Friendly Atheism

28 12 2008

We’ve all noticed that there is a tendency among the religious (or at least, the sort of religious people who tend to dislike atheists) to stereotype us as being overly negative. Unfortunately, I think that there is some truth to that, at least in our dealings with the religious.

When we’re dealing with religion, we often fall into argument. That makes sense; we think it’s wrong, they think it’s right. The problem is that it shouldn’t be an argument. We can and should discuss without arguing. Most of the time, in talking about religion, atheists should try to be friendly toward other people. We shouldn’t be argumentative, we shouldn’t view it as a debate. It’s just a discussion between friends.

I know I have a tendency to go on the attack a little too quickly, and I think I’ve observed the same in other atheists. I can’t say whether the same is true of theists, since I’m kind of biased. The problem here, of course, is that we are reinforcing this “atheists are negative” stereotype. We aren’t winning anyone over by coming off as jerks. Quite the contrary, really. We do this because it’s easier than being friendly, but who said it was going to be easy?

One way of trying to be more positive and upbeat in these situations has been to try to argue the ideas of humanism, not just to argue atheims. I like that approach both because I like humanism, and because humanism shares many of the ideals that most Christians would say that Christianity has. That way, we show that we do have common ground. We’re not some sort of god-slaying monster, we’re just someone who disagrees on that particular point. (On top of which, I don’t think the goal is to deconvert everyone. Isn’t it just to make sure people think critically and don’t push their religion on others? We shouldn’t be jerks anyway.)

Another way is just to control your tone. Don’t be confrontational when you don’t have to. Ad hominems are easy, and when you’re frustrated, you feel better for making them, but they only hurt your point. Don’t use the superior tone that all too many of us fall into when we’re fed up. It’s easier than keeping it out, but it just makes you look bad. If they’re insulting, don’t respond in kind. And above all, don’t assume that they’re irrational. Faith is irrational, sure, but most religious people are perfectly intelligent and rational apart from their faith. People compartmentalize their sacred cows (we do it too), so in many cases those sacred cows say little about people. You can discuss other things perfectly normally with them, and they’ll often think quite like you.

Of course there are some religious people who we can argue with, and who won’t be bothered by it. Some people like to argue and debate, but they aren’t the majority. Don’t argue with someone unnecessarily if it might bother them.

I guess this is all pretty much common sense, but we don’t listen to our common sense as often as we should. This is the sort of thing that we need to remind ourselves over and over, and keep in mind every single time we’re talking about religion. It’s very easy to slip into being a jerk. Don’t.



28 12 2008

I assume that if you’re interested enough in science or skepticism to read my little blog you already listen to the SGU, but in case someone reading this blog doesn’t, I figured I’d recommend it. It’s a weekly podcast about what’s going on in science and skepticism. They usually have some news about the latest garbage in antiscience, and then some news about real science.

Happy holidays everyone!

25 12 2008

Hope you’re enjoying whatever holiday(s) you celebrate! *Leaves to read Dawkins and Hemant’s books*

Massive Coal Sludge Spill

23 12 2008

500 million gallons of sludge left over from burning coal broke the wall containing them and have covered 400 acres, dumping in huge amounts into tributaries of the Tennessee river. This sort of sludge contains Mercury and Arsenic in dangerously high levels.

CNN’s article that just went up said this:

“We deeply regret that a retention wall for ash containment at our Kingston Fossil Plant failed, resulting in an ash slide and damage to nearby homes,” TVA said in a statement released Tuesday.

The understatement here is incredible. “Deeply regret” falls so laughably short of where they should be. This is a six foot wall of toxic sludge covering 400 acres and entering the water supply. They are talking about months or even years to clean this up, and all TVA can come up with is, essentially, “oops, sorry!” They consider it minor because only 10-12 homes were damaged, and no people were killed or seriously injured. Never mind the ecological disaster, it’s perfectly fine! I’d laugh if I weren’t so appalled by it.


20 12 2008

Humanism is attacked by fundamentalists all the time, but that just shows either that they are ignorant of what humanism is, or uncaring toward humanity. They seem to have no idea what humanists actually think or want.

I can’t speak for all humanists of course, but as for me, I just want humanity to act with humanity. The word “humanity” is used to represent our best qualities, the things that people are capable of doing for each other. It’s an ideal. We’re human, so we fall short of that ideal, but as a humanist I think that it’s an ideal worth striving for. So here’s my view of humanism.

I believe that humanity is capable of tremendous acts of beauty. I maintain that people can perform incredible miracles for each other. We don’t need priests or prophets; even the most everyday of human miracles is like a little star shining. Their miracles are a pale little flashlight by comparison. The smallest of human acts of kindness are beautiful, and we do them all the time. Our greatest acts are truly stunning, and even those are not so rare. What do priests offer us that can compare to our acts of humanity?

Science, the hard work and toil of humanity at understanding things, has given us things beyond imagination.  It’s a hard way to come to knowledge. Religions claim to offer an easy way, but there is no easy way. Understanding the universe is hard, but it is worth it. It gives us works of enormous beauty. It lets us see a little of the might of nature. We can see the towering pillars of a nebula, the heart of a star, the workings of an atom, the making of a species. Religions offer us cheap wonder for little work, but science offers us magnificence. We must work for it, but we learn.

We have the capacity to commit terrible atrocities, but we do far more good than bad. People can learn to do the right thing. It’s hard, but that’s the point. We’re human, so there’s no quick fix. We work for it, every day. Everyone, every single day, tries to do the right thing. Sometimes we screw up, but humanity strives for its best qualities. We have begun to understand our worst side, and so we have begun to understand how to beat it. People know how hard it is, and they still try. They still succeed, even if there are a few missteps. That’s why I love humanity. We fight with ourselves to do what we believe is right, even when it’s hard, even when it hurts.

My dream for humanity is to finally follow this side of us. I dream that some day we will realize our capacity for greatness. That one day we will truly be able to say that war is over, and to live at peace with ourselves. That one day, we can look forward and not have to fear for our children’s future, because thanks to us, we can at last know that it is a safe and happy one.

Now go away or I will taunt you a second time!

19 12 2008

A socially acceptable form of aggression. It’s an unfair response to an unfair imbalance of power – a seizing of the joystick. You get to name the targets, you get to fire the bullets – and what you’re essentially doing is putting those people in an impossible situation where they’re forced to like it. There’s a great deal of hostility involved – and the wonderful part is, after you’re finished, you say, ‘What’s the matter, can’t you take a joke? This is humor, sir!’ You can shame them into agreeing that the attack is acceptable. Nobody wants to be accused of not taking a joke. It’s a double-bind. – George Carlin

Your [human] race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon—laughter. Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution—these can lift at a colossal humbug push it a little weaken it a little, century by century; but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand. You are always fussing and fighting with your other weapons. Do you ever use that one? No; you leave it lying rusting. As a race, do you ever use it at all? No; you lack sense and the courage.
Satan, in The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain

Humor…where do you start? The psychology of it still isn’t agreed upon, and probably won’t be for a long time. It’s one of the sharpest, deadliest tools we have, and yet we so often say that we’re “just joking.” It has been part of the rise and fall of many a movement in history, and the downfall of more than a few politicians. It is, in short, really frigging awesome.

Making fun of something is the greatest insult we can give. We are saying that the object of our mirth is so ridiculous that we have only to point to it and everyone will see what we mean and laugh too. We are saying that the target is so absurd that we don’t even need to address it, because everyone can see for themselves that it is beneath address. And we’re allowed to do this!

When we use humor against those above us, what can they do? If they respond angrily, the world thinks that they have no sense of humor, and that’s humiliating. If they ignored it, an enormous challenge to their authority over us is going entirely unanswered. If they respond in kind, they are mean spirited, picking on the little guy. If they censor us, they are a great oppressor.

And humor really is a powerful tool. It can destroy a position more effectively than a hundred articles and essays. The light of mockery burns away the rationalizations that defend a position and make us see the thing for what it is. Many of our greatest, most deeply held beliefs are absurd and propped up by rationalization, so humor cuts through us. And it is the one medium that we will accept the criticism from. We bluster angrily at a direct challenge to our beliefs, but are left speechless by satire.

And yet we demean humor! “It’s just a joke,” we say. It’s a vicious attack, but we can use adjectives like “merely” to describe it. Perhaps, on some level, the average person is much smarter than we give them credit for. Somewhere in them, almost all people see humor as some sort of sacred right that should be protected, far more than they do of other forms of criticism. Something about it slips past our defenses, and on some level we realize that that’s a good thing.

I think you know where I’m getting with this… 😉

Don’t just debate religion. Laugh about (not at) it. It’s funny, and even Christians see that when it’s criticized with humor. And, what the hell, it’s fun!

Military Missionaries

16 12 2008

Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me?

This is stupid in so many ways that I’m really at a loss here. Even if we set aside the flagrant constitutional violation here, this is just dumb. The absolute last thing we want is to be perceived as some sort of Christian crusade. Few things could be worse for our position. That just serves to inflame sentiment against America even further than we’ve already managed. How many soldiers will get killed because extremists are getting more support as a result of this sort of thing? Even beyond the ethical, this is downright stupid.

And then there’s that piece of paper, the Constitution of the United States of America. There’s this thing, right, called the first amendment, and it says that the government isn’t allowed anywhere near religion. This wall of separation is all encompassing. Nothing religious is supposed to be supported by the government directly or indirectly. And we’re embedding missionaries with our troops? Are you serious? This isn’t even a grey area. This is blatant, I-spit-on-the-bill-of-rights stuff. Who the hell green lighted this? They need to be removed immediately, because there’s no way they didn’t know what they were doing, or how very illegal it is. What on earth is going on in the military that they thought they could get away with it, and that they’ve actually done so up to now?

And of course this isn’t getting reported on by any big papers/TV stations as far as I can tell. Do most people not care that our military is fast becoming a bunch of crusaders? Why are the religious not more scared by this? Do this many people condone the crusades? Because if not, they should be as afraid of this sort of thing happening to their religion and their country as we are.