Pastor Mike Unwittingly Offers Help to the Atheist Community

Hey all!

Pastor Mike wants to register atheists like sex offenders. While I’m sure he meant to be offensive when he tried the “chicken” approach — (paraphrased summary): “Oh, you don’t WANT to be registered? Are you ASHAMED of your atheism?” — the fact is, he’s offering to do something that could really benefit the atheist community.

I’m not ashamed, I’m out. And if someone were to register atheists, he could only register those who are openly out as atheists, anyway; so, it’s not any sort of actual threat, but a childish ploy to try and evoke an outraged response by comparing atheists to criminals.

When a person tries to emotionally manipulate me in such an obvious way, though, I tend to respond by laughing, pointing, mocking. However, in this case specifically, I think Mike’s registry idea would be an awesome assist to the atheist community. I’d almost beg for one, and that’s what I tried to post to his blog, but (1) it’s invited members only, and I wasn’t one. And (2) the article keeps being pulled down and moved to other sites. Due to this, the best I can do is point you to an article about it (further below), not directly to it, because any link to the original would only be moved by the time you try and hit it. However, here is what I tried to reply. If you would also like to see the International Atheist Directory become a reality, you can thank Pastor Mike personally with an e-mail (provided below). I recommend every atheist who is “out” on the globe send a “thank you.” I’d like Mike to get 100,000 messages showing the atheist community’s gratitude, and asking him when it will be up and if it will be publicly available or paid subscription only and searchable? My response:

Will there be an annual yearbook published? Like a directory? I’m an “out” atheist, and don’t want to miss out. Is there a fee to be included? Thanks for your efforts! I’ve been trying to get a comprehensive list of atheists in the global community for years now, and have been doing it the hard way apparently — collecting them slowly over years on social networks. But if you’re willing to do the leg work, that would be awesome. You rock, Pastor Mike! Please make the list publicly available, we get a lot of letters from atheists asking where they can meet other atheists in their area. A listing like you suggest would be a big help!

Here is a link to a blog about the original article. This at least will be a stable place to see most of the content.

You can send your inquiries about the upcoming International Atheist Directory to Pastor Mike Stahl at pastorstahl@aol.com, if his e-mail account is still up and running. Someone gave me this address, and I Googled it, and it did lead back to his blog, which is now set to private. But I’m sure he would love as much feedback as possible from the atheist community — how else would we be able to send him our info for the Directory?

Enjoy!

Raising atheists, part 1

A fairly typical question that we get on the show and in email can be boiled to, “How should I raise my kids?” As if we were qualified to answer that.

Child bearing seems to be relatively uncommon in the atheist community at large. It probably has something to do with the fact that we’re not subject to that “be fruitful and multiply” directive, and we have no moral issues with birth control.

While some people see that as a cause for panic — Oh no, the stupid people will out-breed us and Idiocracy will become a documentary! — I don’t worry about it that much. Intelligence these days is passed along more by memes than by genes, and you can have a far greater impact on the sum of human intelligence by donating your time as a teacher or a writer than by replicating your particular genetic sequence.

Anyway, for those of us who do have kids, the usual questions I hear basically fall in a few categories:

  1. How can I raise them to be responsible, independent thinking adults?
  2. Should I introduce them to atheism early or do everything I can NOT to indoctrinate them?
  3. How do I handle my family and their peers when they inevitably want to expose my kids to the religions that I’ve been shielding them from?
  4. What do I do if the child’s other parent, or other family members, want to bring the kid up in their own religion, and/or bully me into not talking about atheism?

This post addresses 1 and 2, the next post will address 3 and 4.

When it comes right down to it, I don’t think anybody has the “right” answers when it comes to parenting, although some do better than others. A quick Amazon search for books with the keyword “parenting” yields 62,830 results, and many of them contradict each other.

Pro-tip for atheists: Do not pick this one.

This is one subject where knowledge comes at least as much from direct experience and learning from past mistakes as from reading. Obviously, the issues facing an atheist parent are very similar to the problems facing all parents, but with the additional complication that you hold a minority belief and you can expect to have it constantly challenged as your child gets older. Being an effective authority figure is difficult already, before you add in the problem of having other people feel that they have a duty to undermine your authority in a major category.

I’ve got no credentials to present here; I’m not a psychologist and I don’t want people to get in trouble over my advice. The only reason I might have some useful advice is by virtue of the fact that I seem to have a reasonably happy, quick witted, and skeptical fourth grader.

But they still ask these questions regularly at the TV email address, and as parents, it generally falls on me or Jen to offer whatever words of wisdom we can come up with. Here’s a sample of recent questions.

So my 9 year kid came home with a survey from his school asking him to rate what he values from 1 to 10. On the list are things like, world peace, family security, wisdom, self respect and then the eighth one . . . salvation. That’s clearly a Christian concept right? I am not sure how to respond; this is the first time I have come across something like this. Any thoughts?


My daughter just started Kindergarten and unfortunately they are reciting the Pledge of Allegiance daily. Up to this point has had absolutely no contact with religious people outside of the bi-annual trips to visit family and even then it was a prayer before dinner and that was it. With that I don’t think she knew what was actually happening.

So my predicament is she has no concept of god or religion. Which is what I had wanted, but as I’ve come to find out she needs to atleast know that other people believe in it and know the evils of religion. I want her to be prepared and I suppose that needs to start now. What advice could you give to lay the ground-work for the concept for a 5 year old?


I feel pretty certain there will be early conflict with our parents regarding us not allowing them to take our sonto church at a very young age. They won’t care that he’s too young to make the decision and I suspect will attempt to push us to “let him decided” way too early all while painting it as a pretty picture to him.

While I have no intentions of completely sheltering my son from religion. I’ll discuss it with him. However I feel it’s necessary that we make the church decision until he’s old enough to understand it and make the decision for himself. As parents that’s part of our jobs. I don’t see that religion should be treated any differently in that regard.

All right then. I’ll do my best to answer by drawing on my own parenting history. If some of the things I say seem badly wrong, just remember what I said earlier: nobody’s got all the answers.

In the first place, I’m a big fan of talking to your kid in a way that indicates you take him or her seriously. That goes for all ages. In some respects I suppose this impulse is a carry-over from my experience on the TV show, where I often wind up speaking to people with very different mindsets and assumptions from my own. What I like to do in that situation is not flatly say “I know better than you,” but suggest facts, a bit at a time, and then see where they go with it. If they agree with me, I know that I don’t need to waste time explaining that point. If they don’t agree or don’t understand, I try to pinpoint the source of the problem and then find the best angle to explain that point.

Talk to your kid about everything. If they’re looking at the stars, tell them they’re giant flaming balls of gas that are bigger than the earth. Then, if necessary, explain why perspective makes them appear small. If you’re driving, point out street signs or whatever you understand about how cars work. If you’re reading to them and they can’t read yet, pick out a letter and start helping them to recognize it, or pick out a common word like “the” and help them see the pattern.

The thing is, kids learn really fast, and probably pick up on things you say a lot more than you’re assuming. We all like to feel smart by figuring things out; give kids the opportunity.

When Ben was little, I read to him a lot… even before he had the cognitive ability to understand something like “The Cat in the Hat.” As he got to the point where he could easily grasp the books I was reading to him, I would gradually introduce newer stuff that pushed his limits. “Charlotte’s Web” was the first chapter book I read to him, I think he was 3 or 4, and every night when we picked it up I’d ask him if he could remember what had happened already. Today at age 9 we’re halfway through the Hitchhiker’s Guide series (we just read the penultimate chapter of Life, the Universe, and Everything to be precise), and he’s always quoting his favorite passages from previous books.

I know some child psychologists think TV and computers are bad for a kid at a young age, but I grew up with them myself and I’ve always regarded them as just another valuable facet of art and entertainment. Ben had introductory games like “Reader Rabbit” as soon as he was capable of banging on a keyboard, and he was allowed to take my controller and suicide over and over again when I played Monkey Ball on the GameCube.


Fact vs. Fiction

I know I’ve told this story a few times on the show, but it’s always worth putting in writing because it worked really well for us. With this background in appreciating fiction, I started an experiment where I explained to Ben the difference between real things and pretend things. At this point he was already pretty familiar with imaginary stories, so I playing a game with him. I would pick concepts and ask him whether they were real or pretend. Dad? Real. Cars? Real. Spongebob Squarepants? Pretend.

I found that cartoons are easy to identify as pretend, but live action drama is a bit tricky. Superman LOOKS real, after all, when he’s showing up as Christopher Reeve. At least as real as President Bush, anyway. So then we have to discuss filming and camera tricks. Dinosaurs are tricky (what’s extinction?). Horses are not as tricky if you’ve seen one in person. Kings? Real, but hard to believe when we don’t have them here. Presidents are like kings, but they can still go to jail if they don’t follow the law.

And what about God?

Well, that’s where it gets complicated. One of the reasons that’s a hard question for atheist parents to answer is, many of us have an aversion to authority. Richard Dawkins refers to raising a child to accept a religion as child abuse. While I’ve always thought that was very overstated, I do at least agree with him that it’s folly to try to force your kid to accept your own philosophical beliefs. It’s not just due to the worry that you might become a tyrant; the worst part is that it’s ineffective.

Younger kids can be pretty pliable and cooperative but (speaking from past experience with step-parenting) going through a rebellious stage is inevitable. When they start trying to strike out with their own budding adult identity, the first thing to go out the window is all the stuff that is only “because I said so.” If that’s the only tool you have to make kids eat their vegetables or stay away from drugs, you’d better start preparing yourself to face some out of shape and stoned teenagers.

My approach when it came to atheism was to simply answer questions honestly, explain that other people feel differently, defend my reasons for not believing, and then say “You’re going to have to make up your own mind about whether I’m right or not.”

Far from hiding the existence of religions and the Bible from Ben, I introduced them early. I told him the traditional Bible stories right along with stories like “Charlotte’s Web” and “Bunnicula.” Usually I just played them up to be as theatrical as possible, but there came a time when I read some of the same stories right from KJV. (Do you have any idea how boring the source material can be as a children’s book?)

The thing is, if you hide something from your kid, you’ll just make it mysterious and alluring. Bertrand Russell pointed this out with the respect to the way religions treat sex in his essay, “Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?” Hiding a subject and calling it shameful simply increases the fascination with it.

So, by confronting religion head-on, you can minimize the novelty when some school friend invites your child to church. Which they will. And by introducing religion along with fiction and critical thinking concepts, you’ll equip your kid to evaluate ideas critically, which is far more important than simply telling him that he’d better not fall for it… or else.

Even with adults I consider that a better policy. Give me a theist who has given serious thought to his own religion and sincerely listened to the atheist point of view and that of several other major religions; against an atheist who refuses to discuss the subject at all. The theist is the guy I want to hang out with over coffee or lunch (I’m not big on beer).

I’ll stop here for now. In a future post I will answer the implied question “Isn’t it as bad as religious brainwashing to tell your child about your atheism?” I’ll talk about how to handle other family members or friends who would like to convert your child. I’ll also do my best to answer any questions that arise in the comments.

 

UPDATE: Part 2 is up.

From the mailbag: Getting away with it

If an individual lives a life of getting away with murder, rape, pillaging, and really anything against a simple human moral code and never gets caught, do you feel that the person just simply got away with it? I’m sure the answer is yes, but I’m curious as to where the barrier of living out our darkest desires and why we would bother with morality if we knew there was some way to simply not get caught for the things we do?

I have a few separate points to make about this. The first is that justice is important to people, which is why we establish laws for people to follow, penalties if they don’t, and a system that is impartial as possible to keep people following those laws. So your question about what would happen if nobody got caught for doing harmful things doesn’t apply in modern society. It’s not a perfect system, but it tends to work pretty well keeping me safe most of the time.

Second, you’d be wrong to assume that fear of punishment is the only thing that keeps people from committing crimes. One thing is empathy for other people. Should I go on a killing spree? Why would I want to? I care about other people, and I would feel bad if they died because of me. It wouldn’t be particularly pleasurable for me, I wouldn’t get any benefit from it, and there’s that pesky human justice system that would make the rest of my life unpleasant.

Third, maybe there is some doctrine out there that promises justice that distinguishes between people’s good and bad actions… but Christianity is not that doctrine. I don’t know what sect you follow, but many of the ones I’m aware of claim that we are saved through faith and not through good works. Most Protestants assert that we are all terrible sinners regardless of what particular things we’ve done, and every single person deserves eternal torture equally. A preacher like Ray Comfort doesn’t draw a distinction between a guy like me, who just doesn’t believe in God, and someone who (as you say) gets away with murder, rape, and pillaging. In fact, according to some preachers, this hypothetical murderer could experience a sincere conversion moments before he died, and he’d go to heaven.

So in promoting Christianity, I think you’re really asking whether I feel bad that I won’t ever experience eternal suffering as the just punishment for my own crime of not believing in your God. And the answer is no.

At last, at last, at last…

Dennis Markuze, the mentally ill Canadian megatroll who has apparently spent the better part of his entire adult life calling himself “David Mabus” and sending death threats and wild online tirades to the inboxes, blogs and Twitter feeds of countless atheists, scientists and anyone else who ends up in his crosshairs of crazy, is in deep, deep feces.

In Canada, it is a criminal offense to make such threats, and, in a key distinction from U.S. law, it is not necessary for a person threatening someone’s life to present a realistic likelihood of actually carrying out the act. Some may consider that a troublesome free speech wrinkle, but there’s a big difference between expressing an unpopular, even repugnant point of view, and telling someone you’re going to decapitate them and murder their family. A violent death threat is not a “point of view.” I went through our ban code just now, and counted no fewer than 37 bogus Google ID’s that Markuze had created to comment here. And he actually didn’t hit us nearly as hard or as copiously as he has targeted many others!

Markuze now faces up to 16 counts, and has been remanded to psychiatric evaluation. With luck, it will be determined that he is, in fact, crazier than a shithouse rat, and a long stretch of institutionalization will begin. The dude is broken, and he needs fixing, not a hard prison term. But at least the online godless and scientific community can breathe a little more easily, knowing that probably the most vexing source of irrationality we’ve been facing this side of Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann has finally been dealt with. It’s a testament to the power of online collective activism giving torpid law enforcement the kick in the butt it sorely needed to do their jobs properly. After all, Markuze had been a menace for years, and been reported for it, all to complete police indifference. Finally, enough was enough, and the matter was at last taken seriously, without circumstances having to end up with Markuze finally becoming the next Jared Loughner, and someone ending up needlessly dead before anything was done about it.

PS: Since PZ and some other bloggers have already faced a kind of backlash for talking about Markuze in conjunction with words like “crazy” and “mentally ill,” I think it behooves us to note that, of course, Markuze is not the poster boy for all people everywhere who suffer from one form of mental illness or another, most of whom are non-violent and pursuing treatment while doing their best to live normal and happy lives like all the rest of us. While I cannot deny a tiny bit of schadenfreude that this creep has gone down, to be fair, Markuze’s internal demons must simply be devastating. Hopefully the fact they’ve gone untreated for so long won’t make it impossible for him to respond to the kind of care that will allow him to have, someday, a little bit of peace in his empty existence at last.

Rabbi really, really wants Intelligent Design to be true, so it must be!

I’ve tried to respond to this post, but they’re rather sluggish about approving comments that might expose their idiocy, so I’m posting my reply here.

The Rabbi writes:

The obvious and most significant conclusion that can be drawn from all their splendid work in the lab is that the only reasonable explanation for the emergence of life is Intelligent Design!

Bzzzt!

The mere fact that something CAN be accomplished by intelligent design does not indicate that it can ONLY be accomplished by intelligent design, nor does it indicate that other similar occurrences are most likely the result of intelligent design.

The fact that I have an intelligently designed machine in my kitchen that can freeze water doesn’t mean that the best explanation for the polar ice caps is a giant, intelligently designed freezer.

I’ll agree that this subject (the creation of life in the laboratory) doesn’t significantly add to the origin of life discussion (meaning it doesn’t confirm a source, despite demonstrating a possible mechanism) – which means, in case you missed it while eagerly rushing toward a presentation of your own, unsupported hypothesis, that it doesn’t lend any significant credence to ANY position regarding origins. Including intelligent design.

So, congratulations to the Intelligent Design crowd for, once again, posting their sloppy thinking publicly. It goes a long way toward helping to educate the next generation.

Mark/Bob/Thomas from London

I’m going to try to explain this very simply, because the amount of mail coming about this is staggering.

Basically, the claim is “Mark from Stone Church is also Bob and Thomas from London and I can’t believe you guys can’t figure this out. His accent was even obviously fake!”

Yes, the accent was horrible. Yes, it was probably Mark. So what do we do about that? We have NO caller ID. We can’t prove that it’s the same person. I can’t know that he doesn’t honestly believe what he’s saying, even if he fakes an accent. I can’t prove that ANYONE actually believes the shit they say on the phone.

But if the conversation is allowing us to make good points and the caller is cooperative, what reason do I have to ruin it by saying “I think you’re a liar. I think you’re that same ‘Mark’ guy…”? And what if I’m wrong?

It’s simply a bad idea to go making accusations like that in the middle of the show, when I have no supporting evidence.

Curiously, people seem to hear “Mark’s” voice everywhere. In addition to the three in the title there are one or two other callers who people feel are also the same guy. Sometimes I can hear the similarities, sometimes I can’t.

Congratulations to those of you who can always hear it and always get it right (though I’m not sure how you know that you’re right), but exactly what do you propose we do about it?

Smile when you call them bitches!

What do Jen, Tracie, and Beth do when they aren’t kicking buttock on the TV show, here, on Facebook, and in the world at large? Well, as of now they’re concentrating on their new podcast, Godless Bitches, the first episode of which is now submitted for your approval. Think of it as The View, except intelligent.

Why marriage?

A viewer from Thailand writes:

My friend is a big fan of your show and would like to know why, given your Atheism, you still believe in marriage. His point of view is that marriage is a religious institution, so why would an atheist have anything to do with it? He asks if it’s for a tax break, or if polygamy is somehow wrong for an atheist?

As a guy about to be married for the second time, I support the institution of marriage — both gay and straight. I recommend you start by reading this article on Wikipedia:

Rights and responsibilities of marriages in the United States

Marriage carries with it a host of federal benefits assumed to be conferred automatically on each spouse. These prominently include:

  • Numerous tax benefits, as you mentioned, including the right to file jointly
  • Legal status with stepchildren
  • joint parenting rights, such as access to children’s school records
  • family visitation rights for the spouse and non-biological children, such as to visit a spouse in a hospital or prison
  • next-of-kin status for emergency medical decisions or filing wrongful death claims
  • Survivor benefits on death
  • Automatic recipient of life insurance for some jobs
  • Tax-free transfer of property between spouses (including on death) and exemption from “due-on-sale” clauses.

This is only scratching the surface, but I hope you get the idea. Is it possible for all these legal issues to be settled by signing a few hundred individual contracts? Naturally. But what’s the point? Two people committing to living together is an incredibly common arrangement, and it’s a reasonable assumption that a couple would want these legal rights explicitly spelled out in one big contract. That contract is called “marriage.”

Your friend is simply misinformed when he says that marriage is a religious institution. It isn’t. Marriage existed long before religion got its hooks in it, and the fact that religious people today are going around demanding that their views of marriage ought to be “protected” is simply bunk, and pointless entanglement between church and state. A church can “marry” you in the sense that they can perform a ceremony, but unless you sign those legal papers that are recognized by lawyers (or in some states, meet various other requirements that make you married), you’re not married in the eyes of the law, and that’s where it counts.

As for polygamy: I’m on the fence about it, along with many other atheists. Legally, a contract between three people is much more complicated than a contract between two. For instance, what happens if person A wants to divorce person B, but still loves C, while B and C wish to remain married? Because it’s so complex, I’m not pushing for legal polygamy. There is also the concern that polygamy as practiced is often used as a smokescreen for coercion and sex with minors, as in the recent case of epic scumbag Warren Jeffs. That’s not okay, since it doesn’t involve consenting adults who are in a legal position to make their own large life-changing decisions.

Having said that, I’m not particularly morally opposed to polygamy, as long as it’s between consenting adults and as long as I don’t have to sort out their legal affairs. I wouldn’t do it, but other people can for all I care. In the absence of legal polygamy, I’m also not opposed to people being polyamorous. (Hat tip to Dan Savage‘s excellent podcast and column, where he discusses this regularly.) Fool around with other partners as much as you want, as long as nobody in the arrangement is deceived about what they’re getting into.

Note that my description of it as legally acceptable doesn’t amount to my recommending it as a good idea for anyone in particular. In the worst case, miscommunication could occur, jealousy could pop up, feelings could be hurt, and relationships could be broken. But as long as everybody’s aware of that going in… you’re adults, I’m not responsible for your therapy bills. :)