oppose this effort, since their opposition is an opportunity to exercise their right to be heard as a constituency, and from political acknowledgment follows a passive endorsement of their crackpot theories. Skeptics point out the crackpottedness running amok; the orgonites retaliate with their own skepticism, and the objective media fail to distinguish between the honest skeptics and those who are full of it (full of orgone, presumably).

Among the possible outcomes, I fear two. One, that the government, reluctant to impose an obviously unwanted technology on the community, dismantles the wi-fi network. The community has one less access point to the realm of information, and settles comfortably back into its medieval woo-woo ignorance. The other, is that though the network remains, the orgone fringe continues to make its silly noise, and the media continue, with their obliviousness which wears the colors of neutrality, to imply that orgone theory and its ilk are as valid as science, just woefully opposed by dogmatic empiricists. The community suffers all the ill health of EMF immersion (that is, none) and pseudoscience enjoys visibility and normalization. Relativity reigns. Sales of selenite skyrocket.

I do think one should be skeptical of one's self. But it does not follow that all skepticism is equal; as the Devil may quote scripture, skepticism can be used to dishonest purposes. Orgone energy does not exist; the citizens of Glastonbury are not necessarily healthier without a free wi-fi network; it is not fair to say that the skepticism which Mr. Todd shows toward science is of the same species as that directed toward alternative medicine by skeptics.

NB: Over at the Skeptico blog post about this Glastonbury nonsense, one commenter has a great suggestion: the town council can sell the orgone generators, for "entertainment purposes only," and thus the New Age brigade can help subsidize the wi-fi network.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Fundamentalism seems to hate women

The Taleban has been closing girls’ schools in the northwest Swat district of Pakistan, and threatening to blow up schools which do not comply. Scores of schools have already been burned to the ground. This is a further putting-into-effect of the policies of Mullah Fazlullah, whose fundamentalist brand of Islam is propagated through the region via his illegal FM radio broadcasts. This ‘Mullah Radio’, as he is known, “has long been exhorting people to stop sending their daughters to schools, which ‘inculcate Western values’” (EarthTimes.org).

I’ve spent a few hours thinking over how to frame my response to these most recent crimes committed by the Taleban. Disgust is followed by a provocation to action, but I am unsure what I could do from my Boston home that could keep safe any Pakistani teachers and students who want to continue their lessons despite the threats of these fanatics. What I’d like to do, at least, is to share my view of a root cause of such conflicts between “Western values” (the right of all children to an education, without regard to their gender) and Islam.

Mullah Radio can expect action when he declaims the Western brainwashing of Pakistani girls, because he has positioned himself effectively within the system of Muslim authority. In his whereabouts, moral authority derives from one’s scrupulous use of Koranic justification — really, interpretation — or at least from the perception that one is working out of that book. Humanism — and the gender equality which accompanies its more ideal manifestations — isn’t as attractive in the marketplace of ideals as revelatory religious traditions, which have claimed for their exclusive use the virtuous terminology of faithfulness: fidelity, truth, meaning, hope, charity. Until a humanism is articulated which somehow engages the latent cultural forces which associate “credo” with “authority,” the conflict between reasoning humanism and dogmatic institutions will be largely communicated through force, not communication. Western humanism has no seat at the table, in Pakistan or elsewhere, as long as adults continue to admit supernatural sources for moral claims. The moral claims of humanism (”all persons are created equal,” etc.) and the moral claims of theology (”For our way is the true way, as revealed to us exclusively by our Creator,” etc.) are simply incommensurable.

I don’t mean to suggest that religion need be eradicated before feminism can get girls in school throughout the world. Rather, I have a question: why must religion (the institution where communities pronounce, attempt to understand, and preserve their values) be supernatural? If there were a Church that could credibly command all the language of religion, as well as the right of religion to distinguish between right and wrong, then we would have an institution suitably equipped to oppose Mullah Radio.

Anyone who is freedom-loving, anti-fundamentalist, and interested in taking some kind of action, might start at http://www.rawa.org.

NB: This post cross-listed from the Hoochie Woman blog, since it engages with the issue of secularism as well as feminism.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Boston Atheist: July 13 - 19th, 2008

Programs to look forward to this month: an evening get-together for drinks and blasphemy, on July 21st at the Redline in Harvard Square, and an Atheist Brunch on the 27th at the White Horse in Brighton. BA member Sarah Tractenberg is hard at work organizing our first film festival, which should go up next month. She's made use of your suggestions to develop a program, has secured screening permissions, and is now pulling together a good location. When details have been finalized, I'll send invitations out to this mailing list, and will also be advertising the event in hopes of having members of the public join us for movies, food, and conversation.

I'm writing to you from Anchorage, Alaska, where the moose ply the glacier-fed streams, the noble salmon roams the forests, and men hawk six-foot lengths of whale baleen on street corners (really). I spent a few pleasant hours wandering among the booths of a weekly weekend merchant fair downtown. Vendors were selling elk and caribou burgers, all variety of trinkets and carvings made from fossilized mammoth ivory or walrus tusks, and the usual hodge-podge of trade goods: knives, scarves, handbags, and baseball hats. I would have liked to bring back a polished oosik, but they are more expensive than you might expect. Would you believe, that there was, on the day I was walking through downtown, a protest against Scientology in Anchorage? I do now know whether the Guy Fawkes-mask-wearing protesters are directly affiliated with the group Anonymous which has been organizing protests in Boston but if not they certainly are adopting their model. The protest isn't just an expression of distaste for the Scientology brand of crazy; in the past few years, Scientologists have been peddling their wonky detox system, called Narcanon, among addiction-ravished population of poor Alaskans. It's good to want to provide support services to people struggling with addiction. It's bad to want to replace medical therapies with a system that is as medically fantastical, psychologically damaging, and autonomy destroying as Narcanon. As I drove past the Alaska protesters, I honked my support. - Zachary Bos, Director of Boston Atheists

The members of the Beltway Atheists group – for secular-minded citizens near Washington, D.C. – are organizing a first-ever "Atheist Days" festival. Visitors are invited to travel down to Half Moon Beach in Virginia, pitch a tent at the campgrounds there, and enjoy music and entertainment all weekend long. The event takes place from August 15th through August 17th, and it is highly recommended that you get a ticket now if you intend to attend.

In her column titled "The Star(bucks) Stop Here," Boston Herald writer Margery Eagan reveals that she, too, subscribes to a common prejudice: that atheists are latte-swilling urban foot soldiers in the assault on good ole American salt-of-the-earth Christians whose caffeine of choice comes, one assumes, from Dunkin Donuts only. Eagan asks, "Do you want to sit next to totally pretentious secular humanists, agnostic/atheist effete pseudo-elites (Starbucks)?" God no, who would. The article is now available for reading online only with a Herald subscriber code; however, the comments section is worth reading for the range of responses -- outrage, bemusement, confusion.

David Nicholls, the president of the Atheist Foundation of Australia, has penned an eloquent op-ed explaining his view that atheism quite as unconventional as some folks might have it.

BA member Dan Caless has sent in a link to the blog of Diana Hsieh, in which the "overworked graduate philosophy student" author argues that the "New Atheism" that has been prominent in the news in the past few years, via the activities of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, fails to meet the challenge put to it by the religious apologetics of Dinesh D'Souza and other commentators – the challenge of understanding the source of values and morality. Hsieh constructs a straw-man version of atheists, however, in order to evaluate atheism (as if it were a homogenous philosophy?) as being less objective and rational than Ayn Rand's Objectivism. Hsieh's blog post is interesting if for no other reason than for being a succinct example of the most common kind of wrong-headed objection to atheism – namely, that atheists are relativists or nihilists.

San Francisco Bay-area Atheist and prolific letter-to-the-editor writer David Mandell has written and published his first book, "Atheist Acrimonious." In David's own words: "This book is for the religious and the non-religious. Atheist acrimonious means an angry atheist; and why should I be angry? For one, I was brainwashed as a child into the Jewish religion and suffered because of it for over 35 years. Now that I am an atheist, I am still suffering but for different reasons. Atheists throughout history have been killed, hated, discriminated against, abused and tortured by religionists. And today it is still going on! It is time for all this to stop! I am the winner of the 2002 American Atheists "Letters to the Editor" contest. In my book there are over 70 published anti-religious "Letters to the editor", exposing my anger. Also included are many dedicated atheists with articles, essays, poems, quotes, songs, stories, and dialog. This is a one of a kind book because of its unusual contents. It is straightforward in the explanations and honest in its contents. It is a book of knowledge and should be read in the schools. It is dedicated to atheism in the hope that atheists come out of the closet."

BA member Raja Bhattacharyya has brought to our attention an interesting survey from the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture (ISSSC) about the worldviews and opinions of scientists from India. Here are some highlights:
49% scientists of a country as important as India in today's world believe in prayer as efficacious traditional, alternative curative and diagnostic techniques? Homeopathy being the other; 50% Indian scientists believe in this

44% India's scientists approve a degree course in Vedic Astrology

41% scientists approve the rituals of Indian's space scientists going to a Temple called Tirupati to seek the blessing of Lord Venkateswara before launching the rocket and satellite.
Raja writes: "A stunning survey! Although surveys are not always reflection of reality, but this one is fascinating, and very depressing to me in particular. The matter is more depressing, because this is a survey of 'scientists.'"
Many thanks to Raja for passing this along, and to Debasis Bhattacharyya, who works with the Rationalist Society of India out of Calcutta, for bringing it to his attention originally. James Randi, in his weekly "Swift" newsletter, has often praised the incredulity and integrity of Indian skeptics and rationalists whose willingness to challenge the superstition and fundamentalism common in Indian culture puts them at great professional risk. I think this survey is uplifting news – not because we should be gladded by the high proportion of Indian scientists who reportedly believe in a lot of woo-woo, but because such surveys are being conducted at all. "Sunshine is the best disinfectant," I agree – the mystical attitudes which congregate like condensation in the dark spaces of culture quickly evaporate when exposed to skeptical inquiry. At a time when religious leaders – Christian, Muslim, and Hindu – in India are mobilizing against education officials and modern textbooks for promoting "atheism" and "secularism" (as opposed to superstition and false history?), such dissent is even more dangerous, and more necessary. A little Googling will quickly alert you to the conflict between modernity and myth in Indian classrooms, e.g. the current fracas in Kerala.

The Atheist Meetup of Greater Lowell is still in need of an Organizer. If you'd like to coordinate monthly meetings and additional activities as the occasion calls for it, let me know so I can put you in touch with members of the group and acquaint you more fully with the responsibilities involved.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

A quote from Mitchell Cohen

"In my view, a secular state needs a humanist basis. Yes, that means that I think secular humanist culture should be privileged in liberal democracy (or in what I would prefer, social democracy) but not religion. The reason is that it can encompass religious lives, whereas religious culture cannot do the same for secularism and atheism."
-- quoted in "The New Atheism" for the Winter 2008 issue of Dissent

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Faithlessness and the Founding Fathers

In her most recent About.com: Christianity newsletter, Mary Fairchild exhorts readers to commemorate our nation's origin "in the spirit of the founding fathers." By implying that this spirit is a Christian one, however, she is mistaken. Either she is unaware that the founders of early America were far more freethinking than her or your fellow believers, or, she is willing to ignore a preponderance of historical evidence in order to rally her audience to the belief that their faith was shared by these great leaders. In case the former explanation accounts for her lapse, I wrote to her to share the following quotes assembled by Steven Morris for a 1995 article in "Free Inquiry", titled "The Founding Fathers Were Not Christians." They're also of certain interest to all red-blooded American Atheists:
"I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of...Each of those churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part, I disbelieve them all."
The first president of the United States, never declared himself a Christian according to contemporary reports or in any of his voluminous correspondence. Washington Championed the cause of freedom from religious intolerance and compulsion. When John Murray (a universalist who denied the existence of hell) was invited to become an army chaplain, the other chaplains petitioned Washington for his dismissal. Instead, Washington gave him the appointment. On his deathbed, Washington uttered no words of a religious nature and did not call for a clergyman to be in attendance.
"The Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Christ levelled to every understanding and too plain to need explanation, saw, in the mysticisms of Plato, materials with which they might build up an artificial system which might, from its indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, give employment for their order, and introduce it to profit, power, and pre-eminence. The doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child; but thousands of volumes have not yet explained the Platonisms engrafted on them: and for this obvious reason that nonsense can never be explained."
"Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise." ... "During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution."
In her email, Fairchild mentions a letter which John Adams wrote to his wife. Perhaps she are unaware that his wife was particularly pious and devout? It's conceivable that Adams was deferring to his wife's religiosity when he made the suggestion that Independence Day "ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty." Certainly such an idea was uncharacteristic of him, as can be seen in this final excerpt from Morris' compilation:
John Adams, the country's second president, was drawn to the study of law but faced pressure from his father to become a clergyman. He wrote that he found among the lawyers 'noble and gallant achievements" but among the clergy, the "pretended sanctity of some absolute dunces". Late in life he wrote: "Twenty times in the course of my late reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, "This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!"
One might recall from junior-high civics class that it was during Adam's administration that the Senate ratified the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which states (in Article XI) that "the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion."

I hope, but cannot expect, that Fairchild will in the future give her audience a more historically accurate perspective on the religious views of the founding fathers.Their religious beliefs were quite alien from those she holds, and I think it is likely that they would be quite intolerant of her efforts to align their actions and pronouncements with her doctrines. But this should be no reason for anyone to celebrate less patriotically on the 4th: the deeds of the founding fathers were worthy of our respect and admiration, regardless of their creeds.

A final note. Fairchild writes at About.com: Christianity that "many of the founding fathers of the United States of America were men of deep religious convictions based in the Bible and their Christian faith in Jesus Christ." I won't outright deny this -- my knowledge of history perhaps isn't as deep as yours -- but I can dispute it, with a simple question about the professional roles available to a certain class of citizen in that time: what else was an intellectually-minded man to do? If he was not a lawyer or a merchant, he was bound to be a clergyman. But less important than the actual distribution of authentic religious belief among the founding fathers, is the corollary to your statement. If it is undeniable that many of the founding fathers were men of religious conviction, it is equally undeniable that many of the founding fathers rejected religion.

I hope that Fairchild, and the many thousands of Christians who receive her newsletter, can honor the virtue and legacy of skeptics, freethinkers, deists, agnostics, and atheists, with as much enthusiasm as they celebrate the legacy of the Episcopalians, Lutherans, etc., found among the founding fathers. The good fortunes and freedoms of our United States is due in large part to the work of men who had courage enough to reject the supernatural, at a time when doing so came at great cost, in order to build the world's first first modern democratic republic upon a sound, secular foundation.

For those who want to learn more, here are the sources which Morris gives in his article. It's quite an exciting bibliography, for anyone looking for summer reading.

1. From: "The Age of Reason" by Thomas Paine, pp. 8,9 (Republished 1984, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY)
2. From: "George Washington and Religion" by Paul F. Boller Jr., pp. 16, 87, 88, 108, 113, 121, 127 (1963, Southern Methodist University Press, Dallas, TX)
3. From: "Thomas Jefferson, an Intimate History" by Fawn M. Brodie, p. 453 (1974, W.W) Norton and Co. Inc. New York, NY) Quoting a letter by TJ to Alexander Smyth Jan 17, 1825, and "Thomas Jefferson, Passionate Pilgrim" by Alf Mapp Jr., pp. 246 (1991, Madison Books, Lanham, MD) quoting letter by TJ to John Adams, July 5, 1814.
4. From: "The Madisons" by Virginia Moore, P. 43 (1979, McGraw-Hill Co. New York, NY) quoting a letter by JM to William Bradford April 1, 1774, and "James Madison, A Biography in his Own Words," edited by Joseph Gardner, p. 93, (1974, Newsweek, New York, NY) Quoting Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments by JM, June 1785.
5. From: "The Character of John Adams" by Peter Shaw, pp. 17 (1976, North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC) Quoting a letter by JA to Charles Cushing Oct 19, 1756, and "John Adams, A Biography in his Own Words," edited by James Peabody, p. 403 (1973, Newsweek, New York NY) Quoting letter by JA to Jefferson April 19, 1817, and in reference to the treaty, "Thomas Jefferson, Passionate Pilgrim" by Alf Mapp Jr., pp. 311 (1991, Madison Books, Lanham, MD) quoting letter by TJ to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, June, 1814.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Ellen Johnson to Leave Post as President of American Atheists

[from The Board of Directors of American Atheists]

To Members and Supporters of AMERICAN ATHEISTS...

I want to take this opportunity to tell you about some of the important changes now taking place at American Atheists.

Following over 13 years of outstanding service to American Atheists and the cause of State-Church Separation, Ellen Johnson is leaving her post as President of the organization. Her tenure in this position was marked by some of the most amazing and historic events in our movement's history.

She stepped in following the tragic disappearance of our founder, Madalyn Murray O'Hair and her family, and oversaw the relocation of the American Atheist Center and Charles E. Stevens American Atheist Library and Archives (CESAALA) to New Jersey. She organized the Godless Americans March on Washington, and brought together our nation's diverse and sometimes fractious community of Atheists, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and other nonbelievers. She testified twice before the National Commission on Civil Rights, and made hundreds of media appearances on prime time and cable news TV programs. Ellen also mobilized Atheists and other secularists throughout the nation to speak out on the vital First Amendment issues of our time.

And with all of this, she managed to coordinate the hectic daily activities here at the American Atheist Center.

In the spirit of obtaining all that she (and any other Atheist) can from one life the elegant, energetic and outspoken Ms. Johnson will now focus her passions on a new adventure. Just what that might be we do not yet know. We know, however, that it will be something splendid!

Ellen, who will remain on the Board of Directors, is succeeded by long-time member Frank Zindler.

There have been three presidents of American Atheists since its founding over four decades ago -- Madalyn Murray O'Hair; her successor and son, Jon Garth Murray; and since 1995, Ellen Johnson. They left, as the saying goes "big shoes to fill." We are confident that Frank is fully prepared for this new challenging role. He has a distinguished academic career as a former biology professor, linguist and bible-era historian. He has authored numerous books and articles dealing with a wide range of subjects, everything from the alleged historicity of Jesus to the on-going controversy over teaching creationism in our public schools. His tenure as an activist with American Atheists goes back over 30 years. Frank is a nationally-recognized speaker and debater, and has served as an eloquent spokesperson for our organization.

Frank Zindler will serve as President Pro Temp until a suitable replacement for this office is found. The day-to-day operations at the American Atheist Center will continue -- and so will our activism!

Other Officers and Directors will be staying on as well. Dave Silverman, who has done an outstanding job as our Communications Director, will continue to be the "public face" of American Atheists, working closely with Frank to make sure that our message gets out to the media and others who shape public opinion. Board member Edwin Kagin will remain in his important post as National Legal Director. The American Atheist magazine and all of the other benefits of membership will continue. And so will our efforts to represent you in the important fight for state-church separation, Reason and the civil rights of Atheists.

We're hitting the ground running, folks! The baton is passed -- and we'll continue our all-important work.

Thanking you in advance for your support!

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Alive Mind's new "Secular Philosophy" site

The following notice comes to us through the Boston Atheists email account:
Alive Mind has launched "Secular Philosophy," a site dedicated to the exchange of ideas and debate relating to all things secular with an emphasis on philosophy. You will find exclusive films, books and blogs by Daniel Dennett, Colin McGinn, Massimo Pigliucci and Mark Rowlands, as well as the Center for Inquiry’s Point of Inquiry podcast every Friday evening. In addition, we have acquired the exclusive rights to release on DVD The Atheism Tapes, the source material companion series to Jonathan Miller’s ground breaking A Rough History of Disbelief, which aired on PBS. The Atheism Tapes, produced and hosted by Jonathan Miller with the BBC, compiles off -the-record interviews with six of today’s leading men of science and letters: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Colin McGinn, Arthur Miller, Denys Turner and Steven Weinberg, who discuss their personal intellectual relationship to non theism from a wide range of perspectives.
If you have any questions, contact Elizabeth Sheldon via email: elizabeth [at] lorberhtdigital [dot][com].

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Make a Call For Bill 1031

I've gotten a message from Greg Epstein, and thought it would be good to pass this along. The MA State Senate is voting TODAY at noon on Bill 1031, which would allow Humanist celebrants to officiate at weddings in MA, without the very cumbersome and non-equal special pre-approval process currently required. Just a handful of quick phone calls could help influence the MA State Legislature to provide marriage equality...for the non-religious! But you'd need to call TODAY by noon.

As is not often the case when dealing with government -- five minutes of your time could make a real difference.

The members of the Judiciary Committee can be found at the Massachusetts legislator directory. Each of their links leads to their contact information; the first group of members is Senators, and the second group of members is Representatives. When you call, you may simply say:
I'm calling for [Sen X or Rep Y]; I support Senate Bill 1031, regarding Humanist wedding officiants. It is important to the very significant percentage of the population in Massachusetts who identify as Humanist, secular or otherwise non-religious are able to have a wedding that meets their family's needs, with equality and dignity."
If you intend to contact one or more Committee members, it is important that you do so ASAP, so that the contact has been made before the hearing.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A new site: Apex Naturalism

Will Davidson -- a name you will have seen on the BA mailing list -- write to share news of the new online magazine he is publishing. The contents of Apex Naturalism will differ from other Atheist websites in a couple of ways, he writes:
First, there will be new content every day in the form of articles, essays and videos. It is an interactive site in that people who register will be able to comment on any of the content. Second, This will be a multi-dimensional site. In addition to articles about atheism, there will also be content about Science, new technologies, Nature and politics. I recognize that atheists have broader interests than just the atheist movement. I believe this online magazine can be a forum by which we can explore all the different forms of non-belief from traditional Atheism to Religious Naturalism as well as providing a vehicle for the education and support of reality-based initiatives worldwide.
Will welcomes suggestions for content, and invites anyone interested in becoming a contributor to contact him via email: will [at] apexnaturalism [dot][org].

Friday, February 01, 2008

Christian complaints against atheistic haters

Last month, a conscientious Christian name Philip Rowe was motivated to write in to the Alabama Anniston Star in order to share his opinion of Atheists as angry, embittered, and despairing creatures. He writes:
Outspoken atheists are haters. They try to convince us that there is no God or say that Jesus is a fraud because they despise us. Atheists have the right to believe whatever they want, but when they push those beliefs onto believers, the motivation is hatred. Jesus tells us that we cannot serve two masters. He says we will love one and hate the other. Whether you believe it or not, the central messages of Christianity are salvation, restoration and, ultimately, unprecedented joy. Christians reach out to people to share this good news. Outspoken atheists seek to rob people of their hope. They offer no alternative, only misery and despair.
Blair Scott, the Alabama State Director for American Atheists, dropped me a line to alert me to this case of misunderstanding, and to point out his response:
A recent letter-writer stated that atheists despise Christians and are haters. The writer’s main point seemed to be that if atheists debate religious issues with believers, then the motivation is hatred. The writer seemed especially fond of the word “pushy.” Does that make pushy Christian proselytizers hateful? Would he apply the same standard to his own faith? I am an atheist and I do not hate the writer or other Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Wiccans, etc. I love all human beings equally, even if I disagree with their theology. My car has been bashed in with baseball bats. Bibles left on my front porch. A cross planted in my yard. Death threats received via e-mail. Nasty notes left under my windshield wipers. My children harassed and picked on at school, and much more. I know all about religious hatred. Luckily, I do not paint all religionists with the same brush because of the actions of some of their ranks. But I must ask, what is the writer’s motivation to rail against atheists if not hatred? I can assure the writer and Anniston Star readers that such hatred is NOT coming from the atheists.
Unfortunately, the mistaken belief that Atheists seek to replace religion with despair and nihilism, is widespread and deep-rooted. For my part, I think the most effective counter-example to this kind of prejudice is just the public display of godless virtue. It becomes increasingly difficult for such claims to seem credible when we keep on being tax-paying, vote-casting, old-lady-helping, puppy-loving, respectful, considerate, engaged, and upstanding neighbors.

The Star ran another response to Rowe's letter, from citizen Russell Buckalew, on the same day. One line in particular strikes me as worth consideration: "I believe that our country's future depends upon the frequent and vociferous expression of differing points of view, lest we become a homogeneous society, lacking the diversity that is the source of our national strength."

The journalist Christopher Hitchens has a comparison
between American-style pluralism and theocratic line-toeing: "On one side, the ethics of the multicultural, the secular, the skeptical, and the cosmopolitan. ... On the other, the arid monochrome of dull and vicious theocratic fascism."

I cringe when Christians rail about the threat of Atheism, and frame their complaint in terms of Constitutional freedoms. How many of them realize that their demands for preferential deference align them with Islamist tyranny? We must be grateful to Russell Buckalew and Blair Scott for speaking out against local forms of religious totalitarianism. What starts small will quickly, if unchallenged, become large, become a cultural norm, cloak itself in the false legitimacy of tradition, and encroach further and further on Constitutional freedoms intended to protect any dissenting few from an unrighteous many.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Boston Atheist: January 20 - 26th, 2008

Looming major on the godless horizon is the Darwin Day celebration at Redline next month. It is, in the words of organizer Tom Clark, an occasion to "encourage organizations and individuals to celebrate Science and Humanity." We'll be gathering with other secular-minded, science-lovin' products of evolution, to raise a glass on the occasion of Charles Darwin’s birthday! Free admission, appetizers and birthday cake, plus food and drink at regular prices. Guests are invited to bring toasts, poems, limericks, readings, stories, songs, Darwin impersonations, and whatever else might add to the festivities as we honor the man who put us in our rightful, natural place. Join us on Tuesday, February 12th, at 7 pm at the Redline Bar in Harvard Square, Cambridge.

Under the joint auspices of Boston Atheists and Skepchick.org, several of our Boston Atheists have decided to host a "ladies' night" as a chance for women atheists, skeptics and freethinkers to gather together for camaraderie and conversation. Having noticed that, in general, more men tend to attend Atheist meetings, they have decided to join forces with Skepchick.org to get more women atheists and skeptics out in numbers. That will provide them with the opportunity to discuss issues related specifically to women and atheism. It is not, however, intended to be a splinter group or to encourage gender separation; on the contrary, they hope this meeting will encourage more women to attend the regular Boston Atheist meetings in greater numbers! The first such event will be held at BA member Danielle's house. There'll be wine, snacks and desserts. Feel free to bring any interesting skeptic / atheist reading matter along. Since this is the first meeting of its kind, we can discuss what people would like to get out of future ladies' nights. If you have any questions, get in touch with one of the organizers, Nora and Danielle, via the Meetup site. Nora asks that those interested in attending please RSVP to delaney_nora@yahoo.com so they can gauge numbers. "Ladies Night" will take place next Thursday, January 31st, at 7 PM, at Danielle's apartment; information and RSVP instructions are at the Boston Atheists calendar.

Emily Maloney, writing for the very excellent magazine The Smart Set, reports on her encounters with pet psychics and aura cleansings on a visit to the "Body, Mind, and Spirit Expo" in Oregon last month. I think she mixes a laudable compassion with her skepticism -- even as she easily sees the absurdity of, for example, the purported healing powers of a photocopy of a handprint, she writes kindly of the credulous:
... now that I am a few days away from the expo, it seems clear that some people just want to be forgiven for backing over their cats in the driveway, or else they want to hear they were Joan of Arc in a past life, if only because in this life they are speech therapists for the school district who seriously value their summers off. Their basements flood in the winter. Their little brother can’t stop going to jail. They are allergic to wheat gluten, and no matter how hard they try not to be, they are apple-shaped. I forgive them all.

The 34th National Conference of American Atheists has been scheduled for March 21st-23rd in Minneapolis, MN. At the conference, Atheists will gather for workshops, panels, and other activities, as well as talks by such noted speakers as Prof. Richard Dawkins, AA president Ellen Johnson, Prof. Jack David Eller, Frank Zindler and Dennis Prager. Anyone interested in being a part of the political and civic activism growing among the Atheist community in this country should strongly consider attending.

The Washington Post's "On Faith" section has over the past year become a destination for news and commentary on religion and irreligion on America. Some of it is inane -- for example, the post in which neo-pagan pundit Starhawk declares that Thomas Jefferson was "deeply religious," even as she frames the debate over the separation of church and state as being between factions fighting over whether to amend the Constitution in favor of Hera or Pan. Some of the content, though, is quite engaging. In this video, journalist Christopher Hitchens discusses being moral without believing in any god. When the media abandon any test for truth in order to seem more progressively pluralistic, then we listeners, viewers, and readers have to do the tiresome work of separating wheat from chaff ourselves. Is there any newspaper out there willing to identify fluff as fluffy, mythology mythical, and religion as fantastical?

Last Friday, I discovered a Christian witness tract on an empty seat in the subway. After a moment spent wondering whether Jesus of Nazareth should be sent a citation for littering, I put the piece of propaganda in my pocket. When I read it later, I was offended by its poor production quality, unstylish prose, and most of all by the malevolent threat of eternal damnation in the Christian hell which the author offered to all readers who have not yet joined a Baptist church and begun tithing regularly. As an Atheist, I think I can do anything better than a Christian*, so I set myself to the task of producing a better version. You can view the fruits of my labor at the Boston Atheists website, links below. The original is titled "Hell -- It's Not a Joke!", and my new version is called "Hell -- It Isn't Real!" Please distribute as you see fit, and let me know if you have any ideas for a NEW tract.

[* = This is something I obviously do not believe, but I like from time to time to try on the stereotypes in order to remind myself just what the community of believers thinks of all of us out here in the frozen barren wastes of disbelief.]

"... that's what we need to do -- to amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards rather than try to change God's standards so it lines up with some contemporary view."
So says Republican candidate Mike Huckabee. I think the above-mentioned Starhawk has a point: why should it be a given that we are going to rewrite the Constitution according to the Jewish sky god? I think we've been overlooking all that we stand to gain by returning to the worship of the Babylonian Marduk, whose ruthlessness might very effectively advance our national goals domestically and abroad. Huckabee's stumping for Jehovah; but I'll keep my vote in reserve, waiting for a candidate to appear who represents the Marduk constituency. I'll give you a dollar if you can tell me succinctly how the Tablet of Destiny differs from the Bill of Rights in any significant way. Alright, so that's all a bit silly. But Huckabee is a myth-believing moron who is somehow commanding huge support from myth-believers throughout the country, and that is more than a little troubling.

Yale Divinity student Gabriel Michael, writing in the Yale Daily News, makes a good point: that 'evangelical atheism' is more effective at galvanizing the faith of reactionary theists, than it is at convincing believers and the undecided that atheism is a correct worldview. This is a point I have heard made by many cool-headed, dispassionate commentators offering their opinion on the increasingly visible and vocal Atheism of the past year. But they're all wrong: not in saying that zeal and rhetoric are poor substitutes for philosophy, but because they either imply or declare that Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, Dennet et al are *merely* zealous. All those writing against the "New Atheism" sidestep the brunt of the atheists' attack by claiming to detect a distasteful tone in their opponents, and thereafter condescendingly decline to take into account the arguments being made. Sorry, folks... you can't call for a time-out just because the other team is getting ready to mop the floor with you. If you don't like playing rough enough to win, then you better be prepared to leave the field in defeat. Ironically, most of the "vehement atheists" I've read this year have been far more civil and accommodating in their discussion than their religious detractors. By "playing rough" I refer to such low-down and barbaric tactics as "using rational arguments," "relying upon logic," and -- worst of all -- "treating mythology as incredible."