Florida returns to sanity (maybe?)

27 11 2008

For 30 years, Florida has had a law bringing discrimation against gays far beyond the issue of marriage. It’s been struck down, for now. Whether it will stay dead is another question entirely, unfortunately.

This sort of law is far worse even than the discrimation with regard to marriage, in some ways. For one thing, this sort of law asserts that not only are gays not equal, but that they can and will damage any children they can lay their hands on. For another, it denies a safe home to countless children. And even beyond that, this is not a fight over a word (whatever the word’s importance). This is an attack on gays, not just on their rights.

This sort of law says to gays, “you are dangerous. You cannot be trusted with children, because you will damage them. They are not safe with you.” The rationalization is that kids “need a mom and a dad” but that’s bullshit. Would the people who support this law also rip children away from single mothers/fathers? After all, they aren’t providing both “mommy” and “daddy.” No, of course not, because that would be beyond even the stupidity so rampant in this nation’s politics and policies. Well, why is it any different unless gays are dangerous? Oh, that’s right, it isn’t. It’s pure bigotry and hatred at work in these sorts of laws. Gays are not going to hurt these children any more than anyone else is. They’re ordinary people who just happen to be different in a way that isn’t allowed rather than one that is.

Even leaving aside the hatred behind such laws, what is this actually doing to children is depriving them of homes. These are people willing to take in children who need a home, and those children are denied that home. Gays aren’t dangerous, so all that this law achieves is to hurt the children that those behind it claim to seek to help. They need somewhere to live, and that is taken from them. Why? Because the people making laws in America are all too often elected by a constituency driven by ignorance and fearmongering.

These laws do not just attack gays’ rights. Even that is appalling enough, but this says to them that they are not even a person. If we allow laws like these to stand uncontested, we are telling them that in our eyes, they are not fit to care for a child. This says that not only are they not equal to us, but there is no way that they ever could be. That is not simply an attack on basic freedoms, nor even an attack on fairness and justice. That is an attack on their very humanity.

I understand that many Christians agree with me, but for goodness’ sake, why do you not speak out more? People claim that their religion tells them that homosexuality is evil. Surely this is a different religion entirely from yours, whatever name it claims to bear, and whatever text it claims to read? Surely this is some other religion trying to take its name from yours? Why do you not denounce this as having no place in your religion? Or if you do, why do not others? Why, when we think of Christianity, do we not think of the moderate and liberal wings? And what will you do to change that?



27 11 2008

So, I’m just a little confused here. Why is whether Thanksgiving is a holiday that atheists can celebrate even in question? It’s not like it’s a holiday derived from a religious text. It’s about being grateful. It works exactly the same way for us, except we don’t say a prayer over our meal. Are there really people who think this poorly of us? Well, I guess I’m not surprised, but I’m a little sad that there are people like that.

Atheism acting like religion

21 11 2008

I think it’s fair to say that atheists generally have a lot of criticism of religion. I know I do. But, unfortunately, many of the most steadfast critics of religion are also the closest among the atheists to the religious. Many of them have the same “I won’t deal with you because of your religion,” or “you’re stupid because of your religion” attitude that we find so repulsive in the religious.

I have news for these atheists: by holding this attitude, you are no better than the religious. Your being right has nothing to do with it. You’re still displaying the same self righteous, arrogant, obnoxious attitudes. You’re still acting like a condescending bigot.

Intelligent people can disagree, can’t they? Why is it so hard for you to agree to disagree over religion? In my experience, the response is usually “but religion is sloppy thinking.” So what? No one is free from sloppy thinking. Everyone is sloppy in their thinking sometimes, perhaps often. Very intelligent people have sacred cows. Some of the most brilliant people in our history were religious. Are you better than them because you’re not?

How do you expect to convince people to give up their religion with this sort of thing? Most people’s religion stems much more from their feelings about it than from a rational analysis. Most people going to church aren’t worried about making it completely logically consistent. They go to church, in large part, for the community. They want the feeling of being around others who appreciate and care about them.

This sort of insulting, rude behavior helps ensure that atheism remains limited to a small group, because it makes the image of atheism into exactly the opposite of a warm, welcoming community. I doubt that is your goal, so why do you persist? Perhaps because you are not really so rational about this at all? Or are you incapable of having a reasonable, reasoned dialogue with those who disagree with you?

Making fun of religion is one thing. Making fun of the religious is another. The first is not only OK, but good. Humor is one of the best ways to convince people, or at the very least force them to moderate. The second is not OK. It’s rude, it’s counterproductive, and often a very nasty tactic indeed. What do you think of people who insult atheists? Why are you different?

Apart from sloppy thinking, what do you have against most religious people? Fundamentalists are only a small portion of the religious. Do you take issue with liberal Christians, who are friendly to atheists and agree with us on things like separation of church and state? Most of them aren’t trying to convert you, they really do feel good will toward you. There’s a reason that they believe in a very moderate religion, after all. Liberal Christians really do tend to do more work to help others. Why is that? And why do you think you’re better, anyway?

Afterlife Myths (3)

17 11 2008

(Afterlife Myths 2)

So, I’ve talked about what the myths tend to be like, both the heaven side of them and the hell side. I was actually going somewhere with my ramblings this time, so here’s the conclusion post. (Sorry it’s so focused on Christianity again =\ )

Hell myths are obviously bad. Many who believed strongly in Hell say that it has terrified them for much of their life. Hell espouses an idea of justice that is distorted to the point of meaninglessness. It declares God’s absolute power over us and his right to that power. It’s authoritarian and hate filled, and it’s absolute crap.

Heaven myths are less clear cut. They give people a reason to live good lives, after all, without terrifying them (yes, it’s cynical, but if it works…), and they provide comfort for people about death. What’s wrong with that?

Well, I left out a few important things that heaven myths do. For instance, they interfere with the grieving process. People continue to believe that in some sense, their loved one is still there. They can’t completely get over the death because, to them, the death is caught forever half way done. Can you imagine what it would make you feel like if your mother, your brother, your child were permanently almost dead?

It leaves us with a ghost of that family member forever haunting us, because we never give up on their being there. We cling to that because it comforts us that they aren’t really gone, but that’s just denial. Denial is unhealthy at best, and incredibly destructive at worst, yet it is enshrined in almost all religions because it makes us think we feel better.

On top of that, it erases the idea of morality, or at the very least the idea of “Christian morality.” I’ll tackle the very liberal view of heave first,  liberal view of heaven next (I don’t mind those two so much, because they’re welcoming and accepting to other people as well), then last the more “traditional” view of Heaven.

If we say that everyone goes to heaven, well, that means that no matter what we do, we recieve eternal happiness. The likes of Hitler would thus arrive in Heaven completely unpunished, because this view of heaven is so tolerant. So much for God caring about morality. Of course, I think this still leaves room for morality. It just means you do good because it should be done, and because it helps other people. However, if you believe in eternal heaven, you don’t think that life on Earth matters so much, so why worry about it? I realize that many very liberal Christians work to help others. I’m just saying that their beliefs somewhat devalue that action.

If we say that everyone receives their just punishment and then goes to Heaven, you have a reason to be good, but not too much reason. After all, no matter how long your punishment, you’re in Heaven forever, right? There’s also the same problem of devaluing life on Earth as in the first view, since Heaven is still eternal. And finally, this starts to overlap with the traditional view, where you do good because you get something out of it.

Finally, there is the traditional Heaven. This, of course, is paired with Hell. That right there is enough against it, I think, because Hell is bull, but I’ll address the Heaven side, too. This is the ultimate “do good or else” situation. You don’t do good because it’s the right thing to do, you do good because it gets you into heaven. It’s as cynical and amoral as it comes, but it’s embraced by a horrifying number of people.

I’m not of the PZ Myers school of thought. I don’t think religion is completely evil. I’m not of the Dawkins school of thought, either. I don’t think it’s fairly evil. I think that the more liberal versions of Heaven really aren’t too bad. If the comfort they provide outweighs the interruption of the grieving process, then I have no problem with them. But sadly, I think that for many people that’s not the case. Even the liberal view of Heaven can cause harm. That’s why I argue against it. Not because I hate religion, not because I eat babies (ok, maybe one or two), but because I feel that I have to oppose that which causes needless harm.

Afterlife myths (2)

15 11 2008

(Afterlife Myths 1)

So, now that I’ve tackled the “positive” afterlife myths, it’s time to take a look at the fire and brimstone side of religion.

First, reflections on using these myths to understand a culture.

A hell-style myth is very common, although it seems to have greater variation. There’s Hell itself, with its eternal fire, brimstone, torture, and so on. There’s Egyptian mythology, in which your soul is devoured. There’s Norse mythology, with the cold, barren wasteland. Reincarnation is the most mild, with simple demotion.

I think that the variety of negative afterlife myths actually makes them more interesting. Heaven style myths tell us something about human psychology, but little else. Hell style myths speak volumes about the culture that produced them. What do they fear most? What do they think of justice? How moderate is their religion? How authoritarian are they? All of these can be answered, at least partly, by the culture’s hell myth.

Christianity and European culture is the easiest for me to examine because I know the most about them, so I’ll use those to make my point.

Firstly, it shows us that the culture that has shaped the religion believes very strongly in just punishment. Hell is, after all, eternal punishment for crimes (what you think of whether they are really crimes is irrelevant here, what matters is the scale). Sinners are punished horribly.

Second, it shows us that the religion was shaped from something very fanatical. Moderation does not produce eternal and horrendous torture, because moderation is, well, moderate. It’s level headed and fairly balanced, while fanaticism is fiery, passionate, and angry.

Thirdly, it shows that the religion is coming from a very authoritarian view of the world. God is ruling the universe with an iron first, and all who break His laws are condemned to eternal torture and damnation. An authoritarian punishes harshly and ruthlessly. In general, a non-authoritarian does not.

Finally, it shows that the culture was not a forgiving one. There is no chance in hell (da dum tsch) for redemption. Those who have sinned are damned whatever they should do after they die. A more forgiving culture gives opportunities for redemption, with nothing permanent and immutable.

Now, on to making fun of these myths. Again, I’ll be sort of centered on Christianity because I don’t know as much about other religions, but I think the same argument tends to apply in more or less the same form to the other myths as well.

The Hell myth is covered in human fingerprints. The idea of supernatural justice is both human and downright silly.

What sort of God have we created who is so petty as to send you to be tortured for eternity for failing to believe in him? This God is supposed to be omnipotent and omniscient, and also benevolent. Well, does this fit? If he is omnipotent and omniscient, surely he is above such things? And if he is not, he is certainly not benevolent, so I have to ask why he is worthy of worship.

What sort of God is going to send anyone to be tortured for eternity? That’s the human thirst for vengence and punishment speaking. It’s not reasonable or rational. Again, this is a God who is supposed to see things on a timescale that dwarfs the age of the universe. And we think he’ll punish us for sleeping with the wrong person? Come on. That’s not a god, that’s an interfering, entirely ordinary, human parent.

We have in many ways made God in our own image, but in no way more so than in our idea of Hell. We ascribe to God the pettiness and self righteousness that we all feel, and we create a fantasy in which these are acted upon. We reassure ourselves that those who we hold in hatred or contempt will be punished by God even if we can’t do it. When you look at it clear of cultural conditioning, it really is silly. I mean really, picture a being vastly greater than the entire universe, capable of creating universes with the snap of his fingers, and he cares if you sleep with the wrong sort of person, or eat shellfish or something? Yeah, right.


13 11 2008


We have a picture of a planet outside our solar system. Wow. That’s beyond amazing.

Afterlife myths (1)

6 11 2008

You must live your life preparing to die, training and honing your skills in battle. When you die, it’s a good idea to die in battle, valiantly defending your cause to the bitter end. Those who live well are rewarded in Valhalla, drinking and feasting.

Silly and primitive, right? Now let’s try a modified version:

You must live your life preparing to die, giving and doing good deeds. When you die, it’s a good idea to die a martyr, valiantly defending your cause to the bitter end. Those who live well are rewarded in Heaven, eternally happy and blissful.

The two contain essentially the same ideas and only switch a few details. The human conception of the afterlife is just that: human. There are really only two afterlife myths that I’ve seen: the heaven myth and the reincarnation myth. They arise so consistently that either they must be true, or they must be deeply rooted in the human psyche. Since the two are mutually exclusive, we can say for sure that at least one is simply rooted in the human mind.

Humans don’t want to die. We tell so many stories, religious and fairytale and fantasy, about fighting death, beating death, etc. We place death at the core of our darkest stories, and personify it as something dark and malevolent. This makes sense: if you’re afraid of dying, you’re probably more likely to pass on your genes.

From this fear comes the idea of the afterlife. The brainpower that evolution has given us lets us think of the most absurd delusions and then cloth them so well that we can actually believe them. Other cultures’ myths seem bizarre to us because we haven’t built up our protective illusions around them. Our own have been carefully protected because they have been the ones with which we comfort ourselves. And even beyond that, the most ridiculous of myths are made ordinary simply by exposure to them. Even an atheist generally considers the myths of other cultures more silly than those of Christianity. They are ordinary to us, so we do not see how bizarre they are.

In the case of the Heaven style myth, it appeals both to the fear of death and to the wish for justice. It means that all the people who died unfairly and unjustly have gone on to eternal happiness, so it wasn’t really so terrible, right? It means that the little infant who dies in her mother’s arms is in a better place, and they weren’t just snuffed out. It means that the martyr has been rewarded.

In the case of the reincarnation myth, it appeals to our fear of death and, I suspect, also to some extent our curiosity. We wonder what it would be like if we had been this, or if we had been that. For some people, never being able to know really is painful. We wonder what the world will be like a hundred years later, or a thousand, or a million. In the reincarnation myth, we can live it.

The incredible capacity for thought that allows for these delusions to be protected, however, also gives us the capacity to see through them. As evolution gave us greater intelligence, it gave us greater powers of reasoning and logic. Human thought is subject to many pitfalls and fallacies, but we have the capacity to learn them and to seek to avoid them.

In the thousands of years of human history, we have made great strides in understanding logic. Today, we understand not only the formal structure of logic, but how we go wrong. We know that we tend toward confirmation bias, looking only at evidence that supports our belief and not that which contradicts it. We know how vulnerable we are to appeals to authority, giving someone’s word greater weight than it deserves. We know that we believe anecdotes over statistics (one of the most powerful modes of evidence), seeking the personal and throwing out the impersonality of numbers. All of this is known, and although we cannot free ourselves from them entirely, we can be careful to look for them and avoid them much of the time.

Through the lense of this logic, our religious myths fall away. As you come to understand the fallacies that are all too common in human thought, you can see how others use them to prop up their belief. It is, of course, easier to see it in others than in yourself, but with enough time and thought, you see them in yourself as well. Once you see them in yourself, you doubt. Once you doubt, you question. And that’s all anyone can ask.