Why I am an atheist – Barbara Meissner

I was a teenager. I sang in the choir for the Protestant church services on Air Force bases. Most services were non-denominational, and a few were Lutheran. I was there mostly for the singing and for social reasons but I was a Christian. My mother was a generic Christian, a sort of non-denominational granddaughter of two Methodist ministers. My father was an atheist, though I did not know that at the time. I never got any sense that he opposed the Sunday schools when I was young or the choir in my teens. I think he expected me to figure it out for myself.

George Carlin once said about religion “I tried, folks. I really did.” So did I. I wanted it. I wanted what all those people around me had, that sense of the presence of God, a real relationship with God. I prayed frequently for God to fill me with what the others described as the Holy Ghost. It never happened.

It was the weekly attendance at church with the choir, which went on for about 2 years, that put the first crack in my belief. One day I realized, after reading the Sermon on the Mount, that I rarely heard a preacher quote Jesus. We got a lot of Paul, and sometimes a bit of the other letters. We got the Old Testament. At Christmas and Easter we got a lot of stories about Jesus. But we very rarely got what Jesus actually said. As a joke I told a friend that they weren’t Christians, they were Paulists. But I couldn’t figure out why they spent so little time quoting Jesus.

We had a great Youth Pastor. I think he really was a nice guy, though of course, these days we have a tendency to look askance at them because of how many of them end up molesting children. He honestly tried to answer my questions, which were becoming more and more frequent. But he really couldn’t. It all came down to “You have to have faith,” a very unsatisfactory answer.

Then I re-read Stranger in a Strange Land. I’d read it shortly after it was published when I was 11 and approximately 70 percent of it went right over my head (my parents had no idea at the time what the book was like, as Heinlein’s previous books were aimed at children), but this time I was old enough to actually understand most of it. I was just barely 16. Heinlein’s cynicism, his contempt for religious leaders, and his failure to accept the norms I had been taught were a revelation. But the most important thing in the book, at least as far as my religious faith was concerned, was a passage in which he described what happened to Lot’s daughters. His character then said, “That’s not the only surprise in store for any one who actually reads the Bible.”

I took him up on his implied challenge. I read the Bible, starting at Genesis 1:1 and continuing all the way through, page by page. I admit I skimmed over the begats and I just never could quite finish Revelations. It was just too weird to me. It made no sense at all to a 16 year old in the mid-1960s, before everything got all psychedelic. But I read everything else.

Then I thought about it. I thought about all the Bible stories that I’d never heard of, and with damned good reason. I thought about God the Father who will send his children to hell. He will do this even to those who had never really hurt anyone in their entire lives, while murderers and rapists went to heaven if they just confessed their sins and repented. I knew my Daddy could never send me to hell, no matter what I did. I thought about the injustice of God punishing us for being who he made us to be. I thought about the genocide of peoples whose only real crime was being on the wrong land at the wrong time and all the other crimes authorized by God.

After about 3 weeks, I told my mother. “I don’t believe it. It doesn’t make sense.”

She just shrugged and said, “Don’t worry, you’ll figure it out eventually.” Actually she figured it out. She is an atheist today.

My reasons for being an atheist have become more sophisticated over time, but it began as an overpowering sense of the unfairness inherent in the Christian doctrine. A measure of my lack of sophistication at the time is that it never occurred to me that maybe another religion was the right one, which is fortunate in way, as it saved me a lot of time searching through other beliefs.

These days I tend to concentrate on the lack of evidence for a supernatural being, and the utter lack of evidence that becoming a “good” Christian, or indeed, any other religion, makes you a more moral person. But my atheism is still grounded on that sense of unfairness.

Barbara Meissner
United States

“We’re meddlesome”

First it was Chris Stedman, now it’s Massimo Pigliucci. Everyone loves to sit back and carp about the New Atheists, because they’re the most prominent subset of the atheist movement, the ones getting the most press, and the ones getting the most criticism from theists…so of course the armchair philosophers have to take a whack, too. I’m not entirely sure why; Stedman should have his kinder, gentler, gooey-er faitheism to promote, and Pigliucci ought to have his philosophy-er, hoity-toity-er, rational-er atheism to peddle. I assume that some people just like to meddle — they just can’t bear the thought that someone else’s strategy, even if it is working towards a similar goal, is actually working and making progress, so they’ve got to announce their dissatisfaction and tinker. It’s only natural, I suppose, that a growing movement would find itself surrounded by not only opponents, but also obnoxious kibitzers.

Massimo Pigliucci was inspired by two recent posts, one from Greta Christina and another by Chris Stedman, to write an article on the goals of atheist activism, and unfortunately he seems to have understood neither. He seems to think they’re largely in agreement, which is a rather shocking misread; Greta wrote about two kinds of goals, but wasn’t trying to limit it at all to just those two, while Stedman was mainly oblivious to her message and was trying to argue about how bad the New Atheists are. Pigliucci similarly fails to comprehend the message, and instead, like Stedman, ignores the different goals of different subsets of the movement to, again, complain about the goddamned New Atheists.

You know, if I had assigned readings to students and they came back with such egregious failures of comprehension, I’d flunk them.

Let me make it simpler, with little words. Different groups have different goals, and that’s fine. The problems come when members of Group A with Goal A’ criticize Group B with Goal B’ for not achieving A’. A should work for A’, and B should work for B’, and A is not going to impress when they tell B to abandon their goals. Because B will tell A to go fuck off for being clueless meddling twits.

Greta was very clear about that. She even ended the article that way, with the importance of asking a simple question: “Which cause, exactly, are you talking about? Because we may not be talking about the same one.” Pigliucci did not bother to ask that question. He just assumes that his goals are everyone else’s goals, and therefore he’s justified in complaining about how we’re doing everything wrong.

Sorry, Massimo. You fail. Go back and re-read Greta’s post until you actually comprehend it.

Failing to understand that different atheists have different goals, Pigliucci then deploys a series of familiar complaints that we’ve heard many times before from the most mealy-mouthed accommodationists. He sounds just like Chris Mooney from three years ago or so.

First off, Christina makes an argument at the beginning of her post for in-your-face atheism coupled with a nicer and gentler approach, claiming that this good cop / bad cop strategy “works.” How does she know? To quote: “hey, there’s a reason cops use it!” Interestingly, no source is provided as to the extent to which said technique is in fact used by the police, whether it works (outside of movies), and why it would be appropriate to social discourse, as opposed to dealing with criminals.

How do we know it works? Because atheism is booming — new groups popping up all over the place, meetings with record attendance, lots of press, lots of new activists. The “good cop/bad cop” story is actually us being nice, and making room for other strategies — it was a chance for other views to save face, if they were smart enough to take it.

Also, while we know events are going in the right direction for us now, we make no pretense that we are following the optimal path. We’re quite serious when we say other activists — even Stedman — should be out there pushing their own way.

That would be that the dual nice/in-your-face approach worked in the past, for instance with the civil rights movement, or concerning gay rights. There are two things I think we should be clear about in this context. First, atheists really ought not to compare themselves to blacks or gays, as it is an insult to people who have experienced real discrimination. Yes, it may not be politically correct to tell your co-workers or family that you are an atheist, and I’m sure some people suffer psychological consequences as a result. But atheists are not being made to sit at the back of buses, hanged from trees, put in prison, or denied voting rights qua atheist. So let’s not make unseemly comparisons.

Smooth move, guy. First, complain that we have no evidence that what we’re doing works; second, tell us that we aren’t allowed to model our activism after known successful movements. That’s the kind of underhanded maneuver that might make a fellow doubt your sincerity.

No one argues that atheists suffer anywhere near the magnitude of the discrimination blacks and gays have confronted. But the tactic of decrying the struggle against smaller offenses because there are greater problems elsewhere is a standard suppressive effort to maintain the status quo. If the status of atheists is so much less extreme than that of blacks or gays, it ought to be easier to soften the lesser problem while making a simultaneous effort elsewhere. This is not a serial world, but a parallel one.

Pigliucci is making a particular contemptible argument: it’s the idea that no injustice should be opposed if there is a greater injustice elsewhere. Would you tell a black man that the prejudice he faces is unimportant, because if you want to see real oppression, you need to look at Native Americans? For that matter, as long as disabled Native American lesbian atheists exist, no one else should be fighting for equality for any other cause.

Moreover, the “bad cops” of the civil and gay rights movements rarely went around insulting the other side, they were simply vocal about their own rights. There is a huge difference between being in-your-face in the sense of taking to the streets and loudly complaining about rights you are unjustly denied and being in-your-face in the more basic sense of hurling insults at other people.

Right. So in the last 50 years or so of history, everyone’s approach has been to say nothing but kind words to, say, Lester Maddox, George Wallace, David Duke, the KKK, or George Lincoln Rockwell. No one objected to the overt racism of the policemen who turned fire hoses on black crowds; no one had rude names for the bigots who abused the students who led the way in desegregation; no one ever insulted the members of a lynch mob.

That’s total nonsense. An important part of making racism and sexism and homophobia socially unacceptable has always been labeling and mocking and denigrating the perpetrators of such evils. You don’t make progress by pretending that Fred Phelps is a nice guy, and not making him pay the price of public stigma for being a hateful scumbag, by calling him a hateful scumbag.

Which reminds me. Many of my fellow atheists are nice and smart people, but there is also a tendency within the community to think that one is automatically smart just for being an atheist, as opposed to all those deluded idiots who believe in things for which there is no evidence. I don’t know about your personal experience, but I can point to a lot of religious people who are a lot smarter — by any reasonable definition of “smart” — than several atheists I have encountered. And the same goes for being ethical (or not). So, let’s tone the self-righteousness down a few notches, it is unbecoming and smells too much of religious bigotry.

I think I smell…sanctimony.

You can find scattered idiots within atheism who say that, but not one of the big name leaders or organizations within atheism make any such claim. And further, many atheists were once religious, sometimes recently, and all of them have numerous friends and family who are religious (we’re a minority, remember?) Pigliucci is simply making a ludicrous claim to make himself look like the wise and sensitive guy.

Once he’s finished sniping at the New Atheists, Pigliucci then lists four reasonable goals for atheists: separation of church and state, acceptance of atheism, combating dogma, and elimination of irrationalism. They’re fine; I can support them, and encourage Pigliucci to continue his efforts to promote them further. They’re part of my goals, too, and I imagine other New Atheists will have no objection, either.

But it’s not enough for me. I have other goals as well, and what I do is work towards my objectives, not Massimo Pigliucci’s. If only he could understand that…

Later, I’ll aim to post something on my goals that I trust will be different from other people’s…and why I don’t complain if Pigliucci and other people don’t serve my will.

Next year, we must wage the War on Christmas harder

I’m glad Christmas is over. This year seems to have been particularly awful in its encouragement of theological drivel, perhaps because the forces of churchy darkness are feeling increasingly desperate and irrelevant…so they marshal their paladins to go forth and wallop us with nonsense, in the hopes that we’ll become stupid enough to believe them. Unfortunately for them, the best they can do for paladins is that drone with all the expressivity of a dead mackerel, Alister McGrath, and the jolly old elf with dementia, John Lennox. I’m going to address their last-minute eructations of Christmas apologetics, but be warned — they’ll be back next year, like the hauntings of ghosts of Christmases Imaginary.

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$1.4 billion pissed away

Most of you probably already knew that our government is supporting the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a colossal boondoggle that purports to look for unexpected medical benefits, but actually ends up lining the pockets of con artists. Here’s a nice short summary of their accomplishments, but I can give you an even shorter one: for $1.4 billion, the American public has received somewhere between doodly and squat in new medical benefits.

You can blame a political liberal for this waste of money, unfortunately. Here’s his admission that NCCAM is not about doing science.

NCCAM is a political oasis for research that could not compete in mainstream science. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), one of the fathers of NCCAM, gave the game away when he lamented during a 2009 senate hearing that the center was disproving too many alternative therapies. "One of the purposes of this center was to investigate and validate alternative approaches. Quite frankly, I must say publicly that it has fallen short," Harkin said. If Harkin were interested in applying science to CAM, as opposed to confirming his bias towards complementary remedies, he would be happy that useless treatments were found to be useless.

Harkin doesn’t understand how science works, at all. But somehow, he got his fumbly little stupid fingers all over the pursestrings.

Why I am an atheist – m h

What keeps me an atheist is the fact that science explains the world so well and still allows me to question the world without having any boundaries. Even if there is a concept in science that is universally accepted as a truth, no one will threaten my life and my family would not distance themselves from me because I don’t accept it. What made me an atheist, however, is something completely different. I grew up in a war-torn country where questioning religion was a death sentence. As I was growing up, I was taught that religiosity is a virtue and, in the dangerous world that I was living in, religion will help me survive. I accepted it. Despite this, my parents had enough foresight to encourage me to study math and science despite it being essentially useless where I was growing up. The conflict between science and religion didn’t really hit me as a child, because every scientific fact I parroted to my parents was somehow in agreement with what God said.

What did bother me, though, was what I was seeing around me. It was a war. People were taking advantage of each other. I met terrible people who, through their exploitation of the religious beliefs of others, managed to steal and kill their way to the top. But, they weren’t seen as criminals. They were extolled for their knowledge of the holy books and their piety. They built places of worship. They promised eternal life in God’s kingdom. And, despite what everyone knew about them, that was enough to make them “good” people. The community would absorb their every word. People would volunteer to send themselves to their deaths for them. People would kiss their hands. This dissonance was hard to ignore for me. I had a hard time labeling a nice, giving neighbor who doesn’t pray as a “bad person” while war profiteers and murderers were labeled as “good people.” I stopped praying. I tuned out the sermons. I lost myself in science.

I learned about the birth of the Universe, the wonder of development, the amazing degree to which evolution explained differences in animals and the creation of mountains through plate tectonics. It made so much sense. It made my world a more beautiful place. The mountains that I grew up around were so much more of a wonder to me when I realize that there is a more amazing process in creating them than “God did it.” One day, looking at a photo of those mountains, I realized that I had stopped believing in God. It completely freed me. A rush of thoughts came to me. I suddenly realized that the best people are those who care for others, not because of a command of God, but because they just plain want the world to be a better place. I realized that so many people have wasted their lives and destroyed their environment for themselves and their children because they believed that “this world” doesn’t matter. So many lives lost, so much effort wasted, all because people wanted to be with God, rather than make the world the live in a better place. The wonder of the world around them was and continues to be completely lost to them.

m h

Sometimes Francis Collins does something right

He’s a delusional kook, but Collins is also a competent administrator, and I have to give him credit when he does the right thing.

The NIH, led by Dr. Collins, has recently accepted a recommendation from the National Institute of Medicine that future chimpanzee research funding shall be suspended, and that exceedingly strict guidelines are to be imposed.

They’re just too close to us, and should fall under the penumbra of the same ethical considerations we apply to humans. I’d say the same of gorillas and orangutans…but I don’t think there is any biomedical research being done on those animals, so the restriction would be unnecessary.

(Also on Sb)

Charles Teo has a lucrative racket

Teo is an Australian surgeon who has a brilliant scheme for anyone with a bit of surgical skill and a complete lack of conscience. He performs surgery on inoperable brain tumors in kids dying of cancer, and then ships them off to the Burzynski clinic in Texas to get injected with urine and die.

You’ve got to admit, marshaling the resources of a hospital, opening up a child’s skull, and diddling about with a knife inside without killing them is an amazing feat of impressive showmanship, sure to make devastated parents think something is being done worth $20-60,000 — even if there is no evidence at all that poking a glioblastoma with a pointy object offers any therapeutic benefit at all. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Teo is actually a very skilled surgeon. The problem is that brain surgery is not a panacea, and sometimes it is a totally inappropriate approach to deal with some cancers.

That he then sends his dying kids off to bankrupt their parents in a futile gesture at the Burzynski clinic suggests that this is a guy who knows how to crack skulls but actually knows nothing at all about cancer.

(Also on Sb)