“How to Talk to an Atheist” Coming to an In-Box Near You!

At least, it is if you requested a copy. If you did, and it’s not there, email me at dhunterauthor at yahoo dot com so I can rectify the situation. My powers of organization, they sucketh mightily, so I may have missed a few folks.

If you didn’t request a copy and regret not getting a chance to join the demolition, let me know. The more Wise Readers, the merrier.

With all that said and done, I’m going to Discworld. Catch you later.

Progress Report: We’ve Crossed the Line

50,243

Woozle was right.

We’re not done yet. There’s some cleaning up to do – atheist bios to add, a bibliography and list of resources to complete – but for the most part, this is the finished first draft. It never would have happened without your help, input and encouragement.

Copies will be going out in a few days to those of you who requested one (it’s not too late – if you’ve decided you want an advanced peek, email me at dhunterauthor at yahoo dot com). Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to tear the damned thing apart. Help me improve the arguments, clean up the messy bits, cut the repetition, and kick this into shape. The goal is to make this catch a publisher’s eye, so that we’ll have one more tome on the shelves to swell out our paltry little atheism section. Either that, or bookstores will stick it smack in the middle of Christianity, which will be just as satisfying.

Nothing really outstanding emerged from tonight’s writing – it was a matter of filling in the holes – but I’ll give you this bit from the beginning, where I’m showing folks we can get along before I start smacking them with the common mistakes Christians make in conversation with us:


WHAT WE CAN DO TOGETHER

Atheists and Christians have already started talking. Not just that, they’ve started doing. In the past, we worked together on projects like abolishing slavery, advocating civil rights, and earning women the right to vote. We’re working together today on all sorts of issues. There are plenty of areas where religious belief doesn’t matter so much as shared ideals.

I want to highlight a few of the efforts and organizations out there that specifically and explicitally foster cooperation between believers and non-believers alike. We’re not only united around shared ideals, we’re united around the idea that we each bring unique strengths to our efforts to enrich and improve the world.

Many of us are also united in our desire to protect religious freedom. The following examples should give you an idea of what we can accomplish when we come together.

I go on to cite Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, Talk to Action, the National Center for Science Education, a foodbank project between freethinkers and a Christian group, and a talk given by the Friendly Atheist at the Interfaith Youth Core Conference. It’s a pretty good range of examples, I think.

Thank you all again for making this book not only a possibility, but a very likely success. You guys are teh awesome.

Best of luck to the rest of you who are in the final stretch of NaNoMadNess today. Once again, I find myself wishing we had a real cantina so I could be there with the drinkage for you after you’ve crossed the finish line.

You can do this. I don’t have faith in gods, but I have faith in you.

Progress Report: All-out Dash to the Finish

48,149

Remind me to tell you later what happened when my supervisor found out the subject of the book I’m writing. Too tired to discuss it now.

I’ve been all over this book, from beginning to end, adding a bit here and a chunk there. Here’s one inspired by you lot, which I hope will meet your approval:


CONFUSION #13: IT’S FREEDOM OF RELIGION, NOT FREEDOM FROM RELIGION

This is one of those canards that American Christians trot out when they want to justify denying atheists their freedom of conscience. They think it denies atheists any rights at all. There’s a reason why this is such an uphill battle.

Since so many Americans don’t even know what’s in the Bill of Rights, let’s have a look at the First Amendment together. It’s important to know what it says, because it protects some of our most cherished freedoms:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Whole books have been written on exactly what freedoms these little sentences cover. We’ll just take on the ones pertaining to our discussion here.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” This means that our government can’t declare one single religion as official, or favor one religion over another. If the majority of Congress voted to make, say, Hinduism the official religion of the United States, that law would be struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The same thing would happen if Congress attempted to pass a law establishing any one sect of Christianity, or even a generic interpretation of Christianity, as America’s religion. And, for the purposes of the courts, I’m pretty sure atheism would be treated as a “religion.” Our Founders wrote the Establishment Clause this way because they didn’t think belief – or lack of it – is something that can be legislated. Our government must remain officially agnostic and wholly secular in order to protect the next bit of the Bill of Rights.

“…or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” You are free to be a practicing Christian. With a few extremely narrow exceptions, the government cannot outlaw your church attendance, your worship services, or your beliefs. When religious beliefs conflict with the law, the government has to be careful about prohibiting your religious practices. If you, for instance, decided to follow the Old Testament’s order to stone unruly children to death, the government can and would step in to protect your children, because society’s interests in keeping those children safe, healthy and alive override your belief that disobedient children must die. But the government can’t willy-nilly proclaim that your religion as a whole is illegal, and you have no right to practice it.

On the flip side, and emerging naturally from that, the government also can’t compel you to go to church. It can’t force you to worship. That’s where atheists come in: we may not be a religion by definition, but we can’t be forced by the government to believe in any religion, either. In that sense, yes, the Constitution does indeed provide for our freedom from religion. But that’s not all.

“…or abridging the freedom of speech…” This covers all speech. My speech, and yours. I can talk about atheism. You can talk about Christianity. It has nothing to do with religion: speech is protected whether it’s religious, debunking religion, political, artistic, or just plain boring.

“…or of the press…” You can publish a Christian newspaper, and I can publish an atheist newspaper, and both are equally protected. Freedom of the press, of course, has extended beyond the printing press, but you get the idea.

“…or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” This is certainly not limited only to religious people. Atheists are just as free to assemble and petition as any believer.

What all of this taken together adds up to is a freedom not spelled out by name, but one that the courts have recognized as the logical conclusion from the freedoms enumerated and what our Founders said about freedom: we have freedom of association. While there are some limits on that right, as there are with any right, there is no exclusion for the non-religious. Atheists are just as free to associate with one another and exercise their rights as are debate clubs, hobbyists, political activists, and church groups.

The Constitution also prohibits a religious test for office. Here’s Article Six:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

No religious test means that Congress can’t establish the requirement that someone have a religion in order to serve their country in office. All an atheist has to do is affirm his or her commitment to support the Constitution.

All of this adds up to a clear intent by our Founders to establish freedom of conscience. Nothing supports the notion that citizens of this country are forced to have faith. And that’s a good thing indeed, because I doubt many of you would like the result if government had the power to choose your faith for you.

Long. Yeah. But it’s one of those hard-to-explain-in-a-soundbite subjects.

I also attacked belief in chairs. Steve, Howard and Woozle will be pleased.

Fellow NaNo sufferers: we have all day. We’re going to make it across the finish line. Even though we may feel like we’re going to die of a heart-attack two feet away from the tapes…

Going to bed for a few hours now. argharghargh.

Progress Report: Oops

43,101

I was supposed to be much further along tonight, but I made the mistake of deciding to go back and bung in the list of famous atheists, with little thumbnail bios. Sounds simple, right?

No.

Not when you have to sort through some rather extensive lists, which you whittle down by well-known names, further contemplating whether that name is well-known because Christians already know and despise that atheist, and then trying to phrase the bio so that you’re not plagiarizing Wikipedia… I should’ve given it a miss and waited to add it in the revision stage.

Heh heh heh whoops.

And I’m not even close to done with it. Ah, well.

I spent the last bit of the night revising Rule #9. I didn’t hit on the Constitutional question – I might do that elsewhere in the book, but it really doesn’t belong here – but I did find your suggestions useful, and I hope this works:


9. Absolutely under any circumstances never ever bring up that old “atheism is a religion too” chestnut. Atheism is a philosophical stance, a way of thinking about the world that is profoundly irreligious, or simply a lack of belief in anything supernatural. In the immortal words of my friend Howard, “Atheism is a religion the way bald is a hair color.” Atheism is different from religion in many ways, but perhaps the most important is this: if empirical proof of God were presented to us and verified by science, we’d become immediate theists, just as you would become a “unicornist” if unicorns were discovered living in some remote forest. You may find it impossible to comprehend a life without religion and thus think of atheism as a religion, but your thinking it doesn’t make it so, no more than if I were to call your Christianity a form of atheism because I can’t comprehend a life with religion. Besides, people who say things like “atheism is a religion, too” are just trying to discredit atheists, and showing that they have no good argument in the process. You don’t want to look ridiculous, so don’t make that mistake.

I can already think of a few minor changes to words that would make that clearer, but damn it, I’m tired.

As for the famous atheists, I have a lot of names, including of all people Allan Pinkerton of Pinkerton Agency fame. Whod’a thunkit? I’m thinking of sticking Ron Reagan in there just to twist a few conservative noses. The fact that the son of their hero is a ballet dancer and a liberal has got to kill them – the fact that he’s an atheist, too, is just the insult to injury.

Yes, I’m an evil atheist. Why do you ask?

I’m also a very tired atheist. And I have got nearly 7,000 words to go. Argh.

If anyone has a good argument as to why theology isn’t philosophy, and knows of groups where atheists and Christians are working together in harmony to stop fuckwits from destroying the world, now is the time to say so. I could surely use your help.

Progress Report: Nearly There

42,031

Yepper. Less than 8,000 to go, and only 1/2 day of work standing between me and a completed book.

I could probably even sneak out for Thanksgiving, but not if I want those last 8,000 words to be more than useless babble. The bits that are left require research. So home I stay, and fajitas I eat. Mmmm, fajitas.

For my fellow NaNo sufferers, who may be staring down the barrel of a seemingly-impossible deficit right now, I think that the encouragement from the Life After Faith appendix is appropriate:

Caucasian mountaineers had a proverb: “Heroism is endurance for one moment more.” What you’re going through may seem like it’s unendurable, but if you keep your focus on getting through for just one more minute, you’ll get through. It’s how people end up becoming heroes, and it’s how people end up with a reputation for being courageous. They’re not doing anything particularly remarkable. They’re just getting through for one moment more.

Survive enough of those moments, and you’ll find you’ve made it through. Even the worst times end. One thing I’ve learned in my life is that if I endure the bad times long enough, something good is waiting for me. Something changes. And it was worth holding on for.

Elie Wiesel, who survived the Holocaust and went on to become an eloquent advocate for human rights, knew more about despair than most of us ever will. “We have to go into the despair and go beyond it,” he said, “by working and doing for somebody else, by using it for something else.” If you’re feeling despair, probably the last thing you feel like doing is embracing it, but simply fighting it is exhausting. I’ve followed Elie’s advice, and found that by embracing my moments of despair in order to channel them into something else, using them as the driving force to help other people, has taken away their power to hurt me. When pain or despair are used to do something positive, when they become useful, they’re much easier to handle. They become almost welcome, and then one day, without my really noticing, they’re gone.

The Japanese have a wonderful proverb: “Fall seven times, stand up eight.” It goes perfectly with Confucius’s wise words: “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but rising every time we fall.” It’s hard, when we’re knocked flat by the agony of losing most of the things and the people who defined our lives up until now, to believe that we can ever rise again. But we can. If you look, there will even be a hand extended to help you back up just when you least expected one.

Finally, I’d like to share some excellent advice from St. Francis of Assisi. “Start by doing what is necessary, then do what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” Look. Just because I’m an atheist doesn’t mean I can’t quote a religious man who made a great deal of sense. And he’s right: by not trying to do it all at once, by taking things step-by-step, you’ll find yourself doing things you never thought possible.

Three days, my darlings. It can be done. And if you have to cheat, get drunk, and go on a 10,000 word stream-of-consciousness ramble that’s only remotely related to the book, well, so be it. Quantity over quality this time round. Don’t worry if it doesn’t really fit.

That’s what revision’s for.

Progress Report: Yep. A Train

39,299

Definitely a train. That’s got to be what that light at the end of the tunnel was, because I feel like I’ve been hit by one.

I did a desultory bit of work tonight revising The Rules for the purposes of this book. I’m stuck on #9. My brain resembles tapioca far too much to coherently rewrite that one, so I’m punting it to you lot. Some of you weren’t around when The Rules were first created, so here’s your chance to weigh in.

Here’s the original #9:

9. Absolutely under any circumstances never ever bring up that old “atheism is a religion too” chestnut. That’s one of the dumbest things you could possibly say. Absence of belief is not a religion. We don’t have “faith” in the non-existence of God. That’s just one of those whiny, snivelly things religious people do to try to win arguments, and all it does is make you look like a total fuckwit. If you’re here to earn any respect at all, do not shoot yourself in both legs by that snooty “atheism is religion” crap. And if you even begin to start with the “but you’re really agnostics” bullshit, I shall give you such a smack.

One of the original commenters pointed out that this rule might fly straight over the heads of those who can’t imagine life without belief. So how do we manage to make this comprehensible?

I am taking my sorry self to bed. At least tomorrow is the last day I have to drag myself from it before late afternoon, so you’re likely to see a much more cheerful Dana come Thanksgiving. No worries, eh?

Sympathies to my fellow sufferers. I imagine we’re all feeling rather wretched just about now, but remember, my darlings: ’tis almost done, and we will have that wonderful warm glow of success very soon.

Progress Report: A Little Something Extra

38,036

Skipping ahead again, and adding a new section. Right now, it’s an appendix, but I might make it a chapter proper. I’m talking about life after faith, because of this.


Appendix II: Life After Faith

In memorium Jesse Kilgore

I wrote this book for stalwart Christians who are perplexed by atheists and needed a guide to getting along. But you may have picked it up for a very different reason: you might be wanting to know how to talk to atheists because you rather suspect you’re becoming one. You’re trapped between two worlds right now. You can’t talk to Christians, because they don’t understand your growing doubt. You’re having a hard time talking to atheists, both because you’ve been taught that atheists are nothing more than a bunch of murdering, evil plagues on society, and because you don’t yet have the vocabulary. You have no idea how to reach out to us, where to find us, or what to do once you’ve caught our attention.

You don’t even know if you want to talk to an atheist, because you’re in the midst of losing the most precious thing in your life right now. You may even feel as though your life is ending. You face the loss of family, friends and the God who’s guided you throughout your life. It’s terrifying. It’s agonizing. It’s not something you want to face, but you can’t get rid of your doubts. You have no idea what’s waiting for you if you take that fateful step and renounce your faith.

You probably feel more alone than you ever have in your life.

You don’t have to go through this alone. Talk to us. We’ll stand by you.

Some of us had an easy time of it, sauntering along the path from belief to disbelief, stopping to smell the flowers on the way, and enduring no more than some good-natured ribbing from our friends and family. We didn’t have to face being ostracized from our communities. We weren’t big on the church-going to begin with, so finding things to do on a Sunday morning was never a problem. But even those of us who had a primrose path to the godless life understand that other people got to walk barefoot on nothing but thorns and rocks the whole way. We know it can be desperately hard, and while we may not always know what you’re going through or the right thing to say, we’ll do our best to help you through.

That’s what this appendix is here to do. I’ll be pointing you toward alternatives and resources. I’ll try to ease some of your fears. I’ll do my best to guide you through, whether you end up contentedly Christian again or gloriously godless. The important thing isn’t winning you for one side or the other: it’s ensuring that you live as happy and as productive a life as you can.

I’m writing this for people like Jesse Kilgore, who lost his faith and took his life. I don’t want to see others end up thinking that there’s no life after faith. You need to know that there most certainly is.

Figured this needed to be there. And we need to remember that there may be some folk reaching out to us who don’t know how to be an atheist, but need our sympathy and our help. Whether they go back to being Christian or make the transition to total godlessness or find a comfortable spot in between, I hope we can be there for them.

Which I will be. After NaNo, and I’ve had a chance to sleep for about ten years…

Progress Report: Mwah

35,433

Mwah. That’s all I’ve really got to say.

Here’s the end of the chapter on science:


BUT THERE’S MORE TO LIFE THAN SCIENCE, I HEAR YOU CRY

Myself, I’m not so sure that’s true anymore.

I used to subscribe to the idea that science explained the how while religion explained the why, but science is getting closer to why all the time. Religion used to have the monopoly on morality, for instance – the big question, why are we moral? Well, science has an answer for that, now: reciprocal altruism. Did you know that chimpanzees display a moral sense? It’s because being moral is the only way to get along in a group. We evolved a moral sense because those individuals who didn’t get along with others, couldn’t be trusted, and were such selfish little bastards that nobody would share with them anymore didn’t survive long enough to produce a lot of offspring.

Science will one day explain why I love mythology and allegory, but don’t believe in gods at all, whereas you believe one book contains the literal truth of God and all others are useless bunkum. I have no doubt of that. Science has a proven track record of explaining things that people swore it never could, so there’s nothing I put past it now – except proving that Bob the Invisible Unicorn lives under my bed. Still, science is closing in on the reasons I why might believe such a thing, even if my Bob hypothesis is one of those that science can’t do a damned thing with.

A lot of people think that science is a cold, clinical thing. Nothing to do with art, imagination, or mystery. It solves mysteries, it takes all of the intrigue out of life. It’s sad that people think that, because it’s not strictly true.

Science is gorgeous. I do a weekly feature on my blog called Sunday Sensational Science, and I’m never short of material. I can always find something sensational, awe-inspiring, or intriguing. There are still plenty of mysteries to be solved, and once we solve one, another pops up – we’ll probably never run out of mystery. And the thing you discover is that the mysteries get more interesting as you go along.

More and more art is being inspired by science. Just recently, an opera called Doctor Atomic finished a successful Broadway run. It’s all about a physicist, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and the creation of the atomic bomb. The music is just fantastic. Another one, The Origin, came out in time for Darwin’s two hundreth birthday, and was inspired by The Origin of Species. Both of them have all of the passion, humanity, and drama you could ever want. It’s not just God or mystery that inspires great music.

Science has been the driving force behind great works of art in painting, sculpture, literature, philosophy, and theatre. Science not only informs, but entertains, invigorates, intrigues, and impassions.

One of the most beautiful books I have ever read was The Dancing Wu Li Masters, which tells the story of quantum physics mixed in with a bit of Eastern philosophy. You can indeed merge the sacred and the scientific. Ask Ken Miller, who recently wrote Finding Darwin’s God. Science itself isn’t religious, and the scientific method doesn’t allow religion to dictate the answers science gives, but that doesn’t mean that you, yourself, can’t let science become part of your religious experience. Listen. If you believe God created the world, and science shows us just how incredible that world is, how can you not stand in awe when the true scope of that creation is revealed by science?

I’m not the person to help you reconcile science and your religion, but I hope I’ve at least encouraged you to try.

Don’t yell at me for not trying to convert them to atheism here, or taking the purist view that science and religion can’t coexist. This book is not a manual for conversion, and that goes both ways. If they’re not going to throw off religion and become dyed-in-the-wool atheists, I’d at least like them to see science as something other than the enemy of their religion.

Right, then. I must go collapse. I feel like the walking dead.

Progress Report: Shoot Me Now

33,429

I really shouldn’t have punked off the week of the election. Argh. Ah, well, we’re closing in, and as long as I live off of frozen dinners and energy drinks, we’ll get there.

Have a snippet from ye olde chapter on science:

A SCIENCE PRIMER

There are lots of groups out there now who are attempting to prove that the Bible is scientifically accurate. You may have run across some of them: The Discovery Institute and Answers in Genesis are the two that come immediately to my mind. They claim to be doing science, they have people with “Dr.” in front of their names working for them, and they publish “scientific” papers, but what they do isn’t science. That’s why if you cite them as authorites, atheists will scoff.

Here’s a good rule of thumb to remember: just because someone’s calling themselves a scientist and using sciency-sounding words doesn’t mean they’re actually doing science. A lot of us get snookered because we don’t really know what science is, we just know we’re supposed to be impressed by it. That’s why companies get away with selling “ionized” water as a super-strong cleaning solution. So this chapter really serves two purposes: it will help you avoid the common misunderstandings between believers and atheists when science comes up, and you’ll be able to debunk late-night infomercials for fun and profit.

Let me give you a crash course in what science is. We’ll start with a definition, and what could be more appropriate for a simple course than to take that definition from ScienceMadeSimple.com:

The word science comes from the Latin “scientia,” meaning knowledge…

Science refers to a system of acquiring knowledge. This system uses observation and experimentation to describe and explain natural phenomena. The term science also refers to the organized body of knowledge people have gained using that system.

That’s how simple science is. Of course, it’s a little more complicated in the execution, but it’s not really hard to grasp the basics.

No, but it’s fucking hard to explain them. Argh argh argh. But I think it’s coming together all right – you’ll be the judges of that when the thing’s complete and you can get your very own draft copy to rip to shreds.

I’m in the no-sleep stage of NaNo. It’s only going to get worse as the week goes on, alas. So if I start to speak in incoherent sentences, please don’t think my brain’s done a Bush – it’s just the sleep deprivation, and things’ll improve once December 1st rolls round.

Progress Report: Ouch the Reprise

30,353

I’m cheating. I slapped a Preface onto this thing, because I’m not sure I’ve got enough left to make 50,000 without it, and I wasn’t sure where things were going next. When in doubt, add useless bits as filler – you can always cut them later, and the mere act of writing something can shake loose some useful bits.

After I got done playing with the Preface, I decided we needed a chapter in there discussing science. Science, after all, is damned important, and a lot of Christians get their asses kicked when they debate science with atheists. So in it goes.

For your excerpt today, I’m going to give you a bit from the potentially useless Preface, because the science stuff isn’t really ready for public consumption yet:

I know people who refuse to listen to good ideas simply because they came from cultures they don’t agree with. Let me give you an example:

I used to work at a bookstore. One day, a woman and her son came in. He ran wild through the store, knocking things off shelves, getting in other customers’ way, and refused to listen to her attempts to rein him in. I don’t usually comment on a person’s parenting, but she was fuming by the time she brought her purchases to the counter. She apologized for her son’s behavior. “I don’t know what to do with him.”

“He seems like he’s got a lot of energy that needs to be channeled into something,” I said. “You might want to get him in to a martial arts class.”

She gave me a look torn between horror and hope. “I’ve thought about that, but I don’t want him learning their religion.”

I had to bite back on a sarcastic retort. Instead, I explained that martial arts classes don’t teach religion, just a philosophy of physical and mental discipline that has nothing to do with gods.

Too many people have that habit of refusing things that would make their lives better just because it comes from the “wrong” source. And the world suffers because of it. In American politics, I see conservatives refusing to listen to ideas because they’re “liberal” – a ridiculous habit liberals sometimes repay in kind. Science gets thrown out by some because it doesn’t agree with their faith. It’s even getting hard to admit that you see anything good in Muslim culture now, because we’re at war with them.

It’s ridiculous. It’s cutting your nose off to spite your face, and I for one am sick of it. The world can’t afford this self-righteous, exclusionary thinking.

We need change. We need to get over a past in which we fortified ourselves in opposing camps and fight it out to the bitter end. We’ve survived it up until now, but the world is facing problems that are going to kill us if we don’t start working together.

And stuff. But I truly do believe that.

Anyway. Wrists are crackling, stomach is growling, and I need a few hours’ sleep before we try to hit ten thousand words for the weekend. Good luck, fellow NaNo sufferers, who are probably feeling as gritty as I am by now.