Sunday, September 30, 2007

Should atheists call themselves nothing?

Sam Harris doesn't think atheists should call themselves atheists. It causes too many problems, and starts a debate which can't be won. The focus should be on stopping irrationality whenever it rears its ugly head. Not all religions have extremists, after all. And, not all Christians think the world is 6,000 years old, Jesus is coming back soon, and God made the 35W bridge fall down to punish the wicked city of Minneapolis for being so nice to gays. Is science and reason enough to stand on when making arguments against a Young Earth Creationist? How can you refute their claim that the earth is 6,000 years old, and that Noah's Flood caused the formation of the Grand Canyon? No matter what material evidence is presented, the answer will be that God put those things there, or presented that evidence to question your faith, if the evidence doesn't support their claim, and when evidence does support their claim, then that evidence wasn't planted by God to fool you, it's evidence that they are right.

Is this then end for atheists?

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Freethought Coming Out Day CASH Event Notes

This is my collection of notes I wrote while at the latest CASH Event for Freethought Coming Out Day. Visit for more information about Campus Atheists, Skeptics and Humanists.

Freethought Coming Out Day Notes


This speaker was raised Catholic, and questioned his faith around confession. He didn't really feel relieved after confessing all the bad stuff he did. He went on a few mission trips, eventually identified as agnostic after talking with a philosophy teacher. Later he worked with Jehovah's Witnesses, and eventually became a Jehovah's Witness. As he studied in high school and college about history, he had a problem trying to reconcile history with religion.


This speaker met a girl in sophomore year in college. After dating for a few weeks, he told her he was in the National Guard, so he might be called up. She was OK with that. He then told her he wasn't religious. She wasn't OK with that. She hoped that Jesus would revile himself to him. This all turned out for the best, because he met his current girlfriend at C.A.S.H.


Speaker #3 was raised by atheists.


This speaker was raised Mormon, and really didn't want to go on a mission when he was 19. This has been hard for him, because of how his family has reacted.


Speaker #5 was raised atheist, and had a hard time with people who were religious when she came to college. When she heard that people actually believe in God, she would say, "You're kidding, right? People still believe that?" She has since learned to be more tactful.


This speaker was raised Catholic. He lapsed because he didn't like the bureaucracy. He later became more evangelical and established a personal relationship with Jesus and followed a God is Love philosophy. Later this came to a head when a girl he dated killed herself after an argument they had together. He felt empty, that God had left him. The more he studied philosophy, the more atheistic he became, and the happier he's been.


This speaker was raised Catholic and became an atheist at college.


This speaker wasn't raised religious, and identifies as an atheist.


This speaker identifies himself as agnostic. His mother is Jewish, his father Lutheran. He's a political science major. He attends Unitarian Universalist services, and was one of the only people there during a "Coming of Age" service who was agnostic, with most people identifying as atheist. He respects other's beliefs.


Speaker #10 always had doubt. She read the Bible, and thought that God acted like a child in the Old Testament. She hated going to church, and started going to C.A.S.H. in college. She eventually identified as an atheist, but hasn't told her mom because she's afraid it would ruin their strong relationship.


This speaker was raised Catholic. His dad is passionate about God and Jesus, but doesn't go to church. His mom had a problem with the church, so they didn't go much. He attended a Catholic elementary school and felt like when he was praying, that he was talking to himself. He read the Bible by the time his was 12, and came to the conclusion that God acted like a child, choosing to smite whole groups of people just because they didn't believe in him. He thought the idea of heaven was great, but was terrified of hell. He really wanted to believe in God, but just couldn't. He didn't come out to anyone until he was 15 during a religious studies class. When he told his mom, it sparked off a two year fight.


Speaker #12 was always skeptical, and became an atheist after reading more about it on the Internet.


This speaker argued moral philosophy in school, and identifies himself as agnostic.


This speaker wasn't raised religious, but identified as an atheist after reading Bertrand Russel's book, "Why I Am Not A Christian."


This speaker has been called stupid for being an atheist and thinks that praying to God is similar to making a wish list for Santa.


This speaker's dad is Jewish, his mom is Catholic. They weren't really that religious, and didn't attend church, until they moved to Georgia. She liked the idea of God, that there is this being watching over you, but when it came time to really believing the rest of Christianity, she couldn't do it. She'd get curious, and go to church with her friends, but think it was all nuts. She read the Bible and thought it was ridiculous. She identified as an atheist after reading Sam Harris' book, "The End of Faith."


This speaker was raised Hindu. She doesn't like the concept of being born into a religion, that people should choose for themselves what they believe. Her parents didn't push religion on her, even though they are devout. She doesn't have any problem with people who choose to practice a religion.


Speaker #18 was raised Methodist. He started having serious doubts in 9Th grade, but felt like he couldn't come out. He was still terrified of hell. He began to feel more comfortable in college, and started a group called Campus Atheists and Agnostics in Nebraska. He didn't tell his parents, they happened to find out from reading a campus paper which featured his group.


This speaker was raised Catholic. Her family thinks she's just going through a phase. Her atheism has caused some problems in her family. For example, her sister is having a baby, and is upset because she can't be the baby's godmother.


This speaker was raised Catholic and went to Catechism. She felt guilty and didn't buy the whole idea of God. She later identified as pagan, then attended an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America church, and really liked it. She enjoyed talking with a priest who showed her that really smart, rational people can be Christian too. She identifies herself as an Atheist/Buddhist. She's OK with whatever people want to believe, just don't be a jerk about it.


Speaker #21 was raised a conservative Catholic. In 8Th grade she became a "Bible Thumper." She started questioning things about God, like, "Why does God exist?" She answered that for herself, "He doesn't."


This speaker was raised Buddhist, but found it hard to learn much about his religion in North Dakota. He's still seeking out his identity.


This speaker was raised Catholic. He started to question his faith in college. He didn't think that Catholicism had all of the answers, that there was something missing. So, he started attending every church service he could find, seeking truth. He still believes in God, and is still searching for truth.


This speaker was raised atheist.


Speaker #25 was raised Lutheran. He just didn't buy it. He started wondering why we believe what we believe. He went through Confirmation. He came out on Darwin Day last year, and came out to his parents by leaving a copy of RichardDawkin's book, "The God Delusion," in their car.


This speaker was raised Episcopalian. He started getting into science and rational thought at an early age. He would study all he could about the natural world. Kids at school started calling him an atheist in 6Th grade because he didn't believe in God. He's kept that identity to this day.


This speaker was raised Catholic. He was an enthusiastic Catholic and grew up in a small town where the church kept the social order. He started questioning God's miracles, and how could they balance with the physical laws of nature. Then he went to college, felt like God wasn't answering his prayers, became agnostic, and now identifies himself as atheist.


This speaker was raised as a conservative Christian and questioned why he was Christian. His parents are really rational people. He calls himself agnostic.


This speaker was raised by non-religious parents. He has never gone to church, and is proud to not know anything about the Bible. While his immediate family is non-religious, his extended family is, which causes some problems.


This speaker was raised Catholic. His parents are really rational. He believes that his father only practices Catholicism because it would negatively impact his business if he wasn't seen attending church once in a while. His grandmother is a radical Catholic. He recalled how difficult it was when another family member became a Jehovah's Witness.


This speaker was raised Christian and still identifies as Christian. She doesn't like the structure of religion, but believes there is something there.


Speaker #32 was raised Catholic. Her family left the church when she was young. She started to think about God in middle school, and really wanted a personal relationship with God. She just couldn't do it. She calls herself Unitarian, not atheist.


This speaker was raised non-religious. His crazy grandmother scared his dad from religion. He identified his beliefs as "nothing," and then started to think there was something there. He did attend a meeting of Campus Crusaders and they scared him off when they started singing songs about Jesus coming back soon.


This speaker was always skeptic. The parents of kids in the neighborhood didn't like him because he put thoughts into the kids heads in church. He calls himself a secular humanist.


This speaker was raised Catholic by Polish immigrants. Her mom was an atheist. She went to an all girl Catholic school. She took religion classes for 13 years, and got tired of making stuff up about faith. She feels relieved to find a group of people she identifies with.


This speaker works for Atheist for Human Rights. He read a piece he wrote about coming out as an atheist. he explained his people don't come out out of fear, that change is too great a challenge or people try to avoid conflict.


This speaker was raised an Evangelical Lutheran. He couldn't find the answers he was searching for even though he as very active in church. He later became a theology major to find answers, and only found more questions. The definition of who he was started to fade from Christian to atheist. His mom found out, but he hasn't told the rest of his family.


This speaker was raised as an Evangelical Lutheran, but his parents we not really that religious. He's on the fence on the issue of the existence of God. He doesn't believe in heaven or hell and calls himself a humanist and a skeptic. He has not told his parents about his identification.


This speaker was not raised in a religion. His father had served in World War Two, and became soured on religion from the Nazi's. His family went to church now and again. He suffered from a snowboarding accident which resulted in frequent muscle spasms which required hospitalization. During 10Th grade, he was admitted into the emergency room 3 or 4 times a week. He was told by doctors that he probably wouldn't live through high school, that he would have a heart attack. On that realization, he thought it would be good to find religion. And he did. With zeal, he became a model Christian. He talked with Jesus like his was his buddy. He attended church as often as possible, including Bible study, and youth group. He ignored friends who cared for him to read the Bible or attend church. He was so concerned about getting into heaven, that it began to stress him out. Heaven was all good, but what if he did something to get into hell? Would that passing glance at a girl cause God to give him a heart attack, and send him to hell? This stress became worse, and he did have a heart attack. Christianity almost killed him. He drifted towards Deism, and notices that the further away he drifted from Christianity, the better he felt, and the less stress he had. He started getting involved in Christian groups again, and had another heart attack. Seeing this as a sign, he hasn't looked back on the narrow path Christianity had for him, where nearly anything you did caused you guilt and stress. He studied evolution and cosmology, and just couldn't buy the whole "God of the gaps," idea where the answers of unknown questions is always God.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Minnesota Orchestra Season Opening

If you aren't planning on seeing any shows at the Minnesota Orchestra this year, you had better think again. Jeannette and I had the opportunity to see the Season Opening this last Saturday. It was amazing. Emmanuel Ax played Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2. It was remarkably complex, and played so naturally, you forget it's a man playing an instrument. The same can be said for the orchestra playing the next piece, Gustav Holst's The Planets. Without prompting, you can tell what you are expected to feel during each planet's song. This is different then other classical music which can require a back story first, and then it's, "Oh, that's what the composer was trying to do."

The night topped off with a champagne toast with the conductor, Osmo Vänskä. If you haven't seen a show in a while, go now!

Muslims get interest free loans from Minneapolis

If you're Muslim, it's against your religion to make or receive interest. It's against Sharia’a. Now, do you think there are no banks in Islamic countries? Of course there are. They use loopholes to ensure money is made without violating Islamic law. Despite that, the city of Minneapolis has a program to spur economic development, part of that plan offers no interest loans to people whose religion prohibits them from traditional loans. Economic development is important, and small business loans can get struggling businesses off of the ground, but should someone's religion play a part in whether that loan is interest free or not?

From the latest mayoral update:

Growing an Economy That Works for Everyone
Mayor Rybak also promoted Minneapolis’ strong, growing economy and pledged more than $11 million in workforce development and economic development strategies in 2008, including:

* $1.5 million for job training and placement programs that successfully placed 14,000 hard to employ city residents into unsubsidized private sector jobs last year
* $4.7 million dollars of small business financing tools, including innovative loans with no interest to business owners whose religious beliefs restrict them from receiving traditional interest-based financing
* $2.1 million for the Great Streets Neighborhood Business District program that focuses economic development on key commercial corridors like West Broadway and Franklin Avenues
* $16 million to improve housing options and strengthen Minneapolis housing market, including $6 million to continue implementing the City’s strategy to address the foreclosure crisis

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Wireless Minneapolis

I called in yesterday about Wireless Minneapolis service provided by USI Wireless. The 6mbps service has been dropped for now, no one can really get that fast of a connection. The focus is more on getting full coverage of the city, getting subscribers, then worrying about increasing the speed. That makes sense, as they'd be under the gun to provide full coverage, period, for city use in police cars, and the like. Its easy to see how other muni wifi projects fail, there is so much you don't know about wifi coverage and performance until you start hooking things up. I was in downtown yesterday can coverage at the Chipotle was spotty using the touch, but USI does caution that beefier antennas will offer the best experience, however, that isn't an option on such small devices. Then again, you'd have to double the number of access points to provide service to those gadgets anyway, which would be too expensive, at least right away.

I'm holding off on ordering service until it hits my home. The roaming service is good, but too small of an area.

Elvis Costello

Jeannette and I saw our first Minnesota Orchestra show of the season, with an opening by Elvis Costello. The performance features original compositions by Costello for orchestra, as well as some well known songs with orchestral arrangements by him, or others. All in all it was a pretty entertaining night, Elvis Costello can be a great entertainer all by himself, without the need for flashy lights, video screens, or costume changes. I thought the integration of jazz with orchestra was refreshing in, Il Sogno, a full orchestral piece, a ballet after Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The show at Orchestra Hall is part of a demanding tour appearing with orchestras, at times, in a different state each night. This is the last leg of his tour with shows on the east cost until October.

Oh, and Jeannette does have Elvis Costello like glasses.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Touch-a Touch-a Touch-a me, iPod Touch

More details on the Touch later!
Geek Geek Geek Geek!


The keyboard stinks when vertical. Of course, this could take some getting used to. Jeannette thought that the lack of a stylus was dumb, because it was too hard to hit the right key. At least this is a software problem for now, and could be updated with new firmware, or some third-party modification. The repetitive typing for websites is unnecessary, because the touch does keep a history, like most browsers do.

No flash. I knew about this, but decided that wouldn't matter. Well, it does, but so far web browsing on the touch has mainly been for reading news or blogs, not for playing games or streaming music from Pandora. The Nokia 770 I have does a good job with its Opera browser, but it's slow, and unstable with sites will to much web 2.0 stuff on it. However, the 770 can tether through my LG Chocolate via bluetooth to get access to the EVDO network on Verizon, and the touch can not. In fact, the 770 let me know that touch landed, called over to the Apple Store, booked it over there, and scooped one up. 16 GB is really enough space, if you manage your playlists properly. The people wanting the carry the Library of Congress in their pants are just a bit lazy.

Videos are the best part of the touch. I'd been missing out on some video podcasts, and now I can catch up with them. The video iPod gets to stay in the car, feeding my stereo with not only my music, but Jeannette's as well. While the old iPod serves its purpose, I can wander around and watch videos. While we were waiting for the Elvis Costello show to start, Jeannette and I watched an episode of Atheist Talk TV which I appear in.

Music sounds great, Coverflow still stinks. Half of my music didn't get album covers for whatever reason, and I don't think of my music belonging to an album anyway, so it's not a good tool for finding anything I'd be looking for.

Photos look great on the screen. Who knows, maybe the iPod will start replacing wallet photos?

I use the video iPod everyday, and the touch should be a good addition. With the introduction of municipal wifi in Minneapolis, for as low as 18.95 a month for 3mbps when paid a year in advance, the touch may become more useful, to be used in those times when I've forgotten where something is, when something starts, look up reviews of restaurants, etc, in addition to playing videos and music.

Campus Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Paint the Bridge

CASH, the best damned group at the University of Minnesota, painted their sign on the Washington Bridge yesterday. Check out their sign, and stop by Thursday's at 7 PM in Coffman Memorial Union in Room 323 to meet your friendly campus atheists.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Most Americans Think The Founders Wanted to Create A Christian State

The First Amendment Center released the results of a new survey on American's views of freedom of religion, speech, and press.


28% believe the freedom to worship granted by the Constitution does not apply to fringe or extreme groups.
65% agreed the founders intended the United States to be a Christian nation.
55% agree that the Constitution establishes a Christian nation.
58% believe teachers should be allowed to lead prayers in public school, down from a high of 65% in 1999.
80% agree the Bible should be allowed as a form of literature in English class, up from 75% in 2000.
88% agree the Bible should be allowed as a text in comparative religion class, up from 85% in 2000.
50% believe the Bible should be used as a factual text in a history or social studies class, down from 56% in 2000.
18% believe public school programs in December should be secular, rather then hosting Nativity reenactments or featuring music from the Christian tradition.
60% believe that people should be allowed to say things in public which may offend religious groups, up from 46% in 2000.
41% believe people should be allowed to say things in public which may offend racial groups, up from 23% in 1997.
25% believe the First Amendment goes too far in granting rights, that is down from 39% in 2001.

Generally, respondents believed that rights granted by the First Amendment were essential dropped by 10% between 2002 and 2007.
Attitudes on the media, including reporting false stories, or reporting without bias have changed little between 2004 and 2007.

74% believe that students should not be allowed to wear a t-shirt with a message others might find offensive.
50% agree students who post entries in social networking sites while off-campus, like, which may be disruptive to school classes should be disciplined by school officials.
15% of respondents get their news mostly from the internet, with declining numbers in radio and newspapers, but an increase in television, since 1997.
38% would approve of an amendment prohibiting burning or desecrating the flag.
The responsibility of keeping inappropriate material on television has shifted from parents to broadcasters since 2004, with an 87% to 74% drop in respondents holding parents responsible, and an increase from 10% to 19% on broadcasters.
40% of respondents want a specified amount of "positive" news in return for licenses.

You can see the paper here. The sample size is 1003, margin of error is plus or minus 3.2 percent, and the survey was conducted between August 16, and August 26.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Clergy Letter Project: An Open Letter Concerning Religion and Science

Check out this open letter from the Clergy Letter Project.

They support the coexistence of science and religion, and believe that evolution is not counter to Christian faith. It's this kind of activity which needs to be supported more. There are many people who may practice a religion, and don't do what many others do, which is disregard science which appears to clash with their religious beliefs. Much of this can stem from taking the scriptures of your faith literally. Fortunately, the literalists in America are in a minority, but they are a vocal minority. Secular institutions like law, or education take a back seat to literal interpretation of scripture. The Clergy Letter Project seeks to raise the volume of moderates who see what is happening in schools with the evolution / intelligent design debate and are willing to say that the people bringing the ID debate to schools do not represent them. Thanks to Michael Zimmerman of Butler University for starting this ambitious project.

And, thanks to Daily Atheist for bringing this to my attention.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Stephen Prothero and Sam Harris at Mayday Bookstore

FACT, Faith Attacked By Critical Thought will be hosting a discussion at Mayday Books in the Cedar Riverside area of Minneapolis on Sunday, September 9, at 4 PM. The discussion will be on why America is such a religious nation, and what are the consequences of this. Jeannette and I will be there.

Gambling on God

Here's a little story:

An Atheist was walking down the street when a man approached him. "Do you believe in Jesus?," the man asked? "Well, it's hard to have faith in Jesus when you don't think there's a God," the Atheist replied. "Don't even believe in God, you say? Even though I have no proof for you that God exists, I have a compelling reason to believe based on self-interest." "Go on," the Atheist replies, curious about what the man has to say, because most responses to, "I don't think there is a God," are met with, "You're going to hell! You don't want to go to hell, do you?"

"There are two possibilities, God exists, or God does not exist, right? If you believe in God, and follow his commandments, you get eternal life. If God doesn't exist, you've wasted some time in church, and benefited from the comfort of belief. Sure, you may miss out on some pleasures in life, but that doesn't matter much when you're dead. But, if God does exist, you get eternal life."

"If you don't believe in God, and God doesn't exist, you'll lead a full life, free and easy, without the comfort of the divine watching over you, but easy and free, then you die. However, if you don't believe in God, and God does exist, well, it's straight to hell with you."

"Here we go again," thought the Atheist. "So, you see, if you believe in God, and you're wrong, you lose nothing, except for some wasted time in church, but if you don't believe in God, and you're wrong, you're punished for eternity. If you believe in God, and you're right, you get eternal bliss, and if you don't believe in God, and you're right, you die just like everyone else. So, you can see, by just self-interest, it's much safer to believe in God, even if he doesn't exist, because the rewards are so great, and the negatives just aren't there. But if you don't believe in God, and God does exist, then watch out! You've made a major eternal mistake!"

Is this gamble convincing to you? It is to many people who may not attend church services, but get their children baptized, maybe attend church on important holidays, and attend religious funerals. It's better to believe in God and be wrong, then to not believe in God and be wrong.

This wager works if there is only one God, a fundamentalist God, who is quick to punish non-believers, and quick to reward the obedient. But, human religion is not that simple. Just to believe in God, and follow commandments is simple enough when only considering one God. But, humankind has created many Gods. If you believe in a God, but don't believe that Jesus Christ is your savior, Evangelical Christians believe that you go to hell. So, if you take the wager, but happen to believe in the wrong God, you're damned anyway, the same as the Atheist.

Maybe you think to yourself, God's a pretty nice guy and all, I'm sure he wouldn't damn people who led good lives, and happened to worship the wrong God. If that's the case with this all-loving deity, wouldn't Atheists be safe from the lapping flames from hell as well?

Couldn't God see into the farthest reaches of your soul anyway, and not be swayed by belief that is so self-interested? If you are practicing your faith "just in case," wouldn't God be able to tell you weren't serious?

So, this wager is really between believing in a particular punishing, vengeful God who demands you only follow his fundamentalist religion, and no others, or believing that there is no God, or if a God does exist, he's not so egotistical that he won't give you a chance to save yourself when the time comes. This can be a trap as well, because there are many fundamentalist religions to choose from, and many nasty Gods to follow who will be quite angry if you choose the wrong God.

This little scenario is based on Blaise Pascal's Pensees, published in 1669, a collection of his letters and other writings. Pensees means "thoughts," and can be a good source of philosophical problems dealing with religion.

There is an Atheist's Wager which responds to Pascal's Wager. What do you think? Is Pascal convincing? Or, is there a better method?

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Planet Atheism

Check out one of the easiest ways to fill up on the latest news from Atheists, Planet Atheism!

Wedding site chosen

One part of our wedding on 8-8-2008 is settled. The Normandale Japanese Garden will be the backdrop for what should be a fun time.

Atheist Coming Out Stories

Tonight I was a guest for an Atheist Talk TV show on Mormonism. It was similar to the show I did with the Humanists of Minnesota, but I was the only guest this time. I covered some early history, theology, social aspects, and critisims, but really ran out of time to cover what I wanted to, which was, how can atheists leave the Mormon church.

I think there should be a whole show on coming out stories, how different people have dealt with their families, friends, coworkers about their atheism. We shouldn't feel uncomfortable when asked about a camp we may be going to work at, or if someone is going to a talk hosted by a group.

What do you think? Would that make a good show? Feel free to post your own stories here.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Minnesota Atheists Mentioned in Mankato Freepress - On Becoming Atheist

The Mankato Freepress featured an article on September 3rd about the importance of Atheism to Atheists. In it, August Berkshire defines Atheism as a “a lack of belief in God, rather than a belief that God doesn’t exist,” and explains that the decision to identify yourself as an Atheist is not an instant thing for most people.

Mankato attorney Jim Manahan came to the conclusion one day that, "All religions, rather than being equally true, are equally untrue." Another point made by him is the reasoning that, “It makes no more sense to think that humans survive their own death than to believe that dogs, cows, germs, or leaves do so." He is open an honest about his Atheism, doesn't bring it up unless asked, but finds a relief in being able to tell his friends and family.

Berkshire equates coming out as an Atheist to someone coming out gay. When he told his family, "They felt as though they had done something wrong in raising me, until they realized I was still the same person.”

So what about good and evil? How to atheists decide what is moral and ethical? Berkshire looks at consequences. It's as simple as meaning well, doing good for others is good for yourself, and good for society as a whole. Manahan believes people's rights should be respected, and that there are many good people who believe in God, even if he thinks they are mistaken. It's this ability to be comfortable with your own way of thinking, and the ability to respectfully disagree where necessary which opens up helpful dialog about theology. Darrell Jodock, a professor at Gustavus Adolphus College, believes the more comfortable you are with yourself, the more accepting you are of the differences of others.

Overall, this is a very positive article about Atheism. Given it's length, it dispels a few key myths. The decision to label yourself as Atheist isn't made hastily, and for many who have a strong religious upbringing, the process can take years to attempt to resolve your own doubts, becoming an amateur apologist for your own faith, to calm your own questioning, until you ultimately decide that Atheism makes the most sense to you.

The Meek

Psalm 37:11
But the meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace.

Rolling Atheist Blogroll

Check out the new Atheist Blogroll on the site. No worries about stale sites, just active, interesting blogs.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Jewish Extremism

The Associated Press reported on August 27th on a controversy in Israel. Ovadia Yosef, a strong spiritual leader of the Shas movement, an ultra-Orthodox political group in Israel, made controversial statements about Israeli soldiers. Speaking during a weekly televised sermon, he said:

"Is it any wonder if, heaven forbid, soldiers are killed in a war?" he said, "when they don't observe the Sabbath, they don't observe the Torah, they don't pray every day, they don't put on phylacteries every day. Is it any wonder that they're killed? It's no wonder."

Of course this statement was met with outrage by the families of fallen soldiers. "Foolish words" by a "primitive man," is what Ran Cohen, a lawmaker from the dovish Meretz party, said of Yosef's remarks.

The head of the Shas party, Eli Yishai, quickly prepared a statement that Yosef was misunderstood, and would be issuing a clarification.

Yosef called Hurricane Katrina "God's Retribution" for President Bush's support of the Israeli plan to withdraw from Gaza.

Falwell and Robertson were silent on Katrina, but Yosef filled in for them. This is an example of religious extremism we are familiar with in the US, however, may not have heard much from Israel. Is this the result of basing your life on a religious text from thousands of years ago? The moderates were quick to condemn Yosef's statements, however, isn't he right? If you look at the Torah, isn't he right? Doesn't God punish those who don't follow his covenants? The moderates condemn him, but do they have a religious reason for doing so, or are they using reason, and common sense?

Moderate religious adherents allow extremism to flourish by using the same scripture as they do, but choosing to ignore parts they don't agree with. Modernity has allowed for much greater tolerance of people, and a more practical means for establishing ethics then stoning homosexuals or disobedient children. However, modernity, in a religious sense, has not updated scripture with the times. Is this because scripture is set in stone? Are there no more divinely inspired works because we now have the means to quickly discredit would be prophets? Why do we not treat ancient scripture with the same scrutiny we would treat David Koresh? If you are going to tell me that if I don't pray every day, and keep Mishvot, that God will kill me, you'd better have good evidence, otherwise, I'd just be wasting my time. Like Carl Sagan said, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Minnesota Atheists Podcast Demo

Check out the first demo of a proposed new Minnesota Atheists Podcast to be published in addition to Atheist Talk TV and other Minnesota Atheist events. You can find it here. Please leave comments about the show here.

Atheist Symbol

Should there be an atheist symbol? The advantages of a symbol allow for easy identification with a particular set of beliefs. It can establish a loose community, and potentially allow others to be more open. There are many atheists who feel like they are the only one, because openly discussing religion is taboo. For Christians, an easy identifier is a cross, or "Jesus Fish" as represented by the Greek letter "alpha." Atheists and Secularists have adopted the Jesus Fish, and made it their own, in different versions, prompting a "fish war" of sorts. Now you can find Darwin Fish with legs, an Evolve Fish holding a wrench, a Shark Fish which is eating a bunch of Jesus Fish, even a lutefisk fish. The Darwin Fish and the Flying Spaghetti Monster paraphernalia are the most popular tools of identification among atheists. Although, just because someone has a Darwin Fish, doesn't mean that he or she is an Atheist. He or she could be a Christian, who takes offense at Creationism. The Darwin Fish and FSM movements are funny, and poke fun at religion in general, and Christianity in particular. This seems to be the attitude of younger atheists. It's a problem with atheism at large as well. There is no cohesion. Atheists reject dogma, and will argue to the bitter end to defend their point of view. Because of that, the adoption of a symbol is difficult. Atheism is not a religion. Atheism is without god. How can you have a set of ethics and morals which stem from that? There are other movements, like the secular humanism movement, which establish a framework of ethics and morals.

Back to symbols. The Out Campaign is gaining steam off the back of Richard Dawkins. It advocates the outing of yourself as an Atheist, reaching out to the larger Atheist community, breaking down stereotypes about Atheists, and making it more acceptable to be Atheist. The campaign also seeks to keep the supernatural out of public policy and moral principles. Their symbol is the 'A' depicted as a Scarlet Letter. It's less direct, and more serious then a Darwin Fish, but isn't easily recognizable to others who aren't aware of the campaign already. "What's the deal with the big 'A'?," some people may ask. The campaign does make some assertions, like Atheists are good people, and good friends. If this were a Christian group claiming that Christians are good people, and good friends, then Atheists would jump all over them, for their broad generalization that someone's belief in a set of dogma and superstition make them good or bad. By that same example, Atheists are not good by virtue of their disbelief in a god. Christians do terrible things all the time, and so do Atheists. We shouldn't attempt to become hypocritical by asserting that Atheism makes you good. Although Atheists are probably not as bad as other think we are. But, here I am, skeptically nit picking at an honestly good attempt to allow more people to feel less oppressed and less intimidated by religion.

Should Atheist say anything about you as a person? Isn't that prejudice, whether good or bad? As an Atheist, you could be a miser locked away in your basement reading Ayn Rand, wanting nothing to do with anyone. You could also be someone who attends meetings with other Atheist groups in an attempt to emulate the experience of growing up in a religious environment. You may just not care about religion at all, don't like going to meetings, but like wearing witty t-shirts with the Flying Spaghetti Monster on them. You may care deeply about politics, and find it is your civic duty to challenge policy makers who make ethical decisions which you find are not based on evidence or scientific study, but on religious belief, for example stem cell research, or gay marriage. Then again, you may be Atheist, but will heavily study world religions, and enjoy hearing others experiences; Respectfully disagreeing on methods, or means to reach ethical decisions, but agreeing with results, where appropriate. There is much diversity in Atheist practice, because there are no rules. This becomes even broader when you include Agnostics, Secular Humanists, and Skeptics. And that's even leaving out Unitarian Universalists. Which such a great diversity, how can one symbol encompass them all?

American Atheists has a symbol to identify their group, and I have seen that displayed as jewelry and even tattoos. But, that is identification with one group. The Jesus Fish is applicable as an identifier to any Christian, not just a member of a particular denomination. Minnesota Atheists has a logo as well. Jeannette likes the American Humanists design, even considering getting a tattoo of that. How do you represent simply, a lack of belief in something? Any ideas? How about an amoeba, representing a unified origin? It could symbolize a unification of people, with similar origin, that we are all born Atheist, and anything else that represents us after that point is secondary to the origin, whether that be a religion, a Twins fan, or an Apple devotee.