A Curse in Miracles

Woe is me and alas! Pity me, for I am a secular humanist and gnu atheist embarked on trying to read the quintessential New Age non-dualistic blueprint for spiritual transformation, Dr. Helen Schucman’s A Course in Miracles.

And it is heavy going indeed. All I’ve done so far is download the free excerpt from kindle (which goes on and on past the 9th chapter at least), I’m 88% through, and I’m not sure if I have the heart to continue. According to the book I don’t, of course – but more on that later.

It’s not that the book is hard to read. Nor is it even particularly hard to understand. I was an English major and now I am old and I have read plenty of books which were far more philosophically and technically difficult, to be sure. But I keep alternating between frustration, boredom, anger, and an almost stupefying astonishment that the book is really as bad as it is. I am, however, learning quite a lot. It’s just not what I am presumably supposed to be learning.

I’m also surprised. A Course in Miracles was not quite what I expected.

[Read more…]

The diversity of Diversity

Atheists are not popular. This comes as no surprise to us or anyone, really. As far as I can tell we are dead last in every U.S. poll in which we are included and explicit terrorists, Nazis, and the Westboro Baptist Church are not.

I suppose the cultural assumption that ‘you need God to be good’ should be explanation enough for our banishment from the realm of the acceptable (Would you want your sister to marry one? Would you want to be one? Nuh uh.)  But I keep running into a common plea that no, the problem is not really atheism. Atheism isn’t necessarily okay, of course … but after all it’s a free country and people have the right to believe what they want to believe. It takes all kinds. Just be nice and you’re okay.

No, the problem isn’t atheism itself – it’s atheists. But not all atheists. The tolerant believers discern critical distinctions in the group. There are Good Atheists who don’t manage to believe in God themselves but who still manage to show the courtesy to respect those who do. And then there are the ones like Richard Dawkins . The outspoken ones, the militant ones, the shrill ones who won’t shut up and try to blend in and instead write books and articles and letters meant for the general public. The stigma is focused like a laser on the atheists who act ‘just like fundamentalists’ by trying to convert people and thereby change their minds. The arrogant. The not-nice.


It’s an insidious trope which appeals to values like respect, acceptance, and inclusion: why would anyone be so  rude as to try to get other people to not believe in God? What about diversity? Diversity is good. We ought to let people be who they are.

Outspoken atheists then are disparaged even by those who claim to be “fine” with atheism because we are seen as breaking the social contract which values diversity and individuality. Atheists attack people’s deepest identity the way racists attack race or bullies attack those who are different than them. When you get right down to it — they’re bigots. Telling people their religion is wrong is being judgmental.

This is apparently a major charge made against us. I feel as if I see and read and encounter variations of it all around. I suspect most of us do. It’s a theme which seems to run more often through liberal communities than the conservative ones (which are usually just fine with the assumption that you can’t be good without God) but many of us live in such communities and engage regularly with those who seem so frustratingly on the edge of rationality.

So I’ve been attempting to figure out exactly what is happening and why,  working it out mostly here and there in parts and pieces. Since PZ gave me the keys while he’s away, though, I’ll take advantage and will to try to expand a bit, to see whether people in this forum think it makes sense. Because I think that, once again, theists are making a category error when it comes to religion. And they’re getting a lot of non-theists to go along with them because they are appealing to values which are essentially not religious, but humanist.

Bottom line, there is a sort of equivocation going on with the concept of “diversity”  – and it’s helping to fuel the general antipathy towards atheists.

Consider it this way: it might be said that there are two basic frameworks in which we value ‘diversity’ as a modern virtue. One of them is what I call the Diversity Smorgasbord. The other is what we can call the Diverse Problem-Solving Group. [Read more…]

The 2013 Dawkins Award goes to … Steven Pinker

Who well deserves it, I think. It’s “presented every year to honor an outstanding atheist whose contributions raise public awareness of the nontheist life stance.” Very laudatory and gratifying press release here.

I just finished reading his Better Angels of Our Nature: Why violence has declined. I thought it a well-reasoned and researched testament to the power of humanism and a excellent resource for rebutting the folks who think the world is worse than it has ever been and people never more wicked. One would think that evidence to the contrary would be welcome … but it’s not. My neo-pagan spiritual friends would have none of it. I hold out even less hope for the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Last year’s recipient was also excellent: Eugenie Scott. Perhaps not quite a ‘mirror’ representative of  “the uncompromising nontheist life stance of Dr. Richard Dawkins” — but quite solid on the raising of the public awareness of science. Pinker, then, is a twofer.


He’s also an excellent speaker. I plan on attending the Atheist Alliance of America’s national convention to see him receive the Dawkins. It’s taking place on  Aug 30 – Sept 2 … in Boston. The Alliance’s conventions are imo one of the best. Everyone should go. And now there’s Pinker to tempt you.

(from Sastra)

Pope Reaches Out to the Damned

Hello, all. Sastra here doing a guest post for PZ, who is toiling hard, very hard, in Romania. Or sleeping. Either; both. Please bear with me then as I try to figure out how to work this thing. Trial and error…

My title echoes an old one from the Onion. The Cracker People are at it again.

Are traditional religions all moving closer to humanism? Is Catholicism? Perhaps.

Two days ago the new pope appeared to come very close to saying that “it doesn’t matter what you believe – as long as you’re a good person.” While giving a short sermon ( a “homily”) during Wednesday’s mass, Pope Francis suddenly began to address the status of the non-Catholic – yea, even the atheist – regarding salvation … and he pronounced it good.

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!”.. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

Really? Just “do good?” Does that include intellectual integrity? Say, something along the lines of approaching the existence of God as a hypothesis whilst taking all our scientific evidence regarding cosmology, evolution, and neurology into account? Does that include objectively applying Occam’s razor to God? We atheists are very good at that. It’s a fine form of  virtue. One of our finest.

It’s odd, though, if he really does mean that. I suspect not — given that he is the Catholic Pope.

The relationship between Catholicism and humanism is a strange one. While the roots of humanism — with its emphasis on reason and science and its focus on human rights and virtues – go back to classical Greece, the gradual infusion of ancient philosophy into a Church concerned with both scholarship and apologetic lead to contending views regarding the role of nature in theology. “Catholic humanism” may sound like a contradiction, but it seems there is a thin thread of Renaissance liberalism feeding into what is a far more varied religion than its proponents usually say it is. This thread sometimes weaves itself into a culture which is increasingly humanist in sentiment.

Most of my relatives are Catholic. They mostly know I am an atheist, too.  But “Don’t worry,” I’m reassured. God is large. God knows my heart. Christ died that all might be saved and surely the virtue in the life that I live will speak for me at the end. And so they calmly rationalize and dismiss what is undoubtedly a very contentious issue within their church. How much of religion is specifically religious? One would think doctrine matters. It can’t all be some sort of literary effort and performance art.

Like most Catholic pronouncements, however,  the interpretation of the homily is a bit open. A Father Martin clarified the pope’s position thus:

“Pope Francis is saying, more clearly than ever before, that Christ offered himself as a sacrifice for everyone. That’s always been a Christian belief. You can find St. Paul saying in the First Letter to Timothy that Jesus gave himself as a “ransom for all.” But rarely do you hear it said by Catholics so forcefully, and with such evident joy. And in this era of religious controversies, it’s a timely reminder that God cannot be confined to our narrow categories.”

Uh huh. This clears up nothing. Of course we all know that Christ died “for everybody.” Say it with as much joy as you want and you still won’t match the current general hysteria on this point, an excitement shared by fundamentalist Protestants.

Clarify the terms, padre. The question is whether those who are said to “reject” this bizarre human sacrifice and thus end up damned include everyone who is not Catholic or everyone who is not Christian or everyone who doesn’t believe in God … or just the “bad” people (who are…?) When Francis says that “we will meet one another there” is the “there” supposed to be heaven – or the Holy Mother Church, where the newly converted atheist has been led by his or her good works to finally adopt the religion of the One True God?

My guess is that some will take it one way, others will take it another way .. and each side will think the other side lacks Understanding. Because the pope was “more clear than ever before.”

Perhaps that is not a high bar.

The day after the pope’s apparent inclusion of the nonbelieving damned into salvation, the Vatican went into damage control.

On Thursday, the Vatican issued an “explanatory note on the meaning to ‘salvation.'”

The Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, said that people who are aware of the Catholic church “cannot be saved” if they “refuse to enter her or remain in her.”

At the same time, Rosica writes, “every man or woman, whatever their situation, can be saved. Even non-Christians can respond to this saving action of the Spirit. No person is excluded from salvation simply because of so-called original sin.”

Rosica also said that Francis had “no intention of provoking a theological debate on the nature of salvation,” during his homily on Wednesday.

I’ll bet he didn’t. But no fear: the Vatican easily spins it as business as usual. You must still enter into the Church. So no big deal.

Except that this is not how the pronouncement is being spun in the media, is it? From what I can tell one and all seem to be treating it much more along the lines of “it doesn’t matter what you believe … as long as you’re a good person.” Even Dave Silverman is displaying a cautious approval. Well then.

So let us hope this impression is augmented by various Protestants furiously protesting the wickedness of the Papists and their false god.


Works vs. faith. The world moves on.  Eventually  “works” like saying the rosary and taking communion are going to give way to being charitable and refraining from serial killings. Humanism triumphs and Catholicism turns into a quaint ceremonial term used mostly by history buffs and its rituals are adopted by the goths. Amen.