Grief Beyond Belief Now Online

Grief Beyond Belief, a support group for nonbelievers dealing with the loss of a loved one, has now launched its official website. They are no longer just a FaceBook group! Check them out. Look over what they do, and see if there is any help they need. And spread the news. There are a lot of us who would want to find a site like that, and the resources it provides, but might not know it’s there.

Bad Science: No, Atheism Does Not Cause Suicide

More innumeracy for today: this religious apologist is claiming atheism causes suicide, and he cites a study that supposedly proves this, but both s/he and the study’s authors suck at numeracy and basic logic. I warned about this before (Innumeracy: A Fault to Fix). This is another example of that.

Just excerpting from the study citation and abstract as reported by this author:

METHOD: Depressed inpatients (N=371) who reported belonging to one specific religion or described themselves as having no religious affiliation were compared in terms of their demographic and clinical characteristics.

RESULTS: Religiously unaffiliated subjects had significantly more lifetime suicide attempts and more first-degree relatives who committed suicide than subjects who endorsed a religious affiliation. Unaffiliated subjects were [also] younger, less often married, less often had children, and had less contact with family members. Furthermore, subjects with no religious affiliation perceived fewer reasons for living, particularly fewer moral objections to suicide. In terms of clinical characteristics, religiously unaffiliated subjects [also] had more lifetime impulsivity, aggression, and past substance use disorder. No differences in the level of subjective and objective depression, hopelessness, or stressful life events were found.

CONCLUSIONS: Religious affiliation is associated with less suicidal behavior in depressed inpatients. After other factors were controlled, it was found that greater moral objections to suicide and lower aggression level in religiously affiliated subjects may function as protective factors against suicide attempts. Further study about the influence of religious affiliation on aggressive behavior and how moral objections can reduce the probability of acting on suicidal thoughts may offer new therapeutic strategies in suicide prevention.

From: Kanita Dervic M.D. et al., “Religious Affiliation and Suicide Attempt,” American Journal of Psychiatry 2004.

There are a number of things wrong with both these scientists’ stated conclusions (and study design) and this religious apologist’s use of it to argue atheism causes suicide. I’ll just focus on a few:

[Read more…]

Atheism Doesn’t Suck: How Science Does Not Prove Atheists Are Less Happy, Healthy, and Sane

Cooked or misquoted studies are often cited that “show” that religious believers are happier and healthier and less insane than atheists.

“So what?”

“So atheism is bad for you, is what.”

Or so the argument attempts to go.

(Every study anyone has seen like that, please cite it in the comments [I already know about the study salad at Conservapedia, and any sharp bloggers out there who are psych majors could do us a solid by writing a good critique of that]. Likewise, if any blogs or websites have also tackled this myth [even if doing so after I posted this], please cite those articles in comments as well. Plus articles in magazines that discuss it, if you know any. I’d like to gather up a collection.)

Yes, one can reply that the truth is still the truth, and if you care about the truth, you should just deal with it if it sucks, rather than try desperately to live a lie just to be happy. There’s a whole line of debate one can follow down that route, but it generally ends with: bad epistemologies are always a net bad for you (and society), but you can only believe comfortable lies if you commit to a bad epistemology, the side effects of which will never be good for you or society overall–because bad epistemologies cannot protect you from harmful false beliefs (and even entail an increasing resort to harmful false beliefs in order to protect the harmless ones from being exposed).

So just suck it up and get over it. In practice, it’s all not as bad as you think (and it’s certainly better than all this eternal hell business, much less a god who by his total inaction manifestly doesn’t give a shit about anything). And all else being equal, you’ll find plenty to love about life anyway.

But in fact we needn’t take that grim tack anyway. Because the facts don’t support the premise in the first place. Atheism doesn’t make you less happy, healthy, or sane.

One common flaw that invalidates almost all of these studies (if not in fact literally all of them) is that they tend to compare the religiously devout with nonbelievers as a whole, who are statistically mostly people who don’t identify with any nonbelieving community or care much about atheism or humanism or any secularist cause or philosophy, but who just don’t have a specific belief in anything. But that’s a false comparison. The only meaningful comparison would be between the devoutly religious and devoted humanists, including organized atheists, or anyone intellectually committed to godless philosophies.

But no studies do that (so far as I know: please cite any that do in comments). They therefore don’t show the relative benefit of religious belief vs. atheist philosophy.

Let’s take a look. [Read more…]

(Not) Our Kind of People

I’m a weirdo. But in a good way. And I hang out with other weirdos-in-a-good-way every  chance I get, because that’s the best company in the world. But we all know weirdos-in-a-bad-way, too, and they are the worst company, the destroyers of any groove and the killers of fun times. You are uncomfortable around them. You want them to go away. You wish they wouldn’t show up at meetups and events. You are keen to brush them off and avoid them so you can find the fun people to hang out with. But it’s not just the bad crazy people that bring you down. Even folks in between, who are just dull or stuffy or so socially conformed that (if you’re a weirdo like me) you just don’t fit in with them, too. They aren’t weirdos. In fact, their principal defect is that they aren’t weirdos at all. But you don’t care much for their company, either (but if it’s the best you can have on the occasion, you can make the best of it).

And of course, like all things, the paragraph above describes a continuum, and people can fall anywhere along it. But the best company is way to one side, the worst on the other, and everyone else in between. If you’re like me, how comfortable and happy and fulfilled you are in anyone’s company is a direct function of where they are on that curve. Or at least, this is true for the good weirdos, the weirdos I fit in with. The non-weirdos are a bit uncomfortable around us, too, and would rather hang out with other middle-of-the-curve people. I can’t speak to what the bad weirdos prefer, because I assiduously avoid them and thus don’t have much data on what they prefer. But those good crazies? They’re my kind of people. (I also know plenty of people midway between good weird and fuddy duddy who like and get along with both, and I’m comfortable around them but still not as much, and vice versa. Thus it all comes by degrees and not absolutes.)

Are you like me? Do you prefer (even love) the company of “crazy” people, who are the good kind of crazy, but can’t stand (and do all you can to avoid) the company of “crazy” people, who are the bad kind of crazy? What’s the difference then between good crazy and bad crazy? I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, because I’ve been doing a lot of events this past month and a half (doing nine or ten gigs, spanning three states), intensifying the experience I always have when doing what I do, which is for ten years or so now, as a speaker and special guest, speaking to, meeting, and typically dining or drinking with atheist groups all over the U.S. (and Canada). (Although what really got me to thinking about all this was the new awesome Garbage song Not Your Kind of People, which I’ve been playing during my drives this last week, philosophically contemplating its lyrics. Best Garbage album in history, BTW. But then I’m a weirdo, remember?)

Let me describe two scenarios, so you can consider if you’ve experienced the same. [Read more…]

Atheism IS an Identity

Sam Harris once wrote that “atheism” is “a term that should not even exist,” because “no one ever needs to identify himself as a ‘non-astrologer’ or a ‘non-alchemist’. We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle.” In context, he didn’t seem to be attacking atheism as an identity movement, just noting that in a world in which nearly everyone accepted reality, we wouldn’t have a word for atheism (this is from A Letter to a Christian Nation). But in Julian Baggini’s new piece for The Financial Times, on “Atheism in America,” he interviewed Harris, who seems to be backing the vocal few in society who have denounced the atheist identity movement in America.

It’s no secret that I believe the atheism identity movement (represented by such projects as the Out Campaign) is a powerful and important moment in American history. But quoting Baggini:

Not everyone agrees that this is the way to go. The neuroscientist Sam Harris is one of America’s best-known atheists; his 2004 book, The End of Faith, sold over half a million copies. He agrees that the situation for atheists is “analogous to being gay and in the closet for many people”, and it is striking that virtually every atheist I spoke to talked the language of being “out” or “in the closet”. Nevertheless, Harris argues “it’s a losing game to trumpet the cause of atheism and try to rally around this variable politically. I’ve supported that in the past, I support those organisations, I understand why they do that. But, in the end, the victim group identity around atheism is the wrong strategy. It’s like calling yourself a non-astrologer. We simply don’t need the term.”

Harris is wildly wrong here. If 80% of the country were fanatical astrologers and political and social policy were being driven by or threatened by that, if non-astrologers were treated the way Baggini documents atheists are treated in many states in this country (particularly the rural midwest), if they acted the way people who attacked Jessica Ahlquist did (plus a zillion other things documented in Greta Christina’s new book, which I got an advance look at, and it’s awesome BTW; but I’ll blog all about that when it’s out), in a world like that, “non astrologer” would become a meaningful, powerful, and important word. It would be a central and crucial focal point distinguishing people who want a world full of astrologers and people who don’t. It informs anyone who hears it where you stand on the whole “faith-based epistemology” thing. It says you aren’t going to be cowed into denying who you are, into living in the closet, pretending to be an astrologer. It says you are one of those unusually sane people who realizes astrology is bullshit. In a world full of astrologers, that’s just about the most important information I could ever learn about you (not quite, but nearly).

A Christian apologist (I can’t recall who) once quipped in a debate that if his godless opponent were walking down a dark street late at night and heard a bunch of people running up behind him, wouldn’t he prefer to know they were a bunch of young men leaving a bible study class? Well, no. If a bunch of bible study nuts were running up behind me in the dark of night, as a very out atheist I would be a little worried, and certainly more on my guard than if it were, say, a bunch of random joggers. But if they were a bunch of young folk leaving an atheist meetup? I’d feel not only perfectly safe, but quite happy. It thus would mean something to me that they were wearing “Atheist Pride” T-Shirts, that they were leaving a coffee shop with an “Atheist Meetup!” sign propped up outside. The word communicates something to me that is incredibly meaningful in the social context we now find ourselves in.

This doesn’t mean I assume all atheists are nice and trustworthy guys and gals. But statistically, a group of them is not going to be up much mischief. To the contrary, they’re more likely to be picking up trash as they go, and chatting about tax policy or Dr. Who. My point is that atheism as an identity means something: it’s how we find each other (as opposed to the state of things before, when theists arranged society by various assumptions and pressures so as to isolate us, making it near impossible for atheists to know they weren’t alone, much less get together and organize). That’s just about the most important thing that can happen for freethought: Atheists finding each other. Atheists organizing. Atheists sharing notes. Atheists identifying with a movement to which they belong…not because of their gender or politics or interest in knitting, but because they don’t buy into this “astrology” thing (to keep with Harris’ analogy). They are like us, because they, like us, have admitted the emperor has no clothes. And in a world run largely by people convinced the emperor is fabulously dressed, and who socially punish everyone who disagrees with them, saying out loud that we side with the no-clothers is pretty damned important.

I won’t dwell on alternative monikers. Other words don’t work. Christians claim to be skeptics. They claim to be freethinkers. They claim to be humanists. But you will never find a Christian claiming to be an atheist. It’s therefore an ideal label: that you are willing to identify as an atheist means something very distinct from, say, only being willing to identify as a “secular humanist.” Old folks do the latter. The young, the future of this country, do the former. It proves you don’t buy into the stigma anymore, that in fact the stigmatization of the word “atheist” is precisely what’s wrong with this country, and therefore stealing that identity back and making it our own is precisely the only way we will have our victory and be accepted for who we are: people who don’t see the emperor’s clothes. Whereas, the problem with “agnostic,” for example, is that an agnostic is an “atheist,” so to prefer “agnostic” as a label tends to have a psychological, not a rational motive behind it (see my past blog Atheist or Agnostic?). In fact, it communicates that you are still cowed by the stigma. You are not free. Or you are not proud of who you really are. Or you are afraid of what it means to be who you are.

To identify as an atheist is brash, it’s self-affirming, it’s the identity of choice for the young, the new generation, the people who are going to change everything (because they are literally going to inherit the earth from us). It’s a direct challenge to the status quo. And being willing to openly join a movement posing that challenge means something. For example, a meeting billed as “skeptics” this or that usually means they want to be inclusive and non-offensive; but I don’t want to have to censor myself; I want to be with people willing to call themselves atheists, with whom I can be completely who I am. I can only have that at meetings billed as “atheists” this or that. And that’s a real, tangible difference, one I experience year in and year out. It thus clearly does matter.

Many studies had once been done that religion was good for your health and happiness. But due to a variety of methodological flaws (such as conflating all “nones” as a single category rather than distinguishing apatheists from philosophically committed or even organized atheists: see my comments on Atheism and Depression) these studies were subsequently refuted by another round of studies that identified church attendance as the thing that was good for your health and happiness. But those studies were flawed by not asking the more fundamental question: what is it about church that would have such an effect? And so the latest studies have found that church and religion actually have nothing to do with it: in fact, anyone who identifies with a movement and who regularly socializes (e.g. bowling clubs, atheist meetups) gains exactly the same benefit. See Chaeyoon Lim and Robert Putnam, “Religion, Social Networks, and Life Satisfaction,” American Sociological Review 75.6 (2010): 914–33. Lim and Putnam concluded that “religious belonging, rather than religious meaning, is central to the religion–life satisfaction nexus.” Thus we don’t have to believe in god, we just have to belong to a community sharing a common identity and worldview.

When I see the science showing group identity and socialization as keys to health and happiness, the latter I knew, but it’s the first of those that catches my eye: human happiness depends on a feeling of belonging, of social identity, of not being the “only” one who doesn’t see the emperor’s clothes. Thus our happiness depends on creating an atheist movement all atheists can identify with and draw comfort and meaning from. In fact, studies suggest you don’t even have to go to atheist meetings to benefit from having an atheist movement to identify with: just having a community you strongly identify with alone conferred psychological and health benefits; getting out and socializing on a regular basis, only more so. And where else will you be completely comfortable socializing? Atheist groups. How will there always be an atheist group near you that you can regularly socialize with? Only if there is a broad, strong, and growing national atheist movement.

Sure, maybe in a hundred years all our atheist clubs will segue into philosophy clubs and Harris’ dream of no longer needing the word will come to pass. But we’re nowhere near there yet. For now, what separates us from the deluded and irrational masses is our common realization that the emperor does indeed have no clothes; and our sanity depends on socializing with others who see that, too. And not only that. Even just the existence of the movement contributes to human happiness, as that fact alone consoles and uplifts atheists who can’t socialize with other atheists (for whatever reason). It even adds to the happiness of those who already do socialize with other atheists. It really is a rising tide that lifts all boats.

So we should rally around this identity, use it to find each other, and to create a distinct community, and thereby create an identity and a sense of belonging. It’s not a victim thing (as Harris mistakenly presumes), but a power thing, a freedom thing, a belonging thing. Once we rally around this as an identity to build a movement around, we just need to make it as inclusive as makes sense, so everyone can be “completely who they are” at atheist meetings. We have people working at making atheism more inclusive of women and LGBT, for example (Greta Christina, Natalie Reed, etc.), and black Americans (Black SkepticsThe Crommunist, etc.), and others. Yes, we do need some core moral values, and we haven’t settled on any agreed set yet (honesty, reasonableness, and compassion are obvious, but the devil is in the details; just how much and what kind of honesty, reasonableness, and compassion is the “minimum entry requirement” to belong and do well), but that’s another thing we are working on. In the meantime, atheism as an identity is creating a movement, it’s creating networks, organization, knowledge. It’s creating, in other words, power. Something atheists never had. And will never have by any other means. That’s what the New Atheism is really all about: taking back who we are, becoming something as a movement.

Our comfort and sanity also depend on our not being disenfranchised, on having a recognized voice in the political discourse deciding our fates by deciding how our country gets run and what we do with its public resources. And that means we need to show our numbers, and the strength of our commitment and motivation, as well as show we have a political voice, a public presence and a lot of votes. Thus it is that the Reason Rally next month is crucial, not just for sending a message to Washington, but to America, that we aren’t a fringe minority but a fast-growing minority with as much legitimacy as Jews or Mormons or LGBT. To show them that, we need physical numbers.

So if you can go, you should go (there is a network of charter buses in place to help you do that), not just to enjoy all the speakers and entertainments and fellow like-minded non-astrologers, but to represent us all, those of us who can’t make it (because, like me, they can’t afford it; or like my wife, they can’t get time off from work), and to up our physical presence as an identity in this country, to show the nation that we are not insignificant and we do talk to each other and we organize. And if you can’t go, you should donate, to help them recover the costs of putting this on and making this statement to the government and the nation, because this is doing you a big favor, and so it is worth your while to back it (not least so that future efforts will know the support is there). You can also buy their swag, if you are more into the free market thing.

Yes, this is one of those “inclusive” things, but not in a “shush the atheist” way. Atheists will be as welcome, and can be as out as anyone there, and feel completely themselves, represented and supported.

So go! Or support it some other way. PZ posted a video that he says will persuade you: Time to Stand Up.