Saturday, April 24, 2010

I Think We Need A Break

In March, I ended my leadership position in Minnesota Atheists. While I couldn't take the politics, I still wanted to be involved with the community because I met people I care about and I still wanted to make some kind of difference. I care deeply about separation of church and state, teaching science in the schools, and equal rights. The problem is, I didn't see anyone actually doing something about the problem. There are some valiant attempts made by the local atheist groups. The Day of Reason is a fantastic event and I've seen some great charitable events (which sadly more people than I'd like were against even doing). The rest of the time I've just been hearing complaining. Almost every event I go to there is someone bitching about the evils of religion. What is even more disturbing to me is the growing amount of people I've heard ridiculing religion and religious people. It is just something I can't stand by.

I realize that religion has done some great harm. At the present we are still things happening that I obviously have issues with. The problem with the Catholic priests is appalling. There is no reason why gay marriage should not be legal. There are serious breaches in our children's education and women's rights that I obvious don't agree with. However I don't think ridicule is the day to deal with it. I don't think I will ever be convinced otherwise. I believe to make a blanketed statement about religion is bigoted and hateful. It makes us no better than our opponents. A religious person's mind isn't going to be changed because you called them stupid. All ridicule does is satisfy egos. It fuels a circle jerk that will never end.

I've suffered from depression and have pretty much felt like I've conquered it. However, it isn't uncommon for it to come back and lately I've been feeling familiar symptoms that I'm afraid will lead to a relapse. I know I can handle it, but I will need a positive community. Sadly I don't think I can find it in any of the local atheist groups. It isn't good for me to hear my friends and family being ridiculed for what they believe. So for the time being I think I'm going to back away. I'm still a proud atheist and I still love the friends that I've met in Minnesota Atheists, even though we hold such differing views. Though I feel pretty much alone in my views, I hope my friends don't turn their backs away from me because of some disagreements. One of my best friends in the world is a Libertarian that loves guns and Palin. We are polar opposites but I love her to death. I can only hope to have the same relationship with my MNA friends.

I'm not going completely away. I'll still attend a select number of events. I plan on immersing myself in some more positive projects. Currently Camp Quest is my heart and "soul". I think this is a valuable program and it has given my live meaning in a way Minnesota Atheists never has. In a year or so I plan on becoming a Humanist Celebrant. I would love to be able to be a part of someone's important life events, whether it be a wedding or a funeral. Who knows where I will be in the future. I'm not breaking up with organized atheism. We are just taking a little break.

Atheists Destroy

In 2009, President Barack Obama spoke to Muslims in his Inaugural Address. "Your people will judge you on what you can build and not what you destroy."

This focus on destruction is not unique to Muslims. It is a poison to any community. It is prevalent in the poison of racism which has invaded Christian groups in the form of Militias. Parts of the Tea Party also have this disease of destruction, seeking to repeal Health Care Reform, fringe elements praying for Obama to die. In my view, it's these elements which poison the communities they are a part of. In some cases, the point of the community is to destroy another.

To me, there seems to be a growing number of atheists who want to see religion destroyed. I think these people, who may have always been around, are the ones who can make the community suffer. It is difficult to form a community around what you don't believe in and that is what atheists do. Atheists are an incredibly diverse community, however, those who participate in organizations seem to be overwhelmingly liberal politically, don't have kids, or their kids are out of the house. Most seem to have been raised with a religion and have sought out a community because it can be difficult to, in some cases, be rejected from friends and family because you don't happen to share the same views on theology.

It's this last point, I think, which causes much of the anger among active atheists and causes problems for others which are looking for another type of community. People who have chosen intellectual honesty over friendships and normal relations with family will be pretty angry at the reason why their lives are different now. I know I was really angry at religious people and religion in general after reading Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. I blamed even moderate religious Christians for every bit of religious violence. The Twin Towers fell because of the group of peaceful Quakers who meet every week. When I saw the Freedom From Religion Foundation's ads which said "Imagine No Religion" and showed a picture of the World Trade Centers standing, I cheered. It made perfect sense to me. The terrorists were Muslim and without Islam, they wouldn't be Islamic terrorists and wouldn't have killed themselves without the promise of 72 virgins. It was a simplistic notion and I bought into it.

I feel like my opinion of religion and religious people is different than it once was. It is bigoted to treat all religious people alike. Religious people are not stupid. Religious people can share the same ethical values I have. Religious people can understand science and are not brainwashed into belief. I might have been poisoned by the Interfaith movement, but I see a value in joining people together who have different views on theology, but share similar goals for how to make the world a better place. My former views wouldn't have supported this one bit. By working with religious people, I was allowing them to spread lies to children to brainwash the uneducated and ignorant. The side effect is that our world will not progress as long as the religious are allowed to be religious without atheists speaking up and ridiculing and shaming them into disbelief.

One challenge with atheist groups is focusing on missions. Do you exist to form a community of people who feel alone, who need support, who feel like they need to do something to lessen the impact of religion on society? Do you exist to teach people who are religious that atheists are normal? Do you exist to make the world a better place and how do you go about doing that? I don't think that the focus on converting the religious to atheists, which some atheist evangelists want, is a realistic goal and causes problems in communities which are trying to grow. These are the people who would go door to door expressing the "good news" of atheism. These are the people who seek to destroy and are poisoning the community in the same way the violent and racist members of the Tea Party and Christian groups have done. The difference is that the numbers are much smaller but the effect is the same. The people who aren't into that, the ridicule and victim mentality, the people who weren't raised religious, the people who think that religion isn't evil, will simply leave.

I'm on the fence. I'm going to form a community of one.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Two-Faced John 14 12-14

While driving home from work last week, I listened to Make It Plain with host Mark Thompson.  Mark Thompson is religious and makes a point to say "God bless you," to every one of his callers.  I don't think I've caught him missing one yet.  He does offer an interesting show and it doesn't get too religious, but this one evening, a caller who wanted to talk about the health insurance crisis got him fired up.  The gentleman on the phone mentioned that he had been diagnosed with leukemia but it was not serious enough that his insurance would authorize treatment.  He explained that he has a strong faith in God, but that it's getting hard to have faith.  Mark comforted the caller, mentioning that he would pray for him and reminded him that he needed to pray for himself.

Then he whipped out John 14:12-14.

12 Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father. 

 13 And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 

 14 If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.

I had heard this same quote mentioned before, but by a former Pentecostal minister who now speaks to atheist groups.  Lee Salisbury used to be bathed in the Holy Spirit and deeply believed in the words of the previous passage but it became one of the passages which gave him the most trouble.  When was the last time you heard someone rise from the dead, grow a lost limb, cure the blind, speak in tongues, feed a multitude with fish and bread, walk on water, or change water into wine?  Either Jesus is lying or the Gospel is wrong, is what he concludes.

During Mark's brief interview, he claimed to have cured this caller of his cancer by the power of God.  This is a dangerous line of thinking which extends into the abuse and death of children by religious parents who see modern medicine as a sin against God, because your trust should be with Him.  This man was overjoyed to hear that he had been cured, even though he must have known it wasn't true.

Apologists for this particular piece of the Bible have various answers for why we don't just scrap modern medicine and train Christian healers to fix our biological problems.  Answers include, "We won't know until the 144 thousand witnesses for Christ receive their anointing," "Citing Acts which mentions that converting one sinner is a greater work than all of the miracles that Jesus did, so that counts," "No one in history has been Jesusy enough to be able to perform supernatural acts.  The potential is there for all humans to perform supernatural acts but we lack the faith and discipline to actually perform them." "People have risen from the dead and supernatural healing takes place in churches all over, there is proof, I swear."

This is the problem with Biblical interpretation.  In one case, it can be used to give comfort to someone going through a difficult time and in another be used to harm children by refusing medical care.  It is fortunate that most Christians are not Biblical Literalists, but I can imagine plenty of sermons have centered around this passage.  How many people may have delayed visiting a doctor because they didn't want to test their faith in Jesus?

Friday, April 9, 2010

Do atheists hate the sin, not the sinner?

Atheists who choose to argue the existence of gods with the religious will often be accused of being rude, intolerant, bigoted, close-minded and arrogant for having the nerve to say, "I don't think your god exists and here is why."

What will usually happen eventually, is that the atheist will say, "Your argument is stupid!" in a fit of frustration, or, "Your beliefs are stupid!"  Here is where dialog breaks down and both sides stomp off.  Where is the disconnect?  Contentious dialog is difficult, even for those experienced in it, but why does dialog stop once ones ideas or beliefs are attacked?

Atheists, even the most outspoken, are usually very careful to separate the individual from ideas and beliefs.  "You're a Christian and Christianity will cause you to have stupid beliefs," is technically different from, "You're a Christian and you're stupid."  However, I don't think it's understood differently from the Christian perspective.

There certainly are atheists who think anyone with a belief in a deity or deities is stupid.  There are others who hold this same viewpoint who will hide behind the language provided earlier in an attempt to appear fair-minded and open to dialog.  My hope is that those who hold bigoted viewpoints would simply state them without trying to play games with language.

Ideas and beliefs don't need protection, people do.  I think as long as people define who they are by what they believe, questioning an individual's beliefs will always be inferred as a personal attack which degrades dialog.  To me, saying, "I don't think YOU'RE stupid, I think the beliefs you hold are." is similar to saying, "I don't hate you because you're gay.  I hate the gay sex you have."

I don't think that religious belief should be free from criticism.  I think that much progress can be made in dialog if both parties can agree that beliefs are different then who we are as individuals.  From the religious side, when an atheist says, "I think Jesus rising from the dead is a stupid belief," they mean the same thing you'd say to a Scientologist, "I think that the idea of thetans is stupid."

It is difficult to resist an emotional reaction when the ideas and beliefs you hold are challenged, but that is the only way to have a reasonable dialog with someone who disagrees with you.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Top Ten (Free!) Things You Can Do To Help the Atheist Community

10. Come out of the closet.
No matter what label you are comfortable with, atheist, agnostic, humanist, skeptic, let the people around you know what you think. Everyone's situation will be different and for some it will take time to wait for the right moment, for example, "What church do you go to?" "I don't go to church, I'm an atheist, but you can ask me about what I think, if you'd like." The more people who let their friends and family know where they stand and what they think, the more it encourages others to do the same and it helps to foster allies for causes atheists are concerned about, such as the separation of church and state and rights for non-theists.

9. Read the paper.
While it appears that newspapers are a dying media, their reach is still in the thousands on a local level. Read the Editorials and Opinion pages and submit your own response when someone makes a bigoted statement about those who don't believe in any gods. Write encouraging responses when you see religious groups supporting our issues.

8. Treat discussions with religious friends and family as an opportunity for dialogue.
Talking with co-workers about religion or politics should not be a debate. It can be challenging but some of the most important conversations you will have may be with people you completely disagree with because it gives you a chance to understand where someone else is coming from. You can use this perspective to get people to support our cause if you know the things which are important to them. The ends of our goals will ultimately benefit everyone and its our job to make that case. Remember that disagreeing with someone's beliefs is different then attacking someone personally, but to many, that distinction isn't clear, so it's important to educate others about that.

7. Become politically involved.
Volunteer for a campaign or simply attend caucus meetings. Atheists and other non-theists are a minority in this country but that doesn't mean that our voice should be unheard. By becoming involved you can speak up when it appears that everyone is on board with things like school vouchers, faith-based initiatives or giving preference to religion in our schools. Of course, the best you can hope for, is to run for office, be that a school board, city council, or higher roles in the state or national level.

6. Make friends.
Whether you attend meetings held by a local atheist organization or you talk to people online, make an effort to establish friendships. Offer to have a few people from a group over to your house, or go out to eat, or simply hang out at a park. Organizations are useful for getting people to meet each other, but that can't be the only time atheists see each other. This is especially important for people who may be too busy to make it to a lot of meetings because they have kids.

5. Go to events in the real world.
Plenty of people find comfort in the anonymity of the Internet but it is important to get outside. Look for local groups through Facebook or and drop in. You should have at least one thing to talk to others about. A good opening question is, "So, how long have you been an atheist." For some people, that conversation can last hours. If you don't like the message of the group or how events are run, tell the organizers. Not many groups have paid staff who run events, so don't be too critical, but letting an organizer how you feel might get an organization to change how events are run. If the group rubs you the wrong way, try another group, or consider starting your own.

4. Volunteer for an atheist organization.
Volunteering for such a diverse community is challenging and rewarding. At the local level, every town has someone who feels that they are the only one in that town who thinks the way they do. The most important message organizations send is that, "You are not alone." If you only have a little time a month, consider hosting a small event for the group, like a book club or just a brunch. The more people who help out, the better! Just be sure you are aware of the mission of the organization before getting too involved.

3. Be active outside of the atheist community.
If atheist spend all of their time talking with each other and only meeting people with different points of view when we attend debates about the existence of god it can become easy to get isolated and ultimately bigoted toward people with religious belief. Join a group for another interest of yours, like a hiking group, book club, movie club, etc. You can also support a charitable works project, even with a religious group, so long as you support the cause. It might seem silly, but you are acting as a representative of the atheist community when you make it known how you think. It is one more way to normalize the atheist worldview and gets more people to listen to what we have to say.

2. Start an atheist organization.
Communities around the world, especially small towns, are the ones who need groups more than anywhere else. may not be free, but Facebook is. There are all sorts of creative ways to let others know about your events and you shouldn't be discouraged if only two people show up to your first few events. Reach out to national groups like Atheist Alliance International to find groups in your state who might be able to offer advice. If you are a student, whether in a high school or college, use the Secular Student Alliance, please! The only reason why that group exists is to help you. Running a group can be free and very worthwhile. You'll be hooked on organizing when you hear someone say, "I thought I was the only one!"

1. Be open to answering questions.
Many people aren't comfortable talking about something as personal as his or her religious views; however, the most effective way to help the atheist community is by educating those around you about what you think. The hope is that your friends and family will understand that you share more in common then you thought and that the "atheist agenda" isn't about removing freedoms of expression granted to those who are religious but about protecting the rights of everyone to be free from abuse by a religious minority which seeks to impose their beliefs onto you.