Why I am an atheist – T.E.P.

Fish paste sandwiches.

Not the kind of answer to the question that you were expecting, I suspect. Also, it’s a more-than-slightly facetious answer and not entirely true, but it’s not entirely untrue either…

My earliest memories of religion are much like those of many others: sitting in a cold and draughty church with my grandparents, getting bored and fidgety, the feel of the hard pew and the dusty smell of my grandmother’s “Sunday best” coat. Or going to Sunday School in the church hall, with pictures on the walls of lions and camels and all the exciting and exotic bits of the bible, such as are wont to capture the imagination of a four-year old. And of bright and shining people telling stories in tones of wonder, and trying to relate their awe at miracles to the experiences of children too young to really have any.

But they were wrong. I’d had experience of stories. I knew that stories told of things that weren’t real, that couldn’t happen, that didn’t now or hadn’t ever been. My bible in those days involved a bear of little brain and a piglet who went hunting heffalumps. I knew that people made these stories up, sometimes to entertain themselves or for their friends, and sometimes just because they didn’t know the answers, and a story is more fun than just a shrug and “I dunno.” I knew that people sometimes made up stories to teach lessons, or what else could be the point of Sunday School?

But Aesop taught that being kind to others would repay in not being eaten by a lion, which is a most important lesson to a four-year-old. Had he but known, the ancient Greek could have given his tale more impact with an allosaur, and I always did prefer a stripy tiger to a lazy lion, but even then I knew you’ve got to work with what you’ve got. If lions were the best he had, at least they made the point.

And what of Christ? What lessons were there here for me to learn? I learned that he could walk on water, and that he cast his nets upon the sea and filled them full of fish. But I didn’t like fish much. I learned that he could heal the sick and make the lame to walk. Well, that I didn’t even think about – I walked because I had my operations and my surgeons and my callipers to wear.

If I did what I was told, would I be able to heal others? Would I have superpowers?

“In a minute,” was the answer. “When you’re older,” or “we’ll see,” the bible says. “Not just now, but maybe later, if you’re good.” It doesn’t take the brightest child to figure out by the age of four just what these phrases mean. They mean “don’t bother me just now, and behave.” They mean “I’m too busy to explain.” They mean “no”.

So the stories had a most unsatisfying ending. Yet these people, with their shining cheerfulness, kept insisting they were true. They told me that he fed a multitude with three loaves of bread and just two fishes, and when he finished there were baskets full of scraps. “But how?” I longed to know. “How did that work?” I tried to understand*.

No-one told me, so I filed it, like so much of what I learned in early years, in a big box in my head labelled “things that grown-ups tell you that aren’t really true, and in time you’ll figure out the reasons why,” and didn’t worry. When they brought out food for us (which was a treat, you understand, and not a thing that happened every week), my stomach over-rode my brain as often happens when you’re four. And I took a bite of sandwich, and I chewed and



Postscript/Authors note:
No, the betrayal of a fish paste sandwich masquerading as a meat paste sandwich (which I did like) wasn’t what killed all of religion for me (although I never did forgive Sunday School for it). You see, there really wasn’t ever anything there to kill. It was pretty much always just stories, and not very good or believable ones. I only stopped attending services regularly when I stopped attending a youth group for which regular church-going was a necessary condition of membership, about a decade after the events recounted above. For all of this time, religious observance was always something I thought could only be a social observance for the vast majority of attendees. I mean, any child could see that man had made god in his own image, and that the supernatural was just a way of explaining the natural-but-yet-to-be-understood. To believe otherwise required a level of wilful stupidity which I, in my sheltered naivety, thought had to be really quite rare.

The fish paste sandwich does make a nice metaphor for when I found myself disabused of that notion, though.

*And also, “What did they do with all those scraps? Did they take them into town and feed the poor,” I thought. “Shouldn’t that be the moral of the tale? They’ve left it all half-finished!”

A Secret Base Under an Antarctic Volcano.
(I don’t think I believe that)

Live by advertising, die by advertising

A beer company, Molson, came up with a cunning plan. Their market is primarily male, so they bought ads in women’s magazines, not to broaden their market, but to set up a ploy to appeal to men.

Here’s the ad they placed in Cosmopolitan, a magazine read primarily by women.

Then they placed this ad in magazines like Playboy, read primarily by men.

If you can’t read it, here’s the ad copy.



As you read this, women across America are reading something very different: an advertisement (fig. 1) scientifically formulated to enhance their perception of men who drink Molson. The ad shown below, currently running in Cosmopolitan magazine, is a perfectly tuned combination of words and images designed by trained professionals. Women who are exposed to it experience a very positive feeling. A feeling which they will later project directly onto you. Triggering the process is as simple as ordering a Molson Canadian (fig. 2).

Extravagant dinners. Subtitled movies. Floral arrangements tied together with little pieces of hay. It gets old. And it gets expensive, depleting funds that could go to a new set of of 20-inch rims. But thanks to the miracle of Twin Advertising Technology, you can achieve success without putting in any time or effort. So drop the bouquet and pick up a Molson Canadian…

The ad is a success in one sense: it’s getting a lot of attention paid to Molson Canadian, and if you believe there’s no such thing as bad publicity, sure, it works.

But in another sense, it’s just closed off a chunk of the market for them. Assume they are correct, and that the ads can ‘program’ or at least bias women to have a specific attitude towards men. The effect relies entirely on women not seeing the men’s ad, which announces that the women are being manipulated. The fact that both are being juxtaposed all over the place means that now the only feeling women will project directly onto men drinking Molson’s beer is one of mistrust, a very negative feeling.

It was stupid. It was frat-boy stupid. It’s just too bad there are a heck of a lot of frat boys out there who will think it’s cool.

For those who argue that it’s just a funny ad: OF COURSE, this ad is manipulating men. It won’t, by intent, convince women to buy Molson beer. The ad campaign is targeted entirely at men, and it works because there are a lot of men who will laugh at an ad that makes out women to be stupid and easily swayed by sweaters and puppy dogs.

What you’re missing is that the response to the ad, these juxtapositions of the two commercials, shows that they are incredibly dismissive of women. Molson is playing up the idea that women are gullible and not very bright, and that men will get a kick out of a campaign that claims to manipulate women in the shallowest possible way.

And of course, if it works and sells beer, it shows that men are gullible and not very bright. Sexism hurts men and women, since here it is, used to trick people into drinking crappy beer.

Arkansas is promoting sexual ignorance

Arkansas schools are promoting abstinence-only sex education, through a program called “The Real Deal”. Like all abstinence-only programs, it’s foundation is in morality (their byline is “abstinence builds character”, which isn’t true, unless you mistake sanctimonious prudery for character) and lies — they announce statistics on their main page that claim that their abstinence programs reduce sexual activity by 30-40%, although they don’t bother to give us a source for those numbers, and all the other evidence available says that abstinence-only fails in comparison to comprehensive sex education.

On their site, they do cite a general source, WebMD. Let’s see what what WebMD has to say about abstinence-only sex ed, shall we?

Students who took part in sexual abstinence programs were just as likely to have intercourse as those who did not. And, those who attended the classes reported having similar numbers of sexual partners to those who did not attend the classes. Mathematica also found out that the average age of having the first intercourse was the same for both groups – just a little less than 15 years old.

Four different abstinence-only programs were examined from around the USA. Students were about eleven when they participated in these programs in 1999. They were surveyed again in late 2005 and early 2006 when they were about 16.

They found that about half of the abstinence-only students had experienced intercourse and about half of the control group (having no program) had also. The 2,057 students were from Miami, Milwaukee, Powhatan, VA and Clarksdale, MS – with both urban and rural settings represented.

The site also touts True Love Waits, a page created by LifeWay Christian Resources, providing “Biblical solutions for life”, which is owned by the Southern Baptist Convention…which reveals the real motivation behind this organization. Has anyone ever seen a genuinely secular abstinence-only program? They all seem to be driven by a conservative social agenda that wants to police children’s thoughts and behaviors, and force them to conform to a failed and obsolete biblical model of culture. At best, they strain to strip the program of any appearance of faith-based thinking (does that remind anyone else of Intelligent Design creationism?), but they can’t hide the fundamentalist/absolutist foundation of their ideas.

They’re also ludicrously stupid. Look at what some Arkansas parents discovered that “The Real Deal” had their kids signing: a card promising to conform. My favorite part is the expiration date.

My wedding night was 31 years ago. Woo hoo! Alcohol, illegal drugs, pornography, and sex outside of marriage, here I come!

The only real deal for sex ed is comprehensive sex education, which also encourages restraint and good sense, but gives accurate information about how to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Anything less is encouraging ignorance, and we’ve got the example of a few thousand years of Christianity to show what a mess that makes of people’s lives.

You, too, can be a good atheist if only you respected God a lot more

I just can’t warp my brain in the way required to be a good atheist, I’m afraid. R. Joseph Hoffman is doing his usual schtick of whining about those philistine New Atheists, and this time his point is that we’ve diminished atheism and turned it into a “little idea” instead of the grand powerful concept it ought to be. And how did we do that? By not giving enough credit to a god.

When did atheism cease to be a big idea? When atheists made God a little idea. When its idea of god shriveled to become a postulate of a new intellectual Darwinism. When they began to identify unbelief with being a woman, a gay, a lesbian, or some other victimized cadre. When they decided that religion is best described as a malicious and retardant cultural force that connives to prevent us being the Alpha Race of super-intelligences and wholly equal beings that nature has in store for us. When they elevated naturalism, already an outmoded view of the universe, to a cause, at the expense of authentic imagination.

Atheism has become a little idea because it is based on the hobgoblin theory of religion: its god is a green elf with a stick, not the master of the universe who controls it with his omniscient will. –Let alone a God so powerful that this will could evolve into Nature’s God–the god of Jefferson and Paine–and then into the laws of nature, as it did before the end of the eighteenth century in learned discussion and debate.

What a load of jaw-droppingly stupid bollocks.

Atheists believe god is non-existent — you can’t make it much smaller than that. If you’re postulating a grand great god while proclaiming your atheism, you’re doing one or the other wrong.

There is no requirement to be a lesbian to be an atheist (there are a lot of us who’d be very surprised to discover that the people he later names as prominent are all gay or lesbian minorities). But there is an appreciation that you don’t have to be an old white heterosexual guy to benefit from reason and science and liberation from old superstitions.

I don’t believe atheists are an “Alpha Race of super-intelligences”, or that they are becoming such. Atheists are just people…people who’ve shed a parasite.

Naturalism is outmoded? Hoffman doesn’t get out much, I guess.

I have an interesting mental picture now of who R. Joseph Hoffman regards as a good atheist: it’s an old white heterosexual guy (so far I qualify!) who thinks god is all-powerful and that religion is a useful way to understand the universe. Poor Hoffman. He’s searching for a paradox, so I think he’s going to be a frustrated crank the rest of his life, as he watches a logically consistent form of atheism overwhelm his impossible ideal.

Larry Moran also finds Hoffman to be a bit dotty.

Subscribe to Free Inquiry

You should! Ophelia Benson is already in it, and I just got the latest issue, which boldly announces in a banner across the top, “NEW COLUMNIST: PZ MYERS”, so I’m entirely self-serving when I say you should send them money.

It really is going to be a regular thing — I just sent off column #2 this past weekend. I think I get to eventually post the columns here, but only after a long lag to avoid undercutting the magazine. Which is silly, though: if you’ve ever seen Free Inquiry, you know it regularly features a large collection of interesting writers — Wendy Kaminer, Susan Jacoby, Christopher Hitchens, a whole bevy of that ilk — and you ought to be getting it to savor the whole magazine.

Why I am an atheist – Breton Vandenberg

My conversion to atheism was less of a de-conversion from religion as it was a personal realisation of what being an atheist represented. In my life I was not surrounded by religion nor was I compelled to find it by family or friends. However, even this is not a guarantee that someone will become an atheist – one only needs look at the numerous conspiracy-theorists in the world today to see how easily irrationality can take root in one’s mind.

So, the beginning of my conversion began with the simple realisation that after reading about the awesome-ness of the T-Rexs, Tricerotops, Great White Sharks and Killer Whales I found the stories of Joshua and Noah to be no more interesting or entertaining than the fairy tales I had been brought up on. Thus at around the age of 8 or 9 I simply decided I had enough with the bible and its silliness and promptly told my mother I wouldn’t be going to Sunday School any more.

But this did not make me an atheist. Rather I began to refer to myself as agnostic (once I learnt what the word meant of course! I was still young) – loudly proclaiming that I believed in a greater power, a personal God, but that this was a God not trapped in any book. A God that existed beyond us – but always there to guide and assist. Indeed, I still prayed every night to this God and I felt he listened. I left school, completed university and entered into work – sinning and fornicating along the way – and still I felt that this personal God was there with me. I could not perceive of a world without a greater power above us nor could I bear to associate myself with the now ingrained view I had of an atheist, that they were arrogant, nihilistic and dismissive by virtue of their disbelief.

And so it was that I found Richard Dawkins The God Delusion one day, in an airport on my way to Johannesburg. And it was within its pages that I started to recognise a deeper appreciation for the world – a world based on rationality and logic. And within its pages I also recognised myself. For here I was clinging to the idea of a personal God despite no evidence to its existence and all the while dismissing the superstition so prevalent in my society – giggling at stories of the ‘tokoloshe’, expressing shared disgust at ‘muti’-killings as well as mocking creationists. I was a hypocrite and it was all there for me to see.

And so it was that one evening, I just refused to pray. I had seen that to be an atheist was not to be closed minded, nor cynical. Rather it was to finally recognise what had begun when I first refused to return to Sunday School – that on looking at the evidence for religion, and finding it to be insufficient, the only honest outcome was atheism.

Breton Vandenberg
South Africa

PS Unless you are South African I doubt you would be familiar with the terms ‘tokoloshe’ and ‘muti’-killings. It is for this reason Google is there for you – I’m sure there are better and clearer definitions out there then I could provide!