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secularism

RfR Fall Excursion 2019

The peace, comfort, and happiness I saw on so many faces was the truest and most profound gift to me. Thank you, my friends.

 

The cliche´ “everyone has a story,” was never more true than it was at the First Annual Recovering from Religion Excursion. We had ’em and we told ’em. For many it was cathartic.

 

Another memorable moment occurred on our last night together.  A group of us, accompanied by three wonderful guitar players were singing our lungs and I suspect, our hearts, out.  We were in fine form.  As someone who loves music, I know! One of our group became emotional.  I saw the early stages.  The song?  A personal memory?  I felt it best to leave him alone in his thoughts.

Then, although fighting it, he began to cry. I later learned that the Christian Matrix had dictated that only certain music, played a certain way, was appropriate.  This person chaffed at the restrictions and eventually “lost” his music.This very night, at this very moment, we witnessed him finding “his music” again.  Part of his freedom to be “ME.” What an extraordinary experience.  Would that it be more common for more people.

Having just returned from the first-ever Recovering from Religion Fall Excursion, I am reflecting on the experience in all of its experimental glory. One year ago, we asked: What if we built a religion recovery event around a weekend, in a retreat setting, with therapists and volunteers available, with timely topics related to morality, sexuality, and  community, post-religion? Would people attend? Could we build a structure that would be helpful, welcoming, and affirming?

Boy, did we get answers. What a profound, refreshing, and at the risk of sounding overly-dramatic, life-changing event this was.

The setting: the cool mountains of North Carolina in cozy lodges;

the agenda: to create a peaceful space for sharing stories and nurturing friendships;

the presentations: deep dives into religious intrusion and human vulnerability;

the objective: to provide hope and healing to those struggling with doubt and nonbelief;

all came together to create an experience that was greater than the sum of its parts.

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On a beautiful fall Friday afternoon in September, where the table was both figuratively and literally set, attendees began arriving: by plane and automobile, checking into cabins, meeting one another, exploring the retreat grounds with its ponds, waterfalls, and bonfire rings. Informal chats began, with the common thread being a history of exposure to religious dogma and indoctrination. Couples, parent and adult child, singles, friends – all working through the awkward first moments of introduction, melting immediately into comfortable conversation, and a tangible sensation of relaxation and acceptance that this was a warm and affirming space to share.

The announcement at the opening about limiting screen time to enhance the weekend was unnecessary – no one wanted to miss a moment. Email, texts, and social media lost their position of priority for a few short days.

The weekend included informative presentations (Why are we vulnerable to accepting unsubstantiated beliefs? How do we reclaim our sexuality? Why do irrational fears of a tortuous afterlife imbed into our brains? How can we live a happy healthy nonreligious life?),

a hike on a small portion of the Appalachian Trail,

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guided meditation,

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loads of carefully-prepared and beautifully-presented food and snacks,

joyful and hilarious karaoke with our very own Mandisa,

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and loads and loads of sharing, talking, laughing, and hugging.

 

And then, just like that, it was over. It was time to return to our busy lives. The simplicity of that reality belied the progress so many had made. We were not sure when we planned this event where on the spectrum of belief our guests would fall. My conclusion was: almost all of our new friends had done the difficult academic work of examining their religious beliefs, found them wanting from lack of evidence, and discarded them. However, many of them, as do many former believers, had gotten stuck right there. Coming out to one’s family and loved ones, finding and building a community of freethinking friends, deliberating and creating a humanism-based morality were all significant tasks that lay ahead.

It is our deepest hope, as we gave yet another round of goodbye hugs, exchanged contact information, and headed off for all points of the compass, that our guests will return to their lives inspired, informed, and energized to continue rebuilding their lives, free from dogma, cognizant of the relics of indoctrination, and as said by Robert Ingersoll, to stand “erect and fearlessly, joyously, face all worlds.”

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To the donors who provided the means,

To Shanon who had the seed of the idea, nurtured the growth, and brought it to life,

To the volunteers who gave of their time and effort,

and mostly to the guests who leaned in and opened up and embraced the offering,

our deepest gratitude.

 

 

Fighting God, by David Silverman

This is my review of David Silverman’s recently-released Fighting God. This review is cross-posted at Goodreads.

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No bones about it. David Silverman IS Fighting God.

In this manifesto, Silverman tells us, topic by topic, why he does what he does. As president of American Atheists, Silverman is the head of the largest, and likely most militant and litigious, atheist organization in the world. And he’s over it.

He’s over “live and let live”. He’s over “respecting your beliefs”. He’s over “coexist”. He’s over all this, and he explains in this book why: not because he’s an intolerant hater, but because religion won’t allow him. He cares too much for other people, and he cares too much for America and its values. Religion, as he sees it, invades every corner of our cultural and political arenas, and not in a good way.

He spends some time at the beginning of the book defining terms so that the reader can get firm footing on the power of language that has for so long worked in religion’s favor. For example, many flavors of Christianity fall under the broad term Christian (Baptist, Presbyterian, Catholic, even Mormonism). This is not true for people who have no belief in God (seculars, agnostics, atheists). This becomes important when statistics are used to prove that America is a “Christian” nation, because the numbers are skewed. Silverman emphasizes in this chapter the value and extreme importance of non-believers using the term atheist, which regardless of the baggage, every non-believer is.

Silverman then takes us on a journey through all religions, not just Christianity. He carefully addresses every topic used in defense of religious beliefs, and shows them for the smoke they are. One of his strongest sentences, in Chapter 3, states:

“Beyond the rhetoric, beyond the lies, and beyond the marketing, never once in the history of our species has any religion found, offered, or shown any verifiable and testable proof based on scientifically valid evidence and the scientific method (you know, the way we would prove anything else) of any supernatural being or phenomena. Ever. As I said before, if I am ever proven wrong on this point, I will quit my job and donate the proceeds of this book to that specific god’s religion, and I shall do so in a tremendous hail of publicity so that everyone will know.”

This book builds with intensity. As an attorney, my favorite chapter is Chapter 8: On Fighting Unpopular Battles (but Being Right). The chapter addresses the problem of religion in politics in America. Even the most devout of believers will agree that religion has a position of privilege in our government. This is perhaps the most powerful reason in a series of powerful reasons to push back against the ubiquity of religion, and to push hard. So many divisive issues in our culture have at their roots the ugliness of religion: gay marriage, abortion, women’s reproductive health, and even wealth inequality (remember the “poor always being among us”?). Silverman reminds us that religion will never, ever concede its position of privilege, and it will only be taken from religion with muscle, stamina, and determination.

Silverman’s book concludes with a variety of speeches he has made, and after the beatdown silent non-believers have taken throughout the book, these speeches not only assuage those wounds, but serve to inspire and motivate. Patriotism has been usurped by the religious right, and these few pages go a long way in reclaiming it.

For the purpose of full disclosure: not only am I an non-believer, but I’m one of those firebrand atheists Silverman describes. This book does a wonderful job of explaining why I am the way I am, but I would also have loved to have read it when I was on my way out of religion. Instead of slinking quietly away, I would have hired a marching band, drill team and all, and I myself would have lead the parade, carrying the atheist banner.

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Thanks for reading!

Vaughn and Lucy

I loved Edwin Kagin.

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Edwin died on March 27.  I loved him.  I loved his big, fat, beautiful, juicy brain, I loved his irreverent, dry, southern sense of humor, and I loved his unrelenting compassion, desire for justice, and concern for children.

Edwin was the legal director for American Atheists from 2006 until his death.  He and his wife Helen were the originators of Camp Quest, a secular summer camp for children.  It had grown from a brilliant idea in 1996, to overnight and week-long camps located in many states, and UK and Switzerland.  Camp Quest offers children the summer camp experience including educational activities that promote critical thinking, ethics, scientific inquiry, and philosophy.   Edwin was the brilliant legal mind behind many civil rights and religious freedom lawsuits over the years, but I believe it was Camp Quest of which he was most proud.

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I met Edwin in Des Moines at the American Atheist convention and was captivated by his charm.  He was lovely and encouraging to me as a first-year law student.   Edwin could be funny and serious and blasphemous, all in one sentence.  He was the quintessential cantankerous and curmudgeonly crank whose eyes twinkled behind his glasses under the brim of his leather hat.

Edwin was also an author and bloggerHere is a post he wrote about the death of his lovely wife Helen.  Not long after I met Edwin, he sent me a copy of his book Baubles of Blasphemy.  I rationed the readings of his writings because they usually had a profound effect on me as a new freethinker just coming out of the daze of religion, and I needed the extra moments to digest the profundity.  We corresponded through email and even in this cold, impersonal digital format, his warm, witty personality peeked through.

Edwin and I saw one another at various freethinkers conventions, and always stole a moment or two to catch up.  He never failed to ask me about law school and how I was doing and what my plans were.  I saw him last in Austin, Texas, and was looking forward to seeing him again in Salt Lake City in April.  Edwin died on March 27.

But my sweet Edwin left behind not only a legacy of epic proportions in the way of Camp Quest, but also his two canine loves, Vaughn and Lucy.  Edwin’s family put out the word that these two honeys needed a home, and they needed to stay together, if possible.  It took me about 10 seconds of reflection before I knew I wanted to provide a home for these babies.

So I introduce to you:  Vaughn and Lucy.

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Big Vaughn
Meeting Elvis the steer
Meeting Elvis the steer
Hot mess of Freethought canines
Hot mess of Freethought canines
The sweetness that is Lucy.
The sweetness that is Lucy.
Precious Vaughn
Precious Vaughn

We’re getting to know one another.  When they learn to trust me, I plan to solicit any legal genius that Edwin shared with them, but I can be patient.  Right now we’re working on positioning in my office while I’m studying, and smelling everything that can be smelled on a farm.

What a delight these two furries are.

And what a joy and an honor and a privilege to have known this man.

Thanks for reading.

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Before you return to wherever you were before you were born, it might be a good idea to so live that people remember you fondly. This is not a dress rehearsal. Life ends / Tao flows.
Don’t take life too seriously; you won’t get out of it alive anyway.

Edwin Kagin

 

 

AHS, Day 2

Another information-packed, nutrient-rich day at the Ancestral Health Symposium.

The first session of the day was titled: Parasites are Paleo:  The Hidden Cost of Modern Hygiene.  This one was a test of our skepticism and critical thinking I’m always talking about.  The universe of micro-organisms that populate our bodies inside and out are a delicate balance, and when we cropdust internally or externally we kill indiscriminately, and that’s not good.  Some of these guys aid our health through digestion or skin health.  Our children are growing up in the Purell environment and we don’t yet know what the results of that are going to be.  Statistics are showing that when our children are exposed to dirt and mud they have a lesser incident of allergies and asthma.  (Please know that this is way oversimplified, and I’m linking to the lecturer’s website/book because much of this is new enough to me I can’t speak authoritatively.)

Don't bust me on this - I have no idea what this bacteria is...isn't it a cool graphic?
Don’t bust me on this – I have no idea what this bacteria is…isn’t it a cool graphic?

I attended another session called Survival Panel, mostly out of interest for son Sam, and his interest in survival skills.  This was a panel looking at the hunting/gathering activities that our ancestors would have engaged in compared to the movement/stressors/nutrition we have modernly.  Guess what?  We are pretty far removed from those skills.  One of the questions after the session asked the inevitable question about eating insects, which of course is a big topic in this group.  As broadminded as I pride myself in being, I’ve got a huge ick-factor about this I’m struggling with.

Nature is red in tooth and claw
Nature is red in tooth and claw

Next was a really interesting lecture about the Rise of Monotheistic Religions as a Cultural Adaptation to Infectious Disease.  Many religious edicts relate to cleanliness with regard to burial, ritual for food preparation, sexual rules, etc that may have helped religions keep a stronghold through this hygiene code through religious authority.  The lecturer for this, John Durant has appeared on the Colbert Report talking about the health of hunter/gatherers.

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Lunch break at a Paleo conference was:  water buffalo meatloaf, potatoes, squash and zucchini in olive oil, salad, and kombucha to drink (yeah, the potatoes were a surprise to me too – more on that later).  The meatloaf was wonderful, and provided by one of the vendors.  I’m still amazed at how beautiful everyone here is, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching people interact during the meal.  I have no idea why I have no picture of this – too hungry, I guess.

Then we had that poster session I mentioned.  Folks were invited to present their research (on a poster, duh) informally in a mix-and-mingle area where they could chat and explain their research.  There were several N=1 posters – folks who have applied paleolithic nutritional science to themselves for a period of time (mostly about one year), and did extensive data gathering.  Weight loss, lowered blood pressure, more energy – all of the typical health markers improved for these experimenters.

After lunch we went into a panel discussion about the Ketogenic Diet and Athletic Competition.  The rock stars on this panel were Robb Wolf and Mark Sisson.  Mark came in 4th in the Hawaii Ironman on a ketogenic diet (a fat-burning rather than glucose (sugar)-burning diet).  We hung on every word of this one.  It appears that one may lose the top, highest performance (top speed) but endurance increases dramatically.  This makes sense in light of the evidence that our muscles can only retain so much glucose (enough for about 30-45 minutes), but our fat stores, even on a lean person, are massive.  Son Sam and I are doing an Ironman together next year (looking at Chattanooga in September 2014), and it’s my intention to train on a cyclical ketogenic plan.

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Dr. Georgia Ede presented a session about Nutrition and Mental Health that blew me away.  Because carbohydrates create inflammation in the body, her research is centered on studying whether or not this inflammation, that eventually may lead to diabetes or some kind of autoimmune disorder, may also have an effect on mental health.  She was very cautious about even inferring connections, but her research is so promising in connecting diet to some of these diseases (ADHD in particular), and fits with the statistics of what our children are eating.

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Then we attended a very sobering session about Malnutrition and Starvation in the World, and about how we, the global human community, can help to feed the world.  The conventional wisdom is to produce more grains.  Dr Alyssa Rhoden spoke about how to reclaim some parts of the world from the desertification that comes from growing corn and return it to grazeland, and to grow more diverse organic vegetation.  This topic is political and ethical as well as economic, and I’m including this link and this link if you are interested in more information.

No monocrops, no grain subsidies, no big agra
No monocrops, no grain subsidies, no big agra

The last session of the day for us was an introduction to Pasture and Grassland Ecology.  I am particularly interested in this, since my little slice of paradise in Tennessee includes 8 acres and all the animals whose pictures I’m always posting on Facebook.  I already have my little garden, and the chickens provide beautiful eggs, but even if I never eat another animal off the land there, I would like to restore the topsoil and care for the groundwater as much as I can.  Our lecturer for this has a blog:  grassbasedhealth.  His topic included the question:  Is An Ancestral Diet Sustainable?

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So that has been day 2.  Just a side note:  we’re not just attenders of this conference, we are also working here as the Investigators for Code of Conduct Violations.  While all of that is super top secret, I can say that we have not been very busy.  Correlation does not imply causation, as we know, and it has been nice being able to attend the lectures.

Today is Eliott’s birthday, so our dinner tonight will not be Paleo.  Don’t be hatin.

Thanks for reading!

Dear Kate,

I recently published a post entitled “Moderate Faith” in which I expressed the position that I believe even moderate faith has a detrimental net effect on society, and additionally, allows radical faith to thrive, since both versions of belief are based upon subjective interpretations of the same book.

I received a comment from a fellow law school student and what follows is my response to the comment.  This method of answering is called “fisking” and while it may appear choppy and disjointed, it allows to me to address each portion of the comment.  To see the comment in its entirety, go here.   In this post, Kate’s words are in red.

Dear Kate —
Thank you for reading the blog and for posting.  I enjoyed your comment on so many levels, not the least of which was your overall tone, which made it seem that you really were trying to understand what I was expressing.  As parents, we have both learned how very critical it is to be heard and understood, even if it leads to disagreement.

Reading this post, I think I finally get what atheists are trying to do when they talk like this to believers–you think you are trying to save us from ourselves and to save the world from us, aren’t you? I always thought you were condescending, puffed up, and self-righteous in your own way. But, I think I see it differently now. You say this stuff out of genuine concern, don’t you?

Yes.  This so much.  Genuine concern for our communities, our society, our country, our world.  Yes yes yes yes yes.  That’s not to say that atheists are not condescending, puffed up, and self-righteous.  We absolutely are.  In fact, at our various conventions (the secular activist community in our country is an alphabet soup of organizations) we always address that:  Should we be kind and conciliatory or brash and aggressive?  Be a dick or a diplomat?  A firebrand or ambassador?  The speaker always leads us through the conversation:  How can we reach the most people with the message that reason and science will take us so much closer to peace, joy, and happiness than religion ever will?  The conclusion is almost always the same:  be yourself.  Different messages will reach different people at different places on the continuum.

All of that to say Yes.  We say these things out of genuine concern.

“Have you been saved?” (Don’t worry, I am not asking you that question.) That is what I hear all the time from evangelical Christians. They get angry at the LDS concept of grace, that Christ saves us through grace after all we can do ourselves to live his commandments and his gospel. They get angry because they think we diminish God and aggrandize ourselves, that we try to save ourselves through our own efforts. That is not it. We believe that the resurrection is a free gift of God to all, but that salvation of our souls is something for which we have to put forth effort, that our effort will never be enough though, and that Christ makes up the difference if we follow him. Bear with me, I know this is not a religious discussion on grace, nor am I trying to convert you. I am setting up an example.

Kate, you asked for me to bear with you, and I will, but I have to interject this here.  I don’t give 2 flips about whether salvation is through grace alone, or grace + works, or works alone, or whatever.  Here’s why:  I don’t need salvation, because I’m not lost.  I’m not broken or incomplete or unworthy.  And I don’t believe I need saving from something that occurs after death.  I don’t believe that we survive our own deaths, as there is no evidence whatsoever that our brains continue to function (which is where all of everything that makes us uniquely ourselves resides – our memories, our personality, our knowledge) after we have died.

My former step-daughter is truly distraught over the future of her half-sister, her father, her new step-mother, her step-brother, and maybe even of me. She truly believes that we will burn in hell for eternity. She happens to love these people in her family, and it is distressing to her. So, she tries to save us.

I’m glad you’ve put this paragraph in here.  I don’t know the specifics of your family’s faith, but I can assume it includes fear of eternal damnation to hell for unbelief.  I can understand why your step-daughter is distraught.  If I thought anyone, much less one of my family members, was going to suffer that fate, I would be more than distraught; I would be hysterical.

Lifelong exposure to this little piece of theology has hardened our hearts against this complete and utter barbaric and unjust cruelty, cruelty not only to the unsaved sinner, but to those commissioned with the responsibility for preventing it from occurring.  There is not a believer on earth, who as a child did not have terrors about this:  either going to hell ourselves or not being able to keep out of hell someone we loved.  And conceptually, the idea that a creator would create you with a mind capable of critical thought, give no evidence of his existence, actually allow evidence for the opposite, demand that you not only believe on no evidence but to LOVE HIM, and then condemn you to hell, eternally, for acting on that very logic and reason is beyond cruel.  It’s sadistic.

You are trying to save our souls too, aren’t you? (Or, since you likely don’t believe in souls since they are not tangible or testable, our minds?) You are trying to save our world? You think we will destroy it?

Hell to the yes.  You already are.  So many major problems in the world have a religious background.  There’s hardly a war that has been fought that was not fought because God was on each army’s side, and was compelling the battle.  Look at present sub-Saharan Africa, and the suffering there because the Catholic church refuses to condone or support condom use.  Look at inequality in America – is there a single secular reason for not allowing gay marriage?  Look at the suffering of women at the hand of religion, and not just Islam.  Mainstream Christianity still teaches that women are not equal to men, and we fight this in the arena of equal pay, reproductive rights, and lack of sexual autonomy.  I haven’t even mentioned radical Islam and its costs, and the religious world can’t help with this, because they are claiming EXACTLY what you are claiming:  This is what this book says to me about how to live my life, and here are the verses that endorse it.

This might be a good time to reflect upon the statistics from the most and least religious countries.  In every metric that can be measured, those countries with the most secular societies pass by leaps and bounds those same metrics in countries where religion is at high levels.

I try to reassure my step-daughter. I will try to reassure you. Goodness and love and progress will win out over hate, if we keep working together–the faithful and the secularists/atheists working together.

Read what you wrote.  “Goodness and love and progress will win out over hate”.  Agreed.  Where in that statement is anything about God?  These are the attributes promoted by every secular humanist I know:  To be kind.  To promote education.  To be fair.  To care about one another.  To work together.  And winning out over hate?  Where is that hate coming from?  Think it might be from religious instruction and the tribalism endorsed over and over and over in the Bible?  From the idea that anyone who doesn’t share your belief is wrong or misguided or deceived, or worse, has rejected your beliefs?  That’s a hop, skip, and a jump from contempt, and that’s edging ever-so-much-closer to hate.

Just as you have heard the “What if you are wrong?” question too many times, don’t you think we know about the murders in the Bible and wars throughout the ages committed in the name of God? Trust me, we have. Trust me, we grapple with it. You are right. It is problematic. We know that. Most of us have likely grappled with God on those very issues. We are not stupid nor are we naive or willingly self-blindfolded.

If you’ve read this blog long enough, you know that I am a former believer.  I don’t have to trust you that you struggle with it.  I know.  I had the same struggle.  I wish believers could hear the stories shared among the secular, particularly those still recovering from religion.  There are those former believers, clergy included, who left the faith screaming and clawing and desperately trying to hold on, knowing they were leaving the comfort of the familiar, knowing they couldn’t go back, but terrified to go forward.

Keep thinking, Kate, and keep trying to figure it out.  Why would God have acted that way?  Why would he have instructed soldiers to “dash infants to the ground” and “take the women as your bounty”?   Why would he currently bless you and your family with health and wealth and allow little brown children an ocean away to die hungry and crying at the rate of 1 every 3.6 seconds?  What is the most reasonable answer?  What is in keeping with what the writers of the Bible were trying to do?  Wars are much easier to win with tales of God being on your side.  To what does the evidence point?

Do me a little favor, an experiment.  Slip on your God Is Manmade goggles for just a minute and take a look around.  Does the world make more sense?  Does the universe act exactly as the universe would act if there was no God?  Does the empty inconsistency of prayer make much more sense?  Does our evolutionary heritage, and our tiny place in the cosmos fit into context  much better?  Does the claim by each and every religion on the planet that it alone is the One True Way fit flawlessly into the culture from which it emerged?  Are the historical and scientific errors of the Bible now explained?

Rather than the evangelicals trying to convert you (and me) and rather than you trying to “convert” the evangelicals (and me), I repeat my former question: Can’t we trust each other to have thought deeply about these issues and then join hands and work to make this world a better place, standing on a foundation of so many things we do agree on?

I want to trust that you have thought deeply about those things.  I really do.  But when I question you (the broader You) about the atrocities and inconsistencies of the Bible, you agree that they are terrible, and that they promote divisiveness.  You agree that there is a decidedly anti-education and anti-science bias in the Bible.  You agree that the Bible models the repression of women and indoctrinates children.  You agree that there is really no evidence for the existence of God, and that yes, a lot of evidence points to all indications that there is no God.

And then you say you believe it anyway, and when I ask why, you say I DON’T KNOW, IT’S JUST ON FAITH.

This is not noble.  This is not virtuous.  We wouldn’t accept that in a classroom, we wouldn’t accept it in a laboratory, and as a future lawyer you know we wouldn’t accept that in a courtroom.

Murder, war, carnage = bad


Dishonesty, taking unfair advantage = bad


Hate, prejudice, meaness, ignoring = bad


Torture = bad

Love = good
Care = good


Feeding the hungry = good


Taking care of Mother Earth = good


Helping those who need help = good


Building communities = good


Working = good


Finding cures to diseases = good


So much good to work towards together . . .

Kate, I think you and I could both come up with examples of the things on your good list that have been done by churches.  I did them myself when I was a member of a church.  Churches and religion have done good things.  But it comes with such a price.  All of the stuff on the bad list?  Religion has done those things too.  And doing the good things doesn’t require religion.  When the secular community gives, it isn’t because of a commandment.  It isn’t because of fear.  It isn’t because we are after eternal loyalty.  It’s because we’re moved to compassion by the suffering of another human being.  That’s it.

Furthermore, what are the greatest barriers to doing all those things up there in your Good list?  What’s the barrier to building communities?  It’s not the atheists that are saying Everybody But Gay.  What’s the barrier to finding cures to diseases?  It’s not the atheists who are saying Stem Cell Research makes baby Jesus cry.  What’s the barrier to caring for the earth?  It’s not the atheists who believe in Dominionism.

If I want to know how to deny the existance of God and rely solely on mankind’s intellect, I know who to ask. If you want to know how to turn towards God and use both faith and intellect, you know who to ask. I trust that you are smart enough to know when you want to know that. I am smart enough to know when I want to know that.

The audacity of this paragraph.  The idea that you are smart enough to know “when you want to know”.  I know this is not a typo or a misspoken statement.  I know you meant it like you wrote it.  In a very important relationship I had that was coming to an end over our difference of belief, I asked “If it’s not true, wouldn’t you want to know it?”.  The answer was:  “No.  Absolutely not.”  I don’t blog about that relationship, but I will say at that moment, my heart broke.

Kate, when you write something like that, you reveal exactly the problem with faith.  I know why you want to continue to believe.  I know it’s big and scary to face life without religion.  But hear me now:  I promise you with everything I am that the darkness is worth walking through.  The light, and air, and joy, and life that is on the other side of that tunnel is cleaner and deeper and brighter than anything religion could ever bring you.  The world is more beautiful.  People are more precious.  Moments are so much more valuable, and for me, life makes sense.  Consider this quote by the magnificent Robert G. Ingersoll:

“When I became convinced that the Universe is natural – that all the ghosts and gods are myths, there entered into my brain, into my soul, into every drop of my blood, the sense, the feeling of the joy of freedom. The walls of my prison crumbled and fell, the dungeon was flooded with light and all the bolts, and bars, and manacles became dust.”

So I ask you:  If it’s not true, wouldn’t you want to know it?

So, let’s move on and work together on what we agree about! You are concerned about my mind and the world, and I am concerned about your eternal happiness and eternal progress and the world. We both care about each other’s welfare. Okay, we understand that. We know whom to turn to if we need to.
By the way, I don’t follow your blog just to comment on posts like this. But, so far, these are the only posts that have prompted my comments. I started following your blog, believe it or not, because I felt we had a lot in common. I love fitness, I am a single mother of a teenager, and I am finishing up my second year of law school as someone who went back to school a little bit older than the average student. I still believe we have a lot in common, and I look forward to seeing your blog posts. I hope school is going well and all your other wonderful pursuits!
Oh, and if I am correct in my new hypothesis, that atheists sound like this out of care and concern for believers–thank you for that care and concern.

Kate Sherwood

Kate, I know my response has been harsh.  I’ve written and edited and rewritten, trying to find a way to say I’m OK, You’re OK.  But I think religion is a net negative for our society, our nation, and the world.  It stands in the way of peace and progress, and rather than fight it on every front, it’s my intention to work toward cutting the head off the snake.

And if I haven’t completely lost you as a potential friend, I’d love to chat about law school (I’m in my 3rd year), the joys of teenagerhood (mine are now all spectacular adults), and the love affair we have with fitness and nutrition.

Thank you in again for having read the blog, and for taking the time to respond.  I have stalked your blog (and assume it’s ok to post it as it is included in your comment) and I relate to so much you have written.

To everyone else…thanks for reading.

Moderate Faith

As regular readers of this blog know, most of what I write about is personal.  What started as a training blog for my preparation for an Ironman competition has become an outlet of personal expression, an explanation of philosophical positions, and a format to present an opportunity for input and discussion.

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Sometimes inspiration for subjects of the blog occur through events in my daily life, with posts such as the most recent about the efforts of Ride2Recovery to rehabilitate injured veterans through the sport of cycling.  Sometimes I write about my kids, as they provide endless blog fodder through their own adventures and experiences.  And sometimes I blog on topics about which I have a personal passion and interest.

This is one such post.

Last week in the US was a really crappy week.  Reasonable gun control measures were defeated in opposition to the will of 90% of the nation, on Boston’s proudest day explosives ripped flesh and dreams apart, and we learned that the motivation behind those attacks was in all likelihood religious extremism.

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The flurry of Facebook posts and tweets that followed were quick and sharp to expressly criticize radical Islam.  In my disgust and revulsion at this violent attack, I commented that both Islam and Christianity hold at their very centers books that advocate this type of behavior.  There followed lively and passionate discourse (if we allow FB interaction to be called discourse).

What follows is my explanation of why I hold this belief.  I’ll speak specifically to Christianity, since that is the faith about which I am the most educated; I believe the premise can apply equally to any belief system which centers around a supernatural deity which cannot be perceived through any quantifiable or testable measures.

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There is little argument that the Bible is chock full of examples of God’s actions and instruction that include what we now consider heinous and morally reprehensible behavior:  the genocide and domination of other people, the buying and selling of daughters into slavery, the taking of women from defeated adversaries as sexual bounty, the slaughter of children and infants, the testing of faith by the murder of one’s child, the murder of every inhabitant on the planet save for 7 – a terrifying manner of death by drowning.  This is not gentle, it is not moderate, and it is not peaceful.  And we can dispense with the argument that this is all Old Testament; not only did Jesus completely endorse all of the Bible, he himself is reported to have said that he did not come to bring peace but a sword.

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My first contention is that those folks who decide to build their lives around the “happy-lovey” parts of the bible have no better basis for that decision than the folks who decide to build their lives around the ugly parts.  I go further and contend that those human-friendly passages are few, generic, and can be reached entirely secularly.  Westboro Baptist Church has a biblical admonition for each and every one of those hateful signs.  As a former believer, I know that Protestants support a concept known as “Priesthood of the Believer”, which allows that every person has the freedom and authority to determine what the Bible means to him or her.  I don’t really have a problem with that until one applies this concept to a book as full of violent acts, tribalism, rape, genocide, and domination as the Bible.

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My second contention is this:  We have a global problem with radical Islamic terrorists.  Our only hope at a solution to this problem is teaching people and societies that God is not compelling them to act in this manner.  How do we do that when the premise of both Islam and Christianity is the exact opposite, that God does speak to them in ways they are empowered to discover, are discernible only to them, and guidance for which behavior can be found in these books??  And how can we say the entire concept should only apply to Islam and not to Christianity when the process for determining God’s will, the authentication and evidence for verity, and the endurance through time are identical?

My final contention is that moderate Christianity insulates radical Christianity from being critically examined, because it allows it to remain popular and mainstream.  Any attempt to discuss any potential failings in Christianity is met with claims of disrespect and persecution.  Christians are very willing to mock the beliefs of, say, Scientology (or until recently, Mormonism), because the claims are so outlandish and without evidence, but become indignant when the same skepticism is applied to a person coming back to life, or walking on top of water, or chemically altering a substance a la Harry Potter?  In the marketplace of ideas, as the very process upon which a free society is based, how can this subject be off-limits for criticism and ridicule?

As to the response that radical Christianity is better than radical Islam?  Agreed….for now.  Throughout history radical Christianity has been the cause of at least as great a volume of suffering and anguish as Islam.  Also, is the subjugation of women, the resistance to science education, the indoctrination of children with terrifying tales of eternal torture through burning, the hatred and rejection of people groups not bad enough?

This post is not about the merits of belief.  It’s not about what qualifies for evidence of the existence of God.  It’s not about how secular humanists access and implement a moral foundation for living.   Those are all valid topics that should be discussed – if only one’s personal faith were not excluded from the conversation because it is holy and exempt from critical examination.  No, this post is about why we, the secular community, think that religion causes greater damage than good, and how moderate religion allows radical religion to continue to flourish.

I close this post with question that we nonbelievers use as a guiding question when we hear a claim presented as truth.

“How do I know this is truth?”

Determining the answer requires critical thinking, research, skepticism, more research, and finally an embrace that includes the possibility that through new advance, new research, new study, this truth evolves and morphs.  That is the strength that religion lacks, and why the radical version of religion can’t be excised from the moderate version.

Thanks for reading.

Sometimes you just get lucky

I’m at the American Atheists convention and I have a blog queue that is about to bubble over.  There have been great speakers, big laughs, a costume party, old friends, and I have every intention of posting about all those things.

However, something happened last night that bumped all that down the list.  I met Earl Smith.

This American Atheist convention is the 50th anniversary of its founding, and it’s being held in Austin, Texas, where Madalyn Murray O’Hare began the organization in 1963, after the landmark ruling of removing prayer in public schools.  It’s 4 days of activism, socializing, speakers – all the usual that go along with conventions.  We’re meeting and staying at the Hyatt in Austin, which is one of the subjects I want to post on.  I have been astounded at the job they have done in accommodating us is so far beyond what is usually expected.  I have tried to express my gratitude to the waiters, check-in staff, and security as the opportunity presents.

Earl Smith is the director of security at the Hyatt hotel in Austin, Texas.  He’s a tall, snowy-haired, good-natured African American, and we (Eliott and I) warmed to him immediately.  Last night, he shared the following story with us.

Earl was drafted in 1966, and served with the 173rd Airborne brigade.  That unit sustained losses of over 10,000 American lives, and Earl returned home weary and lost at 22 years old.  He struggled to find his way, and was sent to prison a year later for a 5-year sentence for robbery.  He was given clemency in 1977, and when he was released, he set about rebuilding his life at age 25, with a war, a prison term, a broken marriage, and the racism of the south in his past.

Earl started with the Marriott in Chicago, and began working his way through the hospitality industry, finally taking the job as the head of hotel security at the Hyatt hotel in Austin in 1998.  In 2008, as you may remember, the final debate of the Democratic primary was held at UT Austin.  In a stroke of logistic hilarity, or maybe staff ineptitude, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and their respective debate teams stayed at the Hyatt in Austin.  When Earl was telling this story, he couldn’t stop chuckling relating the efforts the hotel staff went through to keep distance and peace between the groups in the hotel.

Earl found himself on an elevator with then-senator Obama.  In Earl’s pocket was his military patch from the 173rd Airborne, which he had carried in that pocket for 40 years.  Earl asked Mr. Obama if he could give him something, and of course Mr. Obama said he could.  Earl handed him the worn, frayed patch, and told him that he wanted to offer it to him on behalf of the American people.  When Earl told me this part of the story, using hand gestures that spoke even more than his words, he said, “I just felt so relieved to give it to him”.

The story now has to take a leap through time, to January of 2013.  One morning, when Earl arrived at his office, his staff was all atwitter about a phone call he had received – from the White House!  President Obama’s assistant chatted with Earl on the phone and via email over the next few days and arranged for him to come to Washington DC for the inauguration.  Earl was delighted, and set about arranging his budget and time schedule in order to go.  Earl’s employer, surprise surprise!, arranged for him to have a room in the packed and expensive Hyatt Hotel within walking distance of the Washington Mall.  When his tickets to the inauguration were delivered to his room, they came with a little more news:  President Obama wanted Earl to visit him at the White House the following day.  The question was also asked:  What else did Earl want to do while he was in our nation’s capitol?

Here was Earl’s list:  he wanted to go to the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, and the brand new Dr. King Memorial.   On a cold January day, Earl Smith attended the second inauguration of the first black president.  He said he loved every freezing minute of it.  Then the former Army private visited the memorials.  In telling this story full of emotional highs, at this point Earl became emotional, describing the feeling he experienced walking that sloping sidewalk, along that cold, reflecting granite, far too full of names.  40 years vanished, he said, and those names and faces came right back to him, reminding him of where he had come from, why he was where he was, who he had lost.  When Earl then visited the Dr. King memorial, he said moments from the past – JFK’s assassination, the war, the civil rights struggle – all came to him as he stood there, taking in the monument.  But there was still one more highlight.

It was time to go the White House.  Earl found himself sitting in a chair in a hallway, not really sure what was in store for him.  He said after he returned from a nervous trip to the bathroom, his escort was nowhere to be seen, so he just took a seat in the chair, and just then, walking down the hall, was a tall, thin, African American man extending his hand saying, “I’m so glad to see you again, Earl.”  Then, at the end of that hall, Earl walked in to the Oval Office, that iconic rug on the floor, the desk, all of it.  Earl and his President chatted for a bit, 20 minutes in fact, and Earl repeated to him the purpose of the patch; that he wanted the president to have it on behalf of the American people.

Please take the time to visit the link and watch the video.  What an honor and privilege it was to have met Earl and hear his story.  He’s a lovely, kind, gentle man, and if you are ever in Austin, go out of your way, even if you don’t stay here, to visit the Hyatt and ask to meet Earl.

I'm so proud of this picture!
My friend, Earl Smith

Thanks for reading!

Edit 4.1.13

Awesome level:  Maximum
Awesome level: Maximum

My first Blog award!

This will be a very short lesson on why you don’t give an award to an obnoxious overachiever (think:  Hermione).

I GOT NOMINATED FOR THE VERY INSPIRING BLOGGER AWARD!

My internet friend, Marisa, nominated me for this award.  Here is her blog, so check out her work.  She writes about art, music, cinema, plus she’s funny and smart and has impeccable taste in blogs.

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Part of the dealio is that I am to tell 7 things about myself.  Because I’ve had this blog going for so long, I’ve told almost everything, so some of this may be a repeat.

1.  I have an extensive nutcracker collection.  I started it accidentally, and now it’s out of control.  When I put them all out at Christmastime, sometimes in the light of the tree, with all their sparkly clothes, and swords, and movable chins, they creep me the hell out.

They're amassing behind me
They’re amassing behind me

2.  I don’t like chocolate OR ice cream.  I just don’t.

3.  Since 1990, I have ridden my bicycle across Iowa at least a dozen times.

This line stretches for 70 miles
This line stretches for 70 miles

4.  I would rather read than watch television.  Anywhere, anyplace, anytime.

5.  I hate country music, but I love the titles:

If You Want to Keep Your Beer Ice-Cold, Keep It Next To My Ex-Wife’s Heart

How Can I Miss You If You Won’t Go Away?

Her Teeth Was Stained, But Her Heart Was Pure

6.  I backpacked through Europe when I was in college, complete with Eurail and hostel pass, and went to Greece without telling my parents.  Because I went by myself, they wanted my itinerary before I went (this was the dark ages of phones – you had to go to a telephone building to make an international phone call).  Greece was nowhere on the list.  My dad’s still mad about that.

7.  I have an insane, irrational fear of cockroaches.  Dad was a Navy man.  I grew up in Jacksonville, Key West, Pensacola.  In a trailer.  With giant, flying palmetto bugs.  Me, 4 years old, the sheet pulled over my head, eyes squeezed shut, hearing those hideous things flying in my room at night.  **Shudder**  Not so irrational now, huh?

Another part of the deal is that I have to link to 15 of my favorite blogs.  Here you go:

1.  JT’s Patheos blog

2.  Greta’s blog

3.  My girl Susan’s blog

4.  Son Sam’s blog

5.  The Bloggess

6.  Drs. Mike and Mary Dan’s Protein Blog

7.  Ted’s Blog

8.  Bookshelfporn

9. Joe. My. God

10.  Jesse and Julia’s Blog

11.  Neil de Grasse Tyson’s Blog

12.  Whole 9 Life Blog

13.  Dr. Peter Attia’s blog

14.  Pharyngula

15.  Eggton

And there you have it – thank you again, Marisa – this was fun!  I thought I’d have a little trouble coming up with 15, but I actually had to struggle to edit it down.  I’ll try to do another post with another 15.

Thanks for reading!

No, Believer, what if YOU’RE wrong?

I gave blood today.  I won’t say that it’s entirely altruistic.  I believe our bodies accumulate too many heavy elements, iron is one of them, and an occasional bloodletting helps keep those levels down.  I like that – doing a good deed that’s good for me too!

As you know if you have donated blood, the process takes a bit of time – paperwork, interview, vitals, then the actual bloodgiving itself takes a moment or two.  I had my Kindle with me, but my bloodtaker was chatty, so once I saw where the conversation was going, I put my Kindle aside, and, as a captive audience, and taking a deep draw from the well of patience, I engaged in the 398th version of this conversation.

It started with a question about my tattoo.  When I don’t have time to engage in a protracted conversation, I say that I got my tattoo as a celebration of completing my Ironman (partially true).  When I have time and the situation lends itself to conversation, I give the more accurate answer:  that it’s a symbol of my embracing science and reason over faith and religion as a guide for life.

Because I’ve had this conversation so many times, I know how the rest of the conversation will unfold.  A little more back and forth about what that means, a little personal history, and then realization on the part of my companion that I am serious about my unbelief.

And then it comes.  They look into my eyes, and with an earnestness that I know comes from fear, because I had it myself, they say it.

“What if you’re wrong?”

Pascal’s wager.

*sigh*

I gather my patience (I may have explained it several hundred times, but they haven’t heard it, ever).  I explain who Pascal was, and what the entire premise of their question is:

If you erroneously believe in God, you lose nothing (assuming that death is the absolute end), whereas if you correctly believe in God, you gain everything (eternal bliss). But if you correctly disbelieve in God, you gain nothing (death ends all), whereas if you erroneously disbelieve in God, you lose everything (eternal damnation).

So I go through my explanation, like thousands of my fellow atheists have through the years.

1.  I cannot simply will myself to believe in something for which there is no evidence.  If I told you I had a magic cricket in my purse that talks to me and advises me, that you can’t see, or hear, could you WILL yourself to believe that?

2.  If your belief is based only on gambling against a loss, how do you know you’ve picked the right god?  How do you know you’re not offending the REAL one by throwing in with this one?  There are THOUSANDS of gods in thousands of religion, all with some variation on hell and heaven and eternal punishment.  And wouldn’t believing in the WRONG one be even worse than not believing in ANY?

3.  If I’m just believing as an exit strategy for this world, with god’s omnipotence and omniscience, would he not see that I’m faking it?  Would that not be MORE offensive that being honest about my disbelief?

In this particular version of this oft-repeated scenario, my kind bloodtaker listened while I talked it through, nodded her head as I explained my position, then concluded with, what else:  “I’ll pray for you, Gayle.  By name.”  Alrighty, then.

As I got my sticker and bottle of water (I passed on the cookies and crackers), I was already writing this post in my head, and this is what I want to say:

“Christian, what if you’re wrong?”

What if you’re wrong about spending your life waiting for guidance, not acting for lack of divine message, missing an opportunity to experience something or someone?

What if you’re wrong about how to invest your time and money in alleviating suffering in the world, not based on what the bible says about that, but on real, genuine, compassion for the hurting, the hungry, the homeless?

What if you’re wrong about how we are to treat the earth, not as something over which we have dominion, but as something we are to respect and care for?

What if you’re wrong about your role in judging the decisions other people make about who they love and who they want to marry?

What if you’re wrong about heaven and hell, and about how fast and fleeting this life is, and about what you should say to those you love, and how you resolve struggles in relationships?

What if you’re wrong about the importance of science, wrong about denying evolution, wrong about using prayer instead of medicine?

What if you’re wrong about assuming it is god’s plan that people suffer and die from disease, hunger, war, famine?

What if you’re wrong about how you’ve spent your limited funds giving to a church to pay electric bills and staff salaries, instead of investing in your family’s future, improving education, raising the quality of life for everyone in your community?

What if you’re wrong about spending your Sundays getting up early, getting your children up early to spend the day inside a building convincing yourself to believe something for which there is no evidence, convincing others to believe something for which there is no evidence?

What if you’re wrong about what you’ve taught your children about values and compassion and humanity?

What if you’re wrong about what sin is, about what is okay to enjoy and with whom to enjoy it?

What if you’re wrong about the usefulness of prayer, and about how you can truly help someone who is in a bad place, or at a bad time, or in a bad set of circumstances?

What if you’re wrong about thinking you are a sick, worthless, disgusting being in need of a cure, of salvation?

What if you’re wrong about thinking anyone who doesn’t believe as you is a sick, worthless, disgusting being in need of a cure?

What if you’re wrong about believing that because you’ve followed the rules and have experienced good fortune, that those who experience misfortune have obviously fallen short of being worthy of god’s blessings?

What if you are wrong about endorsing a book full of misogyny, divine murder, ethnic dominion that has tremendous potential to be interpreted as literal, applicable, and appropriate for THIS time and THIS place?

What if you’re wrong about using your feelings about what an invisible, undetectable being might be telling you about how to treat yourself, your spouse, your parents, your children, your money, your neighbor, your world?

So. believer, please understand what Pascal’s wager is before you ask us that question.  Understand that’s it’s a weak position in the first place; an admission that there really is no good evidence upon which to base your beliefs.  Understand that it’s one of the first things we had to deal with when we began to doubt our faith, and in fact, kept a good many of us in the faith for a great long time.  Understand that we have a response to it, a reasonable, practical, rational response.

Then turn it around and ask it of yourself.  And answer it.

Thanks for reading.

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