Telepathy, or, Why You Need Directions to the Psychic Fair

In my ongoing attempt to be an equal- opportunity crank and occasionally critique spiritual beliefs other than The Big Ones, I want to talk today about the belief in telepathy.

And I want to talk about one of the single most convincing arguments against it. It’s an argument that doesn’t get made all that often, but it’s one that I find very telling indeed.

No, it’s not “It violates every shred of evidence we have about how the mind works.” It’s not “Nobody who believes in it has ever proposed a plausible mechanism for how it might work.” It’s not even “There is not a shred of solid evidence to support it — every anecdotal report of it is easily explained by confirmation bias etc., and every attempt to rigorously test it using the scientific method has come up with bupkis.” Those are all excellent arguments: but I’ve made them before, and it’s not what I want to talk about today.

It’s this:

If telepathy were a real phenomenon, natural selection would have selected for it long ago.

We would all have it. And it would not be a subtle effect, occasionally telling us who’s on the phone when it’s ringing. It would be obvious. We wouldn’t be having debates about whether it’s real, any more than we have debates about whether language is real.

Think about it. If telepathy existed — even to a tiny degree — it would confer an enormous selective advantage in evolution. Even a tiny amount of telepathy would be far more useful than a tiny amount of camouflage, a tiny amount of a wing for gliding, a tiny amount of language. It would enable you to know, just a little bit quicker than your competitors, that there’s a delicious duck with a tasty nest of duck eggs right under that bush… or a ferocious tiger behind that other bush waiting to make you into a meal… or an enemy crouching in the tree branch over your head, waiting to conk you with a stone axe. Even a small amount of telepathy would give you enough of a survival advantage for natural selection to sit up and take notice.

And, need I say, telepathy would confer a ridiculous advantage when it comes to reproduction. If you could know whether the person you’re trying to mate with is interested or you’re just wasting your time; if you could know what their turn-ons and turn-offs were and work your angle accordingly… you’d be in like Flynn. The ability to know what the opposite sex is thinking, or even to be slightly better at guessing than your competitors, would get your DNA replicated so fast it would make your head spin.

(Yes, I know, all this talk about the opposite sex is assuming heterosexuality, or at least bisexuality. But when you’re talking about reproductive strategy in the days before turkey basters, I think that’s a fair assumption.)

In the exact same way that slightly improved vision, slightly improved manual dexterity, slightly improved cognitive ability, all gave enough of an advantage for these traits to be selected for, a slight improvement in the ability to know, just know, what other people are thinking, would be a mind-blowingly huge advantage for both survival and reproduction. (Plus it would arguably render language unnecessary, thus freeing up a large amount of expensive real estate in the brain… not to mention eliminating thousands of deaths by choking every year.)

If telepathy were plausible, if it were even possible, if even a tenth of the people who claimed to have it throughout history actually had it in even the slightest degree, we’d all have it by now. At the very least, an awful lot of us would have it. We certainly wouldn’t be debating its existence, any more than we debate the existence of eyes or hands or brains.
(These ideas were developed in a comment thread on Pharyngula.)

Other posts in this series:

For No Good Reason: Atheist Transcendence at the Black and White Tour

Black and white tour 3
I know. Most people don’t connect Morris dancing with transcendence, atheist or otherwise. Most people who have seen Morris dancing connect it with cacophony, silly outfits, and beer. But I had a moment of atheist transcendence at the Black And White Morris Tour a couple weeks ago, and I wanted to talk about it.

A quick bit of background. Morris dancing is a more or less harmless addiction that takes the form of dressing in colorful outfits, strapping bells to your legs, and dancing in smallish groups (usually six or eight people), clashing sticks together and/or waving hankies about. It’s an English folk tradition, and while many Morris dancers will tell you entertaining lies about how incredibly ANCIENT the tradition is and how there was probably Morris dancing at Stonehenge, it’s actually about 500 years old or so. My darling Ingrid is deeply involved with it, but I love her anyway.

Black and white tour 6
Now. Typically, a Morris outing involves one or more teams each dressing in their own distinctive team outfits, each team performing their own dances. But the Black and White Tour is different. Everyone just dresses in whatever combination of black and white strikes their fancy. And the dances are common ones that many dancers know: so pretty much everyone on every team can dance just about every dance, all together.

And this year, it was magnificent.

Black and white tour 1
I don’t dance the Morris myself anymore. High impact, bad knee. I was just there to watch and hoot. And this year, I was gobsmacked. I’ve seen a lot of Morris dancing in my life — Ingrid’s done it for years, and I did it for years before she did — and while I enjoy it, I’ve also seen enough of it to last me several lifetimes, and am not easily impressed. But this time, I was more than impressed. I had my breath taken away. It was one of the most beautiful and memorable things I’ve seen in my life.

And it was all for no good reason.

Which brings me back to atheism, and the atheist transcendence.

Black and white tour 2It’s hard to describe what exactly made this day so breathtaking. Part of it was that it was such a beautiful blend of individual expression and group coherence. So much of life stresses one at the expense of the other: the individual submerges their own expression to go along with the group, or the individual says, “Screw you, Jack, I’ve got mine,” and does what they want regardless of the effect on society. The Black and White tour somehow managed to hit that rare, perfect, synergistic balance between the two: the joy of working together, and the joy of being yourself.

Black and white tour 8
The exuberantly imaginative interpretations of the “black and white” theme are a perfect example. It was a specific enough vision to give the group a coherent look, while at the same time allowing a tremendous amount of room for personal expression. The fact that it was an inter-team event helped as well: instead of one or maybe two sets dancing at a time, there were often four or five sets of six or eight dancers all dancing in a row, turning an already flamboyant dance form into a lavish, extravagant spectacle. And the fact that the performances were mostly by mish-moshes of people who had rarely, if ever, danced together before somehow added to the goofy, boisterous glee of it. It wasn’t about precision or team pride. It was about joy.

Black and white tour 5
And partly, it was just beautiful: the black and white of the dancers capering in the sunlight, against the Victorian white and glass of the Conservatory of Flowers and the green, green grass of Golden Gate Park. It looked like some wild, arty circus had come to town.

But much of what made it so magnificent was the sheer, beautiful absurdity of it all.

There is no good reason on this earth to do Morris dancing. It is an utterly pointless activity. Okay, you get some exercise and social contact… but really. You can get social contact anywhere, and you can get better exercise at the gym. And you don’t have to strap bells to your legs and wave handkerchiefs around like an idiot to do it. It isn’t constructive, it isn’t important, it doesn’t produce anything. All it produces is joy.

Which, if you’re an atheist, is kind of what life is like.

There’s no purpose or meaning to it, other than the purpose and meaning we create. In a few decades, we’re all going to be gone, dust in the ground or ashes in the wind. In a few million years, the earth and everything on it will be gone, boiled away into the Sun. And if the physicists and astronomers are right, in a few billion years the Universe will essentially be gone, dissipated into a thin scattering of atoms dotted throughout vast stretches of empty space. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel, no prize in the CrackerJacks, no final chapter that ties up all the loose ends. And there’s no big daddy in the sky to shake your hand at the end of it and say, “You done good, kid. Here’s your blue ribbon.”

Black and white tour 4
And yet, here we are. We were, against wildly astronomical odds, born. The chances against any one of us having been born are so high as to be laughable; the chances against there having been life on this planet at all defy description. No, there’s no purpose to it, if by “purpose” you mean “being a cog in someone else’s machine.” There’s no reason for it to have happened, except that it did. And the meaning of it is whatever meaning we create. The meaning of it is to diminish suffering and create joy and connection, for ourselves and for each other, for as long as we’re here.

We can do that in our work. We can do it in our art. We can do it in our friendships, our relationships, our families. We can do it in politics, charities, community involvement. We can do it with cooking. We can do it with fashion. We can do it with sex.

Black and white tour 7
And we can do it by dressing in ridiculous outfits, strapping bells to our legs, and dancing in the park like fools.

For no good reason.

Other pieces in this series:
Dancing Molecules: An Atheist Moment of Transcendence

Photos copyright 2008 by Tiffany Barnes, of White Rats Morris team in San Francisco. You can click on any of the photos to enlarge, or you can see the whole slideshow if you like. I’m a little sorry they’re all by Tiffany, actually: they’re gorgeous pictures, but it means there aren’t any of her, and she had one of the best outfits of anybody.

Can You Prove It Didn’t Happen? Progressive Religion and the Standards of Evidence

Can You Prove It Didn't Happen?Do you think it's reasonable to hold a religious belief that isn't supported by evidence… as long as it's not actually contradicted by evidence?

A comment in this blog got me to thinking about this question. In a response to my Atheist Mission Statement post, Edward wrote:

Obviously, as a religious person myself, I am biased, but I see some value to having tolerant religion alongside science. For one thing, it can teach people that your default theory can be anything, as long as you are willing to hear contrary evidence (eg. absence of proof is not proof of absence, so belief in God isn't unscientific, anymore than the belief that there is no god).

Edward seems to be a nice guy, supportive of science and opposed to religious intolerance (and supportive of this blog, which is of course the most important criterion). But his comment cuts to the heart of one of my main problems with progressive, non-fundamentalist religion… and while I don't have as much of a problem with progressive religion as I do with fundamentalism or other dogmatic religion, I think it is worth talking about.

First, a quick clarification of terms. For the purposes of this post, I'm not distinguishing between progressive and fundamentalist religion by their political attitudes, their attitudes towards sex or feminism or any of that. I'm talking specifically about their attitude towards science, towards the evidence of what is and is not true in the real world. (Which does have some bearing on their political and social attitudes — but it's not where I'm going with this.)

Blogad_7The progressive religious attitude is best summed up, I think, by the recent United Church of Christ blog ad campaign, a tag line of which was, "Science and faith are not mutually exclusive." Fundamentalist religion… well, I think its attitude is best encapsulated by the Biology for Christian Schools textbook, which declared that, "If [scientific] conclusions contradict the Word of God, the conclusions are wrong, no matter how many scientific facts may appear to back them," and "Christians must disregard [scientific hypotheses or theories] that contradict the Bible."

In other words, progressive religion changes as the science changes. Fundamentalism refuses to do so.

Now, the most common criticism of progressive religion's attitude towards science is that it's the "God of the gaps." Their definition of God is slippery: whatever isn't currently explained by science, whatever gaps there are in current scientific understanding, that's what gets credited to God.

But many religious believers argue that this critique isn't fair. Science itself changes to fit new evidence, they say, and it's hardly fair to critique progressive religion for doing so as well.

Which brings me back to Edwards's comment, and the question of holding beliefs that aren't contradicted by evidence but aren't supported by it, either.

Here's the problem.

I could, in the next fifteen minutes, come up with half a dozen beliefs that aren't contradicted by evidence but that also aren't supported by any. The universe was created by a cosmic graffiti artist, and the Big Bang was the result of her spray can exploding under pressure. Cats talk to each other in Sanskrit — but only when nobody's listening. Gravity is caused by hundreds of tiny invisible demons inside every physical object, pulling towards each other with a magical force field. (Objects with more mass can hold more demons — hence their greater gravitational force.) Etc., etc., etc. Atheists even make something of a game of it: the Flying Spaghetti Monster; the Invisible Pink Unicorn; Bertrand Russell's china teapot orbiting the sun; the incorporeal dragon in Carl Sagan's garage.

Why are any of these hypotheses any less plausible than any of the commonly- held God hypotheses actually believed by millions of people? Why do they have any less gravitas?

The only reason — and I mean the ONLY reason — that the standard God hypotheses have more gravitas than the flying spaghetti monster or my secret talking cats is that lots of other people believe them. And that lots of other people have believed them (or an assortment of evolving versions of them) through history. And that some very smart people have twisted their minds around the problem and come up with some very clever, if rather contorted, defenses of the proposition. If it weren't for the gravitas built up by centuries of belief, we'd have no more reason to take any of the standard God hypotheses seriously than any of the goofy joke religions that atheists make up to entertain themselves.

(Okay, to be fair, it's not quite the only reason. To find the real reason, you have to look at the question of why people came up with the God hypothesis in the first place — a question being hotly debated by neuropsychologists and evolutionary biologists and historians. My point is that we have better explanations for events in the natural world than we did 30,000 years ago or whenever it was that we came up with the God idea. The God hypotheses we came up with when we had no idea what lightning or sickness were… they're no longer necessary. Today, we have no more reason to believe in, say, the God of standard Christian theologies than we do in Russell's teapot or the gravity demons… apart from the fact that lots of other people believe it, too.)

In other words, if the only thing you have going for your belief is "you can't prove that it isn't true," that isn't enough.

This is actually the point Bertrand Russell was illustrating with his china teapot. The point wasn't so much that "you can't prove that it isn't true" isn't a good enough reason to believe in something. As important as that is, it's actually secondary to his argument. The main point he was making is… well, let me quote the passage in question:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time. (Emphasis mine.)

There is, in fact, a very serious problem with holding a belief that isn't supported by any good evidence, even if it isn't contradicted by any. If your belief isn't supported by any evidence, how do you choose among the millions and millions of possible beliefs you could come up with that also aren't supported by evidence but aren't contradicted by it? How do you even choose between the hundreds and hundreds of commonly- held religious beliefs that actually exist?

And if you don't have any basis for making that choice — other than the demonstrably biased, easily fooled, heavily- weighted- in- favor- of- believing- what- you're- predisposed- to- believe form of guesswork known as "intuition" or "faith" — then why on earth would you base your entire life philosophy around that choice?

Would you base your choices, your ethics, the meaning of your life, your assumptions about what happens when we die, on a belief in any other hypothesis for which you had absolutely no evidence, simply because you didn't think there was any evidence contradicting it? Would you base your life on a belief in the cosmic graffiti artist or the invisible pink unicorn, simply because they haven't yet been conclusively disproven?

And if not, then why is God an exception?

Origin of species
If your default theory has to keep shifting and slipping and mutating to accommodate new evidence contradicting it… AND if the consistent historical pattern of your default theory has been a long, relentless process of it being chipped away… AND if you don't have any solid evidence to support even the most core part of your default theory… then perhaps you should look at discarding your theory. 

It is not the case that your default theory can be anything, as long as you are willing to hear contrary evidence. That's not a logical, rational, or evidence- based way of thinking. In the absence of any good evidence supporting any particular hypothesis, the rational hypothesis is the null hypothesis. And in the case of religion, the null hypothesis is atheism.

You can't just say, like Criswell at the end of Plan 9 from Outer Space, "Can you prove it didn't happen?" That's not an argument — and it's not a foundation for a life philosophy.
(FYI, this is a topic on which I've changed my mind over the course of my blogging. So if this seems to contradict an earlier statement, that's why.)

The Sameness of Imagination, The Astonishingness of Reality: Thoughts on Science and Religion

Man_using_microscopeThere’s a really interesting new piece up on Pharyngula: it’s gotten me thinking about science and religion in an interesting new way, and I wanted to link to it and talk about it a bit.

It’s the piece titled A pleasant, smiling apologist is still lying to you. Now, I don’t agree with everything he says here. For one thing, as is often the case with PZ, I think his tone is a bit more harsh than is really called for in the situation. And I don’t think “lying” is the correct word to use when someone genuinely believes the mistaken idea they’re passing on.
But a lot of the piece is good. Excellent, even. And one bit in particular made me think in a completely new and different way about religion and reality.
This was the bit that jumped out at me:

One other word I must criticize in all these defenses of religion: imagination. I often hear that religion is all about using the imagination to see something beyond the literal and mundane, and imagination becomes a virtue in itself that is presented as something special to religion. It is not. It is also overrated. Imagination is essential, don’t get me wrong; we need this kind of cognitive randomizer that pushes our thoughts beyond what we already know. However, one thing science has taught us is that our imagination is pathetic. The universe is more vast, more complex, and more surprising than anything our minds can conjure up. Imagination is not enough.

I hadn’t thought about it this way before. But PZ is absolutely right. The things we’ve discovered about the world through science… they’re mind-blowing. They completely eclipse anything our puny human imagination could have come up with on its own.

For just one example: Take atomic physics. Take the fact that everything around us, all the material world, is mostly empty space, a huge yawning gap between the nucleus of the atoms and the electrons whizzing around it. Everything — not just air, but iron, wood, flesh, bone, the very Earth under our feet — it’s overwhelmingly empty space. This is an idea that we would never in our wildest imaginings have come up with just with our brains. We needed to take a close look at reality to even consider the possibility.

Right now I’m reading “The Canon,” Natalie Angier’s excellent book explaining the most important basic concepts of science to the layperson. And I’m in the bit about physics and atomic structure, so right now that’s what’s blowing my mind. But there are plenty of other examples.

Take biology. Take the fact that every living thing is directly related to every other living thing. We’re all cousins: you, me, pandas, tangerines, slime molds, squid, cactus, algae, the bacteria that laid Ingrid up with a head cold a couple of weeks ago — all of it. Every living thing shares a common ancestor. Every living thing has the same great- great- great- to- the- 10,000th grandmother. What a weird idea. Who would have thought of it if we hadn’t found a mountain of evidence telling us that that’s how it is?

Or take astronomy. Take the fact that we, living our boring little lives and paying our bills and watching The Simpsons, are doing all this while we’re sitting on a round rock that’s whizzing around a gigantic ball of nuclear fire at 90 miles a second — a ball of fire that is itself whizzing around at 40,000 miles an hour in a spiral mass of billions of other nuclear fireballs. (In a universe, I might add, comprised of billions and billions of other masses of fireballs.) And we act as if this is normal. It is, of course. But it’s also profoundly weird. There is no way we would have imagined it if we hadn’t discovered that it was true.

I could go on and on. And on. Virtually every field of science has shown us things about the nature of the world we live in that completely surprised us, that took us aback, that made us completely rethink and re-imagine everything we thought we understood.


The visions of the world that the religious imagination has come up with?

Compared to the realities we’ve discovered about the world around us, they’re kind of pathetic. In every religion I’m familiar with, God is (or the gods are) pretty much just like people, only more so. Stronger, wiser, nicer (in theory, anyway), more powerful, but still basically just this guy, you know? A character, with personality quirks, things that he wants, decisions that he makes, stuff that he does.

Mary poppins
Even in the more modern, abstract conceptions of God, God is still an invisible collection of essentially human qualities: goodness, knowledge, the ability to make stuff happen. Sort of like Mary Poppins. Practically perfect in every way.

Francesco_Botticini_-_The_Assumption_of_the_VirginDitto the afterlives. Heaven, Hell, the Celestial Kingdom, whatever: it all reads like a version of this life, with certain bits amplified or diminished for dramatic effect. It’s like life, except you get to be invisible and have no body and never argue with anyone and walk around singing all day. (Singing with no body? It’s just now occurring to me how nonsensical that is.) Or it’s like life, except there are folks whose job it is to make you miserable forever — and no, not just the annoying guy in the next cubicle over. It’s not all that imaginative. It’s just like life, only more so. It’s not really anything new.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this. I’m not sure if I have a point. I think I just want to say this, something I’ve said before: Reality is more interesting than anything we could make up. And when religious believers critique scientists for being mundane, close-minded, unable to imagine anything beyond the puny reality of the physical world, then they need to shut the hell up. The reality of the physical world is wilder and weirder than anything in their religion, and science has come up with many more things, in the skies and on the earth, than they ever dreamt of in their philosophy.

What Do You Want, Anyway? An Atheist’s Mission Statement

So what do I want, anyway?

What do I expect to get out of all this atheist blogging? (Apart from stress reduction, I mean.) What's my ultimate goal? When it comes to religion and/or the lack thereof, what kind of world do I want to see?

I think it's important for atheists to think about this. Atheist writers and activists especially. Otherwise, we're just arguing for the sake of arguing, a form of mental exercise done at the expense of annoying people. And the kind of world we decide we're trying to make is going to affect the kind of action we take about it.

I have a couple of different answers to this question. One is my ideal, perfect-world scenario, the Religious World According To Greta. The other is the world that, while not perfect, I would be pretty much entirely happy with. The world where, if it somehow magically came into being, I would probably quit blogging about atheism almost entirely and turn my focus back to sex and politics and food.

So let's take the Greta's Perfect World scenario first.

In my perfect world, I would like to see religion gradually disappear from the human mindset. "Gradually" meaning over the next, say, one or two hundred years.

I do think religion is a mistaken idea, and I do think it's an idea that does more harm than good — if for no other reason than because it is a mistaken idea. I think it does harm, not just to atheists, but to believers themselves. And I think it does harm even in the absence of overt religious intolerance. I think it encourages gullibility, vulnerability to bad ideas and charlatans; I think it discourages critical thinking and the valuing of evidence; I think it supports people in prioritizing their personal beliefs and feelings over the reality of the world around them. I think it does more harm than good, and I think the world would, on the whole, be a better place without it. Not a perfect place, by any means — I'm not deluded enough to think that the disappearance of religion would somehow eradicate all social ills — but better.

But even in my most utopian fantasies, I can't imagine religion disappearing overnight, or even within my lifetime, without massive social upheaval creating tremendous suffering around the world. It's too central to too many people's lives. Hence the "one or two hundred years."

Law booksSo yes, I would like to see religion eventually disappear. I would not, however, like to see this disappearance happen in any sort of coerced or enforced way. I would not, for instance, like to see laws passed against religious beliefs or practices. I don't even want to see social pressure exerted against religion or religious believers, except insofar as "arguments against the ideas" constitutes social pressure. I would like to see religious believers be completely free to practice their beliefs however they choose, as long as that practice doesn't unreasonably impinge on my life and the lives of everyone else around them.

That should all go without saying. But there are plenty of idiots in the world who think that any atheist who wants to see an end to religion must want that end to come at the barrel of a gun. So it seems like a good idea to spell it out. I don't want to see religion ended by force. I want to see it ended by — insert barely-suppressed, self-deprecating guffaw here — persuasion.

No, really.

I told you this was idealistic.

So let's move on to the more scaled-back, more pragmatic vision.

I would be perfectly happy to live in a world in which:

Holding hands
(a) religious believers respected other believers and their beliefs — including atheists and our beliefs;

(b) religious believers understood that their beliefs were, in fact, beliefs and not facts, and didn't try to make laws and public policy based on them;

(c) people — especially kids growing up — understood that there were lots of different options when it came to religion… including the atheism option;

(d) religion didn't get the privileged, free-ride status it enjoys now, but instead was treated as simply another hypothesis about the world, one which had to defend itself in the marketplace of ideas just like any other idea.

If all that were true, I still wouldn't agree with religion. I'd still think it was mistaken. And I'd still probably debate it with people now and then. But I wouldn't be spending more than half of my precious writing time trying to argue against it. There are lots of mistaken ideas in the world. The urban legend debunking sites are full of them. I don't devote my blog to their eventual disappearance.
You wanna know the weird thing, though?

I actually think my first vision may be more plausible than the second.

I think it's actually a lot more likely that we'll someday see a world without religion, than a world in which religion is widespread but entirely tolerant and ecumenical.

Because, in my experience and observation, tolerant and ecumenical religion is the exception, not the rule.

Breaking the spell
Daniel Dennett talks about this a little bit in his book "Breaking the Spell." He argues that the essential baselessness of religion — the fact that it's unsupported by solid evidence or logic, the fact that it's essentially a shared opinion rather than a body of knowledge — actually makes people cling to it more tightly, defend it more vehemently, get more upset and angry when the ideas are questioned. And it makes people more likely to build elaborate cultural defense mechanisms around it: from the tacit understanding that questioning religion is ill-mannered, to the codification of religious beliefs and practices into harshly- enforced law.

ArmorYou don't need to build an entire mental and emotional and cultural suit of armor around an obvious fact, after all. If strange people come from over the hill and insist that the sky is orange and that it rains Jell-O, you probably won't go to war with them. But people do go to war when the strange people from over the hill insist that God is named Allah instead of Jesus, or vice versa. The idea that the sky is orange is easy to dismiss. You can clearly see that it isn't. The idea that your whole concept of God might be mistaken… it's less easy to dismiss. And it's therefore, psychologically, much more important to defend.

When I look at the history of religion in the world — and at religion in the world today — it seems clear that the groovy, accepting, "we're all looking at the same God in our own way" form of progressive ecumenicalism is very much in the minority. Hostility to other beliefs — and super- duper- hostility to no belief at all — is much more common… so common that it seems to be, not a foundation of religion exactly, but one of its defining characteristics.

So while, on a practical, day-to-day political level I'm going to fight for tolerance and ecumenicalism — creationism out of the public schools, evangelizing out of the military, public health policy not being written by fundamentalists, that sort of thing — I'm also going to keep fighting against religion in general. I'm going to keep doing what I can to keep atheism in the public eye, to make sure that more and more people every day know about it and see it as a valid option… so that in a few generations, my ultimate Utopian ideal of a world without religion might someday, long after I'm dead, be realized.

Because I think that it's actually a less Utopian goal than my other one.

“A Different Way of Knowing”: The Uses of Irrationality… and its Limitations

Brain_with_symbolsThere’s a trope I’ve noticed in debates about atheism, about skepticism, about science. And the trope goes something like this:

“Logic and reason isn’t everything. Not everything in this world is rational. Not everything that we know in the world is known through logic and reason. Sometimes we have to use our intuition, and listen to our hearts. There are different ways of knowing than just reason and evidence.”

The thing is?

I actually think there’s a lot of truth to this.

And I still think it’s a terrible argument to make against atheism, skepticism, and/or science.

Let me explain.

Love_heartssvgThere are absolutely areas of life in which logic and reason don’t apply. Or don’t predominate, anyway. Love, of course, is a classic example. The classic example, probably. Nobody decides who to fall in love with by making a cool appraisal of the pros and cons. Nobody decides who to fall in love with, period. It’s an emotional, irrational, impulsive, intuitive, largely unconscious act.

Personally, I think a lot of people would benefit from a little more rational, evidence- based thinking in their love lives. It might stop them from making the same damn dumb mistakes over and over again, for one thing. But ultimately, decisions about love are made with the heart, not the head. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

John_henry_fuseli__the_nightmareOr take art. The part of us that loves music, images, stories… it’s not a logical part. Not entirely, anyway. A huge amount of it is personal, emotional, visceral. And it should be. Scientists and art critics and philosophers can analyze why different people like different things in art, and they’ll come up with useful observations… but the actual experience of art isn’t mostly analytical.

Sure, there are some commonly-accepted criteria that can be applied to art. Plus, the degree to which we appreciate art emotionally or rationally can depend on the art… as well as on the appreciator. And certainly our appreciation of art can be increased by a better understanding of its history or structure. But ultimately, art either moves you or it doesn’t. And when it does, the experience of being moved is not a rational process. It’s subjective.

And most artists will tell you that an essential part of the creative process is getting the rational part of their brain to shut up for a while. While the editing or modifying process often involves a critical, rational eye, the actual creation part of art comes largely from a non-verbal, non-linear, non-rational place. The experience of art is not primarily a rational one… for artist or for audience.

RaspberriesI can think of oodles more examples. Humor. Sexual desire. Friendship. Sentiment and nostalgia. Tastes in food. I think you get my drift, though. Many of the most central, most profound experiences of human life are things we experience emotionally, intuitively, irrationally.

But have you noticed a pattern to these examples?

They’re all matters of opinion. They’re all matters of subjective experience.

None of them is concerned with trying to understand what is true. Not just what is true for us, personally, but what is true in the external world. The world we all share, as opposed to the ones in our own heads and hearts.

And these questions — the questions of what is true in the external world — are where logic and evidence leap to the forefront.

ThinkingThis is why. We know — as well as we know anything — that the human mind can be fooled. It is wired, for very good evolutionary reasons, with some interesting distortions of reality. Among other things, it’s wired to see what it expects to see; it’s wired to see patterns even when none exist; it’s wired to see intention even when none exists.

And intuition, especially, is a deeply imperfect form of perception and understanding. Yes, it can often be a powerful tool for making leaps and seeing possibilities we couldn’t even have imagined before. But it can also be a powerful tool for showing us exactly what we expect to see, and telling us exactly what we want to hear — regardless of whether what we expect or want are actually there to be seen and heard.

Radiohead_ok_computerNow, for subjective questions, these imperfections aren’t particularly important. If you think you’re in love, then you are in love. If you think you like Radiohead, then you do like Radiohead. If you think broccoli tastes like fermented essence of evil, then it does. To you, anyway. With subjective questions like these, there’s not really a difference between “what you think is true” and “what really is true.” Or if there is, it’s not a crucial one.

But when we’re trying to figure out what’s true in the real world — not in the subjective world of our own feelings and experiences, but in the external world — there is very often a difference between what we think is true and what is true. An important, measurable difference.

And if we want to understand what’s true in the real world, we need to acknowledge, recognize, and correct for that difference. When we don’t, it’s disastrous. Think of all the people in history who “intuitively” knew that black people were mentally inferior to white people; who “intuitively” knew that mental illness was caused by demonic possession; etc., etc., etc. The human race’s track record of trying to answer non- matter- of- opinion questions about what is and is not true in the external world by “listening to our hearts” is a pretty abysmal one.

So if we’re trying to understand the external world, we need to be very, very careful to screen out bias and preconception as much as humanly possible. And the best way we have to do that is with logic, reason, and the rigorously careful gathering, examination, and analysis of the evidence.

Man_using_microscopeIn other words — the scientific method.

Which — with its double-blinding, careful control groups (including placebo controls when appropriate), transparent methodology, replicability, falsifiability, peer review, etc. etc. — has specifically developed over the decades and centuries to do one thing: eliminate bias, preconception, and human error, as much as is humanly possible, in order to get the closest approximation of the truth that we can.

It’s true that the history of science is full of stories of scientists coming up with important insights and breakthroughs in irrational ways: through dreams, sudden revelations, etc. Yes, irrational inspiration can be an important part of the scientific process. But it’s an important first part. After all, the history of science is also full of scientists coming up with ideas through irrational inspiration that then turned out to be full of beans. (Nikola Tesla comes to mind.) You just don’t read about them as much.

Inspiration gives scientists ideas, points them in new directions. But they then need to test those ideas and directions. And they don’t do that intuitively. They do it using the scientific method: rationally, logically, and rigorously.

So what does all this have to do with atheism?

[Read more…]

Is Religious Faith Irrational?

El_greco_the_repentant_peter_3At the end of yesterday’s post, I posed the question, “Is religious faith irrational?”

Well, okay. I didn’t so much pose it as answer it. “Yes,” I said. I argued that religious faith is irrational, by definition, in a way that secular faith isn’t. I argued that religious faith means maintaining one’s faith in the face of any possible evidence that might arise to contradict it; in fact, that it means asserting ahead of time that no possible evidence could ever undermine your faith. In other words, it means asserting that your faith trumps reality. I said that religious faith answers the question, “What would convince you that your faith was mistaken?” with the answer, “Nothing — I have faith in my god. That’s what it means to have faith.” (Thanks to Ebonmuse for this, for about the fiftieth time.)

And yes, I said: I think that’s irrational. Secular faith (and the leaps thereof) often has instances of being irrational: but it isn’t irrational by definition. I think religious faith is.

Brain_lobesNow, there are many religious believers who would hotly dispute this. There are many believers who think religious faith is entirely rational, that it’s based on evidence as much as anything else in life, that faith and reason co-exist nicely and even depend on one another. They write apologetics; come up with complex and elegant defenses for their beliefs; get into debates in atheist blogs. (There are also believers who embrace the irrational and even paradoxical nature of faith… but I’m not talking about them right now.)

But to the believers who insist that their faith is rational, I would ask them to consider this question, the question posed by Ebonmuse and cited at length in my previous post: What would convince you that your faith was mistaken? What conceivable evidence would make you change your mind and decide that God didn’t exist after all? Again, if the answer is, “Nothing could change my mind, that’s what it means to have faith” — well, that pretty much proves my point. (If the answer is something other than “Nothing,” don’t just argue your case here — be sure to tell Ebon about it. I’m sure he’d be interested to hear it.)

AngelheartAnd I’ve noticed a pattern among religious believers defending the rationality of their faith. They enter into the debate full of logic and counter-arguments; but almost inevitably, they end up the debate by saying things like, “Well, that’s just how I feel,” or “I feel it in my heart, and that’s enough for me.”

I applaud these believers’ desire to see their faith as rational. I think the desire to have your beliefs be rooted in reality — or to not have them be preemptively defiant of it, at least — is a good instinct, a noble and worthwhile yearning. But when it comes to religious faith, I just don’t think it’s happening. Again, while secular faith has instances of irrationality — many of them, even — it isn’t irrational by its very nature. I think religious faith is.

But —

and this is very important —

I don’t think religious believers are.

Not all of them, at any rate. Not by definition.

Here’s the thing I think atheists need to remember. It is entirely possible to be an overall sane, rational, functional person, and nevertheless have one particular area of irrational belief. Or even more than one.

In fact, it’s not just possible. It’s damn near universal. To atheists, as well as to believers.

Chicago_cubs_logoWe’ve all held irrational beliefs, and held on to them irrationally for longer than we should have. Belief in lovers who didn’t deserve it; belief in political ideologies that didn’t hold up; belief in leaders or role models who let us down time and time again. Belief that all those months you spent perfecting your suntan would be worth it. Belief that taking LSD really helps your pool game. Belief that your mother died of cancer because she was angry about you leaving home. Belief that you can write 90% of your senior thesis the week before it’s due. (This one turned out to be correct, but it was an extremely close call.) Belief that those bounced checks must have been your bank’s fault. Belief that you can work just fine with the TV on. Belief that getting married would fix your fucked-up relationship, simply by deepening your commitment to it. Belief that you can argue people out of their religious beliefs, if you just make your arguments good enough. Belief that this will finally be the Cubs’ year.

MarijuanaOkay, maybe I should use some examples that aren’t from my own life. How about these: Belief that nobody will notice that you’re totally wasted. Belief that your car can run for another ten miles when the gas gauge says “Empty.” Belief that you can’t get pregnant the first time. Belief that you’ll never regret that Grateful Dead tattoo. Belief that you’ll never regret taking physics instead of philosophy… or vice versa. Belief that a new outfit, a new haircut, a new car, will radically change your life. Belief that he/she will come back to you when they realize how much they miss you. Belief that if everyone smoked marijuana, there would be no more war.

Do any of these sound familiar? From your life, or from the lives of anyone you know? If not, I’m sure you can come up with some of your own, from your past, or maybe even from your present.

And none of these beliefs make us fundamentally irrational people. It is entirely possible to have certain irrational beliefs — even significant beliefs, even stubbornly held ones — and still be a basically rational person in most other areas of our lives. It’s not just possible. It’s universal. We all do it. In fact, hanging on to mistaken ideas once we’ve committed to them seems to be a basic part of how our minds work. And despite that, we’re still generally rational people, able to process information and analyze it effectively and make appropriate decisions about how to act on it… most of the time.

Light_switchIt’s not like people are either rational or not. It’s not like rationality is an either/or quality, an On/Off switch that gets flipped one way in some people and the other in others. It’s a spectrum, indeed several spectra, with some of us being less rational in some areas and more rational in others.

Look. I think religious leaps of faith are very different from secular ones, and I’m not going to pretend that I don’t. I think religious faith is inherently irrational, and I’m not going to pretend that I don’t. But the fact that religious believers hold one irrational belief that atheists don’t hold doesn’t make them fundamentally less-rational human beings than us. And we shouldn’t pretend that it does.

What Would Convince You That You Were Wrong? The Difference Between Secular and Religious Faith

Prayer“You have your faith in your relationship. In your friends. In your talent. In yourself. How is that different from my faith in God?”

I want to talk about the difference between secular and religious faith.

I’m irritated by the argument that, because atheists don’t have faith in God, we therefore don’t have faith in anything. And at the same time, I’m irritated by the argument that, because atheists do have faith in things and can take leaps of faith, therefore an atheist’s secular faith in love and whatnot isn’t really any different from religious belief.

At the risk of sounding like I’m quibbling over language, I think secular faith and religious faith are very different animals. They’re not entirely unrelated, but ultimately they’re not the same thing at all. In fact, they’re so different, I’m not sure they should even share the same word.

So let’s take this one at a time. What is secular faith?

AisleLet’s use an example. I have faith in Ingrid. What does that mean? It means that I trust that she loves me; I trust that she’ll act with my best interests at heart; I trust that she’ll keep her promises. It means that I rely on her, and that I believe my reliance is justified. And it means that I don’t need a 100% ironclad guarantee of these things. It means that I know what a ridiculous expectation that would be — we can never have a 100% ironclad guarantee of anything — and that I’m willing to trust her anyway. It means that I’m willing to take the evidence that I have, the evidence of her feelings and character that I have from her actions and words, and then take a leap of faith by trusting that they mean what they seem to mean.

Ballot_boxsvgOr let’s use another, more complicated example. I have faith in democracy. That’s a tricky one, as democracy has let me down time and time again. But I have faith in it. I have the conviction that, while far from a perfect political system, it’s still the best one we have, offering the best hope we have for a better and more just life for everyone. And I have hope that, with commitment and hard work, its problems can be… not eliminated, probably, but mitigated.

AvatarAnd one more example before I move on with my point: I have faith in myself. Possibly the most complicated of all, as I’ve lived with myself for my entire life, and have therefore probably let myself down more than anyone or anything else that I’ve ever had faith in. (With the possible exception of some notable ex-lovers and the Democratic Party…) But I have confidence that, when I set my mind and my heart to it, I can accomplish the things in my life that are important to me: being a good partner, a good writer, a good worker, a good citizen, a good friend. And when I take on a big new task — writing a book, moving to a new city, getting married — I have confidence that, if I seriously commit to it and put all my energy and talent and intelligence into it, I’ll be able to accomplish it.

So now we have some pertinent synonyms for “secular faith.” Trust. Reliance. Confidence. Conviction. Hope.

Keep those synonyms in mind.

And religious faith is… what?

See_no_evilI don’t agree with certain hard-line atheists who insist that religious faith is always blind faith; that it always means refusing to question or doubt; that it always means absolute obedience to the authorities and precepts of one’s religion. Sure, it often means these things. Many religious and formerly- religious people have said so, in so many words. But I’ve also known believers who do question, do doubt, do think for themselves, do have their eyes open. For at least some believers, a faith that can’t weather questioning is a weak-ass faith that isn’t worth having. Faith in honest doubt, and all that.

So religious faith is… what?

In writing this, I didn’t want to be a jerk and assume that I know better than believers do what faith means to them. I always hate it when theists assume they know what atheists think without actually bothering to check, and I don’t want to commit that error myself.

4_religious_symbolsBut it was surprisingly difficult to find definitions of faith from organized religions. I spent many hours looking at websites of different religious organizations — Islam, Judaism, Hindu, Bahai, and many Christian sects including Methodist, Episcopalian, Baptist (American and Southern), UCC, and MCC. And I didn’t find definitions of “faith” on any of these. (The Catholics were an exception; see below.) Lots of religions clearly state what it is they have faith in: but what exactly it means to have faith is either ignored, or it’s just assumed that everybody knows. “Our faith is in (X, Y, Z)… and what that means is that those are the things we believe. Believing (X, Y, Z) is what it means to be in our faith.”

That being said, here are a few definitions of religious faith that I did find.

Faith_3“Divine faith, then, is that form of knowledge which is derived from Divine authority, and which consequently begets absolute certitude in the mind of the recipient.” (Catholic Encyclopedia,

“…since faith is supernatural assent to Divine truths upon Divine authority, the ultimate or remote rule of faith must be the truthfulness of God in revealing Himself.” (

“Faith therefore is to believe that which you do not see, truth is to see what you have believed.” (St. Augustine”)

“‘Faith’ involves a growing recognition of who Jesus is… It is much more like an intuitive perception — a kind of ‘sixth sense’ — about this person Jesus: an inner prompting which compels us to go after him, to engage with his words and character, to ‘relate’ to him… But ‘faith’ is also not just about the intuition to seek. ‘Faith’ consists in taking Jesus at his word. This story illustrates clearly that ‘faith’ is characterised by a willingness to grasp what is being offered in the encounter with Jesus… ‘Faith’ in this story is not primarily some settled and serene conclusion reached at the end of a chain of philosophical reasoning. No, faith is rather the readiness and eagerness to receive what is offered to us in Jesus Christ. It is the hand that grasps the gift of God in Jesus and makes it our own. This is biblical faith.” (Revd Dr Paul Weston,; emphasis mine)

“Assent to the truth is of the essence of faith, and the ultimate ground on which our assent to any revealed truth rests is the veracity of God.” (

“The dictionary definition of faith is, ‘the theological virtue defined as secure belief in God and a trusting acceptance of God’s will.’ For a Christian, this definition is not just words on a page it is a way of life. Faith is acceptance of what we cannot see but feel deep within our hearts. Faith is a belief that one-day we will stand before our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” (; emphasis mine.)

“Biblical faith, however, is specific and unique. It describes the person who chooses to believe, trust, and obey God. This principle is vital — the object of faith determines its value. Thus, it is very important that what we believe, what we have faith in, is really the truth!” (Herbert E. Douglass, The Faith of Jesus: Saying Yes to God’s Love)

Duererprayer“Faith means an individual’s personal, existential connection with the reality and power of God. Faith is not a ‘thing’ that is possessed or an ‘idea’ that is pondered, but rather a relationship that infuses divine power and creates an attitude and a vision for living and acting.” (Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew)

“Faith is not a power or faculty in itself which “moves” or “compels” God. It is an attitude of confidence in God Himself. It always points to the One in whom it is placed.” (

“Faith, then, is like the soul of an experience. It is an inner acknowledgment of the relationship between God and man.” (John Powell, A Reason to Live! A Reason to Die)

“Faith saves our souls alive by giving us a universe of the taken-for-granted.” (Rose Wilder Lane, The Ghost in the Little House)

“Reason is an action of the mind; knowledge is a possession of the mind; but faith is an attitude of the person. It means you are prepared to stake yourself on something being so.” (Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1961–74)

“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1)

So let’s sum these up, and make it as simple as we can without being simplistic.

GodReligious faith means believing in God. (Or gods, or the World-Soul, or the immortal spirit, or whatever. For the sake of brevity, let’s say God for now.)

And it means believing in God no matter what. It means an unshakeable belief in God. It doesn’t necessarily mean an unquestioning belief in God — again, many believers do ask questions, and hard questions at that — but it means a belief in God that survives those questions, and any questions. It means having belief in God, not as a hypothesis that so far has stood up to the evidence but might not always do so, but as an axiom. A presupposition.

GenevabibleNow, it isn’t the case that religious faith always means faith without evidence. Some of the more fundamentalist religions actually say that evidence is an important part of their faith. But the things they consider “evidence” — namely, the Bible, and its supposed inerrancy — are themselves objects of faith. Despite the Bible’s historical and scientific errors, its contradictions, its moral atrocities, etc., the belief in its inerrancy is itself, for these believers, an unshakable axiom.

Here’s a test that I’ve found to be extremely useful. Central to my whole thesis, in fact. In Ebonmuse’s excellent Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists, he makes this observation: “Ask any believer what would convince him he was mistaken and persuade him to leave his religion and become an atheist, and if you get a response, it will almost invariably be, ‘Nothing — I have faith in my god.'” He then goes on to offer several examples of the types of evidence that he, as an atheist, would accept as proof that a given religion is true.

El_greco_the_repentant_peter_3But only two people have taken up Ebonmuse on his challenge, stating the evidence that would convince them that their religious faith was incorrect. And both replies consisted of either physical and/or logical impossibilities (things like, “Proof that all miracle claims are false,” or “Falsifying the resurrection of Christ”)… or irrelevancies, non-sequiturs (things like, “If it could be demonstrated conclusively that I was deluded in thinking that life has meaning, I would deconvert.” As if the fact that people experience meaning proves that this meaning was planted in us by God… and as if creating our own meaning was the same as being deluded.)

Only two responses to the challenge, “What would convince you that your faith is mistaken?” And both those responses are strikingly unresponsive.

Now. In contrast. Let’s return for a moment to secular faith. And let’s offer one of the examples I mentioned before: my faith in Ingrid.

Is there anything that could convince me that my faith in Ingrid is mistaken?

Sure. Yes. Absolutely.

She could murder all my relatives. She could set our house on fire, purely for the thrill of watching it burn. She could clear out our joint bank account and run off to Brazil with Keith Olberman. She could be revealed to be a Russian spy (or a Cylon agent), who’s pretended to be in love with me all these years simply to gain information. She could shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die.

None of these things is logically impossible, or physically impossible. (Well, except the one about being a Cylon.) They’re not very likely, of course… but they could happen. And any of them would convince me that my faith in her was mistaken.

EvidenceSo my faith in Ingrid isn’t irrational. It’s reasonable. It’s based on evidence — the evidence of her past behavior. It’s true that I take a leap of faith with her every day: I can’t be 100% certain that she has never done any of these things and never will. And more to the point, I take leaps of faith with her every day that are both smaller than these and more serious. I have faith that she puts the right amount of money into our joint bank account; that the medical advice she gives me is as unbiased as she can make it; that she really is going to dance practice every Tuesday instead of seeing a lover she hasn’t told me about. These are all leaps of faith… but they’re leaps of faith that could conceivably be overturned by evidence.

And that doesn’t make them weaker, or less valuable. Quite the contrary. It just makes them rational. It makes them grounded in reality.

Let’s look at those secular synonyms for “faith” again. Trust. Reliance. Confidence. Conviction. Hope. Those are the things that secular faith means. They mean a willingness to move forward in the absence of an ironclad guarantee. A willingness to hang onto the big picture in the face of small failures and setbacks. A willingness to persevere during difficult times.

But not one of these synonyms for secular faith implies a willingness to maintain that faith in contradiction of any possible evidence that might arise. Even when people’s secular faith leans towards the irrational — faith in lovers who repeatedly cheat, faith in leaders who repeatedly let us down — it still could theoretically be contradicted by evidence. Yes, some people maintain their faiths in the face of ridiculously obvious evidence to the contrary. But I think there are very few, if any, people whose secular faith in their lovers and leaders, their plans and ideologies, could not possibly be shaken by any imaginable evidence whatsoever.

Even if there are some people like that… how shall I put this? That kind of unshakability isn’t inherent to the very nature of secular faith. It isn’t a necessary and central part of the definition. Even if there are people whose faith in their cheating lovers could never be shaken even if they caught those lovers actually having wild naked sex with another person… I don’t think anyone thinks that that’s what it means, by definition, to have faith in your lover. I don’t think anyone thinks that giving up on your faith in your lover’s monogamy when you see them screw someone else somehow means that you didn’t really have faith in the first place… or that your faith wasn’t strong enough. (An argument that does get aimed at atheists who once had religious faith.)

BlindfoldIn fact, when someone hangs onto a secular faith in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, we stop calling it “faith” at all, and start calling it less complimentary words. Words like “pigheadedness” or “blindness,” “willful ignorance” or “delusion.” (Our current President is a prime example.)

And that, I think, is the difference between secular and religious faith. That is why my faith in Ingrid, in democracy, in myself, are fundamentally different from a theist’s faith in God. I have faith in Ingrid… but it’s not a central defining feature of that faith that nothing could ever shake it, even in theory. I don’t answer the question, “What would convince you that your faith in Ingrid is mistaken?” by saying, “Nothing. Nothing could convince me that I was mistaken. That’s what it means to have faith.”

Barbara_ann_scott_studing_leap_1948We all have to make leaps of faith. We can never have all the relevant information when we make a decision; we can never have a 100% ironclad guarantee that our beliefs and actions will be right. So it’s not irrational to have secular faith; it’s a calculated risk (unconsciously calculated much of the time, to be sure), necessary to get on with life in the face of uncertainty.

What’s irrational is to maintain one’s faith in the face of any possible evidence that might arise. What’s irrational is to assert ahead of time that no possible evidence could ever shake your faith; to assert, essentially, that your faith trumps reality. And what’s profoundly irrational is to insist that doing these things is a virtue, an admirable trait that makes you a good and noble person.

Which leads us to a somewhat explosive question: Is religious faith irrational?

And that’s the subject of tomorrow’s sermon.

(Many thanks to Ebonmuse of Daylight Atheism for his help compiling the “definitions of faith” list.)

Onward Christian Soldiers: Theocracy and the U.S. Military

ArmylogoThis one scares the bejeezus out of me.

A lot of atheist blogs have had this story. For some time now, actually, But the New York Times has finally covered the story, which seems like a good excuse for me to talk about it.

The Times headline sums it up pretty darned well:

Soldier Sues Army, Saying His Atheism Led to Threats

And here’s a few pertinent quotes before I get into my analysis:

When Specialist Jeremy Hall held a meeting last July for atheists and freethinkers at Camp Speicher in Iraq, he was excited, he said, to see an officer attending.

But minutes into the talk, the officer, Maj. Freddy J. Welborn, began to berate Specialist Hall and another soldier about atheism, Specialist Hall wrote in a sworn statement. “People like you are not holding up the Constitution and are going against what the founding fathers, who were Christians, wanted for America!” Major Welborn said, according to the statement.

Major Welborn told the soldiers he might bar them from re-enlistment and bring charges against them, according to the statement.


Perhaps the most high-profile incident involved seven officers, including four generals, who appeared, in uniform and in violation of military regulations, in a 2006 fund-raising video for the Christian Embassy, an evangelical Bible study group.


Specialist Hall began a chapter of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers at Camp Speicher, near Tikrit, to support others like him.

At the July meeting, Major Welborn told the soldiers they had disgraced those who had died for the Constitution, Specialist Hall said. When he finished, Major Welborn said, according to the statement: “I love you guys; I just want the best for you. One day you will see the truth and know what I mean.”


Complaints include prayers “in Jesus’ name” at mandatory functions, which violates military regulations, and officers proselytizing subordinates to be “born again.” After getting the complainants’ unit and command information, Mr. Weinstein said, he calls his contacts in the military to try to correct the situation.

“Religion is inextricably intertwined with their jobs,” Mr. Weinstein said. “You’re promoted by who you pray with.”

Okay. Do we have the picture now, everybody? Read the whole story if you don’t. And this isn’t the first time I’ve seen this story: plenty of atheist blogs have been carrying it for a while, along with many others like it. (More info — not just on this case, but on an appalling number of similar ones — at the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.)

And here’s why this scares the daylights out of me. More than just about any instance of creeping theocracy in our country. More, even, than creationism and other forms of religious fundamentalism being taught in our public, taxpayer-funded schools.

With_god_on_our_sideThis is the Army.

This is the branch of our government with the big rifles.

And increasingly, they seem to be placing their allegiance to their religion over their allegiance to the country and the Constitution.

There’s a story that Ed Brayton (who’s been covering this story a lot) had over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars. The whole story is excellent, but here’s the truly terrifying part:

One individual, posting under the name “Hidog,” suggested Hall put on an orange vest and carry a sign “Bong hits 4 Allah” through the streets of Iraq, “because apparently, your Bill of Rights trump your CO’s (commanding officer’s) orders.”

ConstitutionAs Ed pointed out, “Well yes, the bill of rights does trump the orders of a commanding officer when those orders violate the bill of rights.”

And it scares the merciful crap out of me to think that the Army is increasingly full of people — not just mooks with no power, but officers — who don’t understand that. It terrifies me to think of an Army populated by both officers and enlisted men whose hearts — and guns — belong, not to the citizens of this country who employ them, but to Jesus.

And it terrifies me to realize these are not isolated incidents. There’s so much more to this story that I haven’t gotten into, that I don’t have time to get into without this turning into an unreadably long screed. It is becoming increasingly clear that this is the dominant culture of the current United States Army.

With support from the Pentagon.

Because that, people, means that we really are living in a theocracy. Right now. The armed enforcers of our Federal government are the defenders, not of our country, not of our Constitution, but of their God and their faith.

Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.

Okay. Perhaps I’m being a little panicky, a little overdramatic. The good news is that we’re not overtly a theocracy. Yet. When caught in these shenanigans, the perpetrators still have to shimmy and sidestep, deny that it happened or hastily issue regulations to halt the more grotesquely blatant examples of it. And if the Supreme Court hasn’t become completely craven, hopefully they’ll be spanking the Pentagon long and hard over this. (Military fetishists, take note.)

NytimeslogoAnd the good news is that the story finally got out of the atheist blogosphere and into the New York Times. (CNN has the story, too.)

But this is not a few isolated incidents. This is not a few bad apples. This is, as Mikey Weinsein of the MRFF called it, “the intentional dismantling of the Constitutionally mandated wall separating church and state by some of the highest ranking officials in the Bush Administration and the U.S. military.”

SoldiersThe intentional dismantling of the wall separating church and state. By the armed enforcers of the Federal government. By the branch of the Federal government that has the big rifles.

What is that but theocracy?

(P.S. I’m not even going to get into the fact that these are the people who are enforcing our foreign policy overseas, in parts of the world that are primarily and quite passionately not Christian. Except to say: Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. What a colossally, appallingly, mind-twistingly bad idea that is.)

This has been all over the atheosphere; but Susie Bright is the one who sent it to me. So thanks, Susie.

Going to Church

Churchsvg_2So I went to church last week.

Odd experience. Neat, but odd.

Quick explanation. A friend of ours was being installed as senior minister in a local Bay Area church, and we went to the installation ceremony. A very lefty, groovy church, of course: completely gay-positive, sex-positive, feminist, very ecumenical, very inclusive, no smiting or hell or judgment talk, a major focus on compassion and social justice. And a nice place, too: warm, friendly, welcoming, with a great capacity for joy and a surprising sense of humor about itself.

I was surprised, though, at how God-dy it was. I hadn’t been expecting that. Somehow, I’d assumed that leftist, gay-positive, ecumenical, etc. churches didn’t really talk about God that much. Like the Unitarians. But the belief in God was very much present in the service, to a surprising degree. And so the churchiness and religious aspect of it was much more up in my face than it would have been in a less God-focused service.

It was a long ceremony. Over two hours. And while it wasn’t boring — quite the contrary, I found it a fascinating experience, and often a very pleasant one — it gave me a lot of time to contemplate religious belief up close… as well as my own reactions to it.

ArgueHere’s the first thing I noticed: The reflex to argue with religious beliefs has become very deeply ingrained in me. Throughout the ceremony, I found myself mentally quarreling with the content of the sermons and the songs. “Oh, God is not your creator — no perfect conscious being would have cobbled together these ad hoc, Rube Goldberg systems of biological life.” “If you’re going to give God the credit for all this wonderful love and bounty and happiness, doesn’t he also deserve the blame for all the suffering and starvation and selfishness?” Etc.

But the arguing wasn’t fun, the way it is in the atheosphere. In fact, it made me feel like kind of a jerk. Not a fair or accurate feeling, I don’t think, but a feeling nonetheless. Even though I wasn’t saying anything out loud (except the occasional sotto voce comment to my companions when I just couldn’t stand it), it reminded me of the unpleasant fact that, in our society, the role of the skeptic/ vocal atheist/ critic of religion and spirituality is often the role of the buzz-kill, the party pooper, the Great Rain God On Everyone’s Parade. And it reminded me, quite viscerally, of just how much of an outsider I was in this place. Even in the grooviest, friendliest, leftiest, most inclusive church I could hope for, I still felt like an alien.

Plus, because of how God-dy the service was, I was having a near-constant struggle with myself about how much I was and was not willing to participate. One the one hand, I didn’t want to be rudely conspicuous about my lack of assent to the proceedings. After all, as Miss Manners would say, if I’d felt such strong disapproval of the event that my only honorable response would be conspicuous defiance, the proper thing to do would have been to not attend at all. And I didn’t feel that way, at all. But at the same time, I was absolutely unwilling to say or do anything — and I mean anything — that expressed, or even symbolized, agreement and assent with what was being said or sung.

Closed_mouthI did reach an internal compromise that I was ultimately okay with. I went along with the basic physical proceedings, standing and sitting and holding hands when everyone else did… but I declined to say, or even sing, anything that I didn’t agree with or assent to. Which, given how God-dy this ceremony was, meant pretty much not saying or singing anything at all. And I wouldn’t make gestures that I considered gestures of assent, either, such as bowing my head during prayer, or putting money in the collection plate. It was a compromise that I was completely fine with in theory… but in practice, it meant that I was hyper -self- consciously parsing my actions, pretty much constantly, throughout the service.

But on the flip side of all that, something else occurred to me, and occurred to me very strongly:

If this were what all religious belief and practice was like, I wouldn’t really care about it.

IndifferenceI’d still not believe it. I’d still disagree with it. I definitely wouldn’t participate in it, except for special occasions such as this one. And if asked my opinion about it, I’d still offer it. But it just wouldn’t be that big a deal to me. The world is full of mistaken beliefs — urban legends, folk etymologies, etc. — and while I’ll happily discuss them if they come up in conversation, I don’t get all that worked up about them. I certainly don’t devote the bulk of my writing career to pointing out the mistakes and offering alternatives. And if all religions were like this church — woman-positive, queer-positive, sex-positive, genuinely accepting of other religions, genuinely accepting of people with no religion at all, respectful and indeed enthusiastic about separation between church and state, etc. — then that’s probably how I’d feel about religion, too. Mistaken belief, sure, but people seem to get something they need out of it, so who am I to judge, and what business is it of mine anyway.

All religions aren’t like this one, of course. Religions like this one seem to be in the minority, and not a very large minority at that. And so my ongoing critique of religion will continue. Furthermore, while I don’t 100% agree with certain hard-line atheists that moderate religions give credibility to extremist and intolerant ones, I do think there’s a valid point in there somewhere. If nothing else, moderate religions give credibility to the idea that believing in things that don’t make sense and that you have absolutely no good evidence for is not only acceptable, but a positive virtue. And that is a big problem for me — especially since most religion isn’t groovy and tolerant and ecumenical.

It was good to have a reminder, though, that while I still don’t agree with churches like this one and still have serious problems with them, they really aren’t the enemy. These are good people, likable people, people I’m thrilled to have in the world.

But here’s the main thing, the final thing, the surprising and surprisingly large thing that I took away from this church service that I hadn’t even remotely expected:

I no longer have church envy.

At all.

PraiseFor many years, I’ve had a certain creeping envy of people who belonged to religious groups. The whole idea of having a place to go once a week to seek ecstasy and transcendence and meaning and share it with others, as a link in a chain going back hundreds or even thousands of years… it was something I felt a curious longing for. During my woo years, I even sought out, in a half-assed way, a religious group that I might be able to join up with. It was kind of like that Onion article: Black Gospel Choir Makes Man Wish He Believed In All That God Bullshit. (Especially the line where the pastor says, “Perhaps our abiding faith in Jesus and love for our fellow man will, at the very least, inspire him to quit living in his head all the time.”)

But at no point during this church service did I think, “This is something I would like to have, and don’t.”

Jump_for_joyThere were many wonderful things about the service, and it clearly offered something of value to the members of the church. There was joy, community, celebration of life, transcendence and ecstasy, wonderful music (really — the choir was something special), a shared sense of purpose and meaning, etc. etc. But all the things that I liked about the service, all the things I found meaningful and moving, were all things that I can and do get from other areas of my life. I can get them from dancing, from music, from good food, from good conversation, from reading, from writing, from nature, from art, from sex.

PrayerAnd the things I didn’t like… well, those were all the actual religious parts. And I don’t want them. I found them alien, and alienating. They didn’t make sense to me — not intellectually, not emotionally, not viscerally, not in any way. I found them baffling and mysterious, and not in an enticingly mysterious way. (Or, obviously, in a “beautiful holy mystery” way.) They weren’t unpleasant, exactly. They just completely failed to strike any chord in me whatsoever. If there’s an opposite to striking a chord, that’s what they did.

Ingrid said something after the service that struck me strongly. I hadn’t thought about it in those terms, but as soon as she said it, I realized it was true for me as well. The night before the church service, we had gone to Perverts Put Out, a semi-regular reading series by local sex writers. (I was one of the readers, in fact.) Now, Perverts Put Out is always a high-quality event… but this night was exceptional, even by PPO standards. One of those nights that you remember for years. And what Ingrid said is that, at that Perverts Put Out, she felt more transcendence, more joy, more sense of meaning and connection and community, than she even came close to feeling at the church service.


Now, it’s not like this is a question of “either/or”. It’s not like you can have a porn reading or you can have church, but you can’t have both. Especially with this church. In fact, we weren’t the only people who went to both: we ran into a couple of people at the church service that we recognized from the porn reading the night before. I’m not trying to draw a contrast in that way.

I’m just trying to say:

Slash_circlesvgI no longer envy people who have religion.

There is nothing here that I want or need.

If any church — certainly any actively God-dy Christian church — was going to fill me with church envy, it would have been this one: this gay-positive, sex-positive, warm, loving, ecumenical, inclusive, progressive, social-justice church. And it didn’t.

And that’s an amazing realization. Even when you take away all the icky stuff from religion — even when you take away the conformist indoctrination and the fucked-up politics, the hatred of women and the fear of sex, the intolerance of other religions and the insidious terrorism of the concept of hell — I still don’t want it. It’s not just the obviously fucked-up trappings that I don’t want. It’s the religion itself.

A while back, I wrote a post asking, If You Weren’t An Atheist, What Would You Be? In it, I pondered this very issue: the yearning I had for the things religion seemed to offer, the search I’d been on in my past for a religious organization that I could be part of. I looked at religions that I had a fondness for, and asked: If I weren’t an atheist, what would I be? Would I be a Quaker? A pagan? A Bahai? A Jew?

But now I have my answer to that question.

If I weren’t an atheist, I’d be an atheist.