Why I am an atheist – Tricia

The reason I am an Atheist is a very simple one: It is very important to me that the things I believe, are true. I accept that it’s logically impossible to prove a negative, but considering that in the entire history of humanity, nobody has ever found any good evidence for the existence of supernatural entities of any kind – and it’s certainly not for want of looking! – it seems reasonable to be just as certain that there really are no gods, as that there really is no ether and no phlogiston.

How I got here is a long story. Ironically enough, the seeds for my escape from religion were planted by the church I attended as a child. My family went to a Mennonite Brethren church, which was composed mostly of families like mine – Mennonites whose parents or grandparents had pursued an education and become city folk – as well as people of other ethnicities who had joined over the years. What we had in common with the Colony Mennonites was eating and singing, and a commitment to non-violence and social justice. A common theme of lessons and sermons was, “The Truth Will Set You Free.” Of course, the main “truth” they were talking about was salvation, but it also came up in the context of social justice, for example fighting prejudice, or using science to fight hunger and disease. The result of all this was that I was a very idealistic little girl.

Of course, I didn’t stay a little girl, and the idealism got squashed pretty hard. My church, and my extended family, either took a pretty hard swing to the right, or maybe they were always there and I hadn’t realized it. The messages changed, from “God is Love” and “We are called to a ministry of serving the poor and the sick and the oppressed,” to “Hell is awful and the Rapture could be any second” and “You are personally responsible for every sinner who goes to hell because you didn’t witness to them.” The graphic descriptions of the torment of hellfire and the horrors of the Tribulation were more than I could handle, and I often woke up from nightmares. To compound my terror, this particular brand of Evangelicalism makes one testable prediction: if you pray to accept Jesus as your personal saviour blah blah blah, then something (though it’s never described eactly what) is supposed to happen. A feeling of inner peace or connection with God or love or something. You’re supposed to Just Know you’re Saved. I prayed and prayed for years, with increasing desperation, and nothing happened. I never felt Saved. Clearly there was something wrong with me. I didn’t dare talk to anybody about it.

At the same time, other discourse in the church was giving me some ideas about why God might not want me. In the 1990s, in a church that considered itself radically progressive, there was a heated and divisive debate going on about whether women could be ordained as pastors. When it came down to a vote, the decision was the Bible said no, so that was that. There was plenty of anti-gay rhetoric going on as well. Plus a developing streak of dogmatism that frowned on asking questions and came with a goodly dose of anti-intellectualism on top. I came to believe that my existence was a massive case of entrapment: if God made me, and he hates queers and uppity women and people who can’t seem to stop asking “why”, then he deliberately made something he hates and I would be going to hell unless I somehow managed to not be what God made me as. What a setup!

I spent a few years as a straw atheist: I believed in God and was deeply afraid, and I hated him. I sat down to really read the Bible, to see if God really was the monster I’d come to believe in or if my church had gotten it wrong. Of course, what I learned was that if my church had gotten it wrong, it was by painting a far too rosy picture.

As I grew up, I got access to more and more books, and then the Internet, and learned about how the Bible actually came to be what it is today, and it looked less and less like the Divinely Inspired, Unerring Word of God, and more and more like a collection of confabulations selected to support a particular ideology.

I majored in psychology when I went to university, and we talked a lot about epistemology and the philosophy of science, and I learned about Karl Popper and the idea of falsifiability. Something clicked. I decided that if there was no scenario in which any possible outcome could prove there was no god, then God, for all practical purposes in this life, is irrelevant. I decided to live my life now, according to who I feel I am and what I believe is right and wrong, regardless of afterlife consequences. After all, it’s noble to stand up for what you believe is right, even at great personal cost. I’d take my martyrdom in the afterlife – but that’s another thing that’s impossible to make falsifiable predictions about.

Though I didn’t become a neuroscientist, I did take a lot of neuroscience courses towards my degree, and that sent mind-body dualism to the intellectual rubbish heap. If my mind is a function of my body, then it dies with my body and there’s nothing left to burn for eternity, so I have nothing to fear. The truth had set me free.

I haven’t escaped unscathed though. My depression probably also has genetic roots because it’s all over my family, but subjecting a child to that level of fear, accompanied with a heaping dose of self-loathing, can’t have improved matters. I have to really fight against thoughts like “I’m a depraved sinner who deserves to die.” I still have nightmares though they’re decreasing, and I have to be careful about stories featuring end of the world scenarios – I wasn’t old enough to see Terminator when it first came out, but I tried to watch it a couple years ago and had a panic attack during the opening credits and nightmares and flashbacks for a good week after. And I’m still angry – not at God but at the people who force the poison of religion on children’s minds.


An end of theology?

I very much like this insightful post; it points out that the big theological question of the ancient world was “where does the sun go at night?“, and that it was answered only relatively recently in human history — and answered with such resounding certainty that the question seems trivial to everyone now.

And how was it answered?

I think it’s an awkward fact for theology that, as far as I can see, a lot of theological issues have been conclusively solved, but all of them were solved outside the field. I don’t see this changing – one of the vibrant issues across a number of academic disciplines, including theology, is the very broad area of ‘consciousness’. I very strongly suspect we’ll see key breakthroughs in my lifetime, a real shift of understanding about what constitutes awareness, consciousness, intelligence, how these things can originate, how to define them and so on – but these breakthroughs will almost certainly come from the computer science departments, from the evolutionary biologists. It’s hard to see how they might even come from a theology department.

We’re just waiting for the theological corpse to rot away now. I don’t expect to see religion go away in my lifetime, but I don’t think it’s too much to hope that theology will get the disrespect and contempt it deserves.

Episode CCLXXXVII: Them’s good Martians

I have some concerns about the Disneyfication of the classic pulp novel, A Princess of Mars; I’m sure Disney wouldn’t have much trouble with Burroughs’ casual racism, and I see they have an out for the violence — green blood everywhere is OK — but I doubt the casual nudity will make it to the screen. One really good thing, though: those are truly excellent CGI Barsoomians.

And it’s being released for my birthday! How sweet!

(Episode CCLXXXVI: Escape from Wisconsin!)

Anti-Caturday post

Review the unpleasant nature of the cat’s penis. Now contemplate this: “12 feet long and highly mobile” and “gigantic testes that weigh a ton”.

Although, I do confess, when a pod of these big boys go into rut in your back yard, you’ll probably get even less sleep than when the neighborhood cats are in heat.

(Also on FtB)

Stupid prayer poll

This is an awesomely badly worded poll — so awful I don’t even know how to vote.

Do you think Muslim prayers should be allowed in school?

Yes (61%)
No (39%)

For three years, hundreds of students have been praying in the cafeteria at Valley Park Middle School during their lunch hour. The school doesn’t run or pay for the service.

Reading that far, I would say yes, of course students should be allowed to pray. Doesn’t matter whether they’re Christian, Muslim, or Satanist — if they’re not being disruptive and just doing their own thing, let them do it.

But then there is this…

The service is operated by members of the Valley Park community

Huh? It’s a “service” that is “operated” by people in the community? That’s a whole different matter. If they’re bringing in priests of their cult and doing organized prayer sessions on the sufferance of the school administration, that’s too much — it would be disruptive, and it turns the school cafeteria into a church.

That’s why the poll sucks. This isn’t an issue about whether kids should be allowed to pray, it’s about whether schools should host religious services during school hours. And the answer there would be NO.

Except for the additional qualification that this is all in Canada, which doesn’t have the nominal separation of church and state that we do. Ethically, at least, the answer is still no — don’t use schools for religious indoctrination.

Anti-Caturday post

Review the unpleasant nature of the cat’s penis. Now contemplate this: “12 feet long and highly mobile” and “gigantic testes that weigh a ton”.

Although, I do confess, when a pod of these big boys go into rut in your back yard, you’ll probably get even less sleep than when the neighborhood cats are in heat.

(Also on Sb)

Slow news day, I guess

Good god, media, I DON’T CARE ABOUT IOWA ANY MORE. It’s a freakish little local contest dominated by hardcore fanatics, and the only reason the results will mean anything is that the media will do its best to pump up the outcome into a portent of things to come. So when I saw this headline in the Minneapolis Star Tribune at the coffee shop today, I just set it aside, disgusted, disinterested, and disenchanted.

Bachmann isn’t going to win. Even if she did, she’s one lunatic among a field of demented dwarfs.


I’m ready to call for a return of party bosses in smoke-filled rooms; this obsession with turning politics into a horse race, with every news source fussing over percentage points, is making a joke of democracy.

The only “points” we should be discussing are the substance of their policies.

In Conversation with Dan Dennett – guest post by Kaustubh Adhikari

In Conversation with Dan Dennett

Kaustubh Adhikari

For those who are not familiar with Dan Dennett, Professor Daniel C Dennett is University Professor and Austin B Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University in Boston; an accomplished author, Prof. Dennett is famous for his treatises on evolution, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995) and Freedom Evolves (2003). One of his most ‘controversial’ books is Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006), which is considered an important landmark in modern atheist thinking, and which earned him his place amongst the ‘Four Horsemen of New Atheism’, along with British biologist Richard Dawkins, American journalist Christopher Hitchens, and American neuroscientist Sam Harris. Recently, Prof. Dennett has published a book on his research, Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-engineer the Mind (2011).

Hailing from the Eastern part of India, Kaustubh Adhikari is a final year graduate (PhD) student in Biostatistics, in the School of Public Health, Harvard University. He was the recipient of the 2009 Robert Balentine Reed Prize for Excellence in Biostatistical Science. He is an editor of Palki, an online bi-lingual (English/Bangla) magazine, as well as a regular contributor to several web-based groups on the topics of rationality, skepticism and contemporary atheism.

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