“The Most Vile, Radical Liberals in America”: Anti-Atheist Bigotry in the Senate Campaign

I suppose it was bound to happen.

With the newly- galvanized atheist movement becoming increasingly visible and increasingly vocal, we were pretty much destined to become a political football, the subject of a fear- mongering campaign flyer depicting us as vile despoilers of the American Dream… and using an association with us to smear an opponent. (And the early 21st century being what it is, we were pretty much destined to then to become the subject of a YouTube campaign video, doing exactly the same thing.)

So here’s the thing I find fascinating.

It’s not the fact that the flyer and video in question told lies about us. It’s not even the fact that they insulted us in bigoted, hateful language that, in this day and age, would not be tolerated from a major political candidate about any other religious group.

What I find fascinating is this:

Our very existence is being presented as an abomination. The mere fact that atheists exist, and speak, and express political views, is being presented as part of the package of our vileness, and is being used to frighten voters.

For those who haven’t heard already, here’s the story. North Carolina Republican Senator Elizabeth Dole — yes, that Elizabeth Dole — is in a re-election campaign against Democratic opponent Kay Hagan. Dole had been ahead, but like a lot of Republican incumbents this election, she’s been falling behind.

So her campaign sent out an anti-Hagan flyer — centering on the fact that Hagan attended a fundraiser in Boston, hosted by atheist activists and leaders of the Godless Americans PAC, Wendy Kaminer and Woody Kaplan.

In which atheists are described, among other things, as “the most vile, radical liberals in America.”

And the National Republican Senatorial Committee then put out a YouTube video, also centering on this fundraiser, and saying that, because she accepted campaign donations from atheists, “We can’t trust Kay Hagan to defend our North Carolina values.”

Here’s the video. And here’s a copy of the flyer. You can click to enlarge if you like. (Pages 2 and 3 are presented separately here, but are meant to be read side by side as one page.) Please note the quotes from my atheist blogging homeboys at Friendly Atheist and Daylight Atheism on Page 4. Both of whom, of course, have blogged about this.

Godless 1
Godless 2
Godless 3
Godless 4

Now. Here’s what I’d like you to do. Read the flyer again. Watch the video again. And in the place of the word “atheist,” substitute the word “Jewish.”

From the flyer:

“Liberal Kay Hagan flew to Boston to pocket campaign cash from leaders of the Jewish American PAC.”

“Jewish Americans Political Action Committee is a left-wing organization based in Washington, DC — dedicated to ‘Mobilizing America’s Jews for Political Activism.'”

“They actively support political candidates who are Jews.”

“And they want Kay Hagan in the U.S. Senate.”

“We can’t trust Kay Hagan to defend our North Carolina values.”

From the video:

“Kay Hagan attended a Massachusetts fundraiser hosted by a leader of the JEWISH AMERICANS PAC.”

“DaylightJudaism.org: ‘Kay Hagan out to be rewarded for inviting Jews onto her platform.'”

“And what’s THEIR platform?”

“And what does Kay Hagan have to say? ‘North Carolina deserves leadership that advocates on behalf of North Carolinians, every day, every week, every month, and every year.’ Apparently except when Jewish donors in Massachusetts invite you over.”

If there were a campaign flyer or video saying that? The candidate would be excoriated by the mainstream media, up one side and down the other. They’d either be distancing themselves from the people who made it so fast it would make your head spin… or they’d be resigning in disgrace. A resignation called upon, not only by every major news organization in the country, but by their own party. And rightly so.

But apparently, not so much with the atheists.

So I never, ever want to hear again that there’s no such thing as anti- atheist bigotry, or that atheists aren’t discriminated against in this country.

But again, here’s what I’m finding really interesting.

It’s not the lies and deceptions (thoroughty detailed in the Friendly Atheist and Daylight Atheism pieces). It’s not about the transparent fearmongering about how atheists are out to destroy Boy Scouts and Christmas. (It sounds like a joke, doesn’t it?) It’s not even the fact that they can’t seem to spell the word “Atheist” right.

It’s not even the fact that we were called “vile.”

It’s this.

Read again, please, the quotes being used on this flyer from the Friendly Atheist and Daylight Atheism blogs.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever been to North Carolina besides driving through, but I just donated (to Hagan’s campaign).”

“Kay Hagan ought to be rewarded for inviting nonbelievers onto her platform.”

Pretty inflammatory stuff, huh? Lock up your children, people — the atheists are going to donate money to a political candidate they support!

Monster mask
The very fact that we dare to exist at all — and that some of us are daring enough to want our voices heard in the political arena — that is the monster under the bed. The fact that we expect to be treated as citizens, that we see ourselves as a political movement, that we want our elected officials to be aware of our concerns and to represent us… that, just by itself, is what is being presented as the wicked, terrifying, “vile” threat that must be stopped at all costs.

But you know what?

I actually feel sort of flattered. And I definitely feel encouraged.

Because you know what this means?

It means we’re getting through.

Scarlet letter
If atheists are becoming visible enough that we’re the centerpiece of a fearmongering Senate campaign? We must be doing something right.

So if you’re an atheist — or an atheist- positive supporter — here’s what I want you to do.

If you can afford it, donate some money to Kay Hagen’s campaign. Even just $25. I know the economy sucks. I know this is a huge election, with a million candidates and initiatives that need donations. And I know I just got through begging you to support the No on 8 campaign to protect same-sex marriage in California. But if you can have it to spare, make a donation to Kay Hagen. Again, even a small one would help.

And then write to her campaign, at myvoice@kayhagan.com, letting her know that you’ve made a donation, and why. Write to her, and let her know that you’re atheist or atheist- positive, and that Elizabeth Dole’s anti-atheist bigotry is why you made your donation.

Here’s what I wrote:

Hello. My name is Greta Christina, and although I don’t live in North Carolina, I just made a donation to your campaign. I wanted to let you know that I did so prompted by recent posts on the Daylight Atheism and Friendly Atheist blogs.

I am appalled by Elizabeth Dole’s open bigotry and hatred towards atheists — a bigotry and hatred that would not be tolerated towards any other religious group. And I am encouraged by Kay Hagan’s recognition that atheists are citizens, who have a right to have our voices heard in the political arena.

My funds are limited (especially since I’ve been donating to other political campaigns this year), so my donation was small. But I plan to write about this on my own blog, and encourage my readers (some who are atheists, many others who aren’t but support atheists’ rights) to support your campaign as well. Thank you again for your recognition of our growing community, and please know that we are grateful and will not forget it.

Because you know what would be cool? What would be even cooler than being a newly- visible, newly- vocal movement?

Being a voting bloc. Being a political force to be reckoned with. Being an interest group that political candidates can’t afford to openly smear and insult, because if they do we’ll mobilize against them.

And having a U.S. Senator who know that she’s in the Senate, at least partly, because of the atheist and atheist- supportive community.

That would be super-cool.

12 Step for Atheists: An Interview with “Get Up” Author Bucky Sinister

If you’re an atheist, and you have a problem with alcohol or other drugs, how do you get help?

The most widespread, most easily- accessible help available to alcoholics and other addicts is 12 Step programs, originally and most famously Alcoholics Anonymous. But while 12 Step groups are open to people of any religious persuasion — including atheists, agnostics, and other non-believers — the language of the program is heavily based in religion, and people who don’t believe in God may feel that they’re not welcome, or that the program doesn’t apply to them.

If that’s your excuse for not getting help — tough beans. Atheist author and poet Bucky Sinister has written a 12 Step guidebook with a clear message: You’re welcome into 12 Step, and the program applies to you. Get Up: A 12 Step Recovery Guide for Misfits, Freaks & Weirdos is a smart, funny, enlightening, eminently readable guide to 12 Step programs for anyone who feels like they don’t belong in 12 Step programs — including, although by no means limited to, non-believers.

Bucky is an atheist with a background in both fundamentalism and cult religion, and his atheism pervades his book in ways both overt and subtle. The philosophy in the book is surprisingly useful even if you’re not an alcoholic or addict, with an approach that’s both empathetic and hard-assed, and with helpful and entertaining analogies ranging from Joseph Campbell to the A-Team. We spoke recently about the book — a conversation that included higher powers, skeptical problems with 12 step, the war on drugs, Britney Spears, what makes good writing good, and more.

(Quick conflict of interest alert: Bucky is a friend and former co-worker of mine, and the company I work for, and where he used to work, sells the book.)

Greta: First, for people who aren’t familiar with your book, tell us a little bit about it — and what inspired you to write it.

Bucky: “Get Up” is the book I wish I’d had during my first year of sobriety. I revisited what all my fears, insecurities, and misconceptions of 12 Step Recovery were all about. The same problems I had a lot of other people have, and will have, therefore, it’s a good subject for a self help book.

Scarlet leter
Your atheism is very much present throughout this book. It’s not just in the section on The God Problem — it comes up again and again, and it seems like it’s one of the book’s central foundations and inspirations. Can you talk about that a bit? Did your atheism present any special challenges when you were first getting sober — and how does it work for you now?

12 Step is not a religious program, although the word “god” is used all over the place. The problem is that it was designed by Christian-minded people, and they didn’t have the vocabulary to describe it properly for the atheist. It’s like when someone says, “now don’t take this the wrong way,” then say something horribly offensive. The 12 Step pioneers really were trying to make things open to everyone.

In that vein, I’m curious: Why wasn’t “atheism” or “atheist” in the title? Again, the atheism is so pervasive throughout your book, so much a part of what informs it, and I’d think you’d want it to be the first thing that comes up when people Google “12-Step + atheist.” Why wasn’t it called, say, “Get Up: A 12-Step Guide to Recovery for Misfits, Freaks, Atheists, & Weirdos”?

The titling process was long and weird and I can’t remember the process. Sorry. We went over a bunch of them. I like your last title.

The main idea for the book, is that it should appeal to anyone who feels a bit like an outsider, or that the current programs don’t speak to them.

One of the things that struck me most strongly about “Get Up” is what a good read it is — funny, engaging, a real page- turner even if you’re not an alcoholic or an addict. Was that intentional? Were you hoping to illuminate this experience for non-addicts, or were you aiming solely to create a guide for alcoholics and addicts?

Oh, good. I wanted it to be a good read.

Without getting specific, most of my program’s official literature is poorly written. It’s an ordeal to get through. The reason for this is that people who are not writers wrote the books. It’s like reading someone’s first novel. It’s not that bad, but it’s not good either.

I’ve read a lot of nonfiction about subjects I know nothing about. If it’s written well enough, it doesn’t matter. I recently read Chuck Klosterman’s IV. It’s all music writing, and it transcends the subject matter. His Britney Spears article is amazing, and I’ve never listened to one of her songs unless it was playing at the gym. I also read about sports I’ve never watched; I’ve read more pieces about boxing than I have seen boxing matches.

So yes, it’s intentional. The mark I wanted to reach is for the writing itself to be good, entertaining, enjoyable to read. That’s what keeps a self-help book from sounding preachy. It’s like what Bill Cosby used to say at the beginning of the Fat Albert cartoon: “This is Bill Cosby coming at you with music and fun, and if you’re not careful, you might learn something before it’s done.”

And I was surprised at how useful a lot of the advice was… even if you’re not an alcoholic or an addict. I’m not an addict or in recovery, but a lot of the advice for struggling writers and artists was dead-on, stuff I struggle with all the time. (The stuff about being consumed with envy of more successful writers really hit me: I do that, and it’s such a waste of time and energy.) Again, was that intentional? Or were you just aiming at an audience of people dealing with addiction?

All of the stuff in 12 Step programs is good advice. There’s a lot of things that seem obvious to well adjusted people. They learned it as children, or during the teenage or college years. I didn’t. I had abnormal parents and as soon as I should have been developing my teenage sense of socialization, I was getting loaded. Most addicts and alcoholics are missing some important part of development. 12 Step programs are diagnostic in the sense that in the course of following steps, you will find out what your Big Problem is. I think the step work would be good for anyone to do, but it’s hard, scary, and against your personal instinct. The only people who are motivated to go to such lengths are those of us who have hit bottom, and even then, most people don’t get through them.

Now for the hardball. There are a couple of questions that I know the atheists/ skeptics/ science- lovers reading this blog are going to want to see asked.

The first: One of the criticisms of 12-Step is that so many of its proponents are so resistant to having it rigorously tested, to see how effective it really is. If alcoholism/ drug addiction really is an illness, the argument goes, then any treatment of it should be subjected to the same kind of careful scientific testing that any other medical treatment of any illness gets. Otherwise, you just have a lot of anecdotal
evidence, and confirmation bias, and counting the hits while ignoring the misses. But many 12-Step proponents are strongly resistant to this, and carefully- gathered statistics about what percentage of people who go into 12-Step stay clean and sober are lacking. What are your thoughts about that?

First off, I think addiction and alcoholism are symptoms of a greater problem. I don’t have any hard facts for this, it’s just my opinion. So I disagree with the idea that it’s a disease as such. But I can’t discount the disease angle either, so I usually don’t mention it.

I do think that there should be research into drugs that would reduce physical cravings for all the substances. There should be a new Methadone, an anti-crack, an anti-amphetamine. In just about every major city it will take you about two weeks to get in a Methadone program, but about half an hour to score heroin.

The war on drugs wasn’t on drugs, but on drug addicts and the poor. It only hurt those that used and the low-end dealers. That’s another rant. Do you know how hard it is to get into rehab and sober living environments? If half the war on drugs money had been spent on these two environments, San Francisco would have a tiny fraction of its homeless problem, and petty crimes would disappear. No one is smashing car windows for food money. Ugh. I’m ranting now. Back to the subject.

Okay. So one more in a similar vein: Another criticism of 12-Step that I’ve seen a lot in the skeptical community is how resistant so many 12-Step proponents are to the idea that any other treatment might be effective. What are your thoughts about that? Do you think 12-Step is the one best technique for recovery, or do you think different recovery techniques might work for different people?

Getting sober is one thing. Living sober is another. Living sober is much harder. You have to change your whole way of looking at life. 12 Step is free and accessible. That’s why I stuck with it despite my initial hesitations. I could afford nothing else. It’s a community-based healing system. I like that.

Clinical rehabilitation is the best way to get sober, under medical supervision. But once you leave, you need to live a different life. Your friends and loved ones likely don’t know what you’re going through or how to help you. I am much less of a burden on my friends with a community I’ve found to help me.

You have an interesting take on the whole “higher power” concept in “Get Up,” and I’d like to hear a little more about it. You make an interesting point in the book: that in 12-Step, the “higher power” theoretically isn’t limited to one religion and can be anything… and yet, as you put it, “The problem with all this is that all of the qualities ascribed to the 12-Step God only describe one God ever in the history of theology: the Protestant Christian God.” Can you talk about that for a bit? How much tinkering did you have to do with the steps to make it genuinely applicable to full-blown atheism?

I don’t believe in a deity. That’s the basis of my atheism. Very simple.

Like I said before, it [12-Step] was designed by Christian people, at least culturally they were. They exclude everyone but themselves if you take everything literally. Even Catholics are supposed forego the priest and other spiritual intermediaries, if you look at it from their viewpoint. They say god can be anything you want, but the qualities of god are such that you can communicate with it directly. That precludes (excludes?) a lot of religions.

If I were to believe in a god, I would not be so pretentious as to assume that I had direct contact with it or that it was even aware of my existence, much less was reading my thoughts on a continual basis.

There’s a few things that I have to translate, namely prayer.

Prayer. This to me is self affirmation. I’m talking to myself. Each time I “pray,” I’m reminding myself that I have resolved to lead a new life, even if it’s suddenly more difficult than it seems. For example, when I feel like I’m about to lose my temper, I say the serenity prayer to myself. It reminds me that I have to change the way I live to have a new life. Blowing up emotionally is directly related to my old life of being unhappy and miserable. I have to learn how to control my temper if I’m going to be the person that I want to be… who is my “god” in the prayer. Like I’m asking myself from the future to help me.

So on that topic: You talk in the book about how you personally interpret the “higher power” concept in 12-Step — for you, your “higher power” is your better self, your ideal self, the person you would most like to be. Can you talk about some other conceptions and interpretations of the “higher power,” ones that have worked for other atheists and non-believers?

Irony and metaphor have some kind of rule in my life. Irony, such as going to church basements for help with my addictions that rose from trauma suffered in church buildings, pops up throughout my day to day life. Metaphorically, I see things like a pigeon pecking at a cigarette butt, and think, that’s me, and suddenly I have an insight to how my day should work, or I get out of an emotional funk or whatever.

So I consider irony and metaphor higher powers as well. They exist outside of me, but not without my perception of them. Does that make sense or do I sound like a tinfoil hat wearing man now?

You don’t. I wouldn’t have thought of irony and metaphor as higher powers, but I can see how that might work.

And finally, a quick practical question: How do atheists find an atheist- friendly 12-Step group? And if they can’t — if they’re in a part of the country, say, where that’s really not an option — how would you suggest they deal with the religion question if they want to go into the program?

Be patient with the religious people. I think in a few hundred years, religion won’t be any more serious than what your favorite TV show is now. But we’re still in a phase of existence in which most people still aren’t ready to let go.

For those with some 12 Step experience, I’d strongly suggest starting a meeting. There are men’s meetings, women’s meetings, GLBT meetings, young people’s meetings… why? Because there are specific needs that can be met this way.

Not that you should exclude the religious from these meetings. You should just exclude the talk. And hold it somewhere that’s not in a church basement, please.

Bucky Sinister is a spoken word artist who performs about 40 times a years at comedy clubs and theaters, primarily on the West Coast, but also around the country. He has published nine chapbooks and three full-length collections of poetry, the most recent being “All Blacked Out & Nowhere to Go.” His first full-length CD, “What Happens in Narnia, Stays in Narnia” was released in 2007. “Get Up: A 12 Step Recovery Guide for Misfits, Freaks & Weirdos” is available at Powell’s, Amazon, Last Gasp, and other fine booksellers everywhere. He can be contacted through his website, buckysinister.com. He also has a MySpace page with some good, funny audio clips of his stand-up comedy/ spoken word. “Get Up” is published by Conari Press, an imprint of Red Wheel/Weiser.

What Convinced You? A Non-Belief Summary… and an Atheist Game Plan

What convinces non-believers to reject religion and embrace non-belief?

A couple weeks back, I took a survey here in this blog, asking, “If you’re a non-believer in religion, and you used to be a believer — what changed your mind?”

I found the answers fascinating: touching, funny, heartbreaking, thoughtful. (Thanks so much to everyone who contributed!) And I think they provide, not only a window into the process of deconversion… but a game plan for those of us who want to help the process along. Whether you’re actively trying to help deconvert people and increase the amount of atheism in the world — or are simply trying to create a more atheist- friendly world where people who are doubting their faith feel safer becoming atheists if that’s what’s right for them — knowing how and why people deconvert is useful information to have.

I do realize that this isn’t really a statistically useful sampling, btw. It’s too small, and it’s too skewed. (“People who read Greta Christina’s Blog” is not necessarily representative of all non-believers, as much as I would like it to be.) I’d love to see a really good, large study of non-believers and how they got that way. But as a place to start, and in tandem with other atheist blogs who are doing similar polls, it’ll do for now.

FYI, I got 43 deconversion stories in this survey, including my own. But many people listed more than one cause for their non-belief. Hence, the total number of causes is going to add up to a lot more than 43.

Out of 43 deconversion stories, here’s what people gave as the main causes for their loss of belief.

Just thinking about it: 30.

Talking to atheists/ skeptics, or reading atheist/ skeptical writing: 24.

Talking to religious leaders and teachers (pastors, priests, etc.) — or reading apologetics — and finding atrocities, inaccuracies, inconsistencies, absurdities, hypocrisies, sloppy thinking, and/or unacceptable moral views: 14. (This includes asking questions of religious leaders and teachers, and not getting satisfactory answers.)

Reading the Bible — or whatever the sacred text is of their religion — and finding atrocities, inaccuracies, inconsistencies, absurdities, hypocrisies, sloppy thinking, and/or unacceptable moral views: 9.

I want to take a moment to break down “just thinking about it” in a little more detail. It’s the biggest category by a fair amount. And the thinking processes that people describe are ideas I see in the atheosphere all the time… which makes me think we need to keep on getting those ideas out into the world.

So here is a quick- and- dirty summary of the “just thinking about it” ideas that made people begin, or end up, leaving their religion. (Again, because many people listed more than one idea, the total will add up to a lot more than 30.)

Historical/ scientific inaccuracy, internal inconsistency, or just plain absurdity, of religious beliefs: 16

Immorality, unfairness, or other troubling aspects of religious beliefs: 14

Dishonest, hypocritical, or other bad behavior by religious believers or leaders: 11

Not seeing good evidence/ arguments for religion, and/or seeing it as improbable: 10

Phantoms in the brain
Science as a better explanation for X (consciousness, life, religious experiences, whatever) than religion: 10

Emotional experience — simply didn’t feel the faith: 5

Seeing religion as a human creation: 4

Seeing bad things happening, not consistent with belief in a good God: 4

Seeing harm done by religion: 4

Diversity of religious beliefs; different faiths with incompatible views: 4

Insufficiency of religion to offer comfort or other things it promises: 3

Realizing that “I only believed because it’s what I was taught”: 2

Rejection of religious authority: 2

And I want to break down the “talking to atheists” one as well… since it’s sort of the Big Question on the table. Because it turns out that there are lots of different ways that encounters with atheists and atheist ideas can help believers leave their belief behind. (Again, some people mentioned more than one cause, so the sum of the parts will add up to more than the whole).

God delusion
Specific atheist arguments or ideas: 16

Exposure to general skepticism, critical thinking, and/or the scientific method: 11

Simply knowing, or being exposed to, atheists or other non- believers; realizing that non-belief was an option: 7

Encountering atheism or other non-belief and realizing, “Yes, that’s me”: 5

Seeing that atheists not only exist, but can be happy people with moral/ meaningful/ non- guilt- ridden lives: 3

Seeing terms such as “atheist” or “agnostic” accurately defined: 3

And there’s something else I noticed: In the stories people told about losing their religion? The “reading/ talking to atheists” part often came at the end of the story. It isn’t what gave them doubt in the first place… but it’s what sealed the deal. (The phrase “final nail in the coffin” came up more than once.)

So here are the lessons I’m taking from this exercise, the lessons I hope other atheists will find useful as well. If we want to help people deconvert — or simply make it a world in which people find it easier and safer to do so — here’s what we need to do:

Coming out day haring
Come out. Often, simply encountering atheists and atheist ideas, or being exposed to skepticism and methods of critical thinking, can be a big factor in deconversion. And knowing about the existence of other atheists — especially other good, happy atheists — can help people feel like they have a safe place to land once they take that step. (The analogy with coming out as gay/ lesbian/ bi/ trans is inevitable…)

Don’t expect your arguments to deconvert anyone overnight. That rarely happens. Don’t think of yourself as dynamite under the foundations; think of yourself as water wearing away the rock.

Don’t expect to deconvert a strong true believer. Meeting atheists, encountering atheist ideas and arguments… these things can have an effect on believers. But they tend to have an effect in the end stage of deconversion — not at the beginning. The initial cracks of doubt tend to come from within: from people considering their beliefs, and having doubts about whether those beliefs are moral, or consistent with reality, or even consistent with themselves. We can help widen those cracks… but it seems like we rarely, if ever, make them happen in the first place.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t engage with strong true believers. The engagement can help strengthen your own arguments and clarify your own thinking. And if the engagement is happening in any sort of public setting — an online discussion thread, say — it may have an effect on other people following the argument… even if they’re not saying anything.

Arguments can have an effect. This one surprised me. I know how stubbornly resistant to evidence and reason religious belief can be. I know how frustrating it can be to debate with believers who ultimately don’t seem to value reason. But out of 24 non-believers who said that encountering atheists or atheist ideas was part of their deconversion process, 16 said they were at least partly persuaded by specific atheist arguments or ideas. That’s three out of four. And that’s 16 out of the grand total of 43 deconversions — more than one out of three.

Again, we often come in at the tail end of the process instead of at the beginning. But that’s an important part. Don’t dismiss it.

On the other hand, no one argument or idea is going to convince everybody. We’re not going to find a magic bullet, the One Good Argument that convinces everyone to deconvert. Different people find different arguments and ideas compelling. We have to keep presenting all of them.

Expose people, not just to specific arguments against religion, but to methods of skeptical, critical, and scientific thinking. While specific arguments can help people complete the process of deconversion, people need to start the process on their own. However, having critical thinking tools can help that process begin — as well as helping it come to its conclusion.

Encourage people to read the Bible, or whatever the sacred text is of their religion. For lots of people, the loss of their belief began by examining more closely what they supposedly believed, and being either intellectually baffled or morally repulsed. (Julia Sweeney’s performance piece, “Letting Go of God,” is a perfect example of this.) Let’s encourage more people to do it.

Finally, and most importantly:

Don’t despair.

What we’re doing can work. It is working.

What we’re doing can feel frustrating to the point of futility. Religious belief is often extremely stubborn. It is often extremely resistant to reason and evidence. It is often armored with a wide variety of armors against criticism… and indeed, against the very idea that it can and should be subject to criticism. Trying to persuade people that their religious belief is a mistaken hypothesis about the world — even trying to get people to see their religious belief as a hypothesis at all, one which should be able to stand up on its own against other hypotheses — can feel like shouting into the wind.

But what we’re doing can work. Rates of non-belief have been going up dramatically in the U.S., even in just the last few years. And in parts of the world — specifically Europe — non- belief is so common that in some countries it’s more common than belief.

And look again at the replies to the original post. See how many times people said, “Finally I was persuaded by The God Delusion… finally I was persuaded by Daniel Dennett… finally I was persuaded by something someone said on an internet discussion group… finally I was persuaded by something I read on this blog.” What we’re doing can work. It is working.

So let’s keep it up.

What Convinced You? A Survey for Non-Believers

Change your mind
If you’re a non-believer in religion, and you used to be a believer — what changed your mind?

Was there one particular argument or incident or experience? Or was it more of a general softening of the ground, with lots of different factors adding up?

And have you ever convinced a believer, or helped to convince a believer, that they were mistaken? If so, what was it you said or did that convinced them?

I’m asking because of a recent comment in this blog. In response to my Top Ten Reasons I Don’t Believe In God post, Nine commented:

I am often confronted with impatience when I begin to use the words “logic,” “reason,” and “evidence.” Theists argue, “you can’t use reason to explain everything, particularly God!” It’s senseless. It’s so senseless, I am often struck speechless by its senselessness. Lately, however, I stumbled upon this quote:

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” –Galileo Gailiei

I feel like I have something to go on now, but how do you respond to this rejection of logic and reason in general?

A fair question, and one that in recent weeks has been much on my mind. How do you debate, or try to convince, or in any way engage in fruitful discussion, with someone who doesn’t value reason and evidence and doesn’t find them convincing?

My usual response is to point out the limitations of irrational intuition; to acknowledge its importance in human experience, but point out that it’s really only valid for matters of opinion and subjective experience, and that logic and evidence are demonstrably better tools for understanding questions of what is or is not objectively true in the real world. (Questions such as — oh, I don’t know, just for one example — God’s existence or lack thereof.)

In other words, when a theist says “you can’t use reason to explain everything, particularly God!”, my response is, “Why not? We use reason and evidence to explain everything else about what is and isn’t true in the real world. Why shouldn’t God be included?” (With the possible addendum that, “The only reason you think your faith shouldn’t have to be supported by reason or evidence is that… well, that it isn’t supported by reason or evidence.” A topic for another day.)

You can't change my mind
But of course, this point is itself an argument based on reason and evidence. And therefore, it’s not likely to convince someone who already thinks reason and evidence don’t prove anything. And Nine is right — it is completely frustrating to debate someone who knows their belief isn’t rational and just doesn’t care. (Almost as frustrating as it is to debate a believer who’s convinced that their belief really is rational.) I’ve written about this before: religion has at its disposal a large number of powerful defensive tropes, defending it not just against criticism but against the very idea that criticism is legitimate, with circular reasoning that’s very aggravating to an outsider but that at the same time makes it stubbornly resistant to change.

And yet…

Most atheists and other non-believers were, at one time, religious believers.

Including me.

And we got over it.

How did that happen?

How did our armor get penetrated? How did it happen that our rationalizations — either convincing ourselves that we were being reasonable, or that it didn’t matter that we weren’t being reasonable — became visible to us, and no longer acceptable?

One of the reasons I so stubbornly persist in making argument after argument against religion — apart from the fact that I’m having barrels of fun with it — is that I was myself persuaded to abandon my religious beliefs by good, rational arguments. Or at least, I was persuaded to seriously question my religious beliefs by good, rational arguments. So I know that, at least sometimes, it can work. And while I don’t know if my own arguments and debates have ever convinced any particular person I was debating with, I have heard people say — about both my blog and other atheist blogs — that being a lurker on the sidelines of these debates has made them rethink their own beliefs.

So I guess this is my market research, my focus group. I want to know what works and what doesn’t.

So I’ll ask again: If you’re a non-believer in religion, and you used to be a believer — what changed your mind?

And if you’ve ever convinced a believer, or helped to convince a believer, that they were mistaken, what was it you said or did that convinced them?

Skeptical inquirer
I’ll get the ball rolling. For me, letting go of my belief in the supernatural was a long process. But it started when, almost by accident, I started reading Skeptical Inquirer magazine. I’d seen arguments against spiritual beliefs before — I was a religion major, for Loki’s sake. But the fact that the S.I. folks took spiritual beliefs and subjected them, not only to argument and logic, but to rigorous, carefully controlled, scientific testing… that was a big deal.

It’s not that they disproved any particular strong belief of mine. I didn’t believe in astrology, or faith healing, or hardly any of the specific beliefs they putting to the test. But their work took religious belief out of the realm of “things you can never be sure about one way or the other, so it’s therefore okay to believe whatever seems to make sense to you” — and put it squarely in the realm of “things that are either true or not true.” And it gave me tools for critical thinking as well: a better idea of what did and didn’t constitute a good argument, and an increasingly improved nose for bullshit.

And it did it over, and over, and over again. Calmly, and reasonably, and relentlessly.

Bell brain cut
So there was no one argument that de-converted me. But there was definitely a body of argument that softened the ground, made my belief a lot less deep and a lot less certain. And so when I had my big Your Consciousness Is A Product Of Your Brain experience — in my case, going under general anesthesia — I had a whole new context to put the experience in. A context that was a lot more consistent than my spiritual beliefs… and that didn’t require any of the rationalization and evasion and flinching away from the evidence that I’d been doing to support those beliefs.

(This is a fairly quickie summary, btw. If you’re curious and want to read about my deconversion in more detail, you can do so in my How I Became an Atheist, Why I Became an Atheist series.)

So I think this is why I’m so attached to making and pursuing atheist arguments. I don’t know if any one atheist can persuade any one believer during any one argument. But I know that lots of atheists making lots of arguments over a period of time can, at the very least, make a dent. And for me, the very fact of religion and spirituality being explored as questions of fact that can be rationally debated and supported or contradicted by evidence… that made a huge difference.

But that’s just what worked for me.

And so now I’m back to my question:

What worked for you?

If you’re a non-believer in religion, and you used to be a believer — what changed your mind?

And if you’ve ever convinced a believer, or helped to convince a believer, that they were mistaken, what was it you said or did that convinced them?

And if any of my arguments helped any of you change your mind and let go of your religious beliefs… please, for the love of all that is beautiful in this world, will you tell me what they were? I’m dying to know.

Blind Men and Elephants: Religion, Science, and Understanding Big Complicated Things

Is there a good reason that different religious believers disagree so much about God? Could it just be that God is very large and complex and difficult to perceive, so naturally different people don’t all perceive him the same way?

BlindCould religion be like the fable of the blind men and the elephant — where everyone’s perceiving a different part of God, but they’re all still perceiving the same real thing?

You’ve probably heard this fable before. There are different versions, but the basics are these: Six blind men are standing around an elephant, touching it to figure out what an elephant is. The one touching the trunk decides that an elephant is a big snake; the one touching its leg decides an elephant is a tree; the one touching its tail decides an elephant is a rope; etc. It’s supposed to show the limitations of individual perception, and the importance of not being narrow-minded, and how people with different beliefs can all be right. Or all be wrong. You get the gist.

Religious symbols
It was recently suggested in this blog that this fable makes a good metaphor for religion. God is too large (it was suggested), too complex, too multi-faceted, for any one person to perceive correctly. Therefore, Reason #2 in my Top Ten Reasons I Don’t Believe In God — the inconsistency of world religions — isn’t a fair critique. The fact that Muslims see God one way and Catholics another, and Hindus yet another, and Jews, and Neo-Pagans, and Taoists, and Rastafarians, and Episcopalians, and so on — in ways that are radically different, even contradictory — it’s just different people perceiving different parts of the elephant.

But I don’t actually think this fable makes a good metaphor for religion.

It does, however, make an excellent metaphor for science.

Or rather, it could.

Here’s the thing. In some versions of the elephant fable, the blind men groping the elephant just fall to hopeless arguing with no resolution. In other versions, a wise man explains to them what’s really going on. And that does make it a good metaphor for religion. Either people trust what someone else tells them is true, or they squabble endlessly and even fall to blows, with no means of resolving their disagreements.

But here’s the interesting thing:

I have never seen a version of the fable in which the blind men start explaining to one another why they think the elephant is what they think it is. I have never seen a version where the blind men say, “Hey, come over here! Follow my voice, and check this out — this is why I think it’s a snake!” (Or a tree trunk, or a rope, or whatever.)

And yet, that’s exactly how science works.

Yes, of course, if God existed, he would be immense and complex and difficult to perceive and understand.

And what — the physical universe isn’t?

The physical universe is both far, far larger and far, far weirder than we had any conception of 500 years ago, or indeed 100. Billions upon billions of galaxies all rushing apart from each other at blinding speed; everything made up of atoms that are mostly empty space; space that curves; continents that drift… I could go on and on. It’s way too big, way too complex, way too multi-faceted, for any one person to accurately comprehend.

And yet, the blind men are coming to a fair understanding of what an elephant is.

Every century, every decade, every year, the blind men are getting a better and better picture of an elephant.

And here’s how.

For hundreds of years now, thousands even, the blind men have been saying to each other, “Over here! Check this out! This is why I think it’s a snake!” And the other blind men come over and check out the snake, and one of them says, “I agree, this part has a lot in common with a snake, but it also has these differences… and interestingly, the surface feels very much like the tree trunk I was feeling yesterday.” And they each form departments to study the different parts of the elephant… and they compare notes and rigorously critique one another’s findings about the different elephant parts… and they come up with theories to explain what an elephant is, some of which make better or worse predictions about what they’ll find in between the snake-like thing and the tree-like thing… and then they embark on their Top Of The Elephant exploration program, and send probes and explorers and the Voyager Ladder to the top of the elephant and discover these amazing Ear things that they’d never imagined…

… and as each year and decade and century passes, we get a clearer picture of what an elephant is. It’s not perfect — there are big holes in the picture, and almost certainly mistakes as well. But we have theories about elephant-ness that make astonishingly accurate predictions about how the elephant will act and what we’ll find next on our continuing elephant explorations. And we have better and better forms of elephant perception all the time: both better techniques for exploring the elephant, and better methods for testing that our theories and data about the elephant are good. Our understanding of an elephant is better now than it was a century ago, and in another century it’ll be better still.

Why does this work?

Because the elephant is really there.

Because there is actually something out there that we can compare notes on. Because when two blind men feel an elephant’s trunk, they’re feeling the same real thing.


As I said in The Top Ten Reasons I Don’t Believe In God (and about 63 other places on this blog):

Compare, please, to religion.

In religion, we have no such consensus. The Snakians and the Treeists and the Ropafarians are still squabbling, still dividing up into sects, still coming up with no better argument for their beliefs than “Other people say it” and “I feel it in my heart” and “You can’t prove it didn’t happen.” And they’re still coming up with no clearer picture of the elephant: no better ability to predict what the elephant will do, no better skill at guiding the elephant in the direction that they want, than they had a year ago, or a hundred, or a thousand.


Slashed circle
Because there’s nothing there.

It’s all just stuff people made up. Consciously or un-. People can’t show each other the evidence for the Snake, or the Tree, or the Rope, and convince each other on the basis of the evidence… because there is no evidence. There is no snake, no tree, no rope. There’s nothing there. There’s just the conviction that the snake has to be there, because everyone else says there’s a snake, and our mother and father and all our teachers and authorities say there’s a snake, and we Snakians have believed in the snake for generations, and we’ve known about the snake since childhood, and besides we just feel the snake in our hearts.

The reason that there’s no increased consensus about religion? The reason that different religions today are as different, as inconsistent, as mutually contradictory, as they always have been, for thousands of years? The reason that prayer and prophecy haven’t gotten any more effective over the years?

The reason isn’t that God is a huge, complex, multi-faceted elephant that no one person can completely and accurately perceive.

The reason is that there is no elephant.

God Is Magic

There’s an argument that gets made a fair amount by religious believers. It gets made by more thoughtful theists and by, shall we say, less thoughtful ones; it gets made in forms that are marginally clever and forms that are laughably bad. But none of the versions are ultimately very good, and none of them are convincing unless you already believe in God.

The argument:

Jesus is magic
God is magic, and he can do anything.

Here’s the more fleshed-out version of it. Phenomenon (X) currently has no natural explanation. Given our current understanding of the physical world, Phenomenon (X) can’t have a natural explanation. Therefore, the explanation must be supernatural. Or, at the very least, it’s reasonable to think that the explanation is, or might be, supernatural.

In other words: The physical world is bound by immutable laws of cause and effect. But God, by definition, is not bound by immutable laws of cause and effect. God is magic, and he can do anything. Therefore, if we don’t currently understand the laws of cause and effect governing Phenomenon (X), the best explanation, or at least a marginally reasonable assumption, is God.

Example. In the physical world, effects have to have causes. Things can’t bring themselves into being, and things can’t just have existed forever. But the universe itself must either have (a) always existed, or (b) somehow come into being from nothingness. Therefore, the universe must have been brought into being by an entity that is not bound by the natural laws of cause and effect. In other words — by God. God is magic, and therefore he can have created himself or always have existed, and he can have created the universe out of nothing but himself and the void.

It is, in my opinion, a terrible argument. I want to talk about why.

Time line of the universe
1: Sez who?

Who says that Phenomenon (X) — say, the very existence of the universe itself — can’t possibly have a natural explanation?

Just because we don’t currently have a natural explanation for it, does that mean we never will?

I’m going to make a point that I’ve made approximately 90,690 times in this blog (so my apologies to people who are getting sick of it, I promise I’ll move past it in a moment): Look at history. Specifically, look at the number of times that we thought Phenomena (A, B, C, D, E) had supernatural causes. Had to have supernatural causes. Could not possibly have been caused by anything other than the supernatural.

Origin of species
And look at the number of times we were wrong. Look at the number of times that supernatural explanations for phenomena have been replaced by natural ones. It’s thousands. Tens, or even hundreds of thousands, depending on how specific the phenomena are that you’re talking about.

Now, look at the number of times we were wrong in the other direction. Look at the number of times we thought Phenomenon (Y) had to have natural, physical causes, and wound up being wrong about that. Look at the number of times that unexplained phenomena have been carefully, rigorously studied, and all the best evidence pointed to the cause being spirits, or metaphysical energy, or God.

It’s exactly zero.

The question of “Where did the Universe come from?” (or “Did the universe just always exist?” or “Why is there something instead of nothing?”) is currently an unanswered question. But that absolutely does not mean that it’s an unanswerable question. In fact, it’s a question we’re trying to answer. It’s a question that’s being looked into. Physicists and astronomers are working on an answer as we speak.

Now, if and when they do come up with an answer, it may boggle our tiny little minds. It may completely rewrite our way of thinking about the world — much the way that heliocentrism and evolution and relativity did. It may even make us completely re-think the very concepts of cause and effect. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be real. It doesn’t mean it won’t be right. And it doesn’t mean it won’t be an entirely natural, physical explanation.

The fact that we do not currently have a natural, physical answer to this question does not prove — or even imply — that no such answer exists.

Some people will probably argue that this response shows a faith in science that is identical to a faith in God; that it’s essentially saying, “I don’t know what the answer is, but I trust that the answer will prove to be a natural/ scientific one,” in the same way that religious believers say, “I don’t know what the answer is, but I trust that the answer will prove to be a spiritual one.”

But it’s not.

It’s not a response based on faith. It’s a response based on evidence: the evidence of history. It’s not a blind faith in science; it’s an observation that, when it comes to unanswered questions about the world, the answers have always wound up being natural and physical… and that therefore, given any currently unanswered question, the existence of a natural, physical answer is an immeasurably better bet.

2: The universe just doesn’t look that way.

Let me put it this way. If the universe were created, and intervened with on any sort of regular basis, by a being who was magic, a being who was completely unrestricted by the natural laws of cause and effect and who had no limits to his magical power… wouldn’t that just be obvious?

Would there be any arguments at all about his existence?

Wouldn’t there be violations of the natural laws of cause and effect on a regular basis? Heck, would there even BE natural laws of cause and effect?

That’s not what the universe looks like. The universe operates by laws of physical cause and effect… laws that are remarkably consistent. Phenomenally consistent. “Insert superlative of your choice” consistent.

Claims of miracles — i.e., supernatural interventions that violate the natural laws of cause and effect — consistently fall apart on closer inspection. They just don’t happen.

Given that this is the case, we have one of three options:

A: There is a God, but he not only intervenes in the physical universe: he intervenes in our perceptions and our understanding, making us think that the universe operates by consistent physical laws when really it doesn’t. Otherwise known as the “Matrix” option, or the “stoned college sophomore discovering solipsism for the first time” option. Theoretically possible, but not very plausible. It’s also not falsifiable or testable one way or the other, and is therefore useless as a hypothesis.

Hands off manager
B: There is a God, and he created the universe, but he does not intervene in it in any way, shape or form. Since he created it, he just sits back and watches as it unfolds according to the laws of cause and effect. This is the Deism option. Also theoretically possible, and kind of hard to argue against, since the effective difference between a Deist God and no god at all is zilch.

But for that exact reason, it’s also not falsifiable or testable in any way, and is also useless as a hypothesis.

And, more to the point — it’s completely irrelevant. Again, for that exact same reason. If there is an infinitely powerful magical being who brought the universe into being, but who never intervenes in that universe in any way… why should we care? What difference would it make? The effective difference between a Deist God and no god at all is zero. What reason is there to believe in him, or to act as if he exists?

Or… and this is the one I’m going to go with, if for no other reason than Occam’s Razor…

C: There is no God.

Letting go of god
Julia Sweeney said it best, in her amazing performance piece “Letting Go of God.” After a long, arduous journey of spiritual searching, starting with her original Catholicism and going through New Age spirituality and vague beliefs that “God is nature” or “God is love,” she came to this conclusion: “The world behaves exactly as you would expect it would, if there were no Supreme Being, no Supreme Consciousness, and no supernatural.”

The world does not behave as if a magical being who could do anything were running the show. The world behaves as if it operated, entirely and 100%, according to physical laws of cause and effect.

Slash circle
3. There’s just no evidence for it.

There’s a point Ingrid keeps making, and it’s time I brought it up. She points out that every scrap of “evidence” that there is for religion comes from human beings. It comes from parents and religious teachers, from prophets and from sacred books, from just sitting around in your room thinking really hard.

And the “God is Magic” argument is exactly the same.

The “God is Magic” argument comes dangerously close to Anselm’s famously crappy ontological argument. That argument, for those who aren’t familiar, goes roughly like this: “I can imagine a completely perfect being, i.e. God. But an aspect of perfection would have to be actual existence: if something didn’t actually exist, by definition it wouldn’t be perfect. Therefore, God exists.” (No, really. Stop laughing. I am not making this up. I actually had to learn this when I was a religion major, as one of the classic arguments in favor of God’s existence.)

The “God is Magic” version of this essentially goes, “I am defining God as that which can always have existed and can create universes out of nothing. This magical God would provide a very neat and tidy explanation for any unanswered questions we might have. Therefore, God exists.”

But the fact that you can imagine and define such a being does not provide even one scrap of evidence that he actually exists.

I realize that atheists sound a bit like a broken record when we say this, but it’s important and it’s true: It is not up to us to prove that God does not exist. It is up to theists to prove that he does: to prove that God is the best explanation for why things are the way they are, or even a plausible explanation that we should seriously consider.

Example: If you believe in theistic evolution — the theory that evolution is a process created and guided by God to create life and people — you can’t just say, “It could have happened that way. You can’t prove that it didn’t.” You need to show some evidence for why that’s a better hypothesis than evolution just happening as a natural process. You need to point to structures or processes that could not have evolved naturally, or to transitions in the fossil record that show unmistakable signs of intervention. (The intelligent design crowd has tried to do this, with laughably bad results.)

And if you believe in a God-created universe, you have to show some evidence for why that’s a better explanation for the existence of the universe than, for instance, the idea that universe has simply always existed. You can’t just say, “Well, we don’t know how it happened, and it had to happen somehow, and God is as good an explanation as any.” You can’t just say that the universe is impossible, define God as that which can do the impossible, and call that an answer.

Watch the gap
The “God is Magic” argument is really just another version of the “God of the gaps”; the God that is the answer to whatever gaps there currently are in the body of scientific knowledge; the blue crayon that gets used to fill in all the empty spaces in the coloring book… despite the fact that blue has never, ever proven to be the right color.

And it’s not actually an explanation. It doesn’t offer any clarity about why things are the way they are — a magical God could presumably have made things be any way at all, and the answer to why would ultimately just be, “God’s whim.” And it doesn’t offer any predictive power — ditto.

It’s not actually an explanation. It’s just a way of getting around the necessity of offering an explanation.

The Top Ten Reasons I Don’t Believe In God, Part 2

In yesterday’s post, I offered the first half of a list of The Top Ten Reasons I Don’t Believe In God. Here is the second half.

6: The physical causes of everything we think of as the soul.

Brain in thought
The science of neuropsychology is still very much in its infancy. But there are a few things that we know about it. And one of the things we know is that everything we think of as the soul — consciousness, identity, character, free will — all of that is powerfully affected by physical changes to the brain and body. Drugs and medicines, injury, illness, sleep deprivation, etc…. all of these can make changes to the “soul.” In some cases, they can make changes so drastic, they render a person’s personality and character completely unrecognizable.

And death, of course, is a physical change that renders a person’s personality and character, not only unrecognizable, but non-existent.

So given that this is true, doesn’t it seem far more likely that consciousness and identity, character and free will, are some sort of product of the physical brain and body?

With any other phenomenon, if we can show that physical forces and actions produce observable effects, we think of that as a physical phenomenon. Why should the soul be any different? Whatever consciousness and selfhood and the rest of it turn out to be, doesn’t it seem overwhelmingly likely that they are, in some way, a biological process, governed by laws of physical cause and effect?

Why I Don’t Believe in the Soul
“A Relationship Between Physical Things”: Yet Another Rant on What Consciousness and Selfhood Might Be
A Ghost in the Machine, again by Ebon Muse on the Ebon Musings website. I know, I keep citing the Ebon Musings website. What can I say? Dude can write. Dude can think. Dude has a really well-organized site map that makes it easy to look stuff up.

7: The complete failure of any sort of supernatural phenomenon to stand up to rigorous testing.

Man using microscope
Not all religious and spiritual beliefs make testable claims. But some of them do. And in the face of actual testing, every one of those claims falls apart like Kleenex in a hurricane.

Whether it’s the power of prayer, or faith healing, or astrology, or life after death: the same pattern is consistently seen. Whenever religious and supernatural beliefs have made testable claims, and those claims have been tested — not half-assedly tested, but really tested, using careful, rigorous, double-blind, placebo- controlled, replicated, etc. etc. etc. testing methods — the claims have consistently fallen apart.

I’m not going to cite every one of these tests, or even most of them. This piece is already ridiculously long as it is. Instead, I’ll encourage you to spend a little time on the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer websites. You’ll see a pattern so consistent it boggles the mind: Claimants insist that Supernatural Claim X is real. Supernatural Claim X is subjected to careful testing, applying the standard scientific methods commonly used to screen out both bias and fraud. Supernatural Claim X is found to hold about as much water as a sieve.

(And claimants, having agreed beforehand that the testing method is valid, afterwards insist that it wasn’t fair.)

And don’t say, “Oh, the testers were biased.” That’s the great thing about the scientific method. It is designed to screen out bias, as much as is humanly possible. When done right, it will give you the right answer, regardless of the bias of the people doing the testing.

Plus, here’s a point that defenders of the supernatural never effectively address when they accuse scientists of anti-religion bias: In the early days of science and the scientific method, most scientists did believe in God, and the soul, and the metaphysical. In fact, many early science experiments were attempts to prove the existence of these things, and discover their true natures, and resolve the squabbles about them once and for all. (Not God so much, but the soul and the supernatural.) It was only after decades upon decades of these experiments failing to turn up anything at all that the scientific community began — gradually, and painfully — to give up on the idea.

Supernatural claims only hold up under careless, casual examination. They are supported by confirmation bias (i.e., our tendency to overemphasize evidence that supports what we believe and discard evidence that contradicts it), and wishful thinking, and our poor understanding and instincts when it comes to probability, and our tendency to see pattern and intention even when none exists, and a dozen other forms of weird human brain wiring. When studied carefully under conditions specifically designed to screen these things out, they vanish like the insubstantial imaginings that they are.

A Lattice of Coincidence: Metaphysics, the Paranormal, and My Answer to Layne

8: The slipperiness of religious and spiritual beliefs.

Gianttwister_2Not all religious and spiritual beliefs make testable claims. Many of them have a more “saved if we do, saved if we don’t” quality. If things go the believer’s way, it’s a sign of God’s grace and intervention; if they don’t, then, well, God moves in mysterious ways, and maybe he has a lesson to teach that we don’t understand, and it’s not up to us to question his will. That sort of thing. No matter what happens, it can be twisted around to prove that the belief is right.

That is a sure sign of a bad, bad argument.

Here’s the thing. It is a well-established principle in the philosophy of science that, if a theory can be supported no matter what possible evidence comes down the pike, it is a completely useless theory. It has no power to explain what’s already happened, or predict what will happen in the future. The theory of gravity, for instance, could be disproven by things suddenly falling up; the theory of evolution could be disproven by finding rabbits in the pre-Cambrian fossil layer. These theories predict that these things will not happen; if they do, then the theories go poof. But if your theory of God’s existence holds up no matter what happens — whether your friend with cancer gets better or dies, whether natural disasters strike big sinful cities or small God-fearing towns — then it is an utterly useless theory, with no power to either predict or explain anything.

What’s more, when atheists challenge theists on their beliefs, the theists’ arguments shift and slip around in an unbelievably annoying “moving the goalposts” way. Hard-line fundamentalists, for instance, will insist on the unchangeable perfect truth of the Bible; but when challenged on its specific historical/ scientific errors and moral atrocities, they insist that you’re not interpreting those passages correctly. (If the book needs interpreting, then how perfect can it be?)

Slip-n-slideAnd progressive ecumenical believers can be unbelievably slippery on the subject of what they really do and do not believe. Is God real, or a metaphor? Does God intervene in the world, or doesn’t he? Do they actually even believe in God, or do they just choose to act is if they believe in God because they find it useful? Debating with a progressive believer is like wrestling with a fish: the arguments aren’t very powerful, but they don’t give you anything firm to grab onto.

Once again, that’s a sure sign of a bad, bad argument. If you can’t just make your case and then stick by it, or genuinely modify it, or let it go… then you don’t have a very good case. (And if you’re making any version of the “Shut up, that’s why” argument — arguing that it’s rude and intolerant to question religious beliefs, or that letting go of doubts and questions about faith makes you a better person, or that doubting faith will get you tortured in Hell forever, or any of the other classic arguments intended to silence the debate rather than address it — then that’s a sure sign that your argument is totally in the toilet.)

A Self-Referential Game of Twister: What Religion Looks Like From the Outside
Why Religion Is Like Fanfic
What Would Convince You That You Were Wrong? The Difference Between Secular and Religious Faith
The Problem of Unfishiness: Religion, Science, and Unanswered Questions

9: The failure of religion to improve or clarify over time.

The canon angier
Over the years and decades and centuries, our understanding of the physical world has grown and clarified by a ridiculous amount. We understand things about the world and the universe that we couldn’t even have imagined a thousand years ago, or a hundred, or even ten. Things that make your mouth gape open with astonishment and wonder just to think about.

And the reason for this is that we came up with a really good method for sorting out the
good ideas from the bad ones, the more accurate theories from the less accurate ones. We came up with the scientific method: a self-correcting method for understanding the physical world, which — over time, and with the many fits and starts and setbacks that accompany any human endeavor — has done, and continues to do, an astonishingly good job of helping us perceive and understand the world, predict it and shape it, in ways we could not have possibly imagined a thousand, or a hundred, or even ten years ago.

(And the scientific method itself is self-correcting. Not only has our understanding of the world improved by ridiculous leaps and bounds; our method for understanding it is improving as well.)

But our understanding of the metaphysical world?

Not so much.

Our understanding of the metaphysical world is exactly in the place it’s always been: hundreds and indeed thousands of sects, squabbling over which sacred text and which set of spiritual intuitions is the right one. We haven’t come to any sort of consensus about which sect has a more accurate conception of the metaphysical world. We haven’t even come up with a method of deciding which sect has a more accurate conception of the metaphysical world. All anyone can do is point to their own sacred text and their own spiritual intuition. And around in the squabbling circle we go.

All of which clearly points to religion, not as a perception of a real being or substance, but as an idea we made up and are clinging to. If religion were a perception of a real being or substance, our understanding of it would be sharpening, clarifying, being refined. We would have improved prayer techniques, more accurate prophecies, something. Anything but people squabbling with greater or lesser degrees of rancor, and nothing to actually back up their belief.

The Slog Through the Swamp: What Science Is, And Why It Works, And Why I Care
“A Different Way of Knowing”: The Uses of Irrationality… and its Limitations

10: The complete and utter lack of solid evidence for God’s existence.

This is probably the best argument I have against God’s existence:

There’s just no evidence for it.

No good evidence, anyway. No evidence that doesn’t just amount to opinion and tradition and confirmation bias and all the other stuff I’ve been talking about for the last two days.

And in a perfect world, that should have been the only argument I needed. In a perfect world, I shouldn’t have had to spend the last month and a half collating and summarizing the reasons I don’t believe in God, any more than I would have for Zeus or Quetzalcoatl or the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

As thousands of atheists before me have pointed out: It is not up to us to prove that God does not exist. It is up to theists to prove that he does.

In a comment on this blog, arensb made a point on this topic that was so ridiculously insightful, I’m still smacking myself on the head for not having thought of it myself. I was writing about how theists get upset at atheists for rejecting religion after hearing 876,362 arguments for it, saying, “But you haven’t considered Argument #876,363! How can you be so close-minded?” And here’s what arensb said:

“If, in fact, it turns out that argument #876,364 is the one that will convince you, WTF didn’t the apologists put it in the top 10?”

Why, indeed?

If there’s an argument for religion that’s convincing — actually convincing, convincing by means of something other than authority/ tradition, personal intuition, confirmation bias, fear and intimidation, wishful thinking, or some combination of the above — wouldn’t we all know about it?

Wouldn’t it have spread like wildfire? Wouldn’t it be the Meme of All Memes? I mean, we all saw that video of the cat trying to wake its owner up within about two weeks of it hitting the Internet. Don’t you think that the Truly Excellent Argument/ Evidence for God’s Existence would have spread even faster, and wider, than some silly cartoon video?

If the arguments for religion are so wonderful, why are they so unconvincing to anyone who doesn’t already believe?

And why does God need arguments, anyway? Why does God need people to make his arguments for him? Why can’t he just reveal his true self, clearly and unequivocally, and settle the question once and for all? If God existed, why wouldn’t it just be obvious? (See #2 above, in yesterday’s post.)

It is not up to us to prove that God does not exist. It is up to theists to prove that he does. And in the absence of any genuinely good, solid evidence or arguments in favor of God’s existence — and in the presence of a whole lot of very solid arguments against it — I am going to continue to hold the null hypothesis of atheism: that God almost certainly does not exist, and that it is completely reasonable to act as if he does not exist.

So. What do you all think? Atheists — are there arguments against God’s existence that you think are more convincing than these? And theists — do you have any thoughts on these arguments? I don’t promise to debate every one of you ad infinitum, or indeed any one of you; but I’m curious to hear what you have to say.

The Top Ten Reasons I Don’t Believe In God

So why — exactly — do I not believe in God?

In many of my writings about religion, I take my atheism as a given. When I critique religion, or gas on about atheist philosophy, I generally start with the assumption that religion is a mistaken idea about the world and that atheism is a correct one, and go from there.

Which is generally fine with me. If I always had to start with first principles — on any topic — I’d get nothing written. (Nothing interesting, anyway.)

But it occurred to me recently that a newcomer to my blog might think that I hadn’t carefully considered the question of God’s existence. My arguments against God and religion are scattered all over my blog, and I don’t expect even my most devoted readers to read every single piece of my Atheism archives just to dig them all up.

So here — largely for my own convenience, and hopefully for the convenience of readers both atheist and not — is a summary of the Top Ten Reasons I Don’t Believe In God. Or the soul, or metaphysical energy, or any sort of supernatural being(s) or substance(s). Something I can point to, and that maybe other atheists can point to, when theists ask, “But have you considered…?” (And since I’ve probably missed some good ones, I’ll be asking for your own favorite arguments at the end of the piece.)

God delusion
A couple of quick disclaimers first. This is really just a summary: a summary of ideas that I, and other atheist writers, have gone into in greater detail elsewhere. People have written entire books on this topic, and this post isn’t an entire book… nor is it meant to be. If you’re going to critique me for oversimplifying, please bear that in mind: It’s a summary. It’s meant to be somewhat simple. (I’m giving links to my own writing and to other people’s that go into the ideas in more detail.)

And no, I don’t think any of these arguments provide a 100% conclusive airtight case against God. Not even all of them together do that. And I don’t think they have to. I’m not trying to show that belief in God’s existence is absolutely impossible. I’m trying to show that it’s implausible. I’m trying to show that it is — by far — the least likely hypothesis for how the world works and why it is the way it is.

Oh — and for the sake of brevity, I’m generally going to say “God” when I mean “God, or the soul, or metaphysical energy, or any sort of supernatural being(s) or substance(s).” I don’t feel like getting into “Well, I don’t believe in an old man in the clouds with a white beard, but I believe…” discussions. It’s not just the man in the white beard that I don’t believe in. I don’t believe in any sort of religion, any sort of soul or spirit or metaphysical guiding force, anything that isn’t the physical world and its vast and astonishing manifestations.

And here’s why. (Divided into two parts, to keep it from being insanely long.)

1: The consistent replacement of supernatural explanations of the world with natural ones.

When you look at the history of what we know about the world, you see a very noticeable pattern. Natural explanations of things have been replacing supernatural explanations of them. Like a steamroller.

Why the sun rises and sets. Where thunder and lightning come from. Why people get sick. Why people look like their parents. How the complexity of life came into being. I could go on and on.

All of these things were once explained by religion. But as we understood the world better, and learned to observe it more carefully, the religious explanations were replaced by physical cause and effect. Consistently. Thoroughly. Like a steamroller. The number of times that a supernatural or religious explanation of a phenomenon has been replaced by a natural explanation? Thousands upon thousands upon thousands.

Now. The number of times that a natural explanation of a phenomenon has been replaced by a supernatural or religious one? The number of times humankind has said, “We used to think (X) was caused by physical cause and effect, but now we understand that it’s actually caused by God, or spirits, or demons, or the soul”?

Exactly zero.

Sure, people come up with new supernatural explanations for stuff all the time. But explanations with evidence? Replicable evidence? Carefully gathered, patiently tested, rigorously reviewed evidence? Internally consistent evidence? Large amounts of it, from many different sources?

Again — exactly zero.

Given that this is true, what are the chances that any given phenomenon for which we currently don’t have a thorough explanation — human consciousness, for instance, or the origin of the universe — will be best explained by the supernatural?

Given this pattern, it seems clear that the chances of this are essentially zero. So close to zero that they might as well be zero. And the hypothesis of the supernatural is therefore a hypothesis we can comfortably discard. It is a hypothesis we came up with when we didn’t understand the world as well as we do now… but that, on more careful examination, has never — not once — been shown to be correct.

If I see any solid evidence to support a religious or supernatural explanation of a phenomenon, I’ll reconsider my disbelief. Until then, I’ll assume that the mind-bogglingly consistent pattern of natural explanations replacing supernatural ones is almost certain to continue.

More on this:
The Unexplained, the Unproven, and the Unlikely

2: The inconsistency of world religions.

Religious symbols
If God (or any other metaphysical being or beings) were real, and people were really perceiving him/ her/ it/ them, why do those perceptions differ so wildly?

When different people look at, say, a tree, we more or less agree about what we’re looking at: what size it is, what shape, whether it currently has leaves or not and what color those leaves are, etc. We may have disagreements regarding the tree — what other plants it’s most closely related to, where it stands in the evolutionary tree, should it be cut down to make way for a new sports stadium, etc. But unless one of us is hallucinating or deranged or literally unable to see, we can all agree on the tree’s basic existence, and the basic facts about it.

This is blatantly not the case for God. Even among people who do believe in God, there is no agreement whatsoever as to what God is, what God does, what God wants from us, how he acts or does not act upon the world, whether he’s a he, whether there’s one or more of him, whether he’s a personal being or a diffuse metaphysical substance. And this is among smart, thoughtful, sane people. What’s more, many smart, thoughtful, sane people don’t even think that God exists… and the number of those people is going up all the time.

And if God existed, he’d be a whole lot bigger, a whole lot more powerful, with a whole lot more effect in the world, than a tree. Why is it that we can all see a tree in more or less the same way, but we don’t see God in even remotely the same way whatsoever?

The explanation, of course, is that God does not really exist. We disagree so radically over what he is because we aren’t actually perceiving anything that’s real. We’re “perceiving” something we made up; something we were taught to believe; something that the part of our brains that’s wired to see pattern and intention (even when none exists) is wired to see and believe.

More on this:
The Cosmic Shell Game, by Ebonmuse, on the Ebon Musings website.
The Argument from Divine Hiddenness, ditto.

3: The weakness of religious arguments, explanations, and apologetics.

I have seen a lot of arguments for the existence of God. And they all boil down to one or more of the following:

The argument from authority. (Example: “God exists because the Bible says God exists.”)

The argument from personal experience. (Example: “God exists because I feel in my heart that God exists.”)

The argument that religion shouldn’t have to logically defend its claims. (Example: “God is an entity that cannot be proven by reason or evidence.”)

Or the redefining of God into an abstract principle — so abstract that it can’t be argued against, but also so abstract that it scarcely deserves the name God. (Example: “God is love.”)

And all these arguments are incredibly weak.

Sacred books and authorities can be mistaken. I have yet to see a sacred book that doesn’t have any mistakes. (The Bible, for just one example, is shot full of them.) And the feelings in people’s hearts can definitely be mistaken. They are mistaken, demonstrably so, much of the time. Instinct and intuition play an important part of human understanding and experience… but they should never be treated as the final word on a subject.

I mean, if I told you, “The tree in front of my house is 500 feet tall with hot pink leaves,” and offered as a defense, “I know this is true because my mother/ preacher/ sacred book tells me so”… or “I know this is true because I feel it in my heart”… would you take me seriously?

Some people do still try to point to evidence in the world that God exists. But that evidence is inevitably terrible. Pointing to the perfection of the Bible as a historical and prophetic document, for instance, when it so blatantly is nothing of the kind. Or pointing to the complexity of life and the world and insisting that it must have been designed… when the sciences of biology and geology and such have provided far, far better explanations for what looks, at first glance, like design.

As to the “We don’t got to show you no stinking reason or evidence” argument… that’s just conceding the game before you’ve even begun. It’s basically saying, “I know I can’t make my case, therefore I’m going to concentrate my arguments on why I don’t have to make my case in the first place.” It’s like a defense lawyer who knows their client is guilty, and thus tries to get the case thrown out on a technicality.

Ditto with the “redefining God out of existence” argument. If what you believe in isn’t a supernatural being(s) or substance(s) that currently has, or at one time had, some sort of effect on the world… well, your philosophy might be a dandy and clever one, but it is not, by any useful definition of the word, religion.

Again: If I tried to argue, “The tree in front of my house is 500 feet tall with hot pink leaves — and the height and color of trees is a question that is best answered with personal faith and feeling, not with reason or evidence”… or, “I know this is true because I am defining ‘500 feet tall and hot pink’ as the essential nature of tree-ness, regardless of its outward appearance”… would you take me seriously?

More on this:
Oh, all over the place. But probably most succinctly:
A Self-Referential Game of Twister: What Religion Looks Like From the Outside
The Argument From Design, Part One and Part Two
“A Different Way of Knowing”: The Uses of Irrationality… and its Limitations

4: The increasing diminishment of God.

This is closely related to #1 (the consistent replacement of supernatural explanations of the world with natural ones); but I think it’s different enough to deserve its own number.

When you look at the history of religion, you see that the perceived power of God himself, among believers themselves, has been diminishing. As our understanding of the natural, physical world has increased — and our ability to test theories and claims has improved — the domain of God’s miracles (or other purported supernatural/ metaphysical phenomena) has consistently shifted, away from the phenomena that are now understood as physical cause and effect, and onto the increasingly shrinking area of phenomena that we still don’t understand.

Examples: We stopped needing God to explain floods, but we still needed him to explain sickness and health. Then we didn’t need him to explain sickness and health any more… but we still needed him to explain consciousness. Now we’re beginning to get a grip on consciousness, so we’ll soon need God to explain… what, exactly?

Or, as Ebon Muse so eloquently put it, “”Where the Bible tells us God once shaped worlds out of the void and parted great seas with the power of his word, today his most impressive acts seem to be shaping sticky buns into the likenesses of saints and conferring vaguely-defined warm feelings on his believers’ hearts when they attend church.”

This is what atheists call the “God of the gaps.” Whatever gap there is in our understanding of the world, that’s what God is responsible for. Wherever the empty spaces are in our coloring book, that’s what gets filled in with the blue crayon called God.

But the blue crayon is worn down to a nub. And it’s never proven to be the right color. And over and over again, throughout history, we have had to go to great trouble to scrape the blue crayon out of people’s minds and replace it with the right color. Given this pattern, doesn’t it seem that we should stop reaching for the blue crayon every time we see an empty space in the coloring book?

The Incredible Shrinking Deity, by Ebonmuse, on the Ebon Musings website, from whom I stole this idea outright.
The Shrinking Deity and the Empty Coloring Book

5: The fact that religion runs in families.

Here’s what I mean by this one. The single strongest factor in determining what religion a person is? It’s what religion they were brought up with. By far.

Very, very few people carefully examine all the religious beliefs currently being followed — or even some of those beliefs — and select the one they think most accurately describes the world. Overwhelmingly, people believe whatever religion they were taught as children.

Now, we don’t do this with, for instance, science. We don’t hold on to the Steady State theory of the universe, or geocentrism, or the four bodily humours theory of illness, simply because it’s what we were taught as children. We believe whatever scientific understanding is best supported by the best available evidence at the time. And if the evidence changes, the understanding changes. (Unless, of course, it’s a scientific understanding that our religion teaches is wrong…)

Even political opinions don’t run in families as stubbornly as religion. Witness the opinion polls that consistently show support of same-sex marriage increasing with each younger generation. Even political beliefs learned from youth can and do break down in the face of the reality that people see and live with every day. And scientific theories absolutely do this, all the time, on a regular basis.

Bible stories for tiny tots
Once again, this leads me to the conclusion that religion is not a perception of a real entity. If it were, people wouldn’t just believe whatever religious belief they were taught as children, simply because it was what they were taught as children. The fact that religion runs so firmly in families strongly suggests that it is not a perception of anything real. It is a dogma, supported and perpetuated by tradition and social pressure — and in many cases, by fear and intimidation. Not by reality.

I haven’t written about the “religion running in families” argument at length before, and while I’m sure it must have been addressed in the atheosphere, offhand I don’t know where. But Richard Dawkins addresses it in The God Delusion. You can look it up there if you like.
I have, however, discussed religion as an idea perpetuated largely by fear, intimidation, tradition, and social pressure… and the ways religion armors itself, not only against criticism, but against the very idea that religion is a legitimate target for criticism. That discussion: Does The Emperor Have Clothes? Religion and the Destructive Force of Asking Questions.

End of Part One. I’m breaking this up into two parts, since it’s already ridiculously long; Part Two will appear tomorrow. I realize this will probably be a fruitless plea, but if you can stand it, please hold your comments until Part Two is posted: I may have already addressed your ideas there, and anyway, that way all comment threads can be in the same place. Thanks.

Atheism and Hope

“Atheists have no hope.”

Of all the slanders and misrepresentations told about atheists and atheism, this is… well, this is the one I’m thinking about right now.

Doris 26
I’m thinking about it because of something I just read. It was in Doris Zine #26 by Cindy Ovenrack, and… well, here’s what it said.

“I was talking to a friend of mine the other day, she is a restaurant manager and we’d never really talked about politics at all, but something came up and she said, ‘Atheism and anarchist theory were the first things that gave me any hope in this world. They were the things that said we had the power within us to make things better. Everything else said we were either evil or helpless to fate.'” (Emphasis mine.)

Typically, when atheists respond to the accusation that we have no hope, our response is something along the lines of, “We do so!” Which is a perfectly fair response, one I myself have made before and will make again. We point out that there are many things to hope for other than immortality (which we believe to be a false hope). And we list all the things we have hope for. We hope that our book will get published, that our children will go to college, that global warming will get handled before it’s too late. We hope that our friend’s cancer is treatable. We hope that a reasonably sane and intelligent person will be elected President in 2008. We hope to be remembered after we die.

And I’ve always felt a rumble of both irritation and pity when I hear this no-hope accusation, a rumble that sounds something like this: “Do you really have no hope for anything other than eternal life? Is your life really so pathetic that you have no hope for anything other than Heaven? Does your life — the actual life that you’re living right now — have so little joy and meaning that you can’t imagine any hope without the promise that, when it’s finally all over, you’ll get to have another, better, permanent life at the end of it?”

But then I remember:

Maybe the answer is Yes. That’s true. They really do have no hope for this life.

I remember, among other things, that rates of atheism are much higher in countries with higher levels of prosperity and social health… and that rates of religious belief are much higher in countries that are riddled with poverty, oppression, and despair.

Now, if the person making the accusation is some yahoo on the Internet, then I feel perfectly free to indulge in my irritation and snark. If you have the time and leisure to be reading atheist blogs, then you have the time and leisure to make something of your life. This life, I mean. The one you actually have.

But for many people, it’s not so easy.

Which is why I was so struck by Cindy Ovenrack’s comment above.

And I am reminded:

For many people, religion does not offer hope.

For many people, religion offers helplessness, and self-hatred, and despair.

And for many of those people, atheism offers a way out of it.

Atheism doesn’t just offer the regular sort of everyday hope, the hope for achievement and health and happiness and a better world. Atheism offers, as Cindy’s friend put it, the hope that we have the power within us to make things better. Not the hope that we might be able to convince some moody, capricious, punitive, easily- ticked- off God to make things better for us if we walk on the eggshells just right. It offers the hope that no such God exists… and therefore we don’t have to worry about what he thinks or what he’s going to do. And that we therefore don’t have to listen to religious leaders and teachers who tell us at every step that we’re bad people, that we’re powerless to make ourselves better, that all the power we think we have actually belongs to someone else.

Finger globe
Atheism offers the idea that this world is all we have. And it therefore offers the hope that we have the power to touch that world, and shape it, and shove it a little bit in the direction that we’d like to see it move.

And that’s a pretty big hope.

In Defense of Atheist Blogging

Today, I want to point something out I would have thought was obvious:

This is a blog.

And every single blog post in it is… well, a single blog post.

Crosses 1
Here’s what I’m talking about. Among many theistic commenters, there seems to be an odd expectation that every single post I write about religion should address every single aspect of religion that exists, or has ever existed. When I write about X, it’s pointed out that I didn’t write about Y; when I write about Y, I’m scolded for not writing about Z. (Or about X, for that matter.)

It’s not just me, either. Almost every atheist blogger I’ve known has been called to task for this shockingly lax behavior.

In the past, I’ve pointed out a contradiction in this sort of thinking — namely, the fact that religious believers do not hold themselves to the same standards of rigorous study they hold atheists to. They don’t read every word of Aleister Crowley and Robert Anton Wilson before rejecting occultism; they don’t read every word of Scientological thought before deciding that L. Ron Hubbard was either a charlatan or a wackadoodle. And they certainly don’t read every word of Richard Dawkins and Julia Sweeney, Bertrand Russell and David Hume, Ebonmuse and Hemant Mehta and PZ Myers and my own bad self, before deciding to reject atheism.

So having said that, today I am going to point out what I thought should have been obvious:

This is a blog.

And among other things, a blog is a literary form in which brevity is key.

I already write far longer pieces than the blogosphere standard. Too long, in some people’s opinion. If, in every single blog post, I were to try to rhetorically dismantle the entire institution of religion and every single one of its variations, I’d never get anything written or posted. And even if I did, none of it would ever get read.

In fact, if every single post were even to include spelled-out disclaimers — like, “This critique only applies to this one particular form or aspect of religion,” and, “I haven’t studied every variety of religious thought that exists, so I can’t be positive that there isn’t one out there that I’d be convinced by” — again I’d never get anything written, and none of it would get read. I do usually include a shorthand version of this — I say things like, “I think religion often acts as a form of ethical misdirection,” “There’s a common trope among many progressive Christians,” “the way so many religious believers…” But I will have to beg forgiveness for the sin of not always letting my argument get bogged down in disclaimers.

And I must beg forgiveness for this as well: This blog is not an encyclopedic compendium of atheist thought. It is not the Single Work Of Writing That Discredits Religion Once And For All. And it’s not intended to be. I am one person, criticizing religion as I see it in the real world around me. I am trying to critique religion as a whole… but I’m doing it in small pieces, critiquing one form or aspect of religion today, another form or aspect of it tomorrow. I am not trying to set thousands of tons of explosives under the foundation of religion. I am trying to chip away at it with an icepick.

And I’m doing it in tandem with hundreds of other atheist bloggers.

MusicophiliaBut apparently, in order to be acceptable atheist writers, we are expected to devote every spare moment of our lives to studying theology, and familiarizing ourselves with every branch of current theological thought. We are not to spend any time reading, say, the new Oliver Sacks book on the neuropsychology of music, or the short history of Sonic Youth’s “Daydream Nation.” We are not to go on nature walks, or go for drives in the wine country. We are not to go to folk art museums. We are not to write porn reviews. We are not to go contra dancing, or watch “Project Runway,” or see “Hamlet 2.” In order to be taken seriously as atheist writers, we are apparently expected — in what strikes me as a rather head-scratching paradox — to sacrifice all the hours and days of our lives to the study of religious thought.

And we are to address every single one of those religious thoughts in every single piece of atheist writing that we do.

Just to be 100% sure that we didn’t miss anything.

Okay. To be fair, nobody to my knowledge has actually said that. Nobody has accused me, or any other atheist writer, of being bad people and bad atheist writers simply for having a life. But I’m really and truly not sure what it is these critics expect of us. Do they think it’s okay for us to reject other religious ideas and experiences… as long as we give long, careful consideration to their own? Or is it simply, as OMGF recently wrote, that we are not to stop considering religious ideas until we have accepted them? That once we’ve accepted them, then that’s the point at which it’s okay to stop considering?

In his Daylight Atheism blog, Ebonmuse recently wrote that, “when I first hear a religious apologetic or miracle claim that’s new to me, often my initial response is to feel a little tremor, as I wonder, ‘Could that really be true?'” I totally have that experience as well. When I see a believer in my blog start to make an argument, I almost always have a moment of wondering, “Will this be the one? Will this be the argument that convinces me?” (And like Ebon, I’m glad for this — it’s a sign that I still have an open mind.)

But it’s also the case that, while I do still get a brief moment of doubt in the face of religious arguments, this experience has diminished considerably over the months and years that I’ve been writing about this stuff. Because the arguments are never, ever any good. They’re always the same — it’s always some version of the argument from authority or the argument from personal experience — and they’re never even remotely convincing. So having considered approximately 876,362 religious arguments in my life, I find myself both aggravated and amused when a believer says, “But you haven’t considered Argument #876,363! How can you be so close-minded?” And I always want to ask these people, “At what point is it okay for me to stop? At what point is it okay for me to say, ‘I have considered the possibility of religion at great length, and I have rejected it, and until I see some seriously excellent arguments or evidence in its favor I am going to continue to reject it and to argue against it”?

Fear and trembling
Now, I have, in fact, read a fair amount of religious apologetics and religious thought. I was a religion major in college, and while that was 25 years ago, a fair amount of it stuck. And since becoming an atheist writer, I’ve read even more, and will continue to do so. But apparently, if I don’t know every single piece of religious apologetics, I am a failure as an atheist writer. (A standard that, once again, religious believers themselves do not adhere to.)

I find this especially aggravating — and at the same time, especially amusing — since when commenters say things like, “There are lots of good modern arguments in favor of God!”, they almost never say what those arguments are.

You know, if you have a religious belief that you think is not only true but rational and defensible, then by all means, tell me what it is. But don’t say, “You didn’t address my particular form of religious belief… therefore your critique of religion is invalid,” unless you’re prepared to say what that particular form is, and offer some arguments and evidence in support of it.

And for the sweet love of Loki, don’t say, “You didn’t address (X) form of religious belief… therefore your critique of (Y) is invalid.” That’s not only an aggravating argument — it’s a silly one.

Truth to tell, though? I honestly don’t care all that much about advanced modern theology. If you have an argument to make, I’ll certainly read it. But for the most part, I’m just not all that interested in religion as it’s believed and practiced by a handful of theological scholars. I am primarily interested in religion as it overwhelmingly plays out in the real world.

Pope's cologne
And when theists insist that modern religious thought and practice no longer includes magical thinking and a belief in a supernatural being whose interventions can be affected by human behavior, all I can do is suggest that they visit Lourdes. Or attend a prayer meeting being organized by the parents of a terminally sick child. Or visit a website where prayer accessories are being sold by the thousands. Or talk to the believers who are praying for gas prices to go down. Or else just read the “hilarious if it weren’t so appalling” story of the Pope’s Cologne.

Finally, I want to point out some — well, “hypocrisies” is probably not the right word, let’s say “serious contradictions” — in this sort of argument.

When atheist bloggers write about extreme, hard-core, fundamentalist- type religions, we get scolded for picking easy targets, and we almost inevitably have it pointed out to us (as if we didn’t know) that “not all religion is like that.”

But when we criticize progressive religions, we get scolded for being mean and divisive and going after people who should be our allies.

What’s more: When we criticize the overall concept of religion in general, we’re accused of over- generalizing, of not understanding the rich variety of religious belief and thought.

But when we criticize one particular form or aspect of religion, we somehow, once again, get accused of over- generalizing — of not seeing that the one form or aspect we’re talking about today doesn’t apply to every form or aspect of religion that exists or has ever existed.

So what on Earth are we supposed to do?

Well, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do:

I’m not going to give a damn.

I’m going to continue to critique both religion in general and specific religious beliefs and practices, as they cross my path and grab my attention.

I’m going to continue to try to be fair when I do so. I’m going to continue my practice of (usually) critiquing beliefs and practices rather than insulting people. But I am not going to stop critiquing any given aspect of religion whatsoever simply because I am not able to single-handedly dismantle the entire body of religious thought in a single thousand-word blog post.

And the next time someone responds to my critique of the Fundamentalist Wackadoodle of the Week by saying, “But what about the subtle shadings of modern progressive theological thought?” I am going to point them to this piece.

Project runway
And I am then going to watch “Project Runway,” or go contra dancing, or review some porn.