Saturday, October 2, 2010

Asher Brown and Why I Refuse to Ridicule

This past month the world lost another child to suicide. Asher Brown, a 13 year old student, shot himself with a pistol in his home in Texas. He was bullied relentlessly for his religion and being gay. Asher wasn’t the first to end his hell. He followed in the footsteps of Seth Walsh and Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover.

I once knew a girl who everyone teased for being too “churchy”. She carried a bible, went to church every other night and quoted verses during class. The torment she received was cruel and relentless. I learned that she started cutting. When that didn’t work she resorted to drinking and drugs. The last I heard she was homeless. I don’t even know if she is still alive.

When I was 13 I was the ugly girl. I had bad hair and bad skin. I was cornered and had things thrown at me and I couldn’t walk with my head up. At 14 I was considering suicide. I consider my experience as getting of easy.

Why does bullying happen? Because one person feels superior to another, and feels justified in putting the other down. In my case my classmates felt justified in making me feel worthless because I didn’t look like them. In Brown, Walsh and Walker-Hoover’s case their classmates apparently disagreed with homosexuality. Since they believed it to be wrong, they tormented them. Maybe they hoped to literally scare them straight. Maybe they just felt it was what god wanted them to do.

Brown was also ridiculed for his religion, as with the girl I knew, and probably didn’t do enough to help. People felt their beliefs were so absurd the only reasonable action was to poke fun at their beliefs. Obviously if it were pointed out to them that that their lifestyle was ridiculous they could change to be just like everyone else.

I look at these tormentors and I used to attribute it to the immaturity of adolescence. I thought it would go away in my adult life. However, more and more, in what I used to consider my own community, I hear the same argument. Religious people believe in silly and irrational things so they deserve to be ridiculed. When I hear this argument I think of the people I mentioned above and become physically ill. What people did to them was a disgrace to humanity. No human being should ever treat another in that way. Why should I turn around and do the same to people whose beliefs I disagree with?

I could probably predict the counter arguments. These are just kids. But those kids were bullied because their religion taught them to hate gays. Some beliefs are dangerous and they need to stop. I wouldn’t disagree with these statements. I disagree with the method of solving the problems.

I’ve come under fire for disagreeing with ridicule. I’ve been told I can’t tell other people how to be an atheist (an extremely hypocritical statement). I’ve been criticized for not understanding the other side. I’ve been told I’m isolating my allies. Are these people really my allies though? I’ve begun to believe I’m striving for an entirely different goal. The argument for ridicule is to force these people to face their “crazy and dangerous beliefs”. I just want people to be ethical human beings.

I’m not out to make atheists. When I started questioning my beliefs and ultimately lost my belief I became extremely depressed. I felt I had nothing to live for, but at the same time was terrified of death. I started drinking on the sly more than I should have been and could have easily self destructed had I not found a passion(which I will discuss later). Unfortunately I didn’t have a welcoming community. All around me I found myself witnessing the same behaviour I experienced as a teenager, the same behavior that almost led me to end my life. You can’t predict how someone will react to your ridicule. I know many adults who still take harsh words to heart and can’t deal with reality. I’ve had to many people in my life commit suicide due to outside influence. Granted they were already emotionally unstable, but that doesn’t change the outcome. Not everyone is going to react the same way. Some people may have their beliefs ridiculed and become lose their religion and gain freedom. Others may not be able to cope. I can’t risk having blood on my hands.

I want to make it abundantly clear that my choice to not ridicule doesn’t mean that I’m not as aggressive or brave as the “new atheists”. It takes a lot of courage to be a lone voice in a crowd. It took a lot out of me to fight for a cause, only to have people turn their backs on me for daring to disagree and challenge them. I am 100% open about my atheism and hide nothing. I also want to make it clear that I don’t “pussyfoot” or let religious people walk all over me. If I see injustices I fight to end them. My tools(grassroots organizations and community action) may be different than blogs and snarky comments, but I am still on the front lines.

I mentioned before that I have a passion that has helped get me through. That passion is Camp Quest of Minnesota. Not only do I have the privilege to work with some dedicated adults and amazing children, but the outcome helps me validate my life. I feel less guilty about the things I could have done in my past and focus on the things these kids will do. We teach kids to respect those that differ in beliefs than them and to be good people. So far, the kids are getting it better than most adults I know.

I want to end by saying that I don’t expect anyone to change their mind. I only want to share my story and perspective so people will know I’m more than a bleeding heart who can’t stand up for herself. It is up to us atheists to make up our own ethical system as we don’t have a book to tell us how to act (though that is open for debate). Ridicule does not play a part in mine.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Christians are:

The Friendly Atheist asked a question, "If Christians would listen, what would you say to them?" In the comments, I noticed there were a number of statements about Christians. From reading all the comments, it looks like many of them are directed at fundamentalist Christians and others are more general. I plucked out the statements I noticed.


are hypocritical.
think atheists aren't human.
try to convert people.
only talk about Christianity.
need a spiritual being to cling to.
believe everyone needs his/her specific beliefs in his/her life.
hold modern beliefs which aren't Christ-like.
think that philosophy, science, postmodernism, movies, etc. are out to get them.
tell others how to live their lives.
are judgmental.
have insider/outsider thinking.
are narrow-minded.
follow the golden-rule over empathy.
reject reality.
believe that God created the heavens and Earth in 6 days.
think they are horrible and unworthy.
have been brainwashed into believing something that makes them intolerant and hateful.
are trapped in a religion that takes advantage of good intentions.
limit their understanding of the whole wide universe to the Bible.
manipulate family members to isolate and reject atheists.
think that moral behavior is impossible without belief in God.
don't think before they speak.
have been told what to think by their Church.
don't realize its hurtful to be judged.
force people around them to obey parts of their behavioral code that comes solely from the Bible.
think that atheists are ignorant, angry or abused.
condemn others.
do good things to build a magical castle in the sky for when they die.
believe in a magical place of fire where some people go when they die.
don't practice tolerance.
think shellfish are ok, but homosexuals are not.
are arrogant.
believe they can behave in whatever manner they want.
think atheists haven't been introduced to religion.
think atheists are mad at God or at believers in God.
have not read the Bible.
don't use evidence based in reality.
have not researched science.
fear atheists.
come to beliefs through reflection of what they believe about the world.
think they are right.
believe that they are going to an imaginary Nice Room and atheists go to an imaginary Naughty Room.
use evangelism to score more members for their cult.
live their life in the service of their master, real or imaginary.
think asking questions and searching for answers is a bad thing.
are being spoon fed.
hate people that are different.
are in an abusive relationship with god.
play the victim.
force personal beliefs on others.
are raised to be judgmental.
act as though Jews and Muslims are so different even though all three religions worship the same deity.
indoctrinate their children.
take the Bible seriously, but disregard other holy texts.
don't condemn religious actions that are extreme, illegal, or in violation of the separation of church and state.
actions and inactions are contributing to many of the major ills the world currently faces.
think that the Bible is the inerrant word of God.
push an ideology on people based on undemonstratable propositions.
do not have a scientific mindset.
hold nonsensical beliefs.
promotes ignorance and stifles a child's natural curiosity about the world around them.
use words, actions and votes to express disrespect for another's sexual orientation.
constantly attempt to convert atheists.
are on the wrong side of big issues like slavery, segregation, discrimination against blacks, discrimination against women, discrimination against gays.
made war, tortured others, fueled the Inquisition, destroyed cultures with missionary work.
close their eyes to progress and scientific evidence.
wreck families and ruin lives.
are unwilling to change their opinion on whether god exists or not.
don't read the Bible critically.
don't try to see where other people are coming from.
use the Bible to justify already present hate an d bigotry.
afraid of logic.
know that the truth will prove them wrong.
have a church whose negative judgmental behavior is responsible for a lot of pain and mental problems in young teenagers.
demonstrate bigotry and homophobic behaviors.
choose to act based on morality handed down from an authority and/or to avoid punishment or receive a reward.
think the Bible is the absolute truth.
know that the atheist argument is more rational but choose to believe because its what they want to do.
actively try to conform the rest of the country's beliefs and laws to theirs just so they can feel safe.
hold onto beliefs which are verifiably false.
think they hold a monopoly on feelings of awe or compassion or happiness.
would run riot in the streets without a belief in a god.
think that atheists are immoral.
don't apply empathy to their worldview.
actively work to keep gays second-class citizens.
can't see the beauty of the world for what it is.
have not read the Bible with an open mind.
assert they have the moral high ground.
support other Christians who are impolite or bigoted by not asking them to stop.
judge people based on actions and don't value people alone.
are blind to the simple truth that Jesus loved hanging out with "outsiders."
expect atheists to do more volunteer work than anyone else or else atheists are amoral and selfish.
believe that the Bible would condemn a Christ-like individual because they did not profess a belief in Jesus.
think that their religion is true because it is how they were raised.
believe that since atheists don't believe in God then they believe in Satan.
believe that humans are God's most prized creations.
get defensive when you ask them why they think what they think.
don't think they would believe in another deity if they had been born in another part of the world.
won't listen to atheists.
can't have a discussion with atheists without trying to convert them.
think life is meaningless without a belief in God.
think Christians are oppressed in America.
are offended that atheists exist and question Christian views.
think that atheists are ignorant.
think that God favors some of the human race over others.
attend political rallies which are the very intersection of bigotry, hatred and willful ignorance.
have pastors who are human, hateful, spiteful and manipulative humans who use their power to spread agendas of intolerance and bigotry.
should worship their God in private.
only believe because they want to believe.
think that they are nothing without God.
think that atheists deserve eternal torment for not believing in God.
think their religion is the one true religion.
spew vitriol and hate.
think that atheists want to take away their beliefs.
believe in a middle-ages God.
worship a big mean man in the sky to avoid being responsible for his or her own actions.
try to create laws which mirror rules in the Bible.
think everyone should be subject to the rules of God, whether you believe in God or not.
insist on forcing others to listen to their prayers in public.
who run for public office are the ones who hate other groups and make Christians look like lunatics.
struggle with difficult things in the Bible.
don't follow the teachings of Christ.
don't allow themselves to doubt.
are subjected to group think.
think similar things, express similar views, ask similar questions, give similar answers in one congregation and everything is different in another.
treat everyone like they too believe in God.
treat non Christians like they live a wild, party lifestyle.
think they have the upper hand regarding morality.
have not studied other religions.
hold beliefs which cannot be proven objectively.
can't see people beyond his or her religious identity.
think they are guarded by a supernatural protector.
are not perfect. No one is.
deny medical care to children.
violate Jesus' instructions every time they pray in public.
worship idols if they attend a church which has an American flag in it.
abuse children by threatening them with hell.
think atheists hate Christians.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Free Speech and the Bible Humpers

This weekend saw hundreds of thousands of people coming out in support of GLBT rights by attending Twin Cities Pride in Minneapolis. Non-heterosexual lifestyles are seen as offensive to certain people. There are different reasons for this. Some express that non-heterosexual lifestyles are "against Nature," others will cite religious scripture for justification of the opinion that any other form of sexuality other than heterosexuality is immoral and will result in those individuals facing an eternity in torment in the afterlife.

Twin Cities Pride rents out a large public park in downtown Minneapolis for two days at some considerable cost. To absorb this cost, they solicit donations, sell sponsorships, and sell tent space to vendors and organizations. Because Twin Cities Pride rents the whole park, they establish certain rules within the park which vendors must follow. Vendors are allowed to hand out materials, but only at the location they have rented and the organization is allowed to choose who is allowed to pay for a table and who can not.

Why is this an issue? Brian Johnson, a Christian known for protesting Pride festivals was allowed by the Minneapolis Park Board to preach and hand out Bibles at the festival in Loring Park. Twin Cities Pride attempted to prevent him from doing so by issuing an injunction against the decision by the Park Board, which was rejected. The judge's reason? What Brian Johnson was attempting to do is exercise his right to free speech, so long as he isn't disruptive. I agree with the decision. If a protester can be refused free speech at this event, what about a gay rights supporter at a Christian festival?

Brian Johnson wasn't the only protester we saw this year. John Chisham was there as well. We have seen him over the past few years at the Duluth GLBTQAI Festival. He carries a large sign with Bible quotes and preaches at will about sin. He has assistants who will stand and read from the Bible and always includes someone who video tapes his interactions with attendees at the festivals. What would you see from one of these videos? Gay rights supporters shouting, telling him HE is going to Hell, yelling other vile things and even spitting on him. This kind of video encourages Christians to give to his cause. The people who support gay rights are clearly a violent group who are anti-Christian and need to be preached to.

I should mention that I held up a "Hug an Atheist" sign next to his sign at GLBTQAI Duluth last year. What was interesting, is how upset people were getting over him just being there. Some people responded to my sign with great enthusiasm, simply because of his presence. Still others in the audience ignored both of us. Ultimately, both of us should have been ignored and eventually, we were. This is the lesson that the people at GLBTQAI Duluth have learned. Don't give him an audience. Don't yell at him and get upset.

Minneapolis wasn't used to seeing John. A crowd formed around him, of about 50 to 60 people in the afternoon on Saturday. People stood in front of him and listened to him preach while shouting back. Others held up a sign which read "Bible Humper." He had an assistant with a video camera and the audience was providing all the footage he would need. Someone shoved him, was detained and released without a ticket. If he had been ignored, he wouldn't have received the press he was seeking.
EDIT: I forgot to mention that I also saw someone holding up a copy of Christoper Hitchens' "God is Not Great" while he shouted at John, as if "God is Not Great," is some sort of anti-Bible scripture.

This brings up the point of having so many religious groups at Twin Cities Pride. "Standing on the Side of Love" is a campaign from the Unitarian Universalists to "harness love's power to stop oppression." Since the annual meeting of the Unitarian Universalists was only blocks away, their shirts and signs flooded the event. At some of the stages, religious benedictions were offered from religious leaders and spiritual hymns were sung. These people support gay rights and equality, but I don't think it is because of their religion. I don't support equality because I'm an atheist. I don't think someone should have to justify equality with a religious or non religious belief. I think it's great that other organizations support equality, but I do wish that we could do it together.

I had the feeling last year that the religious and political groups were trying to gain converts at gays were their market. I wouldn't wear a "Would Jesus Discriminate?" sticker because I was wearing an atheist shirt and I was irritated at the notion of using Jesus as a modern day pawn to sway people to support equality. I was less irritated this year, because I'm pleased that there are more people supporting equality and it bothers me less that people are able to find support from a familiar religious framework. I rationalized this by assuming that it would be easier for someone who is already experiencing a difficult time with a life choice to find support which is familiar than trying to tear down religious beliefs. I would rather that more Christians supported equality than inequality and discrimination. Equality as an ethic is more important to me than views on theology.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Challenging Assumptions and Seeking the Different

Over the last month, I've been reflecting on how I've felt about being part of the atheist community. I've expressed my frustration with Minnesota Atheists because of the use of ridicule in articles in their newsletter which artificially create an isolationist community which is enforced by an undercurrent of anti-religious sentiment. My hope for the community is to move beyond that. I am tired of atheists pulling quotes out of the Bible to show Christians how ridiculous their scripture is. I know the intention is to wake Christians up, to get them to realize how foolish their beliefs are and to get them to leave their faith, but maybe that isn't even the intention. Maybe it is out of frustration, or a sense that because since leaving religion, an atheist will usually feel more free and atheists want that same feeling for others. Others may want to convince religious people to become atheists because they see harm in participating in a religion which accepts magical thinking and if anything is possible through Christ Jesus, Christians won't worry about planning for the future, educating their children, seeking treatment from doctors, etc. I think I have held all of these intentions at one time or another.

I am frustrated because I hold the assumption that most Americans believe that this country was founded as a Christian Nation. When I've spoken with Christians who hold this view, their assumption is that atheists want to remove religion from the public square, which is offensive to them because they see that act as limiting their freedom of expression, even if that freedom of expression is forced on others. I'm frustrated because I would like more people to realize that the separation of church and state is good for both sides, but the way the issue is framed, is that it is used for atheists to suppress Christians.

I am also frustrated when I read stories about parents who, for religious or cultural reasons, refuse to treat a child's diabetes or other easily treatable ailment. An organization like Children's Healthcare is a Legal Duty should not be unnecessary. I've frustrated over this situation as well, because on one hand, child neglect appears to be rare in this country, although one death is too many, and on another is the desire to allow for religious expression and practice. Can a 14 year old child refuse medical care because they would rather receive herbal treatment for cancer because this is what his religion tells him to do? An 18 year old? Should our society force medical care on others and is that even practical? Wouldn't people just keep their children in hiding and do they already? Do people support religious exemptions for vaccines also support federal funding for Christian Science prayer rooms? I think my frustration comes from my perspective. I don't think that a Christian would listen to me if I tried to convince him or her that seeing a physician is better than prayer, if that Christian were refusing medical treatment, simply because I am an atheist. I would think that the better approach would be to have people from the Christian community respond. I might be too optimistic about this effort because it would be easy for an adherent to dismiss anyone who doesn't think the same way they do.

I attended at event sponsored by the Saint Paul Interfaith Network which focused on designing successful dialogue between people who have very different opinions. During the presentation, which was made by Bob Stains of the Public Conversations Network. One of the things which stuck out, was a presentation on how a community becomes fractured and the kind of behavior people on each side exhibit. In this presentation, a slide went up with the kinds of behavior and language people on split sides of an issue use, which resonated with me more, because I felt like this showcased my frustration with the unwillingness of atheists to have meaningful dialogue with religious people. We = good, right, wise, virtuous, victims, similar, has the facts, are straightforward. They = bad, wrong, foolish, evil, persecutors, are all alike, use emotion, are sneaky.

I know my opinions will change, but my assumption now, is that trying to foster reasoned dialogue, especially among people who disagree, is a better means of gaining support for issues like the separation of church and state and how to protect an individuals freedom of expression without violating any one elses freedoms.

Even within the atheist community, there are sides which are become isolated and splinter. I think this is true in many communities, but I assumed that atheists would be better at being able to use reasoned dialogue amongst each other, even in cases where there is disagreement. If I criticize the actions of atheists, people have an assumption that I am not an atheist. If I write about my experience in the atheist community, it is written off as being too isolated of a community and not representative of the whole. If I express frustration with people who obviously want to make atheists a more respected group of people in the community but are acting in a way which is counter to their goals, whether they state their goals or not, I am seen as a censor. The assumption people make, is that I don't want atheists to speak up when a religious person does something harmful, or when the leadership of a religious organization supports a discriminatory policy because I don't think its useful to make a list of excuses Christians give for the "horrible behavior of their God," or attempting to engage in theodicy arguments.

There are plenty of atheists who are anti-religion who have reasons to disagree with my opinions. My frusturation comes from people who want to build a community of atheists who are seen as positive contributors to society and fail to see the consequences of events like a Debaptism, a $6.66 spaghetti dinner, a presentation which made the case that religious thinking has led scientists astray and public presentations about atheism which make the case that it is foolish to believe in a God. I'm frusturated because the people who run the organization seem ignorant to these consequences. "I should be able to express myself without worrying about who I'm going to offend," is a sentiment I've heard if I raise concern over the use to ridicule in particular. I have little concern whether someone is offended or not, but I am concerned if someone is offended by an offence because he or she isn't willing to understand what he or she did to cause offence in the first place. I also don't like it when people act how they would like to act, then are surprised when someone thinks what they did was wrong. Then there is a shaming of the shaming, or the apperant censoring of the censoree. No one is free from criticism and not all people who don't have a beleif in a god are the same. Don't pretend that you can't possibly understand why someone would find your action offensive and react by isolating yourself. Have a greater understanding of your motives for acting. If the reaction to your actions was unintentional, try to find out why. Should I censor myself around people who are religious? I wouldn't call it censorship, but I try to consider what outcome I would like to see before I act. When I haven't done this, things haven't ended well.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

My atheist journey

Having been frustrated with the organized atheist community, I thought I would write about my short experience to show why I have the opinions I do.

I came out as an atheist on accident. If I hadn't done so, I likely wouldn't have gotten involved with organized atheism. I had read "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins and "The End of Faith" by Sam Harris, but didn't feel like I needed to find a community of people who thought the same way i did. My family is religious, but it wasn't a big deal to answer my mom's question of, "Did you find a church to go to?" with, "No."

Because I did come out and my mother didn't take it too well (She didn't speak to me for six months, of course, I also blamed her and other liberal religious people for 9/11 because of what I read in Sam Harris' book), I started searching for a group of atheists. Jeannette was going to the U of MN at the time and there was a campus group of atheists. I ended up watching a debate with Dr. Robert Price about the resurrection of Jesus and saw a former teacher from high school there. He was one of the most respected teachers and I felt that if he was an atheist and showed up to other events, I just might find an atheist community.

Over the next few months, he and I would bump into each other at meetings and lectures. I had started to go to Minnesota Atheist events, caring less about what the topic was about, then about meeting people. The problem, was that this community only met once a month and people didn't talk to each other much. If this former high school teacher hadn't also been showing up, I probably would have given up on going to meetings because I didn't feel like I fit in yet.

One of the reasons why I was looking for a community, was because I wanted to hear from other atheists how they dealt with family issues. I was planning on getting married in a year and a half and would have to manage tense situations with family members who wanted me to get married in a church. I did get help from people in Minnesota Atheists and the Humanists of Minnesota with where to hold the wedding and had a recommendation of who could officiate. But I still felt like I was on the own with dealing with my family. Events I went to focused on whether God existed or about why Christianity was so wrong, especially the Bible. While the presentations had interesting speakers, I didn't feel like I was part of a community by going to these type of meetings.

What events did I like the most? I remember meeting Lori Lipman Brown who was a lobbyist in Washington working for the Secular Coalition of America. Her presentations were inspiring. She got me to see a value in forming a community of atheists to fight for the rights of the nonreligious as more of a civil rights issue. I was raised in a religious family and didn't have to face discrimination through school, but I heard about people who did and felt like this was a worthy cause to get behind. I also liked going to the Day of Reason because I felt like it was an effective way to present a positive message about the separation of church and state. What I really wished, was that religious leaders would join the Day of Reason, but could understand why they might not feel welcomed.

Over the next few years, I was involved in the leadership of Minnesota Atheists. I wanted to give back to the community because I wanted to fix some of the things I didn't like about my experience, mostly making new members feel welcomed and to encourage more family friendly events. I wanted to try to get people who were like myself involved in the atheist community in order to support efforts of other groups like the SCA and to encourage others to support the separation of church and state. I didn't have to try to attract people who were in a similar situation as myself, people who were searching for a community, because MN Atheists is easy enough to find, I wanted to reach out to people who didn't have a need for an organization and encourage them to join and support the issues which were important to me.

The problem I found, is that for people to join an organization, they have to be more or less self motivated. A group like MN Atheists is great for people who feel harmed by religion. The positive outreach efforts, like highway cleaning and supporting gay rights by appearing at GLBT festivals is enough to get some people curious, but I saw people get turned off by the focus on religion. Over time, it started turning me off as well.

I think it is easier to form a group of people around the harm of religion then around some sort of secular ethical club. The humanists get close to this idea, but there are vocal opponents to the label of atheist among the humanists which makes that community unwelcoming at times. This is where my frustration is coming from. I think it is possible to have a community of non religious people who are concerned about societal issues, humanitarian efforts, local community support, volunteerism, doing good, etc., without the literal biblical interpretation games, the strawmen arguments atheists make amongst themselves, the anti religious rhetoric, the isolationist attitude which discourages work with religious leaders when it makes sense. It is easier to have a group form around a lack of belief then around some sort of "do good" group, which is why I'm satisfied, for now, with volunteering with different groups here and there, supporting causes which have meaning for me. I know I pissed a lot of people by criticizing the behavior of certain atheists. My criticism comes from my frustration from not being able to find a community of people who share the same values I do. It is similar to the frustration I felt after coming out as an atheist. I know there are other people who think the same way I do, but there won't be a community formed out of this frustration.

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.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Trust and Bias

Whether you accept or reject evidential claims (your bias) has a lot to do with what you trust.

Recently, at a dinner with atheists, one person commented that there has been extraordinary work in the field of autism research. A doctor has successfully cured 25 children of autism by removing mercury from from their blood through a process called chelation. Others at the table remarked that chelation is dangerous and that ethyl mercury found in Thimerosal is different then methyl mercury, which is most associated with mercury related poisoning and neurological damage, because ethyl mercury is removed from the body more easily then methyl mercury.

His response? Chelation is not dangerous, that is something they just want you to believe. The mercury differences is just a smokescreen. Just look at a YouTube video of mercury destroying neurons! My child has spasms the day after he received a vaccine, that might have been due to the mercury in the shot. What about fluoride in the water? It's a known carcinogen, yet our government forces us to drink it.

I had only met this person this evening, so I don't have a lot of history to go on, but from talking with him, he's a passionate person, concerned with the environment, sustainability, organic gardening and has a distrust of corporations and the government.

Because of who and what he did not trust, this affected his acceptance of evidence, disregarding objections raised.

A concerned Facebook group member contacted me earlier this week, recommending that I send out a correction about the Tim Pawlenty scandal over the apparent misuse of funds obtained by selling Support Our Troops plates. A staff member received $30,000 as a partial salary, the same person in charge of overseeing the Governor's Faith Based Initiaves, from the Support Out Troops funds. When the DFL brought the issue to light, it was determined that this staffer was working for veterans, on behalf of a veterans welfare group, seeking out eligible veterans who were not using services to which they were entitled.

Did I send out the correction? No. I don't think sending out messages on Facebook qualifies my role as a journalist and besides, who would care? I also am acting with bias. I don't like Tim Pawlenty's socially conservative politics and as an atheist, I'm sensitive to, not only the misuse of government funds, but the misuse of funds which support a program which offers an unfair advantage to religious organizations, making it more difficult for quality secular organizations to operate. Because of my bias, I still see an issue with what happened. I still think that sharing staff between the Governor's office and another organization leads to too little transparency. So, I am hesitant to write it off as an innocent decision on the part of Tim Pawlenty. But, this is largely due to the fact that when I'm presented with information, I don't have as much skepticism when Al Franken is accused of wrongdoing as if Tim Pawlenty is, because I don't trust Tim Pawlenty, but should I trust Al Franken?

It would be a difficult world to live in if trust was thrown out of the window and all claims were subject to deep analysis. But, even at that point, what do you trust, your own experiences, your senses, your memory? It it more important, then, to be aware of ones bias? But, is it that innocent, just to be aware and let your opinions be clouded? Bias can be innocent, such as preferring one local sports team over an non local sports team; however, can be more dangerous when advocating for expensive, ineffective and potentially dangerous treatment for a condition which is becoming more well understood, but until then the favorite enemy of the day will be to blame for the cause.

Friday, January 29, 2010

What is in a name?

Atheist, humanist, secular humanist, Bright, freethinker, secularist, naturalist, these are all words I've heard people use to describe themselves. I recall the diversity of identifiers used at the Atheist Coming Out Day last year. I was reminded of this diversity when an issue came up with the newsletter for a secular organization. Should "humanism" be capitalized?

I began doing some research to see what the organizations used, the American Humanist Association and the International Humanist and Ethical Union. The IHEU uses Humanism and encourages member organizations to do so. The AHA also encourages the use of Humanism versus humanism. One of the reasons given is that Pope Paul VI referred to himself as a humanist.

The consensus among the people who were working on the newsletter was that atheist should be lowercase and many also thought that humanism should be treated in the same way. One of the reasons given to treat humanism in the same way as atheism was that both are not religions and religions are capitalized. However, there is a feeling that capitalizing a word adds to its respect, as determined by the author. Certain authors do not feel that religions deserve any respect over atheism or humanism, so should also be written as islam and christianity.

The core issue is the challenge we all face. We lack branding and a unified label. While researching the humanism issue, I ran across articles touting the efforts of humanist organizations to simplify the use of humanism by removing labels like "secular" from the front and expanding the use of the "Happy Humanist" logo. This logo lets humanists from all over the world recognize each other and other organizations.

Atheists have attempted to do the same thing by choosing a logo at an Atheist Alliance International and rallying around the red "A" of the Out Campaign from the Richard Dawkins Foundation. However, atheist groups aren't as unified as humanist groups are with branding.

I think that the diversity of labels in our community is a strength and a weakness, but an unavoidable weakness. I have met members of Minnesota Atheists who are frustrated with others who don't use the label "atheist" and have tried to encourage others to push aside words like agnostic, non religious, Bright, even humanist in favor of the label "atheist." This has encouraged some to adopt the label of "atheist," but has also made others feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. By browbeating others into calling themselves what we would like to be called in an attempt to unify the cause we may be alienating others who would be just as enthusiastic about supporting the separation of church and state and raising awareness in the community of our issues.

I used to be enthusiastic about encouraging people to use the word atheist to describe their worldview. I used to get really irritated when someone would be uncomfortable with the word atheist and I would want to do what I could to rid them of this fear. What I realized is that personal labels, no matter what they are, are something each of us need to come to ourselves and not be pushed into. We should not be shamed into choosing one label over an other, whether that is atheist, humanist, secular, non religious, Bright, or any other future iteration of identification we will invent to describe what we think.