The Human Spark

Actor Alan Alda (image source: Wikipedia) hosts a new series about human origins

Last night, I was looking at the TV listings and saw that there was a show called “The Human Spark” on. It turns out it’s a three-part series about human origins and why modern humans have the special, hard-to-define “spark” (intelligence, creativity, etc.) that sets us apart from other primates. I watched the first part and it is very well-done. (Check the PBS listings here or your local listings for repeats of part one and airings of the next two parts).

Alan Alda goes around the world asking questions of experts and seeing first-hand some evidence of human ancestry, trying to figure out why we got that “spark” that makes us human, while other animals (including close relatives like Neanderthals) did not. The premise of the show is thus evolutionary in nature, so I’m sure there are some young-earth creationists out there who aren’t happy. If you’re like me and aren’t an expert in science, but are interested in where we came from (and think it has nothing to do with “Let there be light”), you should like this series.

What drew my attention to the show, I have to admit, is that it’s being hosted by Alan Alda. Alda played Hawkeye on the ground-breaking show M*A*S*H (a sitcom/drama about the Korean War which lasted longer than the Korean War itself did). Hawkeye has always been one of my favorite TV characters (probably because my dad liked him) and I had read that Alda is involved in charity work. I also thought I had read he was an atheist. I checked into it and it turns out he considers himself as “not a believer” but doesn’t like the words atheist or agnostic. According to a piece on the Edge Foundation website (found via Wikipedia)

I still don’t like the word agnostic. It’s too fancy. I’m simply not a believer. But, as simple as this notion is, it confuses some people. Someone wrote a Wikipedia entry about me, identifying me as an atheist because I’d said in a book I wrote that I wasn’t a believer. I guess in a world uncomfortable with uncertainty, an unbeliever must be an atheist, and possibly an infidel. This gets us back to that most pressing of human questions: why do people worry so much about other people’s holding beliefs other than their own?

He did start out as a believer, though. Even though he rejects the labels atheist and agnostic, he has made a conscious movement away from religious belief. Perhaps he is more of a secular humanist, since he doesn’t believe in God or heaven.

For a while in my teens, I was sure I had it. It was about getting to heaven. If heaven existed and lasted forever, then a mere lifetime spent scrupulously following orders was a small investment for an infinite payoff. One day, though, I realized I was no longer a believer, and realizing that, I couldn’t go back. Not that I lost the urge to pray. Occasionally, even after I stopped believing, I might send off a quick memo to the Master of the Universe, usually on a matter needing urgent attention, like Oh, God, don’t let us crash. […] But my effort to keep the plane in the air by talking to God didn’t mean I suddenly was overcome with belief, only that I was scared.

In any case, Alda seems to be genuinely interested and fascinated by this series. As am atheist/non-believer , I also find myself more interested in topics like evolution and human origins than I used to be, so this show is right up my alley. The site for the show has video clips (which aren’t embeddable, unfortunately, but you can view them on their site) as well as other information. The first part in the series will be repeated several times over the next few days, so if you missed it but are interested, check your local listings.

EDIT: The show is airing on PBS, the link was there but I never said it in the text. Sorry about any confusion!

Another non-traditional holiday song — Christmas in Fallujah

“There is no justice in the desert / Because there no god in Hell.”

There aren’t many songs by Billy Joel that I can say I saw the world premier of; in fact, this is the only one! My wife and I attended his concert in Chicago in Dec. 2007 and, lo and behold, he announced that there was a new song that he and a new singer named Cass Dillon would be performing that night for the first time ever, and which would be released officially the following Monday. He joked (correctly) that it would probably be uploaded by someone onto YouTube before then.

As you might guess, the song talks about the Iraq war, but focuses on the experiences of soliders, whom Joel mentioned he received a number of letters from. The song touches on the topic of religion briefly at several points. Some people may not know that Joel at least was an atheist earlier on in his life, saying in an interview in a book called Rock Stars from 1982:

As an atheist you have to rationalise things. You decide first of all that will not ask Daddy – meaning God in all of his imagined forms – for a helping hand when you’re in a jam. Then you have to try and make some sort of sense out of your problems. And if you try and find you can’t, you have no choice but to be good and scared – but that’s okay! When animals are afraid, they don’t pray, and we’re just a higher order of primate. Mark Twain, a great atheist, said it best in The Mysterious Stranger, when he stated in not so many words, “Who are we to create a heaven and hell for ourselves, excluding animals and plants in the bargain, just because we have the power to rationalise?”

Death is death, and the ego can’t handle the consequences. We should all struggle to the last to hold on to life, and religion encourages people to give up on making this life work because the supposed next life will be fairer. Religion is the source of too many of the world’s worst problems.

More recent reports show he may have become at least somewhat spirtual or religious, saying in 1994:

I still feel very much like an atheist in the religious aspects of things…But there are spiritual planes that I’m aware of that I don’t know anything about and that I can’t explain.

When I saw him in concert, he played as interludes a number of Christian Christmas songs (which doesn’t necessarily indicate anything), and Celebrity Atheist cites reports of him saying “God bless you” to people in recent years (and not after sneezes). I believe he made one or two vague mentions of God during the concert. I remember thinking at the time that I wonder if he was using it as a figure of speech (à la “Oh my God”, etc.) or literally. The song does contain a brief Biblical reference to it: “Peace on earth / Goodwill to men”.

So it’s possible Joel may have become either religious or spiritual, or at the very least has become more circumspect about his disbelief or doubt in god. But if so, it would appear from his lyrics that he and I can agree on the fact that Iraq is not a God-sanctioned war, unlike what George W. and company either sold it as or actually believed. (At the beginning of the song, Joel also includes the presumably ironic/satrical lyrics “We came with the Crusaders / To save the Holy Land” and later on, “We came to fight the Infidel.”)

With troops still dying in Iraq and 30,000 more on their way to Afghanistan, it’s sad that this song is just as topical today as it was back then.

I attended a talk about baby dinosaurs on the ark (& more fun facts!)

Harrub talk adsSource of images: http://www.colliervillechurchofchrist.com/Special_Events.html

This weekend, my wife and I made a trip to see a seminar entitled “Truth About Human Origins” given at the Church of Christ in Collierville, TN. Given the titles of some of the talks ( “Atheism’s Attack on America”, “ Scientific Accuracy of the Bible “, etc.) we pretty much knew what we were getting into. My wife is still a believer (but not a fundamentalist), and I’d never been to a talk like this before, so we both thought it’d be interesting to see what the speaker would say.

The speaker, Dr. Brad Harrub , has an “earned” PhD in Anatomy and Neurobiology, so I figured he would try to harmonize the Bible with carefully selected scientific facts, or try to disprove scientific claims that don’t agree with the Bible. I was right on both fronts. We were only able to attend two back-to-back sessions: “Is Genesis a Myth?” and “The Dinosaur Dilemma”, but I think it was enough to get a good idea of Dr. Harrub’s arguments, which even my wife as a believer strongly objected to!

After a prayer (during which I bowed my head, kept my eyes open and kept quiet), the talks began: back-to-back talks with a 10-minute break in-between, followed by 10-15 minutes of Q & A. I didn’t take notes, but here were a few highlights of the talks. Please note that I am summarizing the information he presented, not advocating it!

Is Genesis a Myth?

* There are three options: the universe always existed, the universe created itself, or something else created the universe.
* We know the universe is expanding, so this proves that it didn’t always exist.
* The Big Bang is unsatisfactory: where did the matter for it come from? Something had to create that matter.
* God is eternal, outside of the universe: he’s the only one who could create without having to be created.
* Creation happened in 6 literal days (comparison with other verses to prove “day” is not a metaphor for millions of years, etc.).
* Evolutionists want us to believe humans started out stupid — but Genesis says Adam was smart enough for God to ask him to name all the animals
* There are no gaps in the lineage in the Bible, it says who was born when up until Jesus, so we can calculate the age of the Earth.
* Archeological evidence supports historical claims in Genesis and the Bible.

The Dinosaur Dilemma

* Dinosaurs and humans lived at the same time, and were created on the same day (5th day).
* The Bible mentions dinosaurs (but not by name since the word “dinosaur” wasn’t invented until the 1800s) after the flood.
* Dinosaur-like creatures mentioned after the Flood (in Job), so they must have been on Noah’s Ark.
* The way dinosaurs could have fit on Noah’s Ark was as unhatched eggs or small children. No, I am not kidding. (I would say this is the part where he seemed the proudest of what he was saying, like he was single-handedly defeating the infeasibility of the Ark and any objections skeptics would raise.)
* There’s proof for a worldwide flood since every continent has fossils from so-called “localized” floods, and fossils can be found at the top of the highest mountains in the world.
* Carbon-dating of fossils is not proven and is unreliable. Scientists have dated dinosaur bones to as recent as 9000 years ago (much closer to truth than the millions of years normally claimed by evolutionists
* Dinosaur artwork, in the form of carvings and figurines, can allegedly be found in a number of ancient artifacts from around the world, showing that dinosaurs and humans coexisted.
* A mammal fossil was found eaten inside the stomach of a dinosaur fossil, which should be chronologically impossible if science is right about evolution.
* What was thought to be a prehistoric ancestor to fish was found to still exist today, proving scientists can’t date bones correctly.
* Important to tell kids early the truth about dinosaurs, creation, and the Bible, before books, TV, and school tell them lies.

I believe those were all the main points he made. Dr. Harrub had a very convincing, authoritative way of speaking and presenting his information. Although I found some of his ideas laughably funny (baby dinosaurs on the Ark!), I can see why people would want him to speak, and why people would be duped into his pseudo-science if they have been taught to believe that they should have faith in what the Bible says. The Bible says it, this guy with a PhD says it, so it must be true!

For most people, some of the claims should be obviously false at face value. Others would take a little more to debunk, and I don’t know if I’ll have time to research every one. Here are two that I did look up since I hadn’t heard about them before: the dinosaur figurines and Ica stones depicting humans and dinosaurs.

Dinosaur Figurines in Mexico: http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CH/CH710_2.html
Ica stones in South America: http://skepticwiki.org/index.php/Ica_stones

To my dismay, there were only two people who were clearly atheists or freethinkers who were asking questions in the Q and A afterwards. They were allowed to ask several questions each, which I thought was very fair of the speaker and congregation to allow. It’s interesting that at least some creationists, as one questioner pointed out, have changed their ways in the past few decades from denying dinosaurs existed, to saying of course they existed, it’s in the Bible! Scientists just have the dates wrong about when dinosaurs lived, according to Dr. Harrub. So now that we know baby dinosaurs were actually on the Ark, it’s okay for kids to be exposed to the “sugar candy” (his expression) of dinosaurs, which evolutionists try to give kids to lure into believing in evolution.

There were 3 or 4 other people who spoke, all supporting the Bible and the points Dr. Harrub had made. I wondered how many people were in the audience who were atheists or skeptics/skeptical but didn’t want to speak up. I know my wife afterwards said that she wanted to ask questions and make a point, but that she was too nervous to do so and didn’t know if he questions would sound stupid. Believe me, they were intelligent questions, and even if she tried they couldn’t have been any stupider than the nearly 2 hours of crap we had just heard!

I have to say I am frustrated that this man apparently goes around the country presenting himself as a scientist and appearing to present “proof” of his claims, when he is clearly trying to promote the Bible more than he is trying to promote science. Worst of all, Dr. Harrub said a number of times how important it was for parents to teach their children about the Bible and to tell them not to believe what science says about evolution. There were a number of small kids (pre-teens) in the audience, so I felt very sad that they were being exposed to / brainwashed by this information. He also told people to be ready to answer questions from teenagers when they come back from science classes they may have to take at college which might confuse them or raise doubts about their beliefs.

The message was pretty clear: scientists and atheists are lying to you and your children. Don’t listen to what they say; just believe what the Bible says. I’ll talk more about my wife and my reactions to the talk in a future post.

EDIT: Here is a link to audio from a previous seminar given by Dr. Harrub, so you can get an idea of what his talks are like.

I Am … (partially) out as an atheist

Imagine (Original Soundtrack)

I finally had "the talk" with my wife. It was very difficult to do, but it turned out a lot better than I had expected.

I had been considering coming out to her for the past month or so. I’m becoming more and more active in the atheist/freethought community. It just didn’t feel right for something that is such a big part of who I am to remain a secret from my wife. I’m posting this in hopes that the experience might help others who aren’t "out" yet to their wife/husband/significant other. I’m glad to say that coming out to your loved one doesn’t have to be a bad experience.

[UPDATE : This post is a play-by-play, which I’m hoping will be interesting and useful. A more concise version of my story can also be found here on Atheist Nexus.]

My decision to come out was helped along by a discussion from a less successful experience by a fellow Atheist Nexus member. His wife flat-out told him that she wouldn’t have married him if she had known he didn’t believe in God. I felt very sorry for him, especially since I’ve been fearing a similar reaction from my wife (who considers herself a Christian) if and when she found out I didn’t believe in God. So although I’d like to say I bravely announced my atheism, it was much less courage and more of a desire to deal with something that’s been worrying me for quite a while and a decision to be more open with my wife about my non-belief.

I was very nervous the night I had decided to come out to her. She could tell I was nervous, which made it a little easier to bring up the subject. If she can tell something’s bothering me, she’ll keep asking me what’s wrong until I tell her. So when there was a good moment that I knew we could talk for as long as we wanted, I told her there was something very important to me that I’d like to tell her about.We sat down, I took a deep breath, and just started talking. I had a general idea of what I wanted to say, but no specific speech written out.

She saw me reading the Bible a few weeks ago on my computer, which surprised her. So I started with this incident, saying that over a number of years, I have read a lot about the Bible, read a lot of the passages, and reminded her that for a while I had considered going to seminary to become a pastor. I told her that the more I had read, the more I started to have questions about some of the things the Bible said. I said that I had come to the conclusion that there were some things in the Bible that I just couldn’t believe — things that either didn’t make sense, or that contradicted other things, or that didn’t seem like they could happen. I told her that a lot of what I’ve been doing online lately has been related to this.

After this introduction to the topic, it was mostly she who led the conversation, with her asking questions and me answering. She asked me what sort of things I didn’t think were true. I asked if she remembered our nephew’s baptism, when we talked about whether or not to get him a Noah’s Ark book (she did). I didn’t tell her I was an atheist at the time, but had told her that the Bible doesn’t teach child baptism and that I felt children should be old enough to make up their minds before being baptized (a position she disagreed with, but understood). I said that I felt the Noah’s Ark passage in the Bible, like others, basically says that all people are evil by nature, and that God can kill them because of this.

I said I don’t believe humans are bad by nature, and that I didn’t like that this is what the Bible teaches. I then moved on to another example, and said I didn’t like what the Bible says happened in Egypt, where God kills all the firstborn male Egyptians just because the Pharaoh wouldn’t free the Israelites, even though the Bible says God was the one who made the Pharaoh act that way. I didn’t want to say too much to make it seem like I was just trying to rip apart the Bible, but I wanted to bring up a few specific instances that I thought she would be familiar with, and that I could make a clear argument about why I didn’t agree with them.

She didn’t dispute any of this, but said that there are parts of the Bible she doesn’t understand and like as much as other parts, but that she liked the New Testament better and that she thought it had a good message in it. I said I agreed that the Bible does have some very good messages in it, but that they are often surrounded by messages that are not so good that people don’t quote or talk about much. I brought up the massacre of the innocents sermon that I had blogged about earlier as an example of something bad that happened in the New Testament. I said I couldn’t understand why a loving God would let all those children be killed. She said that she didn’t know what to say, but that maybe that was the best thing that could have happened, that maybe that prevented something worse from happening. So I said that if God were able to do anything he wanted, I believe that he could have found a way around it.

Interestingly enough, she brought up at this point the fact that there was a lot of evidence for the stuff that happened in the New Testament, which I wasn’t expecting. I said that unfortunately, it isn’t always true that the Bible’s claims can be verified outside the Bible. Confirmation for some of the events in the New Testament comes over a hundred years later, and no independent evidence of a large amount of things in the New Testament has ever been found, such as for the massacre of the innocents.

At this point, she shifted gears. I don’t know if it’s because she realized that I had done a lot of looking into the Bible, or if my answers were satisfying her, or if they weren’t satisfying but she didn’t know how to respond. But then she asked me what I do believe if I don’t believe everything in the Bible. This was the question that I was the most afraid of. I told her that I used to be a very strong believer, much stronger than other people in my family. I gave the example of thinking songs shouldn’t be played because they were "lustful" (the Beatles’ "I Want You (She’s So Heavy)" was one song in particular), I told her I was confirmed, and then eventually I started to have little questions about my faith. Instead of finding answers, from looking at the Bible, looking online, listening to sermons, asking people, I just kept having more questions. Eventually, I realized there were some things I would never find answers to.

She asked me if I believed in the Bible at all, and I said that there are too many things in it that I don’t agree with, that I can’t say I believe in the Bible anymore. She then asked what I thought happens to people when they die. I think the atheist answer to this is very unsatisfying; I would like to believe something happens to us after death, but I know now that this isn’t so. This sounded depressing, so I thought for a few moments and said that I believe that we are all part of the circle of life, and that when we die our remains go back into nature, and life continues from there. This is not a main aspect of my belief system, but I do believe this occurs and I felt was a more satisfying answer than just "we cease to exist".

She asked if I believed in heaven. I told her that while I think it would be nice to think that heaven exists, I more have a problem with the fact that Christianity teaches that there’s a hell — that even though Jesus was said to die for our sins that there are still people who go to hell. I think that if there was a God and if he loved us, he would send us all to heaven. So at this point, I asked her one of the few questions I asked all night. I asked if she thought that people who don’t believe in Jesus go to hell.

My wife obviously had thought about the issue before, and said that she didn’t know what happens to people who don’t believe. She said that some people think that if you don’t believe in Christianity, then you go to hell, but other people think that if you’re a good person, that you’ll be saved even if you don’t believe in God. She brought up the issue of what happened to people who never heard of Jesus before, which I was glad to hear that she had heard of and considered before. She mentioned that Catholics believe in purgatory, so just because you don’t go to heaven doesn’t mean you go to hell. She said she wasn’t sure what happens, and that there were other things that she wasn’t sure about, but that she still has faith in God.

This was the only thing that frustrated me during the conversation. She used the word "faith" a couple of times basically when there was something that she couldn’t explain. I realized that she doesn’t know that having faith in something isn’t really an answer, since I’m sure she’s heard this thousands of times in her life. I felt she thought this was a perfectly acceptable answer, so I though it would be counterproductive to try to tackle the issue of faith then. So I told her that I respect her beliefs and that I’m not trying to say that she’s wrong, but just that based on the Bible, on what I’ve read, and what I’ve thought about for a long time, I don’t have faith anymore. I did not say I’m an "atheist", because of the baggage attached to this term. But she knows now that I don’t believe in God.

She had said a few times recently that I "don’t like church", so I asked her why she said this. She said that she could tell from some comments I made. I asked her what these were (since I had tried very hard not to make any such comments!), and she brought up the Noah’s Ark incident that I had mentioned earlier, and the fact that I made comments about the Catholic Church after the tragic child rape / excommunication case that was in the news (where they excommunicated a mother and her daughter’s doctors for giving the girl an abortion after she had been raped by her stepfather. They did not excommunicate the father, however.) I also apparently mentioned at some point about religious displays on public property being against the constitution, which I might have thought was a safe topic to bring up since there are many believers who also think religion should be kept out of government.

I told her I wasn’t "against" churches, but that I just didn’t believe in some of the things they taught. She mentioned that churches do good things, and I said that while I know that churches and people who go to church do a lot of good things, you can do these same things without going to church — you don’t need to believe in the Bible to be a good person. She didn’t argue with this. I then asked her if she remembered the fact that I brought up the fact that the town we used to live in had an intersection of "Church and State", and I had told her it was my favorite intersection. She said yes and she said she thought that was another clue. So I guess she had suspected for quite a while, but just didn’t know exactly where on the spectrum I was.

The only time religion really came up between us, except for the Noah’s Ark occasion, was a few months after we met. I had told her that I was brought up a Lutheran, that I had considered becoming a pastor. I had read a whole lot about religion, and I wasn’t sure what I believed, but I was pretty sure what I didn’t believe. She had never asked me to elaborate on this. She’s a Christian, and even did some missionary work when she was younger, but in the years I’ve known her, I don’t think she’s ever brought up God just out of the blue — both before the Noah’s Ark thing and afterwards, and even when she’s with other believers. I hoped that this was a good sign, and since things turned out well, I think it was.

She had revealed a secret to me early on in our relationship, and I told her that I had a secret too that I would tell her someday. I told her this was the secret. She said "That was it?! I thought it was something more serious than that!" I laughed and I told her it was kind of funny then, because I thought she would think it was a big deal. She said she may not agree with me, but she respects it. She then asked if I mind if she goes to church.

This was another thing that the Atheist Nexus thread I mentioned earlier helped with. One of the commenters mentioned Unitarian Universalism as a possibility for atheists with companions who still want to go to church, and it’s something I had looked at from time to time. I had a friend who had said he had gone to a UU church. I didn’t tell him much about much beliefs (or lack thereof) on Christianity since I was afraid he would tell others, but I did tell him that I wasn’t a typical Christian. He had liked it overall, so I looked into UU again after reading the post on Atheist Nexus.

When my wife brought up church, I told her that I would be willing to consider going to a UU church. I don’t believe in going to church — since I don’t believe in God, I don’t see the need of going to church. But I know church is something that is very important to my wife, so I told her I would be willing to try it. She said she had heard of UU, and I explained a little more of what I understood about it. I said that I liked the fact that they welcome people who have all sorts of beliefs there, but that they were generally based on a Judeo-Christian model and that a lot of people who come from different denominations go to UU to find a common ground.

I found a couple of UU churches online the next day, sent the links to her and we separately looked at them. We both looked at other ones as well, and we both decided on the same one, which I thought was a very good sign. We went to the first service this weekend, and overall I was pleased with how it went. The service started with a welcome to newcomers, which was very warm and funny; a thoughtful and at times funny sermon that my wife and I said we both enjoyed; and included several Christian hymns that we both recognized, with some altered lyrics. My wife said this  after the service, and it was funny because even the pastor pointed it out that for the one hymn, he would understand if some people accidentally did the old lyrics since he liked those, too.

Although there were a couple of things on the website I find mildly objectionable, and I don’t feel comfortable with the mentions of God, even if I understand it’s not meant in the same way that it would be in a Baptist church for example, there was nothing in the service that I found objectionable (no "massacre of the innocents" moment, for example). The pastor mentioned non-belief and embracing doubt several times in his sermon, even though from references in church and on the site, it seems clear he believes in some sort of higher power personally. I very highly disagreed with this, but thought the repeated nods to doubt and non-belief in a God were good and inclusive, and I was glad in a way that God was mentioned since I thought this would be more welcoming to my wife. I was worried after the service because of what I would deem, with no offense meant to any UU followers, to be a "watered down" version of God, as compared to the one mentioned in Christianiaty. But my wife said she really liked the service and would like to go again.

Not only that, but she thanked me for going to church with her. I didn’t think she would thank me for asking her to go to a different church that she grew up in and did missionary work in. I think she very much likes the fact that I’m willing to go to church, and since she doesn’t bring up God herself very often she might be interested in more than just the God speak found in many services (she’s mentioned before that she really likes church music, so familiar hymns probably helped).

In turn, I thanked her for being willing to try out a different church that’s more inclusive of people. She mentioned some of the elements of the service that were like other churches she had been at, so I thought it was good that we were both trying to find common ground. She said that the sermon and other parts of the service seemed like it would be more my kind of thing than other churches we’ve gone to probably were, and I said I agreed. Hopefully we will both get something out of it.

I wouldn’t say I’m a UU, I don’t believe in a god of any kind, and I don’t think all atheists would be comfortable about this solution, but I think it will work for us for now. I would like to imagine a day where no one feels the need to talk about god, heaven, or hell, but that day is far off. For now, I feel like a great weight has been lifted off my shoulders and that I don’t have to keep my stance on religion secret from my wife, and she gets to go to church. Since we disagree, I won’t go out of my way to bring up various things I disagree with, but if she asks I feel like I can talk with her openly about it.

My coworkers and other family are another story. My grandmother just retired as church secretary after decades of service, and my future sister-in-law is becoming a pastor in about year, to give you an idea of some of the believers in my and my wife’s family. My mother seems to be becoming more religious and not less. Plus, I’m in a profession that does not lend itself to religious discussion in theory, although it comes up surprisingly often. Two of my coworkers have discussed religion with me — one very religious and one not very religious at all — and I’ve tried to be as vague as possible on my own views to avoid any problems down the road.

So for family and professional reasons, I’m not coming out to the whole world just yet, although someday I hope to do so. Hopefully this post will help someone who also hasn’t told their significant other yet about their atheism: it doesn’t have to be a bad experience.

I will continue posting and seeking out atheist news under my assumed name for now. I am out to the most important person for me now, which was a very huge step.

In smears we trust

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent an email noting several recent articles railing against their move to sue to keep "In God We Trust" and the god-filled Pledge of Allegiance out of the Capital Visitor Center (my take on the issue here ).

One article that caught my eye in particular was in the Examiner , a site I had recently quoted from. (See a few quick notes at the end about the Examiner and sources in general). The author directly addresses FFRF and its co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor directly, saying:

you are wrong about something… there are not 15% of Americans who identify themselves as non-religious. At best, (or worst, depending on your point of view) only 5% of our population claims atheist/agnostic status.

The Examiner article by Doug Billings cites no source refuting the claim, only makes an unsupported counter-claim about atheists and agnostics (making it seem like that’s the same as non-religious, which it’s not). I can (and did, in the comments) cite a well-publicized source identifying 15% of Americans identifying as non-religious. The ARIS (American Religious Identification Survey) data was collected by Trinity College in Connecticut. Although their charter prohibits discriminating based on religion, they were founded by Episcopals  and have "Trinity" right in their name, so they don’t on the surface appear to be anti-Christian, and yet they still claim 15% of Americans self-identify as non-religious.

The majority of the rest of the article/opinion piece is just a name-calling rant against non-believers, including this image:

and referring to Annie Laurie Gaylor’s point about the country not being founded on Christianity by saying "In another gleaming example of her intellectual shortcomings […]". Everyone has a right to their opinion, but they should not pull statistics and alleged facts out of the air on a site run by a news agency, where such items are accepted by some as news articles.

Although they openly call for people from around the country to apply to be examiners to submit local news, and did have some atheist-related news on them, it is important to note that they have as their owner Philip Anschutz , funder and proponent of the Discovery Institute .

This does not mean that all information on the Examiner site is false or slanted, just that it’s important to remember for all information you get, to consider where it’s coming from, including from my site and blog. I’m obviously going to pick stories that are related to atheism, freethought, etc., but I do attempt to be as unbiased as possible when it comes to presenting facts. I also cite my sources, and when it’s not obvious from the name of the source if they have a slant, I point it out when I’m aware of it, and normally try to find out and report on it when I’m not.

We all, including myself, should be careful about the information we use: not to limit where we look, but to judge its worth and try to verify when possible. Otherwise we might be like the author of the Examiner article who may actually believe he is telling the truth, when it instead comes out as an unjustified and inaccurate smear against those who aren’t religious.

Proposed game show should be called “Who Wants To Be A Believer?”


Mecca. Photograph: Bazuki Muhammad/Reuters

There’s a new game show which is causing controversy in Turkey. The basic premise of the game, "Penitents Compete", is trying to convert an atheists by offering them a prize to the holy site of whatever religion they are converted to. It sounds like a joke, but it’s not. From Yahoo! News:

Turkish television station Kanal T hopes the answer is a ratings success as it prepares to launch a gameshow where spiritual guides from the four faiths [Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism] will seek to convert a group of non-believers. […]

But religious authorities in Muslim but secular Turkey are not amused by the twist on the popular reality game show format and the Religious Affairs Directorate is refusing to provide an imam for the show.

"Doing something like this for the sake of ratings is disrespectful to all religions. Religion should not be a subject for entertainment programs," High Board of Religious Affairs Chairman Hamza Aktan told state news agency Anatolian […]

"We are giving the biggest prize in the world, the gift of belief in God," Kanal T chief executive Seyhan Soylu told Reuters.

"We don’t approve of anyone being an atheist. God is great and it doesn’t matter which religion you believe in. The important thing is to believe," Soylu said.

My guess would be that the last quote by Soylu is the problem: Turkey is officially Islamic, and this show would appear to put Islam as on equal footing with 3 other religions. I guess this goes to show that people from different religions, who fight over just about everything, can agree on one thing: atheists are bad and need to be converted. Even converting them to a religion you don’t believe in is apparently better than them just not believing in any God. If I find any updates on this, I’ll keep you posted.

UPDATE: Here from the Guardian’s website is an audio discussion of the new show. In it, it is claimed that 3 out of 4 Turks say they would not want to live next to an atheist. Sounds like similar polls I’ve read in the US (such as this one from Gallup ) where people would be willing to elect pretty much anyone over an atheist to public office.

Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) comes out as an atheist

It is heartening news for 'nerds' everywhere. Daniel Radcliffe, star of Harry Potter, has disclosed that he endured years of bullying by classmates who considered him 'uncool' - but is now having the last laugh. Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe Photo: Alan Clarke courtesy of Esquire

I’m not a huge Harry Potter fan, but I know several people who are. This news may be shocking to many fans, but according to the UK newspaper The Telegraph , actor Daniel Radcliffe has admitted in an interview that he’s an atheist. I saw this on American Freethought and it doesn’t appear to have hit the main headlines in the US as of writing.

In an interview with Esquire magazine, Radcliffe risked the US box office prospects of the new Harry Potter film by declaring himself to be an atheist. […]

Radcliffe has been reticent on the subject of religion in the past, but in an interview to promote the latest instalment in the film franchise, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, released on July 15, he said: "I’m an atheist, but I’m very relaxed about it. I don’t preach my atheism, but I have a huge amount of respect for people like Richard Dawkins who do. Anything he does on television, I will watch."

He joked: "There we go, Dan, that’s half of America that’s not going to see the next Harry Potter film on the back of that comment."

There is no way that a comment like this from the actor who plays Harry Potter, a book and film series which has been strongly criticized by some on the Religious Right (for witchcraft, of course), will not have some effect on ticket sales right before the latest installment of the series is about to hit theatres! Not to mention future DVD and book sales in the US. It’s admirable that he is being open about his atheism, but I’m sure the studios and publishers must be furious and/or scared out of their seats right now.

Maybe his announcing he’s an atheist will help some Harry Potter fans consider religion in a light they may not have already. Especially since studies have shown that the younger generation is the least likely to find religion to be important and that the trend in the US is away from organized religion (the only group to gain in the recent ARIS survey was non-religious, who are now at 15% of the US), having a very-well known celebrity like Daniel Radcliffe openly declaring he’s an atheist could really open up some minds.

I think the more celebrities and scientists who "come out" as atheists, the more it will be an acceptable viewpoint, and the more people will examine their own beliefs. A debate of ideas is a good thing. Assuming the news does hit the radar in the US, I just hope that any protests by Christians or other believers are peaceful.

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert— religious, atheist, or a-religious humor?

One thing I’ve liked about The Colbert Report (remember not to pronounce the t’s in your head!) The Daily Show and is that they fairly often bring up religion, nearly always poking fun at it. When I was still not-a-Christian-but-still-not-a-full-blown-atheist-yet, "This Week in God " (here’s another one that I hadn’t seen) in particularly made me feel like it was okay to make fun of religion — that it wasn’t off-limits to criticize the stranger parts of religions and the actions of their adherents.

So I’ve often wondered, what do Stewart and Colbert really think about religion? Not what they think will be a good punchline for a joke, but their actual beliefs? Are they trying to get people to question religion, or at least the more dogmatic aspects of it? I used to think they were atheists or agnostics but just didn’t want to come out and say so (and risk offending certain segments of their audience). But through the years, more clues have surfaced.

I no longer watch each show "religiously" as I used to (I used to participate in Colbert Nation’s forums on a daily basis), but still catch them from time to time. And one show I caught was when Jon Stewart interviewed former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor .

Indecision An Indecision Exclusive!
Sandra Day O’Connor Pt. 1
indecisionforever.com

Funny Political Video Political Games Joe Biden Jokes

In terms of this post, the key part of what Stewart says takes up from a line that Sandra Day O’Connor had mentioned earlier in the interview. Jon Stewart says

As a secular, godless humanist, I think, myself […] I’m an activist host […]

I think the second part is meant as a joke, but the first part doesn’t seem like it to me.

On the blog Unreasonable Faith was a post about a just-published interview with Jon Stewart in the religious magazine Sojourners (free registration required to view article) in which Stewart talks about his views on religion. A few quotes:

It may be true that the Hebrew prophets used humor […] to create social change, but it was also used by Borscht Belt social directors. We’ve got a lot more in common with them than the prophets. […] Because we’re in the public eye, maybe people project onto us their desires for that type of activism coming from us, but just knowing the process here as I do, our show is maybe the antithesis of activism, and that is a relatively selfish pursuit.  […] People have always said to us, “You want it both ways; you want to be taken seriously but then not.” And I always say, “When do we want to be taken seriously? We’re just doing our show.”

So I think that answers part of my question: at least as Stewart is concerned, he’s not trying to get on a soapbox (although in some episodes, it seems he might on politics at least) but just saying what they think about current events, in a (hopefully) funny and interesting way obviously.

About religion specifically, Stewart said:

I have trouble with dogma more than I have trouble with religion. I think the best thing religion does is give people a sense of place, purpose, and compassion. My quibble with it is when it’s described as the only way to have those things instilled. You can be moral and not be religious, you can be compassionate, you can be empathetic—you can have all those wonderful qualities. When it begins to be judged as purely based on religion, then you’re suggesting a world where Star Jones goes to heaven but Gandhi doesn’t. […] When people say things like, “I found God and that helped me stop drinking,” I say, “Great! More power to you. Just know that some people stop drinking without it.”

So to me, it sounds like Stewart is personally agnostic or an atheist, but it’s not something that he wants to get on a soapbox about. If religion works for you, fine, but it’s not the only choice out there. To a large extent, I agree with this sentiment. But, at the same time, there are a lot of people who believe their Holy Book (Bible, Quran, or whatever) is 100% God’s truth and must be followed.

Most people who’d be likely to view The Daily Show probably already aren’t die-hard fundamenalists/orthodox followers of their religion, but maybe it does have an effect on the people who are less religious and don’t normally think about such things. But whether they’re trying to do so or not, Stewart’s show does a good job I think at showing people that religion has some crazy, and sometimes harmful, ideas in it.  It’s something you don’t come across very often in the mainstream media, and it’s definitely refreshing.

Colbert is a more complex situation, and this post is already plenty long. I’ll revisit him sometime soon (spoiler alert: "word" has it he’s a Sunday School teacher!).

Election commentary—Not out of the woods yet

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Election commentary—Not out of the woods yet

So Palin was not elected VP after all! That is reassuring on a number of fronts, but especially as religion goes. She very well may have been the most openly religious VP ever had she been elected. And I truly believe she thinks the end of days is upon us and God is calling the shots to get us closer to Judgment Day. Scary that someone with religious views that extreme could get so close to being elected VP.

This presidential election was, as far as I can tell, the most religious in American history. McCain and Obama had a religious debate *before* the official debates, and the candidates’ religions came up frequently during the primary and general election campaigns. This is very dangerous. Our founders got a lot wrong (slavery most notably), but their decision to keep religion separate from government was a milestone in human history after millennia of bloodshed in countries around the world over whose god is better.

While I think Obama has the potential to do a good job as president, his change on a number of positions (most notably campaign finance) worries me. What else will he change his mind on? He seemed, according to a number of observers, to be mostly pandering when he would talk about the importance of faith in his life, the continuation of faith-based initiatives, and other religious matters. He may have been exaggerating or fibbing about his religion because he thought it would help him get elected. But this worries me, because I wonder: will he become "more" religious if it becomes politically expedient for him?

He seemed to be trying to please everyone. He has openly said his father was an atheist, and he claims his stepfather wasn’t very religious. But he claims his faith is very powerful for him. This would appeal to the religious: despite the faithlessness of his parents, he "saw the light" and become Christian. This would also appeal to atheists and the mildly religious, who would see him as being open-minded and exposed to ideas his father or stepdad may have exposed him to.

Some people, both religious and non-religious, say Obama used churches more as a way to get things done than actually representing his beliefs. Some freethinkers might find this to be a relief after 8 years of Bush in office and the risk that Palin would have been a heartbeat away from being president.

But I almost think it would be worse if it turns out Obama truly is not very religious or is areligious. What does that say about him that he would lie about his faith to get elected? A "necessary" compromise of his values? I certainly would understand on some level, being a rather secret atheist myself, but I’m not running for public office and do not lie to hundreds of millions of people about my beliefs. He either should not have commented on his religion (reminding people of the no-religious-test clause of the Constitution) or should have been upfront with the American people. If he’s a true believer, then I guess we’re getting what was advertised.

Whether he is a true believer or not, I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet regarding the increasing intrusion of religion in the public sphere. Religion is still likely to play a big role in the foreseeable future here in the US, and there is nothing in what I read or heard in Obama’s speeches that gives any indication that he would do anything to start working towards fighting the increasing presence of religion in our political system. The fact that more and more atheists and agnostics are coming out does give me some hope though.