Progress Report: Down the Mountain

26,486

Good thing we’re past the halfway point, considering there’s only nine days left, eh?

I think I’ve mostly finished with the confusions. The only one I haven’t really deconstructed is “Theology is Philosophy,” which I need to scare up some resources for. If any of you have thoughts on that, now would be an excellent time to share them. Theology, of course, is a subset of philosophy, but the point I’m trying to get across here is that it’s still religious, and therefore not likely to overwhelm an atheist with its rigor and validity.

I promised you my treatise on nihilism, and thee shall have it:

CONFUSION #6: ATHEISM IS NIHILISM

What I just said before should be more than enough to prove otherwise, but just in case, let’s talk about that.

First, let’s have a definition. I’ll filch it from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Nihilism is the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated. It is often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical skepticism that condemns existence. A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy.

Sounds pretty awful, doesn’t it? We think so, too.

Some atheists can be nihilistic, but atheism itself isn’t nihilism: it’s just non-belief in supernatural stuff. We don’t believe in gods, fairies, ghosts, gremlins, or anything else that is, by definition, not part of the natural world. But that lack of belief doesn’t lead automatically to nihilism at all.

Let’s break this down piece by piece.

“All values are baseless.” Of course they’re not. Your values might be based on the Bible, and mine on science and humanistic philosophy, but both of us have values that are based very firmly on their respective foundations. Ask an atheist what they base their values on, and they’ll be happy to tell you. At length, most likely, to the point where you may regret asking. What you’re not likely to hear is a glum, “all values are baseless.”

“Nothing can be known or communicated.” You know what? If we believed that, we atheists wouldn’t have the appreciation for science and argument that we do. Of course things can be known – just because we don’t claim to know with absolute certainty doesn’t mean we think nothing can be known. As far as communicating what we know, we have strong tools for that: experiment, logic, reason, and demonstration. So there’s another tenent of nihilism atheists have gone and chucked right out the window.

“Extreme pessimism.” I don’t know that many pessimistic atheists, myself, and I know a lot of atheists. We get cantankerous at times, yes, but we’re a pretty optimistic bunch. We think we can make a difference. We work to improve the world, and enjoy it. Maybe there’s a wee touch of pessimism when it comes to human kind’s infatuation with religion, but a drop of pessimism does not a nihilist make.

“A radical skepticism that condemns existence.” Skeptics we are. Incorrigible skeptics. Radical? I wouldn’t go quite that far. The majority of us are what I’d call “healthy skeptics.” We doubt things that aren’t backed up by good, solid evidence, but we don’t go overboard with the skepticism. And unless you run into a really depressed atheist, you aren’t likely to find many who take skepticism to such extremes that they condemn existence.

“Believe in nothing.” We believe in plenty of things. We believe human beings are good enough and smart enough to make the world a little better. We believe in the scientific method. Most of us believe in good food, good friends, and a good beer. Just because we don’t believe in gods, and just because we don’t believe blindly, doesn’t mean we don’t believe a single thing.

“Have no loyalties.” We’ve got the usual run. We’re loyal to friends, family, organizations, ideas, all sorts of things. I’m loyal to my cat – probably to a fault, considering how homicidal she is. An atheist without loyalties is a remarkably rare creature. If you find one, let me know.

“An impulse to destroy.” The atheists I’ve talked to want to build. They want to build understanding, knowledge, a better world. They may want to destroy superstition’s ability to harm in bulk, and they may have an impulse to destroy diseases, poverty, and really stupid ideas, but as far as an overall impulse to destroy indiscriminately – yeah, no. Look, we live here too. As the Tick once said, “You can’t destroy Earth! It’s where I keep all my stuff!”

I think one thing’s missing from this definition: nihilists have utterly no sense of humor. You’ve probably noticed by now that this atheist has one. So do the rest of us.

That, I have to admit, was fun to write.

From here on out, we’re going to be headed into more positive shores. I’ll be exploring how we can engage in a constructive dialogue, and explore some of the very positive things that have come about when atheists and believers work side-by-side. I’m thinking about Americans United for the Separation of Church and State as a prime example. What I want to show is that, just as people of different faiths have learned how to respect and appreciate each other, and thus work toward a better world, believers and non-believers can do the same thing.

End on a high note, so to speak. Which is why I’ll be headed into town this afternoon to partake in some very excellent Beaujolais. Nothing’s likely to make me feel happier with the world than some lovely red wine. If Happy Hour’s late, it’s because I’m busy getting happy.

In answer to a question from yesterday, I related the bit with the missal in the Welsh story because, quite simply, it’s part of the Welsh story. It’s what the old woman had with her. I’m not going to cut a religious artifact out of the tale just because I’m an atheist.

I like to think that she would, indeed, have used it as a primitive version of the Smack-o-Matic if the demon hadn’t had the good sense to clear out when she blew out that candle and stared it down.

Coherent sentences. Becoming difficult. Must. Stop. Writing….

Progress Report: Holy Shit, Look at the Time!

24,505

I love my job for one reason: we have a health clinic. I took advantage of same today because one of my tonsils insisted on catching the latest ick and my glands are swelling to the size of kumquats, which doesn’t sound like much until you look in the mirror and realize that, compared to the size of the average human neck, that’s huge. In the interests of not having things explode and thus derail NaNoMadNess, I decided it was time for drugs.

This does have something to do with NaNo. I’m getting there.

So, after handing me the blessed antibiotics, John the medical guy asks me, “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” I told him about NaNo. His eyes got larger than my glands. He stared at me for a moment, repeated, “Fifty thousand words?” and then reached for a calculator and a calendar. Hilarity ensued as he calculated what I have to pull out in order to make the deadline: 2,500 words per day from now to the bitter end.

I don’t think he really believed me when I told him I’ve crossed the finish line when I was running further behind before. Seriously. Ten thousand word weekends aren’t impossible. Keep that in mind, all of you who are running behind and starting to panic. We’ve got two weekends left, and we’re going to do this thing.

Even with glands the size of kumquats.

Tonight, I had an entirely too delightful time, and have thus nearly reached the peak o’ the mountain. If I didn’t have to go to bed in order to survive work tomorrow, I probably wouldn’t. Here’s one of my favorite bits from tonight:

CONFUSION #5: BUT THERE’S NO PURPOSE WITHOUT GOD!

Of course there is. You’re just not in a position to see it.

We’re going to spend some time on this one, because it seems to be such a sticking point for many Christians. I know people who have deep doubts, who are on the verge of giving up the faith that’s making them miserable, but won’t because they believe that without God, there’s no meaning or purpose in life. Evolution without an Executive Director terrifies them. The idea that we’re all accidents of fate, that there’s no ultimate reason for our existence, is appalling to them. They can’t handle it. They don’t understand how we can.

Both they and the deeply religious constantly demand us to answer the question: “But without God, how can life have any purpose? How can you make sense of anything that happens?”

Let’s begin with a parable.

There’s an old Welsh tale of a house haunted by an evil spirit, so dire that no one could even approach the place. A wise old woman heard of it and decided something needed to be done. She took a candle and her misal and went to spend the night.

Surrounded by darkness, sitting in a pool of light, she eventally came face-to-face with the demon. Cool old eyes gazed steadfastly into burning, hateful ones.

“Woman, your faith is in that candle flame,” it sneered.

“Demon, you lie,” the old woman said, and calmly put the candle out, plunging them both into utter darkness lit only by those raging red eyes. She never flinched. Defeated, the demon vanished, and has not returned to this day.

You say to me that the only purpose in life is in that candle flame. I’ve blown it out, yet purpose remains. That’s why I’ve told you this story.

(No, I don’t think you’re a demon. It’s just an awesome story, and other than the fact that you’re not a demon, it illustrates my point very well.)

When I blew out the candle flame, it was dark, at first. But I looked up, and there was a night sky blazing with stars. Everywhere I look, there’s purpose. Meaning shines out from everything. Where does it come from, if it doesn’t come from God?

From us.

From there, I’m ashamed to admit, I babbled like a brook. But hey, right now we’re after quantity rather than quality. One thing that will absolutely stay, though, is that old Welsh story. I’ve always loved that story, and I’m pleased it fits so well here. Or so I like to think.

I also hit the nihilist myth, which if you really want me to, I’ll post as a special bonus over the weekend. It’s snarky goodness, if I do say so myself.

Time just flew by tonight, but now it’s time for me to fly. As always, thoughts, snark and suggestions in comments, should the mood strike you.

Progress Report: Want Sleep

22,247

Trying to debunk Christian confusions about atheists without sounding like a list of “thou shalt nots” is rather harder than it sounds. But we’re giving it ye olde college try:


CONFUSION #1: ATHEISTS DESERVE PITY

Whether an atheist has given up their faith or never had it to begin with, a common reaction from believers is pity. You feel that we’ve lost something vital, and you feel sad for us. You feel so sad for us, in fact, that you constantly pester us about being sad.

“Aren’t you lonely without God?” “Doesn’t it make you sad to think that there’s no life after death?” “How awful it must be not to believe in anything.” Those are some common variations on the theme. Every time we’re a little blue, you take the opportunity to remind us that if we believed in God, we’d have someone to pray to for relief.

And it seems to really flummox you when we refuse your pity. You mean well, but your pity isn’t necessary, and it’s really annoying.

I try not to pity you. I could pester you right back with questions just as valid. “Isn’t it horrible to believe that your loving God’s going to torture your heathen friends for all eternity?” “Doesn’t it make you sad to think God’s punishing you with ill health/natural disaster/financial hardship?” “It must be exhausting to try to reconcile all those contradictions in the Bible.”

Irritiated yet? I thought as much. Look, if you’re happy being a Christian, and I’m happy being an atheist, let’s just try to be happy we’re happy. Let’s put the pity in a box and leave it gathering dust on a shelf.

We can certainly explore those questions. For instance, the big one, eternal life. It makes you happy. Knowing death is the end makes me happy, oddly enough. We could talk about the reasons why we feel that way. We could discuss why God makes you less lonely, while the idea of having a god underfoot all the time leaves me cold. But if we go spelunking through each other’s philosophies, pity isn’t going to be of any use.

I’ve also hit upon CONFUSION #2: ATHEISTS ARE EVIL… BUT YOU’RE AN ATHEIST, AND YOU’RE NICE! and CONFUSION #3: YOU’RE NOT REALLY AN ATHEIST! If you all have some confusions you’d like me to cover, now would be an ideal time to say so.

The cat is snoring. I want to emulate my cat. Therefore, I am going to bed.

We are now officially at the “NaNo is kicking my ass” stage, but it’s still fun. Hope all my fellow sufferers are, too!

Progress Report: Top o’ the Mountain’s In Sight

20,659

I’ll be hitting the halfway point in the next two days, and then from there it’s a nice, easy downhill saunter. Or so I hope. Like most writers, I get my best momentum going when the deadline looms. When I get momentum at all, that is…

We’ve gots plenty o’ momentum with this. I’m starting to have fun.

Tonight, I finished up with the quick tour of silly fallacies (for False Authority, see here and here, o’ ye of little faith. I chose the False Authority fallacy rather than the broader Argument from Authority for a reason – the damned authority’s false to begin with). Ahem. Anyway, yes, finished that bit, and what we’re going to do is bung in a print of Raphael’s The School of Athens in conclusion:


Plato points at the sky, saying we must look to the world of ideas. Aristotle points to the ground, saying we must look to the natural world. They never stopped arguing about it, either. If you take nothing else away from this section, let it be this: those who point at the sky may have beautiful logic and exquisite reasoning, but they’re always going to have a rough time of it with those who have the logic and the reasoning and the undeniable tangible stuff to point to.

And yes, my darlings, it comes right after the Courtier’s Reply (which I hope I shall get PZ’s gracious permission to filch). Happy, aren’t you?

Just in case you didn’t have enough to read, let me give you the start of Chapter Seven: How Can You Live Without God? and Other Christian Confusions:


Atheists have a hard time getting Christians to understand how we can be perfectly happy without God. It’s just not something you’re equipped to understand. For you, God is the ultimate Everything. All happiness, all moral authority, all purpose in life, all the world and its meaning come from God, and you can’t imagine things any other way. When you do try to imagine it, you get a cold, lost, empty feeling. You’re horrified. And you think that’s how we must experience life.

One of my favorite stories along the lines of Christians just not comprehending what it means to be an atheist is this one, from Dan Barker’s wonderful book Godless. Dan Barker was an evangelical preacher and songwriter who became an atheist while searching for God’s truth. He sent a letter out to friends, family and associates explaining his deconversion, which met with mixed reactions from outright horror to amiable understanding. One of the preachers he had known just couldn’t get his head wrapped around the idea. He asked a person who knew Dan, “But isn’t Dan afraid of going to Hell?”

I admit, I laughed. I couldn’t help it. I know that question arose from genuine concern, but it came from a complete lack of understanding of what being an atheist means. No atheist is afraid of going to Hell. We don’t believe in Hell. It’s very, very difficult to be afraid of something you don’t even believe exists.

To get an idea of how this question sounds to an atheist, let’s say you’ve just told me you don’t believe in Santa Claus. And I ask, “But aren’t you afraid Santa Claus won’t bring you any presents?” You’d laugh, wouldn’t you? You’d be touched that I cared enough about you to worry on your behalf, but a little annoyed by the fact that I wasn’t understanding that you couldn’t possibly worry about Santa Claus denying you toys since Santa doesn’t exist.

Now imagine a whole army of Santa believers descending on you to threaten, cajole, plead, weep, argue, explain, and engage in no little twisting of your arm to get you to change your mind, and you’ll have some idea what it’s like to be an atheist surrounded by a passel of well-meaning Christians.

In this chapter, we’re going to go through some of the more emotional pleadings, the refusal to believe an atheist is really an atheist, atheism is eeevvviiiillll, and other such irritations we deal with. If things along that line come to mind, chuck ‘em into comments and they shall find their way into the book.

And with that, I’m off for food, sleep and kitty cuddling, not necessarily in that order.

Progress Report: Look, It May Not be Much, but It’s Progress

18,830

Less than a thousand words, yes, I know. With Aunty Flow here and a ton of ridiculous nonsense to take the Smack-o-Matic to, we’re lucky it’s over three hundred, all right?

You may be wondering, “But Dana, where did that lovely peacemaking attitude go?”

It’s still here. It’s just that you can’t make peace by letting the awful stuff slide. There’s limits. Even Roger Clyne has a song that punches religious frothers in the gut, all right? “God Gave me a Gun.” Go look up the lyrics: you’ll be amazed at how brutal a Peacemaker can be. Tolerating intolerance was never in the job description.

So I’m still within tradition, damn it. Besides, it’s that time o’ the month, and Happy’s been bludgeoned into insensibility by Grumpy and left down a mineshaft.

With that in mind, savage my pathetic prose. Here are a few of the silly Christian tactics I’m ripping in Chapter Six, just under Fatwah Envy and The Hitler and Stalin Hustle:


Bible, Prove Thyself. Here’s a chance to have some fun. If you really want to get up an atheist’s nose, proclaim the Bible is literally true and then “prove” that claim by quoting the Bible. It’s one of the best ways to get an atheist to breathe fire without hardly trying.

What it won’t do is prove your point.

You’re rolling two logical fallacies into one: the fallacy of circular reasoning and the false authority fallacy. Circular reasoning attempts to prove a statement by rephrasing the statement in stronger terms, which proves nothing at all. The statement is in dispute – so when you try to use that statement to prove itself, you’re doing nothing to resolve the dispute. We’re disputing the fact that the Bible is literally true: therefore, the Bible can’t be used to prove its own truth. And you may see it as an authoritative source, the very word of God, but we don’t. That makes it impossible to use the Bible’s authority to prove the Bible.

But Christians try this, over and over and over again. They repeat themselves, as if we’re just being dense and will eventually “get it.” It proves only one thing: not that the Bible is literally true, but that the person claiming it has so little evidence they can’t even come up with a valid argument for their claim. Using this “logic” is the fastest way to show us you’re someone we can’t take seriously.

The Straw Man. Here’s another way to really get up an atheist’s nose: build yourself a man of straw and knock him down. Let me show you how this works:

You say, “God created heaven and earth.”

I say, “It’s ridiculous to believe that some magic man knocked all of this mess out in six twenty-four hour days.”

Do you see the straw man? You may not be a Young Earth Creationist – you may have just merely meant to say that you believe God got everything started with the Big Bang and is responsible for evolution, but I’ve set you up as a Biblical literalist who’s dead easy to blow apart. Christians do this to atheists all the time, creating some hypothetical unbeliever who’s much easier to defeat than a living, breathing, freethinking atheist. Real people are lot more nuanced than a straw man, so don’t think you’ve won by destroying one.

Ad hominem attacks. That means “argument against the man,” and it does just that: attacks the person with the idea rather than the idea itself. “Atheists are evil, immoral people because Christopher Hitchens is a jerk” would be an ad hominem attack. All it proves is that Christopher Hitchens is an atheist you don’t like. It says nothing about atheists or atheism in general.

Let me put it to you this way. I’m not going to say, “Fred is a bad man. Fred is a Christian. Therefore, Christianity is bad.” If I want to prove that Christianity is bad, I’m going to have to come up with a lot more than Fred. I wouldn’t expect you to take me seriously if Fred was the only reason I could give for Christianity being bad. So don’t expect me to take you seriously if Christopher Hitchens’s status as a legendary jerk is the best evidence you can muster that atheism in general is awful and we should all believe in God. Trust me, I’ve got plenty of atheists I can throw at you to defeat that one, just like you’ve got plenty of saintly Christians to trump my Fred.

I’m sure I’ve fucked up something somewhere. Feel free to be brutal.

And if you’ve thought of any more annoying arguments Christians make when they’re debating with us, please get them into comments. Thankee kindly, my darlings.

I thought I heard a footstep… Ono, it’s Sleepy! No, Sleepy, don’t do it, not in the face AAARRRGGGHHH!!!

*thump*

Progress Report: Sweetness and Light and All That Rot

18,191

I admit it. I skipped. I wasn’t in the mood for listing off all those silly things Christians do to try to put one over on atheists, so I’m moving ahead to another new chapter: Reaching Each Other. It was in part inspired by the concert tonight, and in part by my best friend.

It’s basic premise comes from what my friend said last night: that after reading my excerpts, he’d thought to himself, “I can never talk to Dana about Christianity again!” He told me he hadn’t realized just how different our beliefs are until now – then caught himself, and we both had a good laugh over the fact that that’s true, since I don’t believe at all, but definition. This chapter is meant to show that since we’re humans, yes, we do share common experiences. It’s just that Christians interpret those experiences as coming from God while we don’t.

I’ll spare you some of the detail, since I already gushed about the spiritual feelings I have at Peacemakers concerts, and just give you this bit:


That long anecdote is to show you that yes, atheists have deeply spiritual experiences. Things can be sacred and still be secular, strangely enough.

The feeling of awe, almost euphoria, that you might experience witnessing a particularly gorgeous sunset: we feel it, too. We just don’t see anything supernatural.

The absence of any supernatural explanation doesn’t make the world any less wonderful for us. If anything, it’s more wonderful. I’m amazed by physics and cosmology. I’m humbled by our tiny place in this enormous universe. I’m grateful that I live in an age that knows just how vast it all is, how complex, and yet has a remarkable understanding of it. The thrill you feel at the words, “Let there be light,” I feel when I see the equation e=mc2.

These feelings of awe, wonder, and ecstasy aren’t limited to the religious alone. All humans can experience them. And that means yes, I can understand you when you tell me about your spiritual feelings. The only thing difficult for me to comprehend is why you can’t feel them without God. That part, I just have to take your word for.

Since I once shared your faith, I do try to remember what it was like when I saw God all around me, but those memories are fading, and that feeling was never so pervasive as the delight I take in science and humanism. We’ll just have to be satisfied with the fact that we can both have spiritual experiences, which means we can stand side-by-side at sunset reduced to awe-stricken grins.

This may all sound pollyannaish, but considering I’ll have just spent upwards of three chapters being rather merciless about God, religion, the irritating things Christians do, and why it would be best if they just gave the whole proselytizing thing a miss, we’re ready at this point for Pollyanna. I’m hoping to bring them to a point where they can accept that our lack of belief in the supernatural doesn’t make us impoverished Vulcans who don’t have a single human thing in common with them. And I’d really like to take away the monopoly religion has on all things numinous.

I don’t know about you, but it’s really irritating for me to have to explain, ad nauseum, that I can feel all that awe and wonder and no it still doesn’t make me believe in one single supernatural thing.

I think we’ll hit on that old chestnut of “but explaining it takes away the mystery!” too. Anyone else here think things are just as amazing even when we know exactly how they work? Think Dawkins’s “Unweaving the Rainbow.”

And with that, time for me to collapse. Sunday Science is coming up….

Progress Report

16,108

I’ve added a new chapter: When Atheists and Christians Collide. When Christians get into a scuffle with atheists, they’ve got so many tattered trump cards they try to play that I figured I’d make a spirited attempt to list them out and let everybody know it’s been done, debunked, and please come up with something new.

So far, I’ve got Fatwah Envy and The Hitler and Stalin Hustle. I probably don’t have to explain those, but just in case… Fatwah Envy is that charming habit they have of whining, “You’d never say that about Islam because you’re afraid they’ll kill you!” Of course, that ignores all the times we’ve turned Islam over our knees and given it a sound spanking. The Hitler and Stalin Hustle is that great favorite wherein they say that Hitler and Stalin were atheists who killed millions, so therefore atheism is eeevvviiiiillll. Yadda yadda blah blah whatthefuckever.

I’m going to hit several others, which I haven’t named yet: that terribly annoying “you can’t say anything against Christianity until you’ve read all the theologians,” using the Bible to prove the Bible, straw man arguments and ad hominem attacks, that sort o’ thing. If you’ve noticed particularly annoying Christian arguments against us, as I’m sure you have, please do mention them in comments.

None of that particular section is ready for public consumption, but of course you shall have your excerpt. Here’s an early part of that chapter, before I get into the silly things Christians do to try to win arguments with us:


BUT WHY CAN’T YOU BE LESS OFFENSIVE?

I wish we could be. Unfortunately, we’re always going to offend somebody. There mere fact of our existence is intolerable to some religious people. They refuse to engage in any kind of constructive discussion with us, because they believe we’re the epitome of evil. There’s nothing we can do that won’t offend people like that.

There’s also the “give an inch, take a mile” problem.

I’ve seen far too many discussions in which the slightest concession on the part of an atheist is pounced on by believers as evidence that atheists are wrong and they are right. You may have found yourself doing this, if you’ve ever talked to an atheist before. Many believers are so desperate to convert us to their faith that they’ll misconstrue any conciliatory thing we say.

If we say that the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” is a good one that all people would do well to try to follow, a Christian will too often take this as evidence that Christianity is morally superior to all other faiths, that the Ten Commandments should be displayed in every classroom and courtroom in the land, and that the atheist has just lost the argument. They don’t hear us saying that prohibitions on killing have been part of every human society in some form. They believe that if the commandment were taken away, if it’s not a religious prohibition, people will kill indiscriminately, when that’s just not true.

When we say that people of all faiths and lack thereof should be treated with respect, too many Christians use that to demand respect from us for their beliefs while showing absolutely none for ours.

I could fill the rest of this book, and several volumes more, with examples, but those should suffice. We atheists often have to be forceful to the point of offense so that our views are manifestly clear.

Sometimes, we even have to get downright rude, like you might have to with a used-car salesman who won’t hear a word you say. Rudeness, while not pretty, does have its place. It can shock people into silence long enough sometimes to get them to listen to you.

We’re going to end up shouting at each other. It’s inevitable. It’s what we do when we’ve stopped shouting that’s important. If we end up laughing at each other’s outrageous antics and start building a better understanding together in the wake of them, that will be a wonderful thing.

I’m sure I’m going to be able to say that better when I revise it, but I just want to get across the point that religion is so automatically accepted as a positive good that we can’t really be polite and conciliatory when we’re fighting its abuses and assumptions. Any improvements you could suggest would be lovely.

And with that, the cat is informing me it’s bedtime. Tonight’s the Peacemaker’s concert, so if things go a bit quiet round here, you’ll know the reason why. I’ve been working me arse off. Time to play before the final push to 50,000.

Or so I tell myself. Really, it’s because the Peacemakers are the closest thing I have to a religion, and I wouldn’t miss them for worlds.

Progress Report: Ooouuuucccchhhh

14,046

In less than two hours, I’ve written nearly two thousand words, and my fingers are swollen, my eyes gritty, and my stomach wondering just when it’ll get some of that food it was promised. I love nights like this.

This is how I NaNo: screw the daily word count, it’s a trickle here, trickle there, the occasional spurt, and then, come next week or so, there will be the “Oshit, I’m thirty thousand words behind!” moment and then will come the mad run to the finish.

All of you glumly looking at your paltry little word count about now, remember that. It’s amazing how galvanizing a looming deadline can be. Your pride will be your prod. You’ll get this done.

Now that we’ve had the pep talk, here’s a bite o’ the fruit of tonight’s labors:


WHY CAN’T ATHEISTS JUST IGNORE RELIGION SINCE THEY DON’T LIKE IT?

I sincerely wish we could.

I wish we could just celebrate the beauty of faith together: even though we don’t share faith, we share appreciation of the beautiful things it’s inspired. Some of my favorite works of art have Christian and other religious themes. Some of my favorite music was written for churches and for God. One of my favorite buildings in the world is the Haiga Sophia, which used to be a Christian church and is now a mosque. There are religious poems that bring me to the verge of tears.

Religious stories have inspired me, and I’ve used elements of them as themes in my own stories – one of my characters is very deeply influenced by the Norse god Odin, for instance. I’ve got favorite verses from the Bible, the Qu’ran, Buddhist sutras, and the Tao Te Ching, among others. I’m a sucker for mythology, and I think that these religious stories teach us a lot about what it means to be human.

You’re about to pounce on that to say that I must be secretly religious, or long for God. That’s one of the reasons I can’t celebrate the beauty of religion as much as I’d like: religious people use it to prove the superiority of religion or the weakness of my atheism when it does no such thing.

I love these things not because they’re religious, but because they’re human. Humans created them. Human imagination inspired them, even when they believed they were inspired by God.

And those beautiful things been tainted by those who insist on literal truth and dogmatic purity.

Religion is considered sacred, not subject to the same critical examination that other human ideas are. That’s a dangerous thing, especially since religious belief is used to justify so much harm.

We atheists can’t ignore religion and let you go on about your worship for a simple reason: your religion impacts us. It threatens us, and it often harms us. We can’t live quietly in a world full of religion because religion won’t let us.

Deeply devout Christians believe they have a mandate from God to tell me what I can do with my body. They believe they should be able to control my reproductive choices. Not only do they believe their morality dictates whether I can or cannot have an abortion if such becomes necessary, but they believe they have the right to deny me access to birth control. They believe they can tell me whom I can and cannot marry. They believe I must believe the way they do in matters of sexuality, and if I disagree, they believe they have the right to force my compliance. They are trying to get laws passed that will limit my access to birth control, abortion, and marriage. Religion threatens me as a woman, and it is a real and immediate threat.

Deeply devout Christians believe God has told them all they ever need to know about science. They are actively trying to introduce creationism into science class under a number of guises – Intelligent Design and “teach the controversy” are great favorites just now, and when those are defeated, they’ll come up with other euphemisms. I have no children, and I graduated from school a long time ago, so you might think this isn’t my battle to fight. But it is. All of modern medicine is based on the proven theory of evolution. Without a thorough understanding of evolution, students can’t go on to become medical researchers who will find breakthrough cures for the diseases that will destroy my mind and body. And it’s not just that. Science underpins everything in our lives: the energy that powers my appliances, the computer I’m writing on, the phone I call my mother with, and endless other examples. If Americans allow religion to water down science, we will no longer be on the cutting edge of science. Our economy and quality of life will suffer the consequences. Religion threatens me as a beneficiary of science, and it is a real and immediate threat.

Deeply devout Christians believe they know what is morally pleasing to God. They believe God tells them what music is appropriate to listen to, what books are appropriate to read, movies to watch, and themes to explore in art. They launch crusades to censor things they find morally offensive. They constantly try to craft legislation that will defeat the First Amendment in order that things offensive to them cannot be created. Religion threatens me as an artist, and it is a real and immediate threat.

Deeply devout Christians believe that Armageddon will happen in their lifetime. Some of them are so eager for this that they want to push up God’s timetable. They destabilize the Middle East because a stable Middle East is contrary to what they believe their prophecies say must happen in order for Christ to return. They support Israel blindly because it’s part of their prophecies, and reject policies that would truly be in Israel’s best interests. They risk starting a nuclear war, they do not care about the suffering of millions, and they encourage dangerous foreign policies that threaten to plunge the world into war because they believe they, the chosen ones, will survive. Religion threatens my life, and it is a real and immediate threat.

How can I ignore these threats? How can I agree to live and let live when religion threatens my very survival?

This is the reason I fight to keep church and state separated, why I debunk fundamentalist beliefs, why I’m often relentless in criticizing the churches. This is why I insist that religion not be held sacrosanct, but be subjected to scrutiny, reason, and criticism. I can’t possibly respect religion when it doesn’t respect me. I can’t ignore it when it refuses to pay me the same courtesy.

No atheist can.

To be perfectly honest, neither can you. If Christianity triumphed and imposed its unfettered will on this country, there’s no guarantee it would be your particular flavor of Christianity that got to do the imposing. Be glad me and my fellow freethinkers, along with our strict separationist religious allies, are fighting so hard to protect you.

All right. Maybe that was a tad more than a bite. I hope it was tasty, even though it’s raw and a bit green. Shine the light of your critique upon the remains so that it may ripen, etc. flowery language etc., and I’m going to bed before I die.

Thank you again for your insights, my darlings. Make me do you proud.

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And might I say there would have been a lot more if the cat hadn’t had a deliberate accident in my bed, necessitating a long clean-up. If it ain’t one damned thing, it’s another.

This is why many writers wish they could live in a vault, alone, with pre-prepared meals and a plentiful supply of their favorite beverage when it comes time to do something ridiculous like NaNo.

Anyway. Did get some writing done tonight, and put today’s news to good use:

HOW ATHEISTS VIEW RELIGION

There are entire books written that deconstruct religion from an atheist’s point of view, so if you want more than this brief sketch, I encourage you to pick up Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens’s God is Not Great, or Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation. That last book mentioned is very short, but it’s brutally honest, and it’s written directly to you. It might be the best place to start.

I’m afraid we don’t have a very flattering view of religion to offer. In fact, it can seem very much like we hate it, and in some respects, we do. Religion is used to justify a lot of evil.

Consider the news I saw just today. Children in a Mormon enclave of Idaho chanting “assassinate Obama!” on the bus ride home. The Catholic and Mormon churches spending over a decade and tens of millions of dollars to battle same-sex marriage. A soldier discharged from the Army for assaulting a Jewish soldier who complained of religious harassment. This kind of news is depressingly common.

Religion has been used to justify slavery, torture, and wholesale slaughter. Good Christians have spent centuries killing each other over theological disagreements. Religious strife tears communities and nations apart. Religious intolerance condones and encourages bigotry, prejudice, and racism.

“But that’s not Christianity,” you’d say to me if we were sitting here together. “That’s not what God wants.”

The problem with that statement is, you’re wrong. Hatred, violence and repression might not be part of your particular flavor of Christianity, but it’s enshrined in the Bible right alongside Jesus’s admonitions to minister to the poor and do unto others as you would have done to yourself. There’s really no way to separate the good parts from the bad, because the entire book is supposed to be the divine word of God.

Religion encourages its followers to shut down their critical thought and just believe. You’re taught to have faith. That may seem like a good thing to you, but to us, it’s terribly dangerous. When people are taught that questioning divine revelation is wrong, they lose their capacity to question their leaders when they’re told that God doesn’t want gays to marry, or Obama is the antichrist, or the end of the world is coming within a few years. All of these things have been said by respected Christian leaders. All of these things have been taken seriously by their followers. Christians have been led to believe some truly awful things. They believe those awful things are God’s word.

Religious fanaticism sends young men and women out into crowded plazas with bombs strapped to their bodies. It sends otherwise decent people to the polls to deny their fellow citizens the right to marry. It justifies bombing abortion clinics and causes believers to celebrate the murders of doctors. It causes parents to fight against the science standards our schools need if they are to educate a future generation of cutting-edge American scientists.

The good that religion does is a paltry thing indeed compared to the bad.

And what is most horrible to us is that religious people claim that these terrible things are moral. They truly believe that they are doing God’s will when they put a stop to stem cell research, or forbid birth control, or cause their children to suffer unbearable guilt over their awakening sexual urges.

Atheists do hate religion. We have excellent reasons for doing so.

We view religion as a dangerous threat to humanity. Even the mild, caring, loving forms of it contain seeds that can grow into fanaticism. We believe this is because religion teaches you to rely on faith, not evidence or reason. Some churches like to pride themselves on their rationality, but it’s a sham rationality. There’s nothing rational about believing that God has ordered you to follow moral laws that do nothing but create misery and conflict.

You say that religious people have done a lot of good because of their religion. We say that some religious people have done good in spite of it.

You say that a person must believe in God to be moral. We say that believing in God makes you less moral.

And so on. We fundamentally disagree on these points. We always will. Atheists just can’t see religion the way that you do.

It’s one of the reasons we’re atheists.

This little bit will need some severe buffing and polishing later on, with perhaps more concrete examples, and of course footnotes since paper pages don’t have hyperlinks, but as far as a skeleton on which to hang a brief explanation as to why we dislike religion so, it’s a start.

Apropos of nothing, and going back to the categories, how do you all like the term “fire-breathing atheists” rather than “militant atheists”? Myself, I like it. It seems like something to aspire to.

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You know, this is all going to go much better when Aunty Flow’s been and gone. Look up the symptoms of perimenopause if you really want a gruesome description of how I’m feeling just now. But we’re making progress despite the unrelenting uterus.

I’ve collapsed a couple of chapters together, and have inklings of a few to add. Not that I’ve really had time to think about it – mostly, it’s just whacking out as many words as quickly as possible without too much thought as to what the next bit might look like. I’m afraid it shows in the manuscript, but that’s why we have revision.

Here’s the end to Chapter Four, What to Expect if You Bring Up God:


HOW TO SURVIVE THE SCRUM

So how can you do it? How can you get into a contentious argument about religion with atheists, and survive?

Believe it or not, it is possible. You’re probably not going to win, but you can walk away with our respect.

Let me give you a quick list of survival tips:

1. Be honest about your faith. We have a lot more respect for those who can freely admit that they believe in God for their own reasons. Maybe it’s because you can’t imagine a life without God, or because of a personal experience that seemed like revelation to you. Maybe the Bible has special meaning for you. Maybe you need the promise of Heaven to get you through the day. Maybe you think the idea of God makes so much rational sense that He must exist. It’s quite all right to say so, even if you think we’d be more impressed with a theological argument worth of Aquinas. The truth is, we won’t be, and we’ll see through the attempt. Just tell us honestly why you believe.

2. Answer the question asked. We atheists are just a little tired of having to ask the same question a thousand times because the believer we’re speaking to keeps giving answers that don’t answer anything at all. If we ask you, for instance, if you agree with every single one of the Ten Commandments, and you answer by talking about how wonderful the Sermon on the Mount is, you’ll completely lose our respect. Our respect rises in direct proportion to the relevance and honesty of the answer.

3. If you don’t know the answer, just admit it. It really is okay if you can’t answer a question because you don’t know enough. Rather than trying to bluster, just explain that you don’t have the answer. Atheists are used to not having all the answers, so we appreciate a sincere, “I don’t know” much more than a smokescreen.

4. Give as good as you get. Whining gets you nowhere with atheists. Robust debate and a sense of humor, on the other hand, gain respect even if we don’t agree with you.

5. When all else fails, shake the dust. You’re going to be talking about God to a lot of people who don’t believe in God and never will. Jesus once said, “Shake the dust from your sandals and move on.” It’s great advice. There’s plenty of other stuff to talk about, and you’ve done all you could to get us pigheaded atheists to come around to your views, so it’s okay to move on.

Talking about God with a bunch of atheists can be a bruising experience, but I’ve also seen plenty of conversations between atheists and Christians where the discussion has been a benefit to all. Religious fanaticism threatens us all. It’s good for us to find strength in each other so that everyone’s freedom of religion (or lack thereof) is preserved.

Believe it or not, there’s a lot of believers in atheist forums who are well-loved and well-respected. They take their hits just like everybody else, but they dish out as good as they get, and they’re great friends to have. We don’t agree on everything. We don’t have to. We just have to hold the best conversation we can.

And that’s about where we stand. I’ll have the actual Bible verse quoted when I go through the revision. There’s a lot of niggling detail that’ll get bunged in later, when I have the luxury of chasing it down.

I didn’t put in goal-post moving and all of the other things that piss us off beyond belief because those admonitions are going to be in the Rules at the end. In this section, I just want a few simple, positively-stated bits o’ advice to keep innocent religious sorts from making absolute asses of themselves.

As always, suggestions, commentary, and disagreements welcome in comments. I’ve been getting excellent use out of what you’ve all said so far. Don’t stop.