Burning Korans, drawing Mohammed, avoiding hypocrisy, creative vs. destructive protests — religion just makes the whole frickin’ world crazy!

There’s a truth about the upcoming Koran cookout planned by Dove World Church and its grandstanding (and light-fingered) pastor Terry Jones: they have every right under the Constitution to do this thing. Are they a bunch of dicks who don’t care about the potential devastating backlash of their actions as long as they get the publicity they crave? Yeah, I suppose they are.

Recently, atheists proudly participated in an online event called Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, which was as deliberate a middle finger to Islam as we could have thought up. Before that, PZ Myers famously threw a cracker in the trash, making him the bête noire of Catholics worldwide. (Though they conveniently forget that he also trashed a copy of The God Delusion at the same time.) As people who are not above acts of deliberate provocation ourselves — indeed, as people who are currently arguing amongst ourselves about the merits of “being a dick” in our encounters with religionists — it would hardly be honest of us to join the chorus of chest-beating outrage against Jones’ church for the horrible offense of burning somebody’s holy book. While most of us, I’m sure, take Fahrenheit 451 to heart and deplore book-burning on general principles as a disgraceful act of intellectual cowardice and the suppression of ideas, we should also acknowledge the legitimacy of the act as a form of protest speech. After all, I can’t very well defend the rights of flag-burners while condemning a Koran-burner. Don’t work dat way!

I suppose where the conversation ought to go from here for atheists is in whether or not Jones is motivated by a desire to conduct a legitimate form of protest, or if he’s simply a crass political opportunist, playing into a rising tide of anti-Muslim bigotry in order to increase his profile from “obscure pastor of an outcast hick church” to “internationally famous martyr and warrior for Christ”. Well, what is legitimate protest in this context? Yes, radical Islamists brought down the World Trade Center. But all Muslims are not radical Islamists, and all Muslims did not partake in, let alone condone, the 9/11 attacks. So if Jones’s idea is that he’s protesting Islam for 9/11, he’s clearly throwing his net way too wide. The thing is, I suppose he knows it, but doesn’t care. He’s getting the publicity he wants.

The potential for hypocrisy in criticizing the upcoming burning has been much on my mind, and I’ve been forced to think about the similarities and differences between what Jones is about to do, and, say, Everybody Draw Mohammed Day. And then I’ve been forced to question whether or not any of my ideas are simply bullshit justifications I’ve been making up to feel better. I don’t think they are. But I do think it’s a positive thing, overall, that I’m willing to be self-critical. This is an advantage the godless life offers, I think, over the brazen certainties of God-botherers like Jones, who confidently assert that God (i.e., their projection of themselves upon the universe) truly wants them to do what they’re planning.

Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, for one thing, was on the whole a creative rather than destructive act of protest. It was a response, not only to the real Islamist violence and threats of violence that erupted in the wake of the publication of a few innocuous (and not especially good, when you think about it) cartoons, but to the arrogant assumption on the part of Islamists that non-Muslims were somehow obligated to follow Islam’s rules. Also, at the end of the day, what you had were a bunch of silly cartoons. While there was a little huffing and puffing about EDMD, in the end, the message I think got across (to the general public, if not to radicals) that taking someone’s life over a lame doodle was both insane and pitiful in equal measure. Lame doodles themselves can’t possibly hurt a fly. EDMD might have offended some Muslims. But in the end, no one killed anyone.

Now, piling up a couple hundred copies of the Koran and torching them — that would be a destructive form of protest. Furthermore, it’s hypocritical of Jones to justify it by condemning Islam as a hateful, intolerant religion, when he has a history of hate speech (against gays, the usual suspects) and intolerance. While I think Jones has the right to go through with his speech, I don’t think his motives are honest. He’s exactly what he condemns, except that his religious radicalism wears a cross rather than a crescent moon and star. (The atheists who took part in EDMD might condemn Islam and Islamist violence, but we’d never want to deprive Muslims of their right to worship, as many right-wingers do right now.)

Could this event trigger more terrorist attacks and counter-strikes against our troops overseas? Yeah, I suppose it could, though it isn’t as if they needed more reasons to do that. But if Jones ends up giving them one, the first such attack will be all the vindication he needs. “See, we were right about how violent Islam is!” Not caring that, in this instance, he threw the first punch. Yeah, it’s entirely valid to condemn radical Islamists for doing what they actually do, which is kill people who aren’t sufficiently “respectful” to their beliefs. But you limit your condemnation to those individuals and groups who do the violence. As has been pointed out to an indifferent Jones, it’s absurd and dishonest as hell for him to suggest that he’s only protesting the violent Islamists, and that “moderate Muslims” ought to support him, when it’s their holy book he’s burning too.

In the end, I think what we as atheists should take away from all this insanity is a sobering realization that this is the kind of world you get when religion runs the show. Belief pits us against our fellow man for the most absurd of reasons: failure to worship the correct invisible magic man in the correct way. And for all that defenders bleat about the alleged benefits of religion — that sense of charity, well-being, love and community we are told believers enjoy better than any of the rest of us — they always leave out the part about religion’s innate tribalism. Whatever benefits religious beliefs confer are only enjoyed by those within that particular belief community. If you’re an outsider…run.

We rationalists can only hope humanity outgrows its penchant for religious tribalism one day, and that all these vile superstitions are eradicated from our cultural landscape completely. (Not through violence, of course, but through intellectual and moral awakening.) There really ought to only be one tribe — humanity.

But until then…yeah, go ahead, burn that Koran. Whatever. I’ll be at home that day. Let me know when the smoke clears and it’s safe to breathe free again.

Religion is abuse, pure and simple. Just check Twitter.

Today on Twitter, one of the big trending memes is “Without God”. Hordes of theists right now are tweeting what they think life would be like if Sky Daddy weren’t around to hold their hand, with the words “Without God” somewhere in the tweet (which is how people get topics trending). The most common tweets are the most disheartening, because they demonstrate with crystal clarity that the most effective tool religion has for keeping people docile and compliant is the utter destruction of their personal esteem. Seriously, what other than religion could get people so eager to boast of their personal worthlessness? Here are actual examples.

@Periyon Without God I have nothing else to live for…

@mandyymanders Without God I would have nothing.

@SupaBaddizI Without God I am nothin, have nothin, && will never be able to accomplish nothin!

@Rieno2 Without God, I wouldn’t know how it feels to LIVE…

@iLoveMJ147 Without God I am nothing.

@BellaKerber Without God, life has no meaning ..

@PeAce_SteLLa Without God : I’m NOTHING ! ! ! ! !

@taylormatthews Without God there can be no knowledge, good, evil, hope or joy.

@DJFoRenZic_JA: Without god, there is no life!

@iK00lKiDd Without God there is no me…

@nanamarie87 Without God i could do nothing…be nothing

And it just goes on and on and on like that. Thousands upon thousands of people, eager to devalue themselves. “I suck! I’m worthless! I’m nothing, nothing, nothing…without GOD.”

This is quite possibly the most unspeakable form of brainwashing a person can endure. It is what George H. Smith in Atheism: The Case Against God is talking about when he states that Christianity has “a vested interest in human misery.” First, convince the believer of their innate lack of value. Get them to believe that there is nothing good about themselves in any way, shape or form. Then offer them a thin straw of hope: God can give you worth. Sure, you’re a completely undeserving piece of shit, but no worries. If you pray and genuflect and abase yourself just enough, he might — if he happens to be in a good mood that day — might condescend to let you past the velvet rope into his Heaven. What’s that? You say you answered the altar call at church? Well, that’s great and everything, but you know, that still might not be good enough. Because without God you’re nothing, you miserable little shitstain! So just remember that.

By this time, you have the believer so utterly intimidated they’re afraid of their own shadow. Even the tiniest scrap of joy they experience in life, they’ll be damn sure to credit immediately to their God, just to make sure they don’t fall out of favor.

You know who else uses these kinds of brainwashing techniques? Abusive spouses. “Without me you’re nothing” is the biggest hammer in the toolkit of the controlling, abusive partner. It’s why abused women don’t leave their men when you’d think all common sense would have them fleeing at the first opportunity. It’s like Stockholm Syndrome. And it’s why it’s so difficult to use reason when arguing with believers about their beliefs. You’re calmly and soberly trying to lay out objective facts, while they’re thinking that if what you say is true, then they’re doomed to a worthless, miserable void of a life, because THEY. ARE. NOTHING.

When you read these tweets, you should understand that when Dawkins refers to the religious indoctrination of children as child abuse, he isn’t fucking around. These tweeters are folks who grew up with that indoctrination into an adulthood defined in its entirety by fear and self-loathing. They hate themselves, pure and simple, and see no pleasure in anything their brief time on this earth can offer them if it cannot be attached in some way to their God.

If this parade of misery isn’t all the reason you need to stand against religion, I don’t know what else is. And any accommodationist who tells me religion should be “respected” even though I don’t believe it will frankly get a swift kick to the jewels. Are you going to tell me to “respect” wife beating even though I’d never do it?

Wasting your life?

We received a letter from a theist who sent us the following question:

I came across [a Youtube Video] where one of the gentlemen on your show said that spending time, “in prayer or in church is a waste of your one precious life”…If atheism is correct and the end of life is oblivion of one’s consciousness, then how is anything one does during their “precious” life a waste of time? If [2+4+75+15]*0 does equal 0 and [43-58-1002-67]*0 also equals 0 then in what real way are these problems different?… whether or not one is a theist or an atheist/agnostic there are many things you can do in this lifetime to further progress or hinder future generations. But the personal end result is always the same so I can not understand how anything you do could, at the end, be viewed as wasted.

This was the kernel of the question. The writer also pointed out that some ritualistic behaviors, such as prayer, can make some people feel good, and offered that perhaps these activities may not be a “waste” from that perspective, even if the god isn’t actually there. I replied to this particular query, and was asked to post my response to the blog. So, here it is:

Most people who put any effort, time, or resources toward attaining a goal, and then find the effort did nothing to help them get any closer to that goal, would use the term “waste” to describe that expenditure of effort. It’s simply the definition of the word “waste”—inefficient, ineffective efforts.

All we have in life are time, energy and resources. So, if those are wasted, it’s not really outside the bounds of standard definitions to call that “wasted life.” If we send money to buy a product that promises to make our clothes whiter, and we use it, and it doesn’t work—then we say it was a “waste” of our money. There’s nothing semantically or philosophically tricky about it. And whether we have no end of money (an eternal afterlife) or that was all the money we had (no eternal afterlife)—in fact, especially if that was all the money we had—the transaction is fairly, honestly, and understandably (to most people), labeled “a waste of money.”

If I hired Jim to work for me for a year for $75,000, and at the end of the year Jim came by to get paid, and I had cleared out of town without a trace, Jim would be very reasonable to conclude that he wasted a year of his life on doing work for me for nothing. He worked hard in an effort he believed would help him net a desired goal of $75k—but really the effort was fruitless in getting him anywhere close to his personal goal of $75k.

If I tell Jim to cheer up, that one day he will be dead, so the year and the money don’t actually matter—Jim probably wouldn’t like that advice very much. And I have no trouble grasping that Jim would want that year back in a bad way and feel it was “wasted” and stolen from him—even if Jim didn’t believe in an afterlife (in fact, especially if Jim didn’t believe in an afterlife—and this life/time is all he gets). I suspect Jim would spend at least some time trying to hunt me down (with a blazing vengeance) to get at least some of that compensation of which I defrauded him, so that his year wouldn’t be a “total waste” in his estimation.

For someone in my position, there is an ethical obligation if I have any regard for my fellow humans, if I meet Jim, to explain to him that caution is in order, since there is no valid evidence this company has ever paid out a dime to anyone it has ever employed, and to alert him that working for the company is a waste of his life, if he sincerely believes he will receive the promised compensation for his efforts. I won’t physically try to stop Jim, but certainly issuing a warning is a fair and reasonable effort.

The question to Jim, then, is this: “Would you work for this company for a year even if they didn’t pay you at the end of the year?” If the answer is “no,” then working for the company would constitute a waste of life for Jim–based on Jim’s own assessment. If the answer is “yes,” then Jim has some other motivation beyond the $75k that he hasn’t told me about yet, that needs to be revealed before an evaluation of “waste” could be made.

I have yet to see a person who felt anything but robbed in Jim’s situation—regardless of their religious or nonreligious leanings; and a great many ex-theists who contact us express that they feel like Jim (that their time involved with religion represents wasted life of which they often describe that they feel defrauded), and for exactly the same reasons Jim would. I hope this helps to clarify the position.

This is the end of the e-mail response. But I would like to add the following thoughts:

First of all, kudos to this theist, who replied to my e-mail to say that it helped him greatly to understand the meaning of what was said, and that he appreciated my effort to explain it. I will fully admit that I was braced for some petty semantic argument—but instead I received a nice response showing that he’d read and understood. That’s a wonderful change of pace in dealing with correspondences from theists.

But his original letter actually made me think further. Anyone could easily see my $75k analogy as being related to an afterlife promise. But actually, it is only intended to represent “motive.” In the question of theism versus atheism, everything hinges on whether or not a god exists. So, the question to Jim would translate to, “If there was no god, would you still do this?”

Interestingly, the response to the question results in a Catch-22 I had never previously considered. If the theist says, “Yes, I would still pray—even if I was convinced there is no god,” that means that for this particular theist, praying serves a primarily secular function, since whatever benefit he derives from prayer would still be there—according to him—even without a belief in god.

Alternately, if the theist says, “No, I would not continue to pray if I did not believe god exists,” then it’s fair to say that if no god exists, and if I were to help him recognize that, I would be helping him avoid wasting some portion of his life—in the same way warning Jim could salvage a year of Jim’s life.

I have heard from ex-theists who have written to our list to say things like, “I still stress over some things—like coming to grips with my own mortality,” but I have yet to get the letter that says, “My life was wonderful as a theist, and you ruined everything by convincing me god does not exist.” On the contrary, I have seen countless letters come through our list from ex-theists who want to thank us and express heavy gratitude to us for helping them get their lives back and escape from the bonds of delusional thinking. Honestly, the only people who write to us to express that taking away someone’s belief in god has ruinous results, are people who believe in god and, for whatever reason, are convinced that losing that belief would be ruinous—I assume to them? But their imagined fear contradicts the real feedback from every ex-theist who has ever contacted us.

Ironically, people who write to tell us they’ve gotten their lives “back,” must have been people who were expending a great deal of their lives on their belief in god—otherwise, why write to thank us? What have we really done for them if they weren’t devoting much, or anything, to god? They write because they were devoting quite a lot to belief in god, and now they can redirect their energy, time and resources toward something that will yield actual results in reality for them and others—not just in their minds. So, taking a person who is putting a lot of energy into belief in god, and stripping him of that belief, in reality results in a profuse “thank you,” despite the theists who claim
it will result in a loveless, bleak, meaningless, doubt-filled, fear-based existence that offers a person no reason to get out of bed in the morning.

The theist who offers this prophecy of doom, though, is only speaking from his own fear—the real cord that keeps him bound to his belief. And he is so strongly gripped by this fear that it’s beyond his capacity to imagine anyone else not being held sway by such terror. So, he projects those fears onto others because that’s all he is honestly capable of. He really, and sadly, has accepted the childhood indoctrination message that a life without god would be an awful and meaningless existence.

If you are a theist, and you think this way, please understand that this is a big, flashing sign that you are in the iron grip of irrational, mind-twisting fear that was drilled into your brain during indoctrination as a child. The fear you feel is real, I understand, but the basis for it is a lie your tiny child mind was pressured to accept by well-meaning, misguided adults. You’re accepting a lot of religious rubbish because you’ve been convinced that to not do so would have catastrophic results in your life. It’s hard to take that first step, when you’re gripped by the terror that one false move can doom you for all eternity. To be honest, many theists don’t have the nerve. When push comes to shove, a lot of them cave and just accept belief in god as best they can, in order to stop the pressure they think will never stop otherwise. Don’t believe the lie that the only choice is to accept god or live forever in fear and doubt. There is another option.

What you fear exists only in your mind. The religious claim that the only escape from it is to accept all these beliefs about god, is a lie. There are ex-theists who have rejected these beliefs and who have worked through these same fears and made it out, very successfully—to bright futures where their lives have been fully restored to them. Consider talking to some ex-theists. Don’t tell them that their lives without god are meaningless and terrible, ask them if their lives did, in fact, become terrible and meaningless after letting go of faith.

If you will listen and learn, it could save you from a wasted life.

Christian Hate wins in Maine…but…

Once again, the fundies have locked and loaded the only weapons they have, hate and fear, and brought them to bear in Maine, where a marriage equality vote went the wrong way yesterday. Naturally, this is disappointing for those of us who support love and families regardless of such details as race, creed, or sexual preference, and oppose ignorant discrimination based on fearing the wrath of an invisible magic man in the sky.

But I see some encouragement here. Note that the hate vote was only 53%. I think only ten years ago it might have been upwards of 70% or even 80%. Opening hearts and minds to accepting that, first, women, and then blacks and other racial minorities, deserved equality under the law took a huge cultural sea change. (And of course I’m talking across a broad base here, not just the issue of marriage. When you get right down to it, movements like women’s suffrage and the right to have birth control, and the rights of African Americans to sit wherever the fuck they pleased on the bus, are essentially the very same fight as the GLBT marriage fight: it’s about equality, period.) It will take an even bigger sea change for our culture at large to begin to accept gay marriage, primarily because, of all the equality fights down the years, this one is tricky because it’s going against centuries of religious programming that gays and lesbians are the vilest kinds of hellbound sinners alive.

Progress is happening faster than you might think. Remember the article from just a few days back, reporting the rise of secularism among New England states, and the frustration of evangelicals in those states. I suspect that it may just take a generational shift to move more people in the mainstream of America towards the side of marriage equality. After all, one huge factor that has been shown to be alienating younger people today from their parents’ traditional Christian faith is this constant hammering of the “Get The Fags!” drum on the part of Christians just about everywhere. As these older generations pass on, and more open-minded young people grow up and adopt tolerant secular attitudes, things will shift.

So yeah, marriage equality fighters, the downside is that I am suggesting it may not be until the ’20s or ’30s before widespread legalization of gay marriage becomes a reality in America. But really, despite yesterday’s election setback — again, by not nearly as large a margin as it could have been — the momentum is with you. For GLBT marriage equality, it’s only a matter of time. It’ll happen. Not this year. But it will.

The dark, frightening abyss that is Brannon Howse’s world

It always helps to be reminded of a salient fact when dealing with the fundamentalist extremist: literally every single aspect of their lives is governed by fear. It is a dark and frightening world in which they live, made all the more grim by the way the dark fearfulness of it is so easily embraced by the believer, who disguises it under a thin veneer of righteousness and the sense of empowerment that comes from believing one is part of an oppressed minority.

I have brought up Brannon Howse and his personal neurosis factory, the Christian Worldview Network, for mockery here many times. I regularly get their email newsletters, and believe me, this guy has never met an over-the-top paranoid Obama conspiracy theory he didn’t like. His contributors are a rogue’s gallery of the spiritually psychotic: David Noebel, Ray Comfort, Phyllis Schlafly, David Barton, Kan Ham.

Howse’s latest ridiculous rant is one of those revealing moments in fundie bloviation that serves to remind those of us in the reality-based community just what this country has to deal with. It has the ominous title “Is America at a Dangerous Tipping Point for Receiving God’s Judgment?”, which is entirely in character, as Howse only does ominous titles. Remember when I said that every aspect of the extremist’s life is governed by fear? Well, that doesn’t just apply to Obama, teh gayz, libruls, evilutionists, or (Howse’s favorite villain-of-the-week) “Fabian Socialists.” There’s one thing the Howses of the world are even more scared of than all those things: their God. This week, Howse cannot stop wringing his hands (mostly in fear, but one detects a hint of sadistic glee as well) over the destruction he is sure God is about to wreak upon America, because, apparently…

…our nation has murdered nearly 50 million unborn children, states are rushing toward homosexual marriage, God is outlawed in our nation’s public schools, the criminalization of Christianity is greatly increasing, only 1% of adults have a Christian worldview and false-teaching and pagan spirituality has become mainstream.

I must say I found a lot of that surprising. Only 1% of American adults are Christians? If only! Of course, Howse really means that, by his estimation (and it’s one that lets him play the “me so persecuted” card with shameless impunity), only 1% of Americans are True Christians™ like him. The others are all misled fools who’ve embraced false teachings and “pagan spirituality.” Hmm. Okay. Though I must admit, this imaginary Scary America that exists between Howse’s ears is one I wouldn’t mind living in.

And what’s all this about the “criminalization of Christianity”? Seriously? You’d think if this were the case, then law enforcement would have a hard time overlooking all these hundreds of churches that appear on every fucking block in every town in the country, and be about raiding them Waco-style with greater efficiency than they seem to be employing at present. I mean, let’s look at something in our country that is criminalized, like drugs. So if we lived in some bizarro parallel universe in which drugs were “criminalized” to the same degree Howse thinks Christianity is, then this would be a parallel universe in which meth labs operated on every street corner like drive-in burger joints, vending machines sold both Coke and…coke, and you could pick up Master Kush and Purple Haze marijuana buds at your local nursery or Home Depot.

Truly, Howse is a silly, silly man. But the kind of fear he spouts — an all-consuming, comprehensive existential terror in which you are literally never safe from anything, including the God you profess to love — somehow hits huge numbers of people where they live. It speaks to them. And that, more than anything, is the tragedy of the religious mind. The brighter the beliefs look to the believer, the darker the abyss they actually inhabit.


PS: I just remembered…Howse did one of his Code Blue rallies here in Austin two days ago. No idea how it went yet. I’ll do some digging.

Bang bang shoot shoot!

One state senator I suspect will not be voting today against Don McLeroy is my own, Republican Jeff Wentworth. And it’s not simply because he’s Republican, but because he’s so far to the right that he’s actually sponsored a bill here in Texas no one but the NRA wants: SB 1164, which would allow people to carry concealed handguns into buildings on college campuses.

I’m no reactionary anti-gun lefty (no, really, I’m not, so this isn’t going to be the equivalent to those arguments you hear from right-wingers railing against sex and porn by starting “I’m no prude, but…” who then go on to illustrate in detail how big a prude they really are). But anyone sensible ought to see the flaw in Wentworth’s logic. He begins by cynically exploiting fears of another Virginia Tech massacre, where hapless students were “picked off like sitting ducks” because the law left them defenseless. In the Hollywood fantasies of Wentworth, such massacres would be stopped dead in their tracks by courageous, armed law-abiding heroes ready to leap into action like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, busting caps and saving lives.

Setting aside obvious objections to this scenario — like the extreme rarity of such shootings overall, and the presumed readiness of regular people to respond to such a crisis with the cool head of a trained police officer or Navy SEAL simply because they took a 10-hour gun safety course — you’ll notice that Wentworth immediately kneecaps his own fantasy by assuring skeptics that, for one thing, the proposed law would only apply to those legally able to own guns in Texas in the first place: people over 21. So there’s no need to worry about hordes of hormonally distressed 18 and 19 year olds walking around campus packing. It’ll just be the older and wiser seniors, grad students, and staff, all of whom can be counted on for rational level-headedness every time.

So we should support the law because, we’re told, it’ll save lives, and we shouldn’t worry about its possible negatives, because most people on a college campus wouldn’t be able to take advantage of it anyway.

Bwuh? So, excuse me, how will lives be saved here? I mean, what’s to stop our hypothetical armed psycho from simply wandering into a large class packed with freshmen and sophomores, led by a professor who has chosen not to exercise her concealed carry rights (which will be most of them), and opening up? If the nearest legally-packing senior is up on the third floor, or, say, six buildings away, how many lives will be lost in the time it takes him to sprint to the scene and do his Keanu bit?

And what of other concerns that seem not to have occurred to Wentworth at all? Like, what if a legally armed senior has his registered piece stowed in his backpack? And then he ducks out of class to go to the bathroom? And in that time, his backpack is stolen?

And as anyone who’s ever been to college knows, no one in campus dorms ever gets drunk…

It’s one thing to want to find ways to protect people from those in our society who would harm us. We all want that. But in a perfect world, while we could easily prevent all crimes simply by passing law after law to head the bad guys off at the pass every time, the truth is we don’t live in that world. If college students in Texas didn’t need the passage of a concealed carry law after Charles Whitman’s rampage (and yes, I know that sportsmen with their hunting rifles helped hold Whitman at bay during all that, but that was still after he’d mowed down a number of innocents), then what exactly has changed since 1966? Other than the NRA’s lobbying power and hold over the GOP?

How to Stack a Deck

Last night I watched three episodes of a program called “Paranormal State.” It is billed as “true stories of a team of paranormal researches from the Pennsylvania State University Paranormal Research Society.”

One episode was of the variety I find most disturbing. It involved a young autistic boy. I won’t examine that particular episode, but I’d like to offer the following:

Note to wack-a-loons: If you live your life in a state of paranoid freakout because you believe paranormal entities are trying to “get” you, don’t infect your kids with that fear. It’s not just a disservice, it’s mentally abusive to turn them into frightened little people who jump at shadows and every creak of an old home. If you’re truly that far out of touch with reality, do yourself a favor and buy new, because every pre-owned home or commercial building is going to come with some creaks and groans. A talk with a structural engineer, instead of a psychic, might do more good for you that you can imagine (even with your extreme level of fertile imagination). Freak yourself out till the ghosts come home, but don’t burden your kids with your personal, dysfunctional, mental baggage. I get that you “believe” it; that doesn’t make it sane.

In one of the episodes, I recall a woman was sleeping at her sister’s “haunted” house. She was in the haunted bedroom and felt a “presence” come out of the closet, approach the bed, and put pressure on her chest. She also heard toys moving in the closet.

Two words: Sleep Paralysis. It’s a condition, caused by a known malfunction of chemicals in the brain that are normally used to help regulate sleep and waking. It can cause, not surprisingly, feelings of a person/people in the room, auditory and visual hallucinations, and feelings of pressure on the chest, along with fear. It’s a common event, but it is not unheard of for an individual to have episodes only rarely. I have had episodes. And before I learned what it was I just called it that “thing where you can’t wake up.” The majority of the people I’ve mentioned it to respond with “Oh yeah, I think I’ve had that.” I’m guessing that this particular woman probably had her first episode (or first memorable episode) in this house, and due to the stories she’d heard, misattributed the incident to ghosts.

It was the final program, though, that really left me slack-jawed.

It was a historic Gettysburg home in a state of disrepair when it was purchased by a couple who intended to use it as a bed and breakfast. They put a lot of money into renovations, but didn’t really provide a detailed run down of what work had been done—what had been replaced, updated or renovated, and what parts of the home were still original. This information, I thought, should be significant if I’m investigating possible causes of unexplained noises in a home. Gettysburg, in case anyone isn’t familiar, was the scene of a lot of historic bloody battles and death. So, no surprise there are local tales of hauntings. And no surprise that the “psychic” who was brought in felt pain in his gut, saw blood and death, and believed someone there might have suffered a gunshot wound. Impressed?

Other than the minor creaks and cricks that any older home would produce, there were two really great clues that went negligently uninvestigated, which might have resulted in some solid answers and helped these homeowners out significantly. (Or, if they were investigated, the show failed to demonstrate it or mention it.)

First of all, this house presented the paranormal team with a tremendous opportunity to figure out what was happening—whether ghost or not. That opportunity was blown, blown, and blown again. But here’s what happened: Every morning at 3:02 a.m., on the money, the entire house “shudders.” This was caught on both video and audio. The concierge was the one who pinpointed the consistency of the event, and sure enough, 3:02 a.m.: brrruuumpty-bumpity-brump went rolling through the rooms.

Let’s be real here for a moment: It takes a bit of force to shake a house. If the supernatural manifested consistently (every night at 3:02 a.m.) with enough force to shake a house, it wouldn’t be so commonly considered as being in the realm of mental instability. That house shook in reality, not in somebody’s mind. But the type of force that shakes a house should be identifiable and measurable and, with an opportunity to observe it with nightly regularity, shouldn’t be any mystery. If your house shakes at the same time every night, that’s not a job for an exorcist, it’s a job for a structural engineer—the kind that inspects homes and can work with the city to figure out what’s happening with your house and your area that could cause such an event.

My first recollection was of being in a house when an aircraft flew overhead and created a sonic boom. It was extremely similar. Someone else I mentioned it to asked me if there were any trains that ran nearby? I have no idea, because that wasn’t investigated (or, again, if it was, it wasn’t presented).

Is there a train track nearby? An Airforce base? Any city pipes or lines under the street? Do the neighbors feel this tremor as well? Did anyone think to ask them? If they do, we know we’re not looking for a house ghost but something area wide that is impacting the neighborhood at large. If not, do they have the same sort of historic foundations and structural issues a restored historic building would have, or are they rebuilt as entirely new?

This house is a “historic” home—which means that there are restrictions on the types of upgrades and renovations the owners can apply to the home, unlike other structures in the neighborhood that may not be labeled “historic.” This house shudder is a consistent event that lends itself perfectly to easy and accurate identification. But if this team called the city or checked area municipal facilities, talked to a single neighbor or called an engineer to do an evaluation (which isn’t very expensive), they never showed it. And so it’s fair to say that it appears they’re completely negligent when it comes to investigating the most simple and obvious sources of things that can, and do, impact houses in the way these owners described.

If a ghost is the cause of this house shaking, and it shakes every night at 3:02 a.m. on the dot, that would be the single most credible and easy-to-confirm ghost event ever identified. It’s open to investigation by anyone, because it’s an undeniable, predictable, measurable manifestation. The first step, though, would be to actually do the leg work and hire the necessary credentialed professionals, outside the psychic community, to demonstrate the event defies natural explanation. I can’t express enough how disappointing it was that they bailed on even trying to find a mundane cause of this event before calling in the paranormal “experts.”

But the next event was just as much of a blown opportunity. The house “moans.” I’m not talking about a moan that can only be heard by audio taping in an empty room and then torturing the feedback on some machine that does nothing but distort the results until you get something akin to a moan. I find it interesting that in these voice recordings made in shows like this, the moment the “researchers” find any sound whatsoever, they go immediately to work on manipulating the ever-loving-heck out of the indiscernible noise until they get the result they want. Then they stop distorting the sound. It would appear that the sound they actually recorded isn’t what it was supposed to be. And all the variants that weren’t something that sounded like a voice saying whatever they wanted to hear, aren’t “right” either. The only “right” result, it seems, is when they get it mastered exactly to a point where, if the listener turns their head to just the right angle and strains sufficiently, it says
“get out” or “I am here” or some other such ghost movie dialogue. That’s how such sounds are “meant” to be perceived, and paranormal researchers know this because that’s precisely the sort of result they’re seeking.

So, they actually get three pretty solid “moans” on their audio/video tape. Impressive. Not just impressive, though, also somehow familiar. Familiar, as in I’ve-hear-this-sound-before familiar. My house makes this same sound. It happens whenever I forget to shut off the outside water, and then use water in the master bathroom. It’s a “sign” alright. It’s a sign I need to go back outside and shut off the outside water valve. What’s even funnier is that my house isn’t the only structure that makes this noise. At work, our office building makes the exact same “moan” on the sixth floor when the outside irrigation is running. Again, no exorcist required, just a certified plumber. Old pipes + restrictions on updates = a moaning house.

What else can I say? The other “evidence” is pretty obviously garbage:

“I feel a presence.”
“I saw a shadow.”
“I felt the room get cold.”
“I smelled perfume.”
“I heard a voice.”

I rely on my perceptions as much as the next person. But I would be the first one to admit that I’ve seen and heard things before that simply weren’t there. Ever seen a mirage on a hot road? Human perception is pretty good, but definitely imperfect. And the perceptions of a very frightened person are arguable even less reliable than those of a person that is not in a state of “you’re-in-grave-danger” brain chemical overload. Magicians and illusionists thrive on the fact that our brains can be easily misdirected. They do it on purpose for entertainment, but it can also happen quite naturally in mundane situations where nobody is actively trying to fool us.

Additionally, we don’t always understand what sorts of things might be in our environment that we’re completely unaware of. For example, electromagnetic energy can be found sometimes at high levels in homes with faulty or substandard electrical wiring—the sort of wiring you might find in an older home, especially one that has existed long enough to have a “history.” This energy has been demonstrated in controlled circumstances to cause anxiety and hallucinations—even (the perception of) OBEs. It affects your brain and your perception.

In my own home, after we’d moved in and lived there a few months, I decided to adjust the air vents in the ceiling to alter airflow in the house. When I got up close to the vent in our living room, I saw “something” blocking the vent. My husband removed the vent, and removed a bag. It was filled with potpourri. It turned out there was one of these bags of potpourri in every vent in our house. We had no idea.

We also have wild birds that crack bird seed on our roof, one especially likes to do this on our outside chimney. In the house, it sounds like something knocking/banging in our fireplace.

I have decorative “light catchers” in the trees in my backyard. They reflect lights and shimmers not just around the yard, but also in the house at different times of day. I put them in the yard, but my point is that reflections can create odd light and shadow, from across a street or from a neighbor’s yard.

There are no end to unusual things that can make smells, sights, sounds, and even feelings that we can’t immediately explain. But assuming a cause and then “investigating” only in ways that are most likely to give us the answers we prefer, rather than explain what is really happening, is something we have to work hard to avoid if we value a handle on reality over subjective prejudice.

If I want to know why my house shakes, and I call paranormal investigators, psychics and ghost energy specialists—and I don’t bother to call a structural engineer to come out and do an evaluation, no one should be surprised if I find out that ghosts are the cause of the events. I did everything in my power to ensure the results correlated to my desired outcome. I used only those tools prescribed to find a “ghost” and did not use any of the tools that might have found a more mundane (and reasonable) explanation—which might have proven to also be the accurate explanation.

While ghosts are like souls and souls relate to religion and god in the great majority of cases, and while credulity is something we examine at this blog, that’s not why I’m sharing this. I’m sharing this because a 14-year-old girl contacted the TV list recently to say that she wasn’t sure if there was a god or not. In order to find out, she read her Bible and prayed really hard. In the Bible she found a verse that said that whatever she prayed for, she’d get. So, she prayed for a “sign” from god—nothing spectacular, just something meaningful to her personally. She read and read and prayed and prayed and never got her sign. So now she thinks there is no god.

Then, just a few nights later, at the AE after-show dinner, I met someone who told me that when he was in elementary school, he can remember lying in bed, praying and crying, trying hard to believe because he was afraid that if he didn’t he’d burn in hell forever. He never got his sign, either. And eventually he told me, as he got older, the fear faded away.

I, personally, recall being about 15 when I prayed and prayed and read my Bible and begged in earnest for some “sign” to confirm god wanted me to believe and that he was there and willing to meet me halfway and help me, since I wanted so much to believe.

Unfortunately, for me, I got my sign. I won’t bore anyone with details (they’re at the ACA site in the Testimonials section if anyone cares), but I spent the next several years as a fundamentalist Christian, devoting my life in service to “Jesus.” Eventually I finally began to research the claims I’d accepted (most specifically from Josh McDowell) without examination, and I found I believed a load of indefensible false assertions. I went on as a theist, although not a Christian, for many more years, until I ultimately came to understand what I meant by “god” was just a metaphor. But for my years as a Christian, I can honestly say my life was not my own (as any good servant of the Lord will tell you—“not my will, but Thine…”) as I fervently devoted myself wholly to a fantasy. Years down the drain that I will never see again. Next time a theist tells you that if they’re wrong they lose nothing—feel free to tell them they’re wrong. If they’re devoted to their beliefs in the way the Bible demands for salvation, they’ve lost their very lives.

Meanwhile, the common thread in these tales is that we three (me, the girl, and the man at dinner) all used the methods prescribed by the church to figure out if what they were telling us to accept as true was valid. We let them stack the deck just as surely as the men and women on Paranormal State stacked the deck by not calling an engineer, but a psychic. We prayed and read the Bible and begged the very god we were supposed to be verifying. We used only those methods that would most likely yield the desired result of belief; and, in my case, I was willing to subjectively interpret just about anything as the “sign” I was seeking. Just like the homeowners on Paranormal State, we were motivated by fear. Unbelievers don’t pray and plead to the air and devote themselves to Bible study, to find answers upon which, in their minds, nothing rides. But stressed and terrified children do.

Children are convinced they’ll suffer horribly and eternally if they choose disbelief rather than belief. Then they’re told that the only way to know if it’s true is to read the Bible and pray and trust and dispel doubts. That is why, funny as many adult theists might seem, a part of my heart will always be reserved for compassion toward them because I u
nderstand firsthand the force it takes to brainwash a child and keep them that way long into adulthood. It’s quite a trick. You actually beat the child up so badly mentally that even when you’re not around, they keep beating themselves up for you.

I know that for every wingnut fundamentalist, someone’s life has been hijacked. Having lived it myself, I can’t help but feel a desire to see these people happy and well again. I want to give them back that understanding that every child deserves—that they are worthwhile and valuable as human beings—completely as they are, “imperfections” and all, without some supernatural fantasy to provide them with the sort of validation their parents and community should have provided them, but didn’t, because they participated in a religion that dehumanizes us and degrades us and teaches us to feel guilt and guile toward our very nature—with which there is nothing demonstrably wrong. Some of life is wonderful. Some of life is horrible. It’s a lot of different things rolled up into an existence that is part circumstance and part what we make it. To every child who has been or is being told that they need forgiveness for being human, that telling a lie or doubting justifies their condemnation and eternal torture, or that their will doesn’t matter, I say, “You are fine, just as you are; and if others can’t see that, it’s not your problem or your fault. The people trying to make you believe you’re nothing may have their hearts in the right place, but their heads are on completely backwards. Don’t let them tear you down and doubt yourself until you’ll trust anything except your own ability to make a judgment for yourself.”

I wrote back to the 14-year-old. I told her to consider something beyond the fact that she got no sign. I told her to ask herself what she would do if she wanted to learn about black holes. Would she sit in her room and think very hard about black holes and ask black holes to reveal themselves to her so she could know all about them? Or would she read about the data collected on black holes and the research and findings and evidence for them? What is the best way to find out if any Claim X is true? Certainly it’s not to immerse yourself only in the writings of those making the claim you’re trying to evaluate, and then repeatedly take part in a mental ritual where you pretend you believe the claim and keep beating yourself up for not believing it while you beg, tearfully, for any reason to accept it as true.

Surely anyone can see the problem with praying to the god whose existence I’m attempting to evaluate? Such a maneuver requires a presupposition that the god is actually there to begin with. That’s stacking the deck. That’s manipulating the sound byte results until I hear “get out,” or only having a psychic, not a plumber, assess the “moaning” in my house. It’s not a way to guarantee I’ll find what I’m looking for; but it’s a incredibly good way to strongly and favorably influence the possibility of a positive outcome in finding that a god exists. When I “find god” under such circumstances, it should be no more of a surprise than the psychic finding that a spirit, and not a stressed water pipe, is causing the moan.

They do homophobia bigger in Utah!

If you haven’t seen this delirious anti-gay ad that recently ran in the Salt Lake City paper, placed by AmericaForever.com, one of those patriotism-is-the-last-refuge-of-scoundrels Christian hate groups, you haven’t lived. I don’t know what’s funnier here. Just basking in the raving paranoia and idiocy (seriously, people, if you really believe your own marriages will be devalued by letting gay couples marry, then your marriages aren’t worth shit to begin with); trying to count the misspellings and number of fonts used; or simply having a chuckle over the we-didn’t-catch-the-irony use of such words as “backdoor”.

Enjoy. And, uh, think of the children.

But there’s more. Here’s an example of thermostupid right from their website, copied as written, without editing or corrections.

They are using intimadation to gain ground and are lying to the public, ALL THEY WANT IS MARRIAGE RIGHTS to valdite their relationship of the same-sex!!! THEY ALREADY HAVE THE RIGHT to Marry, a gay man can marry a gay woman!

Comedy frickin’ gold!

And now, a rant: Christians can’t be happy unless they’re making gays unhappy. That’s mean. Mean people suck.

What a sickening cesspool of hate and fear Christianity has become. How can so many of its adherents live with themselves, when they actively take steps to bully, victimize, and bring misery to the lives of a group of people for the sole crime of being different? Word comes from California that it isn’t enough for the supporters of Proposition H8 that they’ve banned gay marriage. Now they want to nullify the thousands of marriages that were performed in the few brief weeks that gays and lesbians actually got to see what having a basic human right was like.

Look, I know there are many decent and tolerant Christians out there who were (and are) opposed to Prop H8, and supportive of gay rights and marriage equality. I’d suggest that if those people are intelligent enough to support those things, then they’re intelligent enough to know that all of Christianity’s superstitions about God and Satan and Heaven and Hell and choirs of angels and talking donkeys are bullshit, too. And the moral character they possess that, in addition to their intelligence, allows them to support equality and tolerance is something they possess despite, not because of, their Christianity. You can’t get morals from an immoral religion. If you’re progressive, tolerant, humane, decent, and Christian, well, one of those things is a fifth wheel. Pop it off. You don’t need it.

After all, it’s that fifth wheel that allows these confused people to set up websites called ProtectMarriage.com whose stated agenda is to destroy marriages by the thousands. See, a person who really was both intelligent and moral would see the oxymoron there, and say, “Hey, I’m being conned!”

Honestly, why is it that conservative Christians (who would be likely, actually, to agree with my assessment that tolerant progressives shouldn’t be Christian either, as everyone knows they are the only True Christians) can’t be happy unless they’re making gays and lesbians unhappy at every opportunity? Because, you know. That’s mean. Mean people suck. But then, so does Christianity. So it makes sense, I guess.

I get the impression that these are the family “values” True Christians enthusiastically favor, eh?

The FFRF Christmas sign, and why it’s a bad atheist message

When you have an unpopular message, however confident you are that it is factual, it is important to know how best to deliver that message so that your audience, however predisposed they may be to agree or disagree with you, is receptive, willing to give you a fair hearing at the very least.

Some atheists make the argument that Christians will never give us a fair hearing at all, so there’s no reason not to be as rude and abrasive as possible. But this simply isn’t true. The God Delusion sat pretty on the New York Times bestseller list for a solid year. And while Dawkins is certainly vilified out of all proportion to what he says and does by indignant believers, the point is, the book has sold over a million and a half copies. They didn’t all go to atheists, obviously. Otherwise, every book about atheism would be as monstrous a seller. Whether they like it or not, believers are getting the message — via books like TGD and blogs and what have you — that there are a lot of atheists out there, and that we’re prepared to defend our views with a great deal of intellectual rigor.

And yet there are effective and appropriate means to deliver those views. I’m not a Malcolm X, “by any means necessary” atheist, because not all means work. And while it’s a good thing many times to be provocative, provocative isn’t necessarily the way to go at all times. Which leads us to the Christmas sign.

To recap events of the last week: the Freedom from Religion Foundation had a sign placed next to a nativity scene in front of the Washington State Capitol building in Olympia. (Let us, for the moment, blow off any tangential arguments about the church/state separation issues that may be involved there.) At some point on Friday it was ripped from the ground and found some miles away tossed in a ditch. “Ah ha,” sayeth the atheist blogosphere, “does this not prove how petty and small-minded and censorious those Christian thugs are? How thin skinned they are about allowing any belief contrary to their own in the public sphere?” Well, maybe, but then, let’s look at what the sign — which has been used by FFRF before — actually said, and remember that it was placed next to a traditional Christmas decoration.

At this season of THE WINTER SOLSTICE may reason prevail. There are no gods, no angels, no devils, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.

That last sentence is an example of what is commonly called “overplaying your hand.”

Look, you won’t get any arguments from me about the truth content of the sign as a whole. But, mindful of the whole “time and place” concept, as well as the general mindset of the people (Christians) whom you intend to reach with the message…well, what they read when they read the last sentence is not necessarily what might have been intended by the FFRF. You see, they aren’t going to read that last sentence and think, “By golly, they’re right. How gullible and foolish I’ve been to shackle my mind to these ancient superstitions.” No, what the last sentence of the sign says to them is this.

Hey, Christian fucknuts. You know this Christmas thing you’re all into right about now? You know, that time of year where you gather together with your family, decorate the tree, put lights up around the house, sing carols, stuff yourself silly with yummy turkey and cranberry sauce, wrap presents while eagerly imagining the looks on your childrens’ faces when they unwrap them, then snuggle with your loved one under a comfy blanket before a roaring fire while sipping eggnog and reminiscing about Christmases past and how big the kids are getting? Yeah, you know, all that insect-brain three-hanky horsepuckey? Well, the reason you like all that is because you’re a gullible, hard-hearted, uneducated, dimwit FUCKTARD! So come on over to our side, where we don’t have any of that sentimental shit we just listed, but we do have the thin and feeble pseudo-satisfaction of looking down our noses at everyone we pretend to be better than.

Pretty much something like that, anyway.

Given that’s what the message says to them, is it any wonder it was ripped from the ground? Is it any wonder they nurture their persecution complexes? Is it any wonder they never lack for ammunition in their bleating about a “War on Christmas”?

In short, the sign is provocative when an atheist message delivered this time of year ought to be nothing but fluffy bunnies. That doesn’t mean watering down your atheism. It means putting it in a positive, humanitarian and humanist context. You know, that thing we mean when we refer on the TV show to “promoting positive atheism.”

The irony here is that the FFRF has gotten it right before, with their billboards that simply read “Imagine No Religion.” That is a message that simply seeks, in Dawkins’ words, to raise the consciousness of the reader. All it asks is, imagine a world without religion. The believer may do so and see nothing but a bleak, nightmare void. But that’s where the discussion can start and the consciousness-raising can begin in earnest. You see, signs need only the pithy consciousness-raising message. They should not try to encapsulate a detailed atheist worldview — the whole “religion is superstition and, really, isn’t it kind of silly for grown adults to believe in invisible magic men in the sky” thing — in a nutshell. Especially not in a venue where the received message will be, “What, you like Christmas? What kind of shithead are you anyway?”

“But Martin,” you say, “the FFRF is suing because the city had their harmless, inoffensive, ‘consciousness-raising’ billboard pulled down after two days! So positive atheist messages are no better, obviously!”

Yes they are, my little sprogs. Because while few people will blame Christians for tearing down a provocative atheist sign next to a nativity scene — and I’m sure the FFRF has been dismissed in a number of media outlets for simply pulling a publicity stunt — when they try to suppress truly inoffensive messages such as that on the billboard (or the even-less-offensive one that simply read “Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone.”) then they do look like reactionary, thin-skinned bullies, and it’s easier for atheists to claim the moral high ground and come across, even to some in theistic camps, as more sinned against than sinning.

So while it’s all fine for us to throw punches at religion in most of the forums available to us — our blogs and books and TV shows — when atheists make the choice to take the atheist message out to the general public on their turf (and yes yes, you can say “the Capitol grounds is everybody’s turf,” but I’m dealing with the way things are in this country, not the way they should be), then that message needs to be 100%, undiluted, positive atheism.

If I were to place a sign next to a creche, I’d have it say something like this.

During this holiday season, and at all times of the year, let us remember our shared humanity and come together in love and mutual support, striving towards a better future for us all. A person’s goodness comes, not from what they believe or don’t believe, but from who they are inside and what they do to better the world around them.

And then, when people look at the small print and see it’s from an atheist organization, will they think the sign is attacking them in the way a sign telling them they have hardened hearts and enslaved minds seems to be? Would they still want to pull it out of the ground? Or would they be less inclined to think of atheists as petty, mean-spirited pricks who are just bitter because they don’t have Baby Jesus and eggnog and crackling fireplaces in their lives? Would they have their consciousness raised? Maybe only some. But I bet that’s more than the FFRF’s present sign has won over.

So happy holidays, bountif
ul Solstice, and merry Christmas. Everybody.


Addendum: Well, predictably enough, not only have a number of readers completely misunderstood my point in this post, but some of them seem to have gone out of their way to make a special effort to do so, with one idiot even accusing me of “Uncle Tom” atheism. Another commenter wrote, “What you are saying boils down to, ‘If you’re not saying what I want you to say in the manner that I want you to say it, then shut the fuck up.'” Which is, of course, not what this post boils down to at all, period, not even a little bit. I’ve responded in detail in the comments myself.