“What would convince you?”

Christians often get frustrated with atheists. They complain that no argument is good enough, that we must be even more dogmatic in our unbelief than they are in their belief. You see this whine reflected in the swiftness with which believers, desperate to refute Dawkins and the “new atheists,” began referring to them as “atheist fundamentalists.” Nothing they can possibly say to persuade these closed-minded heathens will ever change their minds.

What believers don’t see is that this has nothing to do with the presumed intellectual constipation of atheists, and everything to do with the lame quality of their arguments for faith. You must realize that to a lot of believers — not just the rank-and-file Jack and Jill Churchgoer, but even to apologists who write books and ought to know better, like Ray Comfort and Dinesh D’Souza — laughable nonsense like Pascal’s Wager or Lewis‘s “lord, liar or lunatic” are excellent arguments. The simple fact is that, to an atheist who has spent years living his/her life rooted in reason, the feeble, emotionally comforting justifications that believers use to prop up their beliefs won’t work.

So what can believers do to change our minds? Often I’ve been asked, “What would it take to convince you? What evidence would break through your intellectual front lines?” Maybe you’ve been asked this yourself.

My response is to tell the believer that they should be directing their question at themselves and not me. Here’s what they should do.

Ask yourself, “Why do I believe in God?” Be brutally honest in your answer. Do you believe simply because you’ve been raised to believe and have never thought to question your upbringing? Or do you think you actually have sound intellectual reasons for your theism?

If you answer in the former, then you need to ask yourself if that is really good enough. Believers like to throw around terms like “intellectual honesty,” so any believer who is willing to admit they hold on to their theism simply because they were raised Christian ought to ask themselves if it is truly intellectually honest not to question beliefs just because you were raised in them.

If you answer in the latter, then ask yourself this: If your reasons for belief are intellectually satisfying to you, and are in your opinion well supported by evidence, then are those reasons on their own strong enough to sway unbelievers? If you think of yourself as a smart person, and your reasons to believe were strong enough to sway you, shouldn’t they be good enough for anyone else also?

If yes, then by all means, present them. And expect them to be scrutinized and evaluated. Don’t be angry if they aren’t just automatically accepted.

But if you don’t think your reasons are strong enough to sway an atheist, then ask yourself, why did they sway you? Are they really especially good reasons? Or did you allow something else — your emotions, your desire for acceptance and fear of rejection by your neighbors and family — to overpower your reason? If other smart people aren’t convinced by your reasons, should you have accepted those reasons as good enough for you, being that you’re a smart person too?

So don’t let atheists’ insistence on arguing these things down to the bone frustrate you, and don’t waste time asking us what would convince us, because that effectively amounts to your giving up. (And if you’re doing that, what does it say about how supportable your beliefs are?) Instead, take a moment to really evaluate your reasons for being a believer, and be coldly, unforgivingly honest with yourself in that evaluation. It will be difficult, but it’s worth doing. In my case, I must admit it was that process of self-evaluation that steered me towards my eventual atheism. But if such self-scrutiny only reassures you your reasons are sound, and that they are sound enough to trounce all of us “new atheists,” then bring ‘em on. And prepare to defend yourself in a hearty argument. Much as people might like to think of us as “atheist fundamentalists” as an excuse to avoid getting in such arguments with us, just remember, we aren’t fundamentalists, we’re rationalists who insist on strict fidelity to evidence and reason. If we can be proven wrong, we’ll admit it when we are.

Blasphemy is, as they say, a victimless crime

Over in the UK, the population may be predominately non-religious, or at least indifferent to religion, in stark opposition to the way Americans can’t seem to get enough of the stuff. But it’s only been this week that the House of Lords* voted to strike down the nation’s laws against blasphemy. Nice of them to recognize it isn’t 1437 any more. Unless you’ve got a fascistic, Talibanoid theocracy going on, having blasphemy laws in a modern enlightened culture is like attaching a carburetor to your pyjamas: pointless and utterly silly.

Of course, some people are upset at learning the Middle Ages ended long ago.

Prominent Christian activist Baroness O’Cathain launched a blistering attack on the amendment, with particular fury aimed at Evan Harris. Lady O’Cathain maintained that abolition of blasphemy would unleash a torrent of abuse towards Christians.

Huh. I thought blasphemy was defined as making insulting or disrespectful remarks critical of gods, not their followers. As far as hate crimes against the religious are concerned, the UK has its Racial and Religious Hatred Act, a piece of legislation that makes it an offense to incite deliberate violence and hatred towards a person or group of people based on their race or creed. (I know it’s a law that feels problematic from a free speech standpoint, but the wording of it does try to make it clear that it’s only an offense when there’s clear intent to incite harm. I imagine it’s only a matter of time before it’s actually put to the test in the courts. After all, where’s the line between saying something like “Somebody ought to do something about those damn [insert minority here],” and “Kill the [minority]!”?)

One gets the impression that Baroness O’Cathain is merely troubled by the idea of anyone’s criticizing belief at all. As Tracie pointed out a couple of posts ago, it can be awfully hard for atheists to engage Christians in conversation about belief, simply because the minute you make one statement that’s even the tiniest bit snarky (like comparing their god belief to unicorn belief), many of them are so thin-skinned they’ll storm off in a huff right there. Not surprisingly, Dawkins and The God Delusion came up quite a bit in the House debates. The simple fact that atheist books exist, and are actually finding an audience, is enough for some Christians to think they’re suffering “a torrent of abuse.”

Well, let’s talk abuse. What about the people in the past who were actually the targets of the blasphemy laws in question? Ol’ Wikipedia tells me that the last guy to be prosecuted under the laws was John William Gott in 1921, who was sentenced to nine months’ hard labor simply for publishing pamphlets making fun of Christianity and Jesus. So Christians got their knickers in a twist because Gott snarked on their imaginary friend, and he got nine months breaking rocks. Call me crazy, but I consider that pretty damn torrential abuse. “Hey,” you might say, “that was 87 years ago.” Yeah, but I’m sure it still sucked for him.

Anyway, it was clearly time to get rid of the laws, because they were irrelevant and never used anyway. And as for Christian fears of persecution, again, I never cease to be amazed at these. Check your Yellow Pages and see how many pages it takes to list the churches in your city. Go to any bookstore in the US, and see how many shelves are swallowed up by the Religion category. Only Borders that I know of delineates a section to “Atheism and Agnosticism” within that category, and that section usually only amounts to about two or three shelves, as opposed to the fifty or so shelves devoted to Bibles, apologetics, and the usual twaddle from fundies like LaHaye and Strobel and Colson and their camp. But to many Christians, those two shelves for atheism are two too many, and amount to a horrifying all-out assault on their precious faith.

Cry me a river.


* I had to note my favorite comment about this on Richard Dawkins’ site:

Dear Britain, what the hell is a “house of lords”?? Signed, the 21st century.

Something from Nothing

There are certain Xian fabrications that just won’t die. It’s like getting one of those bad e-mail claims that you know before you type in “snopes.com” is going to turn out to be a fraud.

It’s a fraud. It’s listed as a fraud at fraud-checking sites. And yet, here it is, again, in your in-box. Often you might get it again a few months later from the same person you sent the snopes link to previously.

On our tv list at ACA, a young person wrote to us to ask some questions. I’m glad he’s asking, but one of his questions started out pretty much saying (and please don’t stop me, even though I know you’ve heard this one before): Even though Big Bang has a lot of good theory behind it, I don’t see how something could come from nothing?

Let’s examing “nothing” in the context of Big Bang: “Nothing” in the theory of Big Bang ever states that something comes from nothing. “Nothing” in Big Bang hints at this. “Nothing” in Big Bang could possibly be confused with this idea that something came from nothing. But like a bad penny, it just keeps coming back: “How can Big Bang say something comes from nothing?”

I pointed out that BB doesn’t say that. That there is a Law of Conservation of Matter that agrees with the boy’s observation that “something” just doesn’t seem to come from “nothing”; and I pointed out that the only model of origins I know that states such a thing is creation ex nihilo or “God made something out of nothing.” And I added that that claim boils down to “magic.”

In other words, if I do a card trick in front of you, and you say, “Wow. How’d you do that?” And I say “Magic!” Are you going to think, “Oh. Now I understand how it’s done.” Or are you going to believe I’ve skirted answering you? Telling you “by magic” (or “by god”) tells you nothing at all.

God has not been examined. This make god an unknown variable. God is, quite frankly, X.

Saying “God did it,” while we have no god to examine, is no different than saying “Let’s plug in X as the origin of the universe.” And when someone says, “How did the universe come to be like it is now?” We can say “X did it”—and that’s all the answer we need.

How is X an answer if we have no way to solve for X?

You don’t take me seriously, but I’m disrespecting YOU?

I found an odd irony in an exchange recently.

On another blog someone asked if atheists can expect fair treatment from presidential candidates who state their religious beliefs are very important to them in their own lives. While I do think it’s possible for a person to value X, but still understand and respect others who don’t value X, I also understand the reason for the question. Some religious people see their views as simply being their own personal choice, and they don’t really extend that outward to consider what other people might choose. Maybe they don’t care what other people choose so long as we’re all getting along OK. But some religious people express real difficulty even understanding how a person could be moral, trustworthy, or honest (with themselves or others) if they aren’t also religious.

Without asking each person, it’s not possible to know how an individual views their beliefs or how they judge others based on the beliefs others may hold. But it made me recollect an online exchange I had, a very brief one, with a theist recently. And here’s why: I was accused of not being objective when I questioned an inference he made. I asked, “…are you claiming [your argument] is a rational justification for belief in the existence of god (any more than it constitutes rational justification for belief in the existence of fairies)?”

The person was pretty obviously offended by my equating his god to fairies. He became defensive. So, I I responded that I wasn’t trying to be funny, that my question was in all seriousness. He never wrote back.

I have no doubt that this person truly felt I was only trying to get a rise. But I can honestly say I never was. He wrote to an atheist list. He knew in advance that atheists do not believe gods exist. Why it would surprise him that I would equate gods to fairies, in that case, and in all seriousness, I cannot fathom. Apparently, I’m supposed to pretend to grant his belief in god a special status over belief in fairies—even when he knows, before he addresses, me that I don’t. And if his arguments support the existence of fairies as much as the existence of gods, I’m not supposed to notice that or ask about it.

In other words, by expressing my perspective of god’s existence, and by not accepting his view as a given, I’m being offensive. If I say that I—honestly—can’t see how fairies wouldn’t be proven just as much as gods by the arguments he’s providing, I’m not being serious, and I’m just being a jerk. But what’s really happening is that this theist isn’t taking MY position seriously. I REALLY do not see the difference between his belief in god and a belief in fairies. And he refuses to accept that as a serious assertion on my part—even though it is asserted in 100 percent seriousness. Am I offended by that? No. After all, I didn’t go to a theist forum to push my view on anyone. What do I care what he thinks? I was just responding and asking what I thought was a fair question about claims he was making.

But, how does this tie into respect? Well, I respected his belief by treating it like any other. He didn’t care too much for that. But if he’d have come to me saying he could prove fairies, and given me the same arguments he provided for gods, I would just as well have asked, “How would this not also prove leprechauns?” And so on. Would it be offensive to compare fairies to leprechauns in that case—just because someone actually believes in them?

If I can’t even ask a question without being considered an ass; if I can’t give my view without being considered an offensive jerk; If my perspective is automatically interpreted as sarcasm and cruel joking, even though it’s not. How is THAT respect for MY belief (or in this case, lack of it)? What if, instead of asking him how his claim for god did any less to prove fairies exist, I had written back and said, “Well, if you’re just going to write to us with ludicrous claims, trying to be funny about ‘god exists’—I mean, what sort of idiots do you take us for? You can go send your joke e-mails about gods existing to someone else’s list you arrogant prick!”

THAT’S respect? I asked a serious question. He blanketly refused to take me seriously. And it appears to me that he is totally incapable of taking my view seriously on any level. Yet, somehow, that makes ME disrespectful of HIS beliefs.

While I’m not concerned about one online theist, I have to wonder how many others feel this way, or how many politicians share this view? That is a concern. Not an offense (to me, at least), but a real concern.

Good news from home, plus open election thread

Yeah, I was a little bummed that Hill squeaked by Barack in Texas last night. But he still leads in delegates, so we’ll just have to see how the next batch of primaries go.

But the news this morning that is chock full of awesome is that Pat Hardy won re-election to the SBOE! This managed to stave off what would literally have been a YEC takeover of the board, giving the forces of superstitious ignorance and scientific illiteracy a mandate to make your children ignorant. So the good guys won one, and decisively so, last night.

But you know creationists. It’s like playing Whack-a-Mole with those tards. The fight will go on.

I’m declaring the comments here an open election thread. Vent all you like about whom you hate, whom you love, and why anyone who disagrees is a razza-frazzin’ idiot! Enjoy.


PS: Sorry. Didn’t realize the Dallas Morning News link would be intercepted by one of those appallingly stupid “Register Now!” pages. Why do websites do that?

On “voting your atheism” and Ellen Johnson’s radicalism

Recently, American Atheists president Ellen Johnson caused a slight tremor on the blogosphere’s Richter scale when she opined in a video commentary that atheists should “stay home during the general election in November” because “we are ignored.” This raised the ire of at least a handful of folks, among them AC Chase, who called for Johnson’s immediate resignation as AA prexy, and VJack over at Atheist Revolution.

I agree with those who have condemned Johnson, though whether or not she resigns from AA (and she won’t) is a matter of complete indifference to me. I’ve never been a member of American Atheists and have no particular interest in joining, though I know a lot of folks who are members and support their freedom to be involved in atheist activism in whatever avenue they feel is best. Johnson doesn’t represent me and never will. However, if there is a perception out there that Johnson, and by turns AA, does represent the views of all American atheists — and it seems to be a perception AA encourages — then certainly some correctives are in order.

I admire AA on the one hand for being an organization that gets things done. The Godless Americans March on Washington held back in 2002, which drew about 2,500 atheists from around the country to a rally that raised public awareness of atheists as involved voters, would have been unheard of only a handful of years before, given the nature of atheists as rugged, stubborn individualists who frantically wish to avoid even the appearance of groupthink. On the other hand — and I am not alone in this criticism — the organization’s presumptuousness in positioning itself as the public voice for atheists nationwide can be irritating at times. The last thing we need is some godless equivalent of the SBC.

What is amazing to me about Johnson’s recent statement is that it seems to be a complete repudiation — indeed, outright betrayal — of everything that GAMOW was meant to establish. Perhaps this is because Johnson took GAMOW’s message — that of encouraging atheists to be active participants in American politics — too much to heart. She seems to have become radicalized. If no candidate is reaching out to the secular community specifically, then Johnson’s solution is for the godless to sit the whole thing out in November. Whereas in 2002 she was whipping us all up to get involved, six years later, she’s given up.

I hate to be Captain Obvious here, but how does demanding that candidates pander to atheists’ wants make atheists any different or better than the fundamentalist Christian “values voters” who gather at such appalling events as Justice Sunday demanding candidates whose platforms prioritize pandering to strictly conservative Christian interests? You know, the kinds of people who don’t give a shit about geopolitics or the war or the economy or the environment, but who will rush to the polls if they hear their pastor tell them So-and-So promises to outlaw gay marriages. If your atheism (or your theism, or your veganism, or your whateverism) is the only thing that matters to you when you go to the polls, then I’m afraid your views are pathetically narrow and selfish. There’s a hell of a lot more to me, if not to Ellen Johnson, than the fact that I’m an atheist. And I fail to see how my preferred candidate’s views on, say, troop withdrawal or lowering gas prices or the subprime lending crisis could possibly be rendered more or less valid if they somehow shoehorned their views on atheism into them. Those are unique issues in their own right, that affect every American, regardless of creed.

Back in 2000, when Nader split the Democratic vote and gave the presidency to Bush (settle down, flamers, it’s what happened), I remember the indignation from Nader voters, who repeatedly insisted that it was incredibly arrogant to assume they would have voted for Gore otherwise, and that by voting for Nader they were “voting their consciences.” I’m afraid that in this instance, they were confusing their “consciences” with their egos.

Similarly, this is what Johnson is doing. She’s confusing her principles with her ego, mistaking self-importance for integrity.

While we are all individuals with freedom of conscience, at the same time, we have to face the fact that life is sometimes all about playing the game. It’s unfortunate that we live under a two-party system of government that often comes down to voting the lesser of two evils, an act more about voting against the guy we hate the most as opposed to voting for someone we can actually stand.

Yeah, it sucks. Welcome to reality, which sucks quite often. Frankly, when faced with the choice of voting between “The Asshole,” “The Guy Who’s Less an Asshole But Has a Snowball’s Chance in Hell of Winning,” “The Guy Who’s Less an Asshole But Has a Good Chance of Upsetting the Asshole,” or “Fuck It, I’m Staying Home and Playing Mass Effect,” I just can’t bring myself to choose the latter. And even if my heart is telling me to vote for Mr. No-Chance-of-Winning Third-Party Spoiler, my rational mind, which has rarely led me astray, I’m pleased to say, will probably be telling me to go for the opponent with a reasonable chance. Because in the end, my vote isn’t about me at all, it’s about what will become of my country in the next 4-8 years. It’s hard, I suppose, for some to see the big picture that lies outside their narrow ideals. But there are times in life when reason must dictate that the big picture is bigger, and matters more, than those ideals. If you’re a person lucky enough to have “big picture” and “ideals” dovetailing all the time, great. But I don’t think many of us are that lucky. And it’s just irrational and unrealistic to think we can be.

This isn’t compromising your integrity, and it isn’t selling out your principles. It’s understanding that the world doesn’t revolve around you. And that if you want to live in reality as an active participant rather than moving out to the woods and being a hermit all your life, then you’ll often be faced with less-than-ideal choices. I believe the word for it is politics. Change always comes in increments, hardly ever with the instant gratification most Americans have gotten used to. And if you want to have any say in that change, given the fact that 100 million people who aren’t exactly like you are taking part in the process as well, then you have to participate.

Damn right I’m voting, Ellen. Follow your advice and stay home, and we all get to watch the fundies continue to run roughshod over the country. Nope, that’s not a choice my principles can countenance.

Rant over, now this: mindful of the fact that this blog is independent of the non-profit organization Atheist Community of Austin and is not bound by the laws pertaining to said organizations, then with the primaries coming up tomorrow in Texas and Ohio, I endorse Barack Obama. He’s actually a candidate I do like, and, faced with a voting year in which I have a good guy to vote for and not the usual “least an asshole” conundrum, I offer my endorsement gladly. (And if you live in Fort Worth or its environs, then for fuck’s sake vote for Pat Hardy for the SBOE!)