God Won’t Cure Mental Illness: What’s Wrong With Rick Warren’s Sermon

rick_warren“We’re all mentally ill.”

“You have fears, you have worries, you have doubts, you have compulsions, you have attractions…”

So said Rick Warren, founder and senior pastor of the megachurch Saddleback Church and author of “The Purpose-Driven Life,” in a sermon largely about his son’s mental illness and recent suicide.

Warren was clearly trying to help de-stigmatize mental illness, and I commend that. But this is not the way. We are not, in fact, all mentally ill. And saying that we are does not de-stigmatize mental illness. It trivializes it. It contributes to the stigma. And it makes it harder to recognize and treat.

*****

Thus begins my new piece for Salon, God Won’t Cure Mental Illness. To read more about how Warren’s sermon trivializes mental illness, stigmatizes it, dismisses evidence-based treatment, and frames atheism and religious doubt as a mental disorder, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Secular Meditation: “Energy,” and Attention/ Awareness

energy-perspectives-problems-prospects-michael-b-mcelroy-hardcover-cover-artSo what does this “energy” thing mean, anyway?

I don’t mean literal, physical energy. I more or less understand that. I mean “energy” in the supernatural/ metaphysical/ woo bullshit sense. And specifically, what does it mean for a meditation practice?

Here’s what I’m talking about. As regular readers know, I’ve recently begun a secular meditation/ mindfulness practice, based on the evidence-based Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction techniques. I do a few different practices, depending on where I am and how much time I have… but the core of my practice, at least for now, is something called a “body scan,” in which I focus my attention on each part of my body in turn, starting with my feet and moving up to the top of my head, noticing thoughts and distractions as they arise and acknowledging them without judgment and then gently letting them go to return my attention to the body part in question. When I first started doing the body scan practice, I basically had to say the words to myself, in my head, “Heel. Heel. Pay attention to your left heel. Heel. Okay, moving on to the big toe. Big toe. Pay attention to your big toe. Okay, that’s an interesting thought drifting into your consciousness: notice it, don’t judge it, let it go, return your attention to your big toe. Big toe. Big toe. Okay… now little toe.”

But as I get more familiar with the practice — more practiced, I guess — this has been shifting. The verbal instructions to myself are becoming less necessary. It’s becoming easier to just experience my body, to just feel it, without having to name the parts. If I’m more tired, or more stressed out, I need more of the verbal directions… but I’m needing them less and less. (In a “two steps forward, one step back” way.)

And as I get less dependent on the verbal catalog to keep me focused on my body, and become more able to just experience my body for what it is, this… thing has been happening.

Instead of controlling or directing the body scan, it’s just been happening by itself. [Read more...]

Eight Non-Believing Scientists Who Can Inspire Anyone

This piece was originally published on AlterNet. Note: When I originally posted the link to it, some people apparently misunderstood the intent of the piece, and thought it was supposed to be the eight best, or most famous, or most important, or most something else, non-believing scientists. It’s not. It’s just eight. Selected based on assorted personal criteria, some idiosyncratic, some not, and with a big heaping dose of random involved. Hope that clears things up.

It’s common knowledge — or it should be — that atheists are among the most reviled and mistrusted groups in America. We consistently come in at the bottom of polls about who Americans would vote for, who they would trust, who they want to marry into their families, who they think shares their view of how the world should be.

But it’s also the case that non-believers — not atheists as a group, but certain individual atheists and other non-believers — are among our most respected and beloved heroes. Not everyone knows that these people aren’t religious, of course… but they aren’t. And scientists are among the most admired of those heroes. Maybe it’s because scientists are more likely to be non-believers than the general population… and the more advanced in their field they are, the more true that becomes. Or maybe it’s because great scientists — American or not — embody the old-fashioned American values of exploration and curiosity, the willingness to question and the passion for truth, persistence in pursuing dreams and courage in the face of adversity. (These values aren’t uniquely American, of course — but when people gas on about the American character, these ideals do tend to turn up in the conversation.)

So here are eight non-believing scientists, whose work and lives and stories can inspire anyone — atheist, religious, or other. [Read more...]

8 Atheist and Agnostic Scientists Who Changed the World

It’s common knowledge — or it should be — that atheists are among the most reviled and mistrusted groups in America. We consistently come in at the bottom of polls about who Americans would vote for, who they would trust, who they want to marry into their families, who they think shares their view of how the world should be.

lightbulbBut it’s also the case that non-believers — not atheists as a group, but certain individual atheists and other non-believers — are among our most respected and beloved heroes. Not everyone knows that these people aren’t religious, of course… but they aren’t. And scientists are among the most admired of those heroes. Maybe it’s because scientists are more likely to be non-believers than the general population… and the more advanced in their field they are, the more true that becomes. Or maybe it’s because great scientists — American or not — embody the old-fashioned American values of exploration and curiosity, the willingness to question and the passion for truth, persistence in pursuing dreams and courage in the face of adversity. (These values aren’t uniquely American, of course — but when people gas on about the American character, these ideals do tend to turn up in the conversation.)

So here are eight non-believing or agnostic scientists, whose work and lives and stories can inspire anyone — atheist, religious, or other.

*

Thus begins my latest piece for AlterNet, 8 Atheist and Agnostic Scientists Who Changed the World. To read more, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Mars!

MAAAAAARS!

I’m just sayin’, is all.

I love how crazy Twitter is going tonight. I love that people are gathering at Times Square chanting, “Science! Science! Science!” I think we needed this. Thank you, NASA. Life can suck sometimes… but today, humanity can be proud.

History, My Bum Knee, and Some People I Want to Thank

So what does a trip to the emergency room have to do with the history of science and the fight for social justice?

This whole “dislocated knee” thing has sucked, and continues to suck, and will probably suck for a little while longer. (I don’t yet know for how long: I’ll keep you posted.) But I also have to say that it hasn’t sucked nearly as badly as it could have. For most of the time, I’m fairly comfortable, and safe, and well taken care of, and even reasonably well entertained.

There are the obvious people to thank for this. Ingrid being the most important and most obvious of the obvious crowd. There’s also the friends who have been sitting with me, and helping out with practical stuff. There’s the firefighters and paramedics who got me into the ambulance and to the emergency room, with compassion and good humor and patience, and with minimal discomfort on my part. There’s the doctors and nurses and staff at the emergency room, who diagnosed me and took care of me and kept me calm, with an entirely appropriate balance of attentiveness and “Yeah, you’ll be fine, this isn’t really that big a deal” reassurance. There’s the readers who’ve been saying nice supportive things. (For the record: It does help.)

But there are two less obvious groups of people that I also want to thank.

I want to thank everyone in history who has done good, evidence-based research into medical science. I’m getting better medical care for my dislocated knee, with less pain and a faster recovery and a better long-term prognosis, than I would have twenty years ago: better still than it would have been forty years ago, or a hundred. I’m getting care that has been rigorously tested and shown to actually be effective, using careful, double-blinded, placebo-controlled, replicated studies, designed and run by people who give a damn about the truth. I owe these people, and I want to thank them.

And I want to thank everyone who, for the last several decades, has been fighting for LGBT rights and recognition. [Read more...]

Skeptical Genetics: Jen McCreight’s Talk at Skepticon 4

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: Jen McCreight (of BlagHag fame) is one of the best speakers we have in this movement. She’s not a slamming powerhouse of swelling oratory: she’s just really clear, chatty, friendly, funny, approachable, and excellent at conveying complicated ideas clearly without talking down to her audience. I will hear her speak anytime — even if it’s on a topic I’ve heard her speak on before.

Her talk at Skepticon 4 was no exception. It’s sort of a Genetics 101 for a lay audience, with a focus on common misconceptions about genetics and dumb ways genetics get portrayed in news media and pop culture. If you want to know about this stuff but are daunted by dry or forbidding texts, this would be an excellent way to start. Enjoy!

From the Archives: Why Near Death Experiences Are a Terrible Argument for the Soul

Since I moved to the Freethought Blogs network, I have a bunch of new readers who aren’t familiar with my greatest hits from my old, pre-FTB blog. So I’m linking to some of them, about one a day, to introduce them to the new folks.

Today’s archive treasure: Why Near Death Experiences Are a Terrible Argument for the Soul. The tl;dr: Most arguments for spiritual belief that I encounter are so bad, they don’t even count as arguments. But some believers in religion or spirituality do try to make real arguments for their beliefs, and try to defend them with evidence and logic. This evidence and logic are never very good… but they are sincere attempts to engage with reality instead of ignoring it. So I want to do these arguments the honor of taking them seriously… and pointing out how they’re completely mistaken. This piece takes on the argument that near-death experiences provide some sort of real scientific evidence for the existence of an immaterial soul separate from the brain, and which lives on after the brain dies.

A nifty pull quote:

Given that the evidence supporting the “biological process of the brain” explanation is rigorously gathered, carefully tested, thoroughly cross-checked, internally consistent, consistent with everything we know about how the brain and the mind work, able to produce mind-bogglingly accurate predictions, not slanted towards wishful thinking, and is expanding our understanding of the mind every day.

Given that the evidence supporting the “immortal soul separate from the brain” explanation is flimsy, anecdotal, internally inconsistent, blasted into non-existence upon careful examination, totally at odds with everything we know about how the brain and the mind work, and strongly biased towards what people most desperately want to believe.

Which of these explanations of consciousness seems more likely?

And which explanation of near-death experiences seems more likely?

Enjoy!

And now a quick question: Are there any of these evidence-based arguments for religious or spiritual belief that I’m missing?

I wrote this series to address the arguments for religion that actually take the question of whether religion is true or not seriously, and that attempt to offer real evidence in favor of religious claims. Of the countless arguments I’ve seen for religion I was able to come up with five — the first cause argument, the argument from design, the argument from fine-tuning, “I feel it in my heart,” and near-death experiences — that fit this category. The rest are just bafflegab: excuses for why evidence isn’t necessary, defenses of the notion that we shouldn’t care whether religion is true as long as it’s useful, accusations that atheists are mean for raising the question in the first place, Pascal’s Fucking Wager, etc. Are there any actual evidence- based arguments for religion that I should be addressing in this series? If so, please let me know.

I have my archives!

I have my archives from my old blog! They’re here! With comments and everything! They’re even in the right categories!

Images and videos didn’t make it over, and there are a handful of posts that didn’t make it and that I’ll have to put in by hand. (For some reason, it didn’t like my posts about alternative medicine, speaking at Stanford, making atheism a safe place to land, atheists having morality, and my recipe for chocolate pie. Make of that what you will.) But I can live with that. The archives are here. Years of my old work — all finally in one place. This has been driving me up a tree, and I can now finally relax about it. (A little.)

If you want to see them, scroll down in the sidebar to where it says “Recent Posts/ Comments/ Archives.” Click Archives. There they are! You can also search for posts in the archives with the handy Search box at the top right of the blog. Which works waaaay better than the search box at my old blog.

When I’m back from my Minnesota trip, I’m going to start working on (a) getting the old blog to redirect to the new one, and (b) getting the best and hottest posts listed in my sidebar, so newcomers to the blog can browse them more easily. And I’ll probably start linking to the cool stuff from the archives, so newcomers to this blog can become familiar with it. For now, I’m just going to sit back and cry tears of happiness and relief. I can haz archives! Yay!

I have to express my intense gratitude to fellow Freethought Blogger Jason Thibeault, at Lousy Canuck, for making this happen. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that atheists have no sense of community or compassion. I owe him big time. Go visit his blog, and tell him Thank You.