Should atheists “come out”? -2

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

Some time ago, I posed the question on whether atheists should “come out.” I was reminded of this recently when I was involved in a discussion some time ago on the topic of whether atheists should ‘come out of the closet.’ The implication of the question was that stating openly that was one was an atheist could have negative repercussions on one’s work and family and social life, the way that being openly gay could. Of course, no one was suggesting that atheists experience anything close to the repression and harassment that gays experience. But it was clear that many people in the group kept their atheistic beliefs private for fear of negative consequences.

I was surprised by this because I have not personally felt any negative consequences. But this may be that the university setting in which I work is generally more accepting of heterodox views than the community at large.

But the interesting point that arose was that many of the people who hid their atheist beliefs said that it would be much more socially acceptable in America to say they were Hindus or Jews or Buddhists than to say that they were atheists. Despite the current anti-Islam sentiment in the US, even saying one was a Muslim was seen as being less discomfiting to the listener than being an atheist.

Why is this? Why would atheism arouse stronger negative feelings than belonging to a completely different religion? And it is not just in the US that this happens. I recall during the first Gulf war in 1991, CBS News correspondent Bob Simon was captured by some Islamic group but was subsequently released unharmed. He said that during his captivity his captors asked him whether he was a Jew and he acknowledged it. Simon said he felt that the fact that he was religious, a ‘man of the Book,’ made it safer for him than if he had said he was an atheist.

In the comments to the discussion on atheists coming out, someone made a very enlightening remark. He said that he recalled seeing the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the militant atheist who was responsible for the case that resulted in school-sponsored prayer being outlawed from public schools, on TV talk shows. He said she would love to get the audience all worked up and hissing at her with her provocative statements. Then she would tell them “You hate me because I am the embodiment of all your doubts.”

That makes sense. All religions depend on faith, the willful act of belief in something that cannot be discerned. Faith implies belief in the absence of, and counter to, evidence. Such an effort necessarily involves the suppression of doubt. When a person of one religion encounters someone from another, it is relatively easy to think that yours is the ‘right’ faith and the other person’s is the ‘wrong’ one. The other person is not challenging the very act of faith, but just the details of that faith.

The greater challenge to faith is not a competing faith, but doubt. When persons of faith encounter an atheist, that brings them face to face with their own doubts and that can be much more disconcerting.

POST SCRIPT: Follow up by Austin Cline

Austin Cline picked up on the above original post that appeared on January 18, 2006 and added an interesting coda at his website About atheism. He said:

This is very similar to something George Smith wrote:

In Christianity doubt stands opposed not to certainty per se, but to faith. To have faith, in a religious context, is to have absolute confidence in God and to trust his revelations unconditionally. Thus, for the Christian to be uncertain of a divine revelation is bad enough, but to doubt that revelation is incomparably worse, because the latter implies a readiness to criticize that the former does not. … In short, for the Christian to doubt the truth of a purported revelation is potentially to challenge the authority of the infallible God in whom she believes. It is therefore religious doubt, not atheistic disbelief, that constitutes the greatest threat to orthodox beliefs, because doubt threatens to undermine a belief system from within.

I wonder if this is also one reason why so many Christians insist that atheism is a faith? If, as Singham writes, faith is less threatening than doubt, then “atheism as a faith” can be dismissed more readily than “atheism as a challenge, a question, and a doubt.” I don’t think it likely that many, if any, Christians actually think about the issue in these terms, but this doesn’t mean that the connection isn’t being made unconsciously.

Should atheists “come out”?

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

In a previous posting, I suggested that people tend to have a negative view of atheism. In his blog essay Sam Harris provides support for this view, saying that “More than 50 percent of Americans have a “negative” or “highly negative” view of people who do not believe in God.”

Possible reasons for this dislike were discussed earlier but here I want to focus on what, if anything, should be done about it.

One option is to just ignore it. After all, why should atheists care what other people think of them? But this ignores the fact that if atheists allow themselves to be defined by others in negative terms and do nothing about it, they allow the negative portrayals of them to dominate public consciousness.

Another option is for atheists to learn from the steady way that gay people have won increasing acceptance. This has partly come about because gays are “coming out” more to their families and friends and co-workers. They are becoming more visible in everyday life and are being seen as ordinary people. Famous actors are revealing themselves as gay without it being career suicide and gay characters are appearing in films and plays and on television, without their gayness being necessary to the storyline. The fact that they are gay is just incidental.

Richard Dawkins suggests that atheists should also “come out”, so that others can see that we are in fact numerous and everywhere and that life goes on nonetheless. Of course, no one would dream of suggesting that atheists encounter discrimination and vilification on the scale that gay people still face. I suspect that most atheists don’t “come out” because they don’t give much thought to religious matters and when they do, view religion as a private matter and that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. Atheists may think that “coming out” in any self-conscious way is a silly thing to do and so “coming out” in the way Dawkins suggests will be awkward.

But perhaps if the opportunity arises where one can make it known in a natural way, then one should do so. I, for example, have realized that I was an atheist for about twenty years but felt no compunction to make it publicly known. It is only with this blog that I have really publicly stated it, and that was because it seemed relevant to some of the postings. I used to feel religion is not something that one should make a big deal out of, one way or the other, although nowadays I feel that atheists should be more vocal in their opposition to the increasing encroachment of religion into the public sphere.

“Coming out” might also be a source of encouragement to those who are toying with the idea that they are atheists but hesitate to say so publicly because they feel that being an atheist is somehow reprehensible and will result in them being isolated.

What is interesting is that I am seeing more and more public statements questioning the fundamentals of religion, so what Dawkins is advocating may be already happening organically. For example, take this article by Justin Cartwright in the British newspaper Guardian (which I got via onegoodmove). I am quoting it at length because it articulates the atheistic point well but you should read the full article for yourself.

Near the end of his life, [philosopher and historian] Isaiah Berlin wrote these words to a correspondent who had asked the great imponderable: “As for the meaning of life, I do not believe that it has any. I do not at all ask what it is, but I suspect that it has none and this is a source of great comfort to me. We make of it what we can and that is all there is about it. Those who seek for some cosmic all-embracing libretto or God are, believe me, pathetically mistaken.”

It’s time that we acknowledged honestly what most people believe, that religion is at bottom nonsense. I do not deny the good work of religious people, nor the cultural effects of religion, nor its deep penetration into our consciousness, but what I think we should acknowledge is that religion contains a massive falsehood, namely that there is a God who determines our actions and responds to our plight. As AJ Ayer said, if God has constituted the world in such a way that he cannot resolve the phenomenon of evil, logically it makes no difference whether we are believers or unbelievers. The hypocritical respect now being accorded to Muslim “scholars”, people who believe that the Qur’an was dictated word for word by God, is just one example of the mess we have got ourselves into by pretending to take religion seriously. Disagreements about society can only be resolved in the here and now on liberal principles of discussion and compromise. You cannot have a sensible discussion with fundamentalists, be they Christian, Jewish or Muslim, because they start from a different point.
. . .
It follows that I believe we have to acknowledge happily that ethics has no rational content, that we behave morally and responsibly not because God commands us to do so, but because it is in our nature and because it makes profound common sense to do so. I am not in any sense advocating active hostility to religion, merely that we should as a nation distance ourselves from religious explanations.
. . .
What we have to promote above all else is the liberal society, and this is best done by observing scrupulously the principles of that society.

And that demands that we acknowledge that religion is, at base, nonsense. The sooner we eliminate the idea that life has “some cosmic, all-embracing libretto”, the better.

The next frontier will be popular culture. Since I do not watch much television, I am not sure to what extent programs that have religious themes have atheist characters. The only one I know of is House. But if we do reach the stage where atheists are portrayed as just regular people whose lack of religious belief is incidental to who they are, then we would have reached a significant milestone.

POST SCRIPT: Review of Expelled

In my series on evolution and law From Scopes to Dover, I mentioned the documentary titled Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed that implies that scientists are conspiring to deny intelligent design ideas a fair hearing.

Dan Whipple of Colorado Confidential attended a preview of the film and has written a review.

Should scientists try to accommodate religion?

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

Within the scientific community, there are two groups, those who are religious and who hold to the minimal scientific requirement of methodological naturalism, and those who go beyond that and are also philosophical naturalists, and thus atheists/agnostics or more generally “shafars”. (For definitions of the two kinds of naturalism, see here).
[Read more…]

Reason’s Greetings!

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have mossed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

I hope all this blog’s readers have a pleasant and safe holiday season. For today’s holiday, here are three of my favorite seasonally appropriate Rowan Atkinson video clips.

On Jesus’ miracles:

On The General Synod’s Life of Christ:

On hell:

Should secularists fight for 100% separation of church and state?

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited if necessary. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.

Meanwhile, I would like to wish all this blog’s readers Reason’s Greetings (with thanks to Norm for that coinage). Thank you for reading.)

As it is for most atheists, it really is of no concern to me what other people believe. If you do not believe in a god or heaven and hell in any form, then the question of what other people believe about god is as of little concern to you as questions about which sports teams they root for or what cars they drive.

If you are a follower of a theistic religion, however, you cannot help but feel part of a struggle against evil, and often that evil is personified as Satan, and non-believers or believers of other faiths can be seen as followers of that evil. Organized religions also need members to survive, to keep the institution going. So for members of organized religion, there is often a mandate to try and get other people to also believe, and thus we have revivals and evangelical outreach efforts and proselytizing.
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Meet the Villagers-1: How the American political system really works

It is hard to understand American politics without having a clear idea about the nature of how power is controlled and the important decisions made.

The first step to understanding is to not take seriously divisions along the lines of Democrat-Republican or liberal-conservative or left-right. While such terms may be useful in limited contexts, they are mostly used to distract people from seeing the real action, similar to the way that magicians Penn and Teller distract you without you even realizing it so that you do not see how the trick is really done. A good example of issues that are meant to distract was the infamous Terri Schiavo affair. (This is why I always say that it is not the things that politicians strongly disagree about to which we should pay close attention but the things that they agree on.)
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The Republican hysteria over Huckabee

As the interminable political primary season drags on, I have to say that the Republican race has proved to be far more interesting than the Democratic one. We have the drama of Mitt Romney trying to fend off unease over the issue of his Mormon religion and worrying about how his switching of positions to pander to the Christianists in the party will play out, serial philanderer Rudy Giuliani having to deal with one sex and money and corruption scandal after another, Ron Paul irritating the rest of them and the media with his constitution-based attacks on war mongering producing a remarkable response for someone considered a nobody, the once great hope Fred Thompson sleepwalking through the primaries, media darling John McCain looking more and more like a has-been, and those lovable scamps Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter (can anyone tell them apart?) falling over themselves in seeing who can hate immigrants the most. As if that was not enough fun, for the last debate they brought in surprise contestant Alan Keyes (yes, Alan Keyes!), an egomaniac of such giant proportions compared to whom even the insufferable Giuliani comes across as modest and self-effacing.

But the latest development is the sudden vaulting into the top tier-ranks of Mike Huckabee. In many ways, he was always a natural to lead the pack because he had, on the surface, few of the negatives associated with the others and all the positives. He was a southerner, a former governor, a Baptist preacher, and has long held the kinds of views that the religious right wants its leaders to have on issues like abortion and gays. He may not have been as hard line as they might have wished on issues like not raising taxes or hating immigrants, or as enthusiastic about supporting the Bush wars and torture that the crazies in his party would like. But these drawbacks were merely matters of degree and one would have thought that given the strong negatives of the other choices that Republican primary voters had, he would have been the one they liked most. So the surprise for me is not his rise in the polls but why it took so long.

But what is really interesting is the reaction to his rise from the power brokers of the Republican Party. They have responded with alarm and brought out the long knives, trying to cut Huckabee down. Former Bush speechwriter David Frum piles on, essentially calling him a moron and even obliquely suggesting Huckabee of being a kindred spirit of Scientologists.

So why all this angst about this southern Bible thumper, who seems to be very similar in background and views to George W. Bush, the president the Washington insiders love, even if he will go down as the worst president in US history and whose current approval ratings are in the sewer?

Kevin Drum at the blog has the best explanation that I have seen so far for this Huckabee hate fest among leading conservatives:

There are a variety of ostensible reasons for this: lack of foreign policy bona fides, too compassionate for their taste, too willing to consider spending money, etc. But I think the real reason is simpler: as with blogosphere conservatives, mainstream conservatives are mostly urban sophisticates with a libertarian bent, not rural evangelicals with a social conservative bent. They’re happy to talk up NASCAR and pickup trucks in public, but in real life they mostly couldn’t care less about either. Ditto for opposing abortion and the odd bit of gay bashing via proxy. But when it comes to Ten Commandments monuments and end times eschatology, they shiver inside just like any mainstream liberal. The only difference is that usually they keep their shivering to themselves because they want to keep everyone in the big tent happy.

But then along comes Huckabee, and guess what? He’s the real deal. Not a guy like George Bush or Ronald Reagan, who talks a soothing game to the snake handlers but then turns around and spends his actual political capital on tax cuts, foreign wars, and deregulating big corporations. Huckabee, it turns out, isn’t just giving lip service to evangelicals, he actually believes all that stuff. Among other things, he believes in creationism (really believes), once proposed that AIDS patients should be quarantined, appears to share the traditional evangelical view that Mormonism is a cult, and says (in public!) that homosexuality is sinful. And that’s without seeing the text of any of his old sermons, which he (probably wisely) refuses to let the press lay eyes on.

John Cole, a conservative who has watched with dismay the Republican Party pandering to the religious extremists, also lists some of the nasty things that are being said about Huckabee and enjoys a moment of schadenfreude:

I simply can not tell you how much I am enjoying this. The GOP has been pandering to these stupid bastards for years, and every time I pointed it out I was called “anti-Christian” or something or other. Those of us who saw what the party was becoming were told to shut up, that it was good politics.

Enjoy your new GOP, folks. And here is something else to think about – are the evangelicals going to support Romney or Giuliani if you do manage to trash Huckabee enough to secure the nomination for them? Will the eye for an eye crowd learn to forgive and forget? Have fun!

Next: Meet the Villagers: The real political divide in America

POST SCRIPT: Torture

One of the most depressing phenomena of recent times is how so many people who should know better are willing to defend the use of torture, using legalistic quibbling to justify barbaric practices that would have been unhesitatingly condemned if the identities of the torturers and the tortured were switched.

Tom Tomorrow as usual says it most concisely.

Collateral damage from the war to defend Christmas

The absurdity of ‘defending Christmas’ in the US of all places reached a new low when the US House of Representatives actually passed a bill on December 11, 2007 “Recognizing the importance of Christmas and the Christian faith”. (Thanks to Ross for alerting me to this.)

The text of the bill starts by listing all the reasons why Christianity is so wonderful (“contributed greatly to the development of western civilization”, yadda, yadda, yadda) and then goes on:

Whereas many Christians and non-Christians throughout the United States and the rest of the world, celebrate Christmas as a time to serve others: Now, therefore be it

Resolved, That the House of Representatives–

(1) recognizes the Christian faith as one of the great religions of the world;

(2) expresses continued support for Christians in the United States and worldwide;

(3) acknowledges the international religious and historical importance of Christmas and the Christian faith;

(4) acknowledges and supports the role played by Christians and Christianity in the founding of the United States and in the formation of the western civilization;

(5) rejects bigotry and persecution directed against Christians, both in the United States and worldwide; and

(6) expresses its deepest respect to American Christians and Christians throughout the world.”

The vote on the bill was 372 in favor, 9 against, 10 voting ‘present’, and 40 not voting.

Christians around the world can sleep better tonight knowing that the US Congress is working feverishly to respect them as deeply as it is humanly possible.

I do not for a minute think that Bill O’Reilly or the other hypervintilators fear that there is a genuine war on Christmas. It would not surprise me in the least if they themselves were not very religious at all but simply going through the motions. I think the whole issue of claiming that Christianity is under siege is cynically drummed up by urban sophisticates like them because they think that riling up the yahoos and hicks on some emotional hot button issue will keep them in the public eye and makes for good ratings, which is the only thing they really care about.

(Actually Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), the sponsor of the above bill, might really believe all this stuff. He is not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, if you catch my drift.)

But the tragedy is that the people who get riled up don’t realize that this is just a game for O’Reilly and his fellow travelers who laugh all the way to the bank even as they exploit this petty issue. They think that this is real. Witness what happened on a New York subway on December 7.

On Friday, Four Jewish subway riders who wished other people Happy Hanukkah were pelted with anti-Semitic remarks before being beaten, New York police and prosecutors said.
. . .
The four were on a train in Manhattan on Friday night, during the eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights, when they were approached by a group of 10 people who offered holiday greetings. The victims responded, Happy Hanukkah and were assaulted by the larger group, police said Tuesday.

Another report gives more details of what happened:

The altercation erupted when Adler and his friends said “Happy Chanukah” to a group yelling “Merry Christmas” on the Brooklyn-bound train.

Adler told the New York Post that one of his attackers rolled up his sleeve to display a tattoo of Jesus Christ.

“Happy Chanukah. That’s when the Jews killed Jesus,” the attacker told Adler.

The assaulting group consisted of ten people aged 19 and 20, with a long career fighting for Christ ahead of them. The only redeeming feature of this story is that a Muslim student on the train sprang to the aid of the Jewish students, although he ended up being beaten too.

Yes, fighting to save Christmas is great fun (and profitable) for those who exploit it as long as people realize that it is not to be taken seriously. But of course, O’Reilly, Gibson, and their ilk cannot be blamed for those morons who don’t realize that it is all a big joke can they?

POST SCRIPT: Impeaching Cheney

Congressman Robert Wexler and two other members of the House Judiciary Committee are calling for impeachment hearings on Vice President Cheney. They received over 80,000 signatures on their petition in just four days and are looking for more.

To read about it, go here and to sign the petition go here.

It is this kind of action that is necessary these days to signal support for politicians who are willing to go beyond platitudes so please take the time to check this out and sign if possible.

Get your war on Christmas here!

My, how time flies. What with one thing and another, I realized that it is already past mid-December and my fellow atheists and I have forgotten all about starting our annual war on Christmas. I really do apologize. I have had a lot of things on my mind lately but I’ll get on it right away.

You know what war I mean. All of us for many years have been plotting secretly in our underground cells with just one goal in mind: to destroy Christianity by undermining the very foundation of that religion: the Christmas holiday. The way we do that is by sending greeting cards or wishing people well with religiously neutral phrases like “Happy Holidays” or “Compliments of the Season” or simply wishing for peace on Earth and goodwill to all, without invoking Jesus or Biblical verses. By using such language our goal was to try and create a time of year when the whole world might be united around the secular ideas of peace and goodwill, anchored by a celebration that originated in a pagan celebration of the winter solstice.

We also try to destroy Christianity by encouraging people to not take part in the traditional orgy of spending vast amounts of money and resources on ‘gifts’ that have ceased to become gifts in the sense of genuine and spontaneous gestures of affection or response to needs, and have now become the obligatory filling of almost extortion-like expectations which often leads to disappointment and anger and resentment because the gift wasn’t good enough or not what was expected or because someone else was given something better.

Another part of the atheist plan to destroy Christmas was to discourage people from gluttonous eating and drinking and to simply spend time socializing with friends and family.

The plan was going along well until it was discovered a few years ago. Bill O’Reilly and John Gibson of Fox News, clever people that they are, saw through our plan. They realized that once people start thinking beyond their own religious tribe and in terms of our common humanity, that was the first dangerous step on the slippery road that led inevitably to humanism, agnosticism, and atheism.

Being manly warriors for god, never braver than when they are facing down imaginary enemies, they started a counter-offensive, wreaking vengeance on those stores and shop clerks who do not use the short list of approved language such as “Merry Christmas” and do not festoon every display and image with the nativity scene and Biblical phrases, such shibboleths being necessary parts of proving that they share warrior Bill’s fervor for the Christian god and Jesus.

But is it me or have others also noted that O’Reilly and others seem to have run out of steam on this issue? This year I do not hear the same level of hysteria on their part as in previous years. Are they tired from their strenuous efforts of previous years and handed the baton on to others? Have they declared victory and moved on to other issues that promise better ratings?

Whatever the reason, it looks like the enemies of atheism are weak right now. So this is the time for all of us atheists to increase our efforts in the war on Christmas. Make sure you attend the secret cell meetings to plan our next offensive. You know the time and place. The secret password this week: When the guard at the door says “O’Reilly is a nitwit”, you respond “And so also is Gibson.”

Be there or be square!

POST SCRIPT: And they thought Harry Potter was bad

As if the religious nuts did not have enough to worry about with all the magic and sorcery in the Harry Potter books, now along comes the film The Golden Compass based on the first book of a fantasy trilogy by Philip Pullman, an avowed atheist who views C. S. Lewis’ Narnia series as religious bilge.

Thanks to the flap created by the usual religious hyperventilators, I have now heard of a book, film, and author I had not heard of before but is now definitely on my list of films to see.