Thursday, November 30, 2006

We ♥ all our new readers! This means you!

Welp, this is what a link from Pharyngula does for you. We certainly don't mind tripling our uniques in one day. Hopefully all of you will enjoy the AE blog enough to bookmark us, or at least take some hearty swings at us (or give us much love!) in the comments. Also, my article "Christians' Moral Blind Spot" is part of this week's Carnival of the Godless (hosted by Hellbound Allee), and some spirited commentary has gone on there as well. Anyway, thanks for dropping by, and we return you now to our regularly scheduled blasphemy.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Left Behind game review

Courtesy of alert Non-Prophets listener Shilling, the first major review I've seen of Left Behind: Eternal Forces. I just loved it right from the first paragraph:

"Don't mock Left Behind: Eternal Forces because it's a Christian game. Mock it because it's a very bad game."

Atheism is responsible for mass murder?

"Atheism, not religion, is the real force behind the mass murders of history" is the title of a recent opinion piece posted at the Christian Science Monitor. The author, Dinesh D'Souza, feels that the recent books by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and others exaggerate...

"the crimes attributed to religion, while ignoring the greater crimes of secular fanaticism."

After making that accusation, the author goes on to down-play religious atrocities while making the unsupported assertion that many more people have died in "the name of atheism". This sort of character assassination is a prime example of why I openly identify myself as an atheist and why I feel that it's important for us to vigilantly rebut the lies and misinformation spread by fearful zealots. They attempt to prop up their beliefs with fallacious appeals to the dire consequences they're certain will occur if we reject fanciful claims about gods. Consequences which every bit of evidence continues to refute.

Let's dig in and expose the lies and fallacies for what they are...

The first major claim is that atheists (specifically Harris and Dawkins) are exaggerating the crimes attributed to religion. In response to this, the author claims that fewer than 25 people were killed in the Salem witch trials and that 10-110,000 died in the Spanish inquisition. If we assume that those numbers are correct, how does that prove his assertion that these atheist authors are exaggerating? Did they use different numbers? Of course not. If they had, the author surely would have provided those numbers to show how exaggerated their claims were.

There were only 12 killed in the Columbine school shooting. Does that mean it wasn't a tragedy? Is the death toll more critical than the circumstances surrounding the incident? Why does D'Souza think his low-20's number should diminish, in any way, the nature of the vile injustice committed in Salem?

D'Souza is dangling a red herring in front of us, hoping that we'll be so distracted by the facts that he's presented that we'll completely forget what he's actually claiming - that atheists misrepresented these facts. Instead of making his case that these atheists are lying, he's completely missed all the relevant points and opted to simply down-play these injustices as "not so bad" and expands this misdirection with the tired old appeal that these incidents occurred long ago.

I'm not sure why, but when faced with undeniable evidence of the harm caused by religion one common response is that religion "isn't all bad". Neither is heroin, but we generally discourage people from becoming regular users who allow it to influence or define the decisions they make. If your most salient defense of your beliefs is that they "aren't so bad", you've already sold out. You're either a junky or supporting the dealers who supply junkies.

Does Dinesh sincerely believe that Dawkins, Harris and others are actively complaining about the Salem witch trials or Spanish inquisition? I doubt it. It's more likely that he's aware of the great social injustices and atrocities that are the direct result of religious belief and has wisely opted not to attempt to defend them. These atheist authors aren't outraged over centuries-old murders, they're railing against modern injustices which are the direct result of religious belief. They're attempting to point out the divisive, destructive and delusional mentality that religion fosters.

The second major claim is that Harris and Dawkins have ignored crimes of secular fanaticism. Based on the points that Mr. D'Souza makes on this issue, I have to conclude that he's completely in error. Both of those authors have spoken about the sort of crimes he's referring to and provided clear responses to silly accusations like the following:

"In the name of creating their version of a religion-free utopia, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong produced the kind of mass slaughter that no Inquisitor could possibly match. Collectively these atheist tyrants murdered more than 100 million people."

Whether or not Hitler was an atheist is a subject of much debate. He repeatedly identified himself as a Catholic both publicly and privately. He was supported by the Catholic church and the Pope described Hitler's opposition to Russia as "highminded gallantry in defense of the foundations of Christian culture."

Even if the author is correct about Hitler (a point we have no reason to concede) he lists those men as "atheist tyrants". Was atheism the justification for their actions? Were these murders done "in the name of atheism", as the author claims? Absolutely not.

At the beginning of his article, he blamed these murders on "secular fanaticism" and now he's blaming atheism. What is "secular fanaticism"? I'm not completely sure, but D'Souza does nothing to justify the bait-and-switch he performs by equating "atheism" with "secular fanaticism". Should we equate "religious extremist" with "Christian" or "Muslim"? As a thinking person, I certainly see a much stronger tie between the two (as I see no way to justify fanatic actions from non-belief), but I don't think it's fair to portray them as equivalent.

Atheism is, simply, the lack of belief in a god. There are no tenets, no dogma, no rituals, no common socio-political beliefs, no agendas, no ethical code, no "holier than..." or "better than" — there's nothing within atheism that could support the claims he's making. Those tyrants and murderers didn't kill people "in the name of atheism" and atheism wasn't the cause of their actions.

Without a causal link between atheism and the evil actions of these men, what we really have is coincidental correlation. The author could have labeled them "male tyrants" and come closer to a causal link than his preferred label of "atheist tyrants". The actions of those men weren't carried out on behalf of atheism or caused by atheism - they were carried out for reasons that transcend atheism.

D'Souza has done nothing to support his notion that atheism is responsible for great evil - he's simply asserted that it is true and tap-danced his way around the issue.

In the case of the Salem witch trials, the cause of the action was religious beliefs. The Bible says 'thou shalt not suffer a witch to live' and the people persecuting witches used that verse as a justification for their action — that is a causal relationship. Whether they killed 1, 25 or 25,000 hardly matters. The same holds true for other religious atrocities including the faith-based initiative we commonly refer to as 9-11.

D'Souza fails to support his accusations about Harris and Dawkins as well as the claim made in the title of his article: that atheism is the real force behind historical mass murders. Given the actual state of affairs it's clear that a much stronger case can be made for the claim that the only people who have been killed "in the name of atheism" are those people who were killed, by religious zealots, for being atheists.

Where are the atheist suicide bombers? Where is the low-quality video of a beheading carried out by an atheist activist? Where are the atheists who string up non-atheists and burn large 'A'-frames on the lawns of Christians? Where are the budget cuts and gag rules that prohibit funding to clinics that mention abstinence?

Whenever we see a prominent religious figure publicly disgraced or read about women who slaughter their children for their god, the most common excuse is that those people weren't "real" believers. In the case of Christianity, the Big Book of Multiple Choice (also known as The Bible) includes verses that serve as warnings about false believers which are conveniently tossed around on these occasions.

What we've learned is simple: If someone does something that makes a given religion look bad - they weren't a "true believer". Until they do, they're probably a true believer, but there's no way to tell. Hopefully, more people will realize this and we'll finally have a majority that stops thinking in terms of "what you claim to believe" and focuses on what we do, what is true, and what is most beneficial for the survival of our species.

This sort of 'heads I win, tails you lose' mentality is rampant among believers. It's a coping mechanism that prevents them from ever having to deal with the harsh truths of reality. Their general misconceptions about atheism are the result of a desperate need to personify evil and shift blame. Kent Hovind, in his creationist propaganda includes an entire lecture which hangs the responsibility for all of the evil in the world around the neck of Charles Darwin. Evolutionary theory is, in his mind, the root of all evil.

Dinesh D'Souza is attempting something similar here. He's desperately attempting to focus our attention on anything other than the man behind the curtain. While his attempts are as laughable and feeble as the great and powerful Oz, they're hardly as endearing. While his prose may be better, he's no different from the Internet forum troll who calls atheists evil and compares them to Hitler. His article, and the articles of those who echo his claims, may be the best evidence against his claims.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The whole God = morality thing

In the comments to the Warren Jeffs post of a few days back, an anonymous poster keeps asking us how we, as godless heathens, can possibly judge Jeffs' actions as immoral because, being atheists and all, we obviously must live lives of pure moral anarchy where anything goes, right? You guessed it — it's the old "no god, no morals" argument one more time. I thought it would be instructive to our commenter, as well as anyone else still uninformed enough to think this way, to devote to the topic a post of its own.

We have often heard from believers the whole "no Bible, no morals" pitch, and frankly I continue to be surprised that anyone in this day and age, even amongst the religious, could still be so naive as to adhere to it, as it demonstrates both an ignorance of the function of moral precepts in society as well as the actual content of the Bible. I also would have thought the recent scandals involving such evangelical leading lights as Ted Haggard and Kent Hovind should have put to rest the idiotic notion that religious belief is some kind of guarantee of moral superiority. (Indeed, the very fact that Warren Jeffs himself is a religious believer and not an atheist ought to say something.) But I guess some folks never got the message. I'll address specific points in Anonymous's replies in order to rectify his lack of understanding. (Note: because of Anonymous's anonymity, I will default to assuming Anonymous is male for the sake of ease.)

To Tracie he said:

A lot of I's and my's going on here. If you don't believe in objective truth then I guess it's subjective. It's just based on personal whims and preferences. In other words, someone can easily say to you who cares what you say is truth because my truth is different.

Someone could easily say that, but they'd be full of crap, because no one lives in complete isolation from other individuals. Humans are social beings, and thus our every action has consequences that affect not only ourselves but those around us. This is an observable fact and there for any thinking being to comprehend and evaluate. People who go around saying "my truth is different" and then act upon that precept are generally considered sociopathic.

To be honest, the only people I've ever heard claim that there is no such thing as objective truth have been Christians. I'm not suggesting this is an opinion held by all Christians, only that the only people who've ever expressed it to me have been Christian; no atheist in my experience has ever told me there's no objective truth. I once had a pastor tell me "truth is relative," with a straight face, and phrases like "everything is a belief" pop up with surprising regularity in debates with believers, usually when you've just demonstrated to them how some aspect of their belief system doesn't stand up to scientific or rational scrutiny.

Anyway, Anonymous's point seems to be that either a person gets a list of rules out of an ancient holy book, and is thus moral, or they don't, and they aren't, and can only make decisions based on "whims and preferences." This strikes me as a baffling way for someone to learn morality, as it offers no understanding of the precepts being taught, and in fact discourages intellectual involvement in moral development. A person might practice "moral" behavior at a superficial level if they go out of their way to follow a list of Biblical dos and don'ts. But they cannot be expected to genuinely understand the difference between right and wrong; why they must behave they way they've been told to behave.

What Tracie was explaining in her initial reply to Anonymous is that she can rationally observe the consequences of certain actions, and make decisions about the morality or immorality of those actions based on her observations. She was telling him she doesn't need a list of rules in a holy book to tell her a thing is wrong when she can readily see this fact for herself. It's a little process called "thinking," and it's quite a different thing than "whim."

The rest of Anonymous's response to Tracie shows he really hasn't the slightest clue what she was trying to tell him (Anonymous also seems not to understand human interaction), and I'll let her respond to Anonymous from here on out.

To me Anonymous asked:

I never said it was arbitrary [to condemn Jeffs for his actions], I wanted to know why it isn't arbritrary according to your world view?

Anonymous obviously doesn't understand my "worldview," and I have a pretty strong suspicion that what he thinks my "worldview" is, is comprised of stereotypical notions about atheists that have been fed to him as part of his religious upbringing.

Reason is not an abritrary process. Observing the consequences of actions, thinking about what you've observed, and arriving at conclusions rationally is anything but arbitrary.

The irony of Anonymous's position is that he's either unaware or unwilling to admit that he arrives at moral decisions by the same process I do: he thinks about them. If, as he says, he considers the Bible to be the "objective standard," (more on this in a minute) then how does Anonymous arrive at the decision that its moral precepts are the correct ones? When Anonymous reads "Thou shalt not kill," and thinks, "Hey, that sounds like a good idea," where does that decision originate from and how does Anonymous account for it (to paraphrase his own question to me)? How does he know it's a better idea to follow that precept rather than reject it? If he replies, "God instilled that understanding in me," then why is the Bible necessary? Why would God have instilled understanding in Anonymous and not everyone else?

The fact is that whether you prefer to get your morals out of the Bible (a bad choice, as I'll shortly demonstrate), or by observing actions, learning from those observations and just approaching life rationally, you will arrive at moral decisions by the same process: thinking.

Anonymous goes on to say:

Well, now your [sic] begging the question, but since you asked I'll tell you. I presuppose that the Bible is the objective standard. This behavior is clearly wrong according to Bible.

Bzzt! Wrong answer. This behavior is clearly not wrong according to the Bible. There are numerous instances where the God of the Bible condones and even advocates rape, incest and murder. Indeed almost the entire Old Testament is a nonstop orgy of God killing, killing, and killing some more. But here are some salient passages.

  • Genesis 19:30-38: Lot's daughters get him drunk and have sex with him to "preserve the family line" through incest. God does not punish them for this, or express any kind of disapproval. So if God and his Biblical rules are the "objective moral standard," why is incest considered profoundly immoral by most everyone in our society today, including Bible-believing Christians?
  • Numbers 31: This entire chapter is a nightmare of rape, carnage and murder. God tells his armies to massacre the Midianites, which they do with gusto. In verses 17-18, he orders boys and non-virginal women to be killed, but he allows the Israelites to keep the female virgins for rape purposes.
  • Deuteronomy 22:23-24: Rapists get stoned to death here for violating betrothed virgins...but so do their victims if they don't scream for help. Yow! Tough beans if he was, like, covering your mouth, sweetheart!
  • Deuteronomy 22:28-29: A little further down we see the very lenient punishment for rapists of unbetrothed virgins — they get to buy their victims at a blue-light special price of 50 shekels! What a deal!

Now I ask you — this is an "objective moral standard" to live by?

So to conclude — Anonymous asks:

I wonder how you can possitively assert something is wrong or right according to your world view?

Because my worldview is based on rational thought and observation of consequences. Contrast with a person whose moral decisions are explained by saying "Because the Bible tells me so." Where is the understanding of right and wrong?


Do you believe murder and rape is wrong? If you say yes then how can you assert this position from a morally relative position?

As I have demonstrated, my position is not "morally relative" in the way Anonymous thinks it is. Now I ask Anonymous: do you believe rape and murder is wrong? Then how can you assert this from a position of obeying a holy book in which rape and murder are either openly advocated or only very leniently punished by God?

Friday, November 24, 2006

Christian Coalition president booted for not being enough of a hayta

From Friday's Austin American Statesman:

The Rev. Joel Hunter of Longwood, Fla., said he quit as president-elect of the group founded by evangelist Pat Robertson because he realized he would be unable to broaden the agenda beyond opposing abortion and gay marriage. He had hoped to include issues such as easing poverty and saving the environment.

"These are issues that Jesus would want us to care about," Hunter said. "They pretty much said, 'These issues are fine, but they're not our issues; that's not our base,' " Hunter said of the group's leadership.

No, Jesus wouldn't want us to do anything wimpified and librul like helping the poor or giving a damn about the health of the ecosystem. Undermining women's health care and a pathological hatred of gays — that's what Jesus would do!

The article ends with a brief, obvious note about the once-mighty Christian Coalition's increasing irrelevance. Good riddance.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Warren Jeffs is one creepy-looking motherfucker

Check this dude out. Drink him in: the scrawny chicken neck, the leering eyes, the oddly bifurcated chin-butt. Mainly it's the leering eyes, though. I mean, he looks like he's scoping out an underage girl right there in the courtroom, while everyone is waiting for the judge to emerge from his chambers. When parents talk to their kids about not speaking to strangers, this is exactly the kind of man they mean.

And yet, this man ran a fringe cult of Mormon separatists who practiced a virtually slave-like form of polygamy in which men north of 50 traded teenage brides like baseball cards, with the only thing invalidating that analogy being that one doesn't fuck baseball cards. How, I wonder, does the cult-follower mind develop? With all of these wacko groups you see, they seem to have a leader — whether Jeffs, or David Koresh (who rarely indulged in the habit of bathing, yet managed to get all his male followers to hand over their wives to him), or Jim Jones — who, to anyone on the outside with a rational brain, is clearly a bad, creepy dude at first sight. How is it that these people cannot see what must be obvious to anyone else? It saddens me to imagine a mind so confused and dysfunctional in its irrationalism, that the person possessing it will gravitate towards any manipulative, sick weirdo in the hopes of finding some peace and direction in their lives.

I'll be too glad for words when this Jeffs perv is put away. Let's hope it's for the rest of his born days.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Monday hilarity: ID proponent compares God to designers of exploding Ford Pinto!

In case you haven't been keeping up with this: Casey Luskin, a lawyer whom PZ Myers has side-splittingly described as the Discovery Institute's "attack mouse," has been spending the last week or so attempting to refute an article by bestselling science writer Carl Zimmer in the 11/06 issue of National Geographic, in which Zimmer discusses how evolutionary biologists are learning more and more about how complexity develops in organisms. Luskin offered an increasingly lame series of rebuttals, which Zimmer has been calmly taking apart. The whole thing has culminated in Luskin's responding to Zimmer's explanations about the flawed design of the eye with this desperate howler:

Was the Ford Pinto, with all its imperfections revealed in crash tests, not designed?

Seriously. He actually wrote that. Oh well, so much for, you know, God's omnipotence and all that. Oh, that's right, the ID movement isn't about promoting Christianity in the schools, ri-i-ight! I keep forgetting that.

"Christ is indispensable to any scientific theory, even if its practitioners do not have a clue about him." — William Dembski, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology (1999), page 210.

Ah well, enjoy a little of God's indispensable handiwork below.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Religion motivated millionaire "Secret Santa" to acts of charity (but not in the way you'd think)

CNN today has the story of 58-year-old Larry Stewart, a communications industry tycoon who's been secretly handing out gifts of cash to random strangers during the holiday season. He's been known as the "Secret Santa," and has outed himself because he's sick with cancer and wanted folks to know who he was and what he's done in the hopes of inspiring further acts of random kindness.

Stewart certainly seems a swell chap, though one could debate the wisdom*, if not the unimpeachable altruism, of walking around handing out Benjamins to anyone and everyone. But what I found interesting about the story was this little tidbit, which is another piece of ammo you can whip out the next time some Christian tells you you have to be Christian to be moral and treat people kindly. Note: the article doesn't specifically say Stewart is non-religious himself, but it does say this:

[Poverty] was a feeling he came to know in the early 70s when he was living out of his yellow Datsun 510. Hungry and tired, Stewart mustered the nerve to approach a woman at a church and ask for help.

The woman told him the person who could help was gone for the day, and Stewart would have to come back the next day.

"As I turned around, I knew I would never do that again," Stewart said.

So basically, when Stewart was young and broke, he went to a church, because we're all programmed to think that churches are places of charity that will eagerly help the unfortunate. And he got told to piss off. Oh sure, sure, the woman might have sincerely meant for him to come back the next day, and he would indeed receive help. But odds are she was giving him a politely worded brushoff after sizing him up and categorizing him as "useless, jobless loser". And so Stewart went away, vowing never to be like the person he met at the church.

Now I'll grant some folks may interpret the story a little differently. They might say that Stewart left the situation embarrassed at having asked for charity in the first place, and determined to get himself together and succeed on his own. But there's no indication Stewart had no motivation to do that in the first place; he was simply caught in a bad patch in life, as so many people are, and was looking for a temporary lift to tide him over. If the woman at the church had generously given him a donation, would he have been less likely to go on to make his fortune in cable and telecom businesses? I don't think so. In life there are driven, goal-oriented people and there are ones who aren't. The ones who are driven and motivated are more likely to make it to some degree in life, period, though both are equally likely to have hard times when starting out. I suspect that Stewart's describing a bit of resentment and disappointment at the woman's treatment of him. And besides, if Stewart were simply embarrassed at himself for asking for charity, he'd hardly be likely to be so sympathetic to others needing it after he'd become a self-made man, that he'd make a hobby of handing out hundred-dollar bills every year.

Stewart didn't need the payoff of a godly reward to motivate him to bring a little light into people's lives. He just did it to see the smiles on their faces and to know he'd helped another human being. And his cash handouts certainly had a much more beneficial, tangible effect on the lives of the people he helped than any Christian who'd have told those people, "I'll pray for you!"

* — I won't give panhandlers on street corners money, for instance, though I have on occasion given them food or drink. In randomly giving away cash, you may be unwittingly funding someone's habit. And in the case of panhandlers that's true more often than not.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Toys for Tots flip-flops on talking Jesus dolls

Toys for Tots has announced it has decided to take the talking Jesus dolls from Christian toymakers one2believe, their spokesman announcing, "Toys for Tots has found appropriate places for these items." I'm assuming they don't mean the city dump, so have they in fact figured out a way to ensure that these dolls only end up with Christian families? Or is this just simple cowardice in the face of Christian outrage over being prevented from proseltyzing everyone's kids whether their parents approve or not?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Polish exchange student gains firsthand experience of Christian Love

Here is one of the most alarming little tales you're likely to read today. It's short but not so sweet. 19-year-old Michael Gromek came to America on an exchange program, and what were the first words out of his host family's mouths?

'Child, our Lord sent you half-way around the world to bring you to us.' At that moment I just wanted to turn round and run back to the plane.

Dude! I bet! It got worse. Much worse.

For example, every Monday my host family would gather around the kitchen table to talk about sex. My host parents hadn't had sex for the last 17 years because — so they told me — they were devoting their lives to God. They also wanted to know whether I drank alcohol. I admitted that I liked beer and wine. They told me I had the devil in my heart.

My host parents treated me like a five-year-old. They gave me lollipops. They woke me every Sunday morning at 6:15 a.m., saying 'Michael, it's time to go to church.' I hated that sentence. When I didn't want to go to church one morning, because I had hardly slept, they didn't allow me to have any coffee.


TAM 5: Yup, I'm going

It's official; mailed off my registration today. I look forward to blogging from it. A couple of friends went last year and confirmed its awesomeness, so I'm a little stoked.

If you've been thinking about going — and, like me, are prepared just to say "the hell with it" and drop the money — registration information is here.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The ongoing tragic story of Christian persecution

A report at CNN today describes the latest incident sure to be trumpeted by Dobson and Wildmon and those pushing the notion that Christians are a sad, persecuted minority in the heathen librul Gomorrah that is America today.

Every year the Marine reserves do a "Toys for Tots" program for the holidays, to collect toys so that poor kids can have lots of Christmas and holiday presents. The very model of a wonderful charity.

This year, TFT has rejected a talking Jesus doll offered by Christian toymakers one2believe. They make toys with the express purpose of religiously indoctrinating helpless little ones who, of course, lack the critical thinking skills to evaluate the Bible stories they're being taught. As the saying goes, give 'em the boy (girl) for seven years, and they'll give you back the man (woman). The Jesus doll they offered said such anxiety-building homilies as "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."

There have been incidents where government organizations — schools and the like — have perhaps gone overboard in trying to maintain church-state separation, motivated more by the frantic hopes of avoiding lawsuits than by any honest concern for government neutrality in the matter of private belief. Keeping coercive prayer out of schools is one thing, but telling teachers they can't wear cross necklaces is quite another. (Note: I don't have a specific link for an incident such as this; however, there was an episode of Hannity and Colmes I saw some years ago on which a teacher claimed she had been asked to take off cross jewelry, so I assume it's happened at least once.) So it's important for those of us who support separation not merely to advocate the position, but then educate the public and its officials as to what constitutes unconstitutional religion-meddling.

But here, TFT is absolutely correct.

Toys are donated to kids based on financial need and "we don't know anything about their background, their religious affiliations," said Bill Grein, vice president of Marine Toys for Tots Foundation, in Quantico, Virginia.

As a government entity, Marines "don't profess one religion over another," Grein said Tuesday. "We can't take a chance on sending a talking Jesus doll to a Jewish family or a Muslim family."

The company's reaction is one of predictable cluelessness.

"The idea was for them to be three-dimensional teaching tools for kids," [Michael] La Roe said. "I believe as a churchgoing person, anyone can benefit from hearing the words of the Bible."

Yeah dude, and Muslims believe that anyone can benefit from bowing to Mecca every day. But you wouldn't want someone sending your kid a "three-dimensional teaching tool" delivering that lesson, would you?

What is it with some Christians that they often seem to think they're the only people in the world, or at least the only ones with a point of view that matters? I certainly don't expect La Roe to learn a lesson about respect for others from this. It will only be a matter of time before the whine of persecution is heard across the land again.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Christians' moral blind spot

Numerous essays have already been written, in the never-ending war of words between Christians and atheists, over the supposed moral supremacy of theism, particularly Christian theism. Without belief in a God, we are admonished time and again, it is impossible for one to develop a sound framework for moral behavior. In this essay I intend to show that the opposite is in fact true: that there is no rational basis from which one can develop a sound basis for morals that is rooted in the worship of the Christian God. (I'll leave the question of whether or not you can do it based upon the worship of any of the hundreds of thousands of other gods humanity has created over the centuries to someone else. Life's too short.)

There is one crushing moral dilemma facing Christians who try to argue for their God's being the source of all that is moral in life: the Doctrine of Hell.

At the core of Christianity is the belief that, in order to ascend to Heaven after death and enjoy a life of eternal bliss and joy, one must be a Christian. No other creed or belief system need apply. One must not only attend a Christian church; one must also answer the altar call, go up before the congregation, profess belief in the divinity of Jesus, his resurrection, and eventual (any day now, really) second coming. I remember from my youth, when I attended a Baptist church in Houston, the pressure to perform this little ritual was intense. Failure to do so is punishable by an eternity of hell. Good works are immaterial. Membership in the club matters over all.

It was not until my adulthood that I began to realize something that I never would have even entertained as a wisp of a thought in my churchgoing days: Christianity's entire sales-pitch involving conversion is immoral to the point of being deeply evil. And you just can't get morals out of an immoral, much less evil, belief system.

Fundamentally it is an act of terrorism: turn or burn. A demand is being made upon humanity by God. God offers you what Christians call a "choice," but which is really an ultimatum: worship Me, accept My Son as Savior, or else suffer the torments of hell for all eternity. What Christians can not, will not, face is the fact that such a "choice" is no different whatsoever from the modus operandi of the Mafia, whose "protection rackets" in the days of tommy guns and fedoras—in which gangs of thugs would troop into Chicago bars and offer owners the "choice" between paying the protection money or having their businesses Molotoved—have become a part of American folklore. The Christian God is the school bully who extorts your lunch money as a means of being persuaded not to beat you up at recess. But Christians can not see the connection between these behaviors. As George H. Smith writes in his seminal work Atheism: The Case Against God, "There is nothing the Christian will accept as evidence of his God's evil."

How, then, do Christians customarily deal with the Doctrine of Hell and the moral dilemma it introduces? I can only go by my experiences debating Christians in the years I've been on The Atheist Experience TV show, but it boils down to this: If Christians don't want to be faced with a moral dilemma involving their beliefs, they won't be. Christians have a remarkable capacity for not being bothered by aspects of their belief system they don't want to be bothered by. This is what I call the Christians' moral blind spot. And it's a handy blind spot, in that—unlike that nasty one over your right shoulder they always warn you to check in drivers' ed—this one can be moved around at will, to shield the Christian from anything unpleasant that they may be forced to face regarding their God and their beliefs.

The blind spot is what allows Christians to demand that the Ten Commandments be mounted in granite in every school and courthouse in the country, and yet, when you bring up the disturbing old divine laws regarding rapists being allowed to purchase their victims from their fathers for fifty shekels, or beating children, they'll wave their hands and say, "Oh, pshaw—that's just the Old Testament!"

And the blind spot is what allows Christians not to see that their God's ultimatum, his "choice," is no different than any terroristic threat of violence that anyone else might make.

Indeed, Christians' defense of their God's behavior in this context will expose you to some of the most perverse twisting of ideas you're likely to hear. Christians will tell you, with a straight face, that the fact God is willing to offer you this choice, that he doesn't force you to choose one way or another, that he is in effect offering you a ticket out of hell, proves how loving he is. Furthermore, if you make the choice not to become Christian, then God will respect your freedom to choose, and the fact that you've just condemned yourself to an eternity of torture is your fault!

The depth to which this belief is utterly deranged should be readily apparent to anyone with a shred of respect for reason or human dignity. Using the contorted reasoning this belief employs, one could argue that a gang member who walks up to you, sticks a .45 in your eyeball, and offers you the "choice" of giving him your wallet or getting your brains blown out is doing it because he loves you. And if you choose not to hand over your money, well, it's just your own fault, isn't it.

It never occurs to the Christian that God's "choice" is not a choice at all, but an ultimatum. It never occurs to them that to threaten someone with violence for not complying with an ultimatum is de facto immoral even when God does it. Because if it isn't wrong when God does it, who's to say it's wrong when anyone else—Osama bin Laden, Adolf Hitler—does it? How can a God dictate moral absolutes to humanity when he himself freely behaves in an immoral manner? Do Christians really think that a "do as I say, not as I do" God constitutes any sort of moral authority? How can I, or anybody, get our morals, our sense of right and wrong, from a God who tortures people who don't worship him forever? A moral being would not torture anyone for any reason for two seconds, much less eternity. A moral being would not present you with a bogus "choice" between Heaven and Hell in the first place. And a moral being would not demand your worship! How can Christians claim their God is the source of my morals, when every examination of Christian beliefs as regards salvation and the Doctrine of Hell paints the picture of a deeply immoral—indeed, evil—God?

The blind spot. That's how they can do it. That handy moral blind spot is always there, protecting the Christian from thinking thoughts he should not think, facing facts he doesn't want to face, being troubled by anything he doesn't want to be troubled by. The Christian God is the luckiest God anyone ever invented; he rules with absolute authority but not a shred of responsibility, and he threatens his believers with eternal torment if they stray from him, only to be hailed as "loving" for it. Thanks, folks, but I've been fortunate enough to have the light of reason shine through my blind spot...and it's that selfsame reason that I use to determine my morals in life, not the dictates of some jealous, angry, vengeful, immoral—and thankfully, imaginary—God.

Elton John slams religion, but unwisely

I have boundless respect for atheist celebrities who are willing to come out and risk their fame and public goodwill by expressing their views. Granted, this is doubtless easier for atheist celebs who happen to be gay and out, because they've already leapt one hurdle, so to speak.

Still, Elton John's comments about religion this week will no doubt be snapped up by the "we're so persecuted" camp in the fundie world that all us eeebul godless heathens are out to throw them in the Gulag. And I see that as being a little on the counterproductive side.

"From my point of view, I would ban religion completely. Organized religion doesn't seem to work. It turns people into really hateful lemmings and it's not really compassionate."

The minute you use the word "ban," you leave your opponents an opening to make the blanket claim that all atheists are anti-freedom, and to evoke images of such religion-suppressing cultures as Stalinist Russia or Cambodia under Pol Pot. Yes, I can fully sympathize with John's anger at the way religion currently, even in free societies like America, denies basic freedoms to gays and oppresses them at every opportunity even without the benefit of totalitarian government helping them along. But remember, when you're dealing with irrationalists who are convinced that Christians are the oppressed minority merely defending themselves against the depradations of homos and libruls and commies, you have, I think, a special responsibility to avoid emotionalist, hyperbolic rhetoric.

My response to religion would not be to ban it, but to promote education in critical thinking and skepticism. It really doesn't take much of that for Christianity to crumble. So give people the cognitive tools they lack, and let them draw the obvious conclusions. Banning things is how fundies do their business. We can move humanity beyond that with rationalism alone.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Jesus camp from Jesus Camp shut down in wake of Haggard scandal

Wow — the good news just keeps pouring in. Hundreds of children have just been saved from abusive brainwashing! I'm starting to feel large portions of the world have taken a big, honking sanity pill. Naturally, there's still plenty of insanity left to correct....

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

All week, people will ask, "Why are you smiling?"

And you can just say, "Oh, it's nothing, really."

Election musings + open election thread

I suppose I shouldn't let the election pass without expressing my delight at the results. It's true, on the one hand, that the Democrats haven't exactly been formidable opponents for BushCo in recent years. They helped him launch the war in Iraq, they let him have his torture bill and warrantless wiretapping. They have been, for reasons that will remain long shrouded in mystery, a party that has consistently found itself (in the words of popular blogger John Scalzi) politically outmaneuvered and flummoxed time and again by the least popular and most incompetent president in history.

On the other hand, what happened yesterday at the polls was an unmistakable message from the American people: You guys are doing a shitty job, and we demand better. Now it's up to us to make sure the new Democratic majority in the House doesn't screw up and allow business as usual. We have to stay on their backs.

From a progressive/secularist/separationist point of view, there were a number of very important victories against the worst machinations of the Christian right. While a number of states passed the usual egregious anti-gay-marriage laws, Arizona, a pretty doggone red state, rejected one. South Dakotans sent that infamously draconian, misogynist anti-abortion law — the one that would have banned all abortions across the board, even if the mother's life were at risk — to the dustbin where it belonged. Red State Rabble reports that pro-science school board candidates in Ohio walked all over their creationist opponents, and even in Kansas, that hotbed of Machiavellian anti-science scheming, moderates appear to be back in control.

So in all, today is a good day to feel good. Now I'm going to declare the comments section open, for you to talk about the elections, how you voted and why, what you think the next two years might bring, etc.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Now unemployed and disgraced, Haggard unburdens himself

The latest in the ongoing Haggard opera involves a letter of apology he wrote to his still-reeling ex-congregation, which was read to them today.

Evangelical pastor Ted Haggard confessed on Sunday to a "lifelong" sexual problem, and said he was "a deceiver and a liar," in a letter read to his New Life Church.

"There is part of my life that is so repulsive and dark that I have been warring against it all my life," he said in the letter.

Five will get you ten that Haggard is still so benighted that when he refers to the "repulsive and dark" aspect of his life, he's talking about his homosexual inclinations. Haggard's great tragedy is not that he's secretly gay or bi; there's nothing repulsive or dark about either. It's that he's allowed himself to absorb an archaic, misanthropic superstition that requires him to hate and refuse to accept himself. The "repulsive and dark" part of his life is the hyprocrisy, self-denial, and dishonesty that his Christianity has inculcated in him, and which has now led to great pain for his family and profound disillusionment for the thousands of parishioners who have had the rug of trust whipped out from beneath them.

Had Haggard, when a younger man and first aware of his homosexual leanings, come out and rejected the religion that teaches hate and intolerance of people like him, odds are that, while he most likely wouldn't have become a millionaire megachurch pastor and a major public figure with vast political clout, he would be much more likely to be happy and content living an honest life as an openly gay or bisexual man. He wouldn't have the money or fame, but then he wouldn't have had it to lose this spectacularly in a sordid scandal. What he might well have is self-respect and personal contentment, which is something money really can't buy.

I mean, compare the shame Haggard's experiencing to the positive vibes coming out of Neil Patrick Harris right now.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

And Haggard is...

...toast with jam!

The church has spoken:

We, the Overseer Board of New Life Church, have concluded our deliberations concerning the moral failings of Pastor Ted Haggard. Our investigation and Pastor Haggard's public statements have proven without a doubt that he has committed sexually immoral conduct.

Guess they looked at the weight of evidence behind the claim — something it would be nice for them to make a habit of before adopting their absurd views on homosexuality as some kind of disease and evolution as a myth — and saw that it came down in favor of the accuser.

I don't think it can be understated how damaging this is to the Christian Right's moral and political credibility, and the backscatter effect it could have on the GOP. They will, of course, recover, as they recovered after the Bakker and Tilton and Swaggart scandals — I predict some will adopt the "not a true Christian" stance — but in the short term, this will hurt them. Not bad, considering Election Day is in three days.

Speaking of which: remember I predicted that Washington would promptly start distancing themselves? Already happening...

On Friday, the White House sought to downplay Haggard's influence within the administration.

Spokesman Tony Fratto told reporters Friday that it was inaccurate to portray him as being close to the White House, insisting Haggard was only an occasional participant in weekly conference calls between West Wing staff and leading evangelicals.

"He has been on a couple of calls," Fratto said. "He's been to the White House one or two times."


Fear of an atheist planet

A Christian author by the name of Os Guiness is warning of a "growing atheist backlash to the political strength of Christian conservatives." Well, duh, and it's about bloody time, too! We've had it up to here with theocrats and religious demagogues attempting to legislate their faith, replace proper science education with Sunday School myths, deny large segments of the population basic rights like the ability to buy birth control or get married or have joint insurance for no reason other than ignorant prejudice, and generally running the country (and the world, if the gleeful drive towards Armageddon in the mid-east is any indication) into the ground. The fact that many of said theocratic demagogues are either arrogant bastards who think little things like tax laws don't apply to them, or repellent hypocrites who rail publicly against giving gays and lesbians marriage rights while conducting alleged meth-fueled extramarital gay sexual liaisons with male prostitutes on the down low, only makes a backlash far more essential to the health of the body politic.

Guiness says:

...he hopes there can be a respectful exchange of ideas somewhere between the militant extremes of religious violence and militant atheism.

What is this "militant" atheism of which he speaks? I know some people have called Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins "militant," but as far as I can tell, they only seem "militant" to theists who have heretofore gone through life enjoying an undeservedly privileged position of holding beliefs that it is considered impolite and "just not done" to question and critique in any public forum. If atheists can only be called "militant" because we exercise our free speech rights to voice our opinions, then it seems to me that cheapens the true meaning of the word "militant," which can, I believe, be better applied to theistic maniacs who crash airplanes into buildings, shoot abortion doctors, beat up gay men, slice off women's clitorises, and, you know, wage massive wars.

And if Christians want a "respectful exchange of ideas" with this "militant" atheist, perhaps they can start by repudiating the notion that I deserve an eternity of torture simply for not believing as they do.

That'll do for starters.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Haggard fesses up to meth and massage

The latest update in this ongoing sordid tale has Ted Haggard confessing to purchasing meth, as well as getting a massage, from Mike Jones, the gay gigolo he has been accused of paying for sledge trips down Brokeback Mountain. Haggard says that he then threw the drugs away, which has the ring of a Clintonian "But I didn't inhale!" comment.

Even if most of this turns out to be bogus, it looks like Haggard's damaged goods. Expect to see Bush and other religious right leaders start distancing themselves.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

And the verdict is...(drum roll please)...

Kent Hovind: Guilty!

Gee, that was a surprise! [/sarcasm] They didn't exactly throw the book at "Dr." Dino; it's more like they shot it at him from a cannon. It looks as if old Kent could be sent up the river for up to — choke! — 288 years, which is almost as long as he thinks the Earth has been around.

This is just — unreal!

It appears that Ted Haggard, the blowhard evangelist who (as previously reported here) figures prominently in such recent media presentations as Dawkins' The Root of All Evil? and Jesus Camp, has been accused of paying a gay man for gay sex. Haggard has temporarily stepped down in order to let an independent investigation (naturally in the interests of clearing his name) commence.

Haggard is considered one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America. Like many other Dominionists, he has the ear of the president. And he is, of course, ferociously opposed to gay marriage.

Some years ago a similar accusation was made against TBN president Paul Crouch, but that accusation turned out to have no merit and was in fact a pretty clear attempt at extortion. Here, though, the gay man who has come forth with all this, Mike Jones, does not appear to be looking for money and claims to have spoken out of conflicted feelings dealing with his ongoing private relationship with a two-faced homophobe who publically took a passionate anti-gay stance. We will, of course, have to see how this all pans out, and if Haggard suffers the same ignominious fall from grace as Swaggart and Bakker.

In any event, while we atheists will certainly get another schadenfreude moment out of this if it turns out to be true, to add to our present Hovind schadenfreude, it will not exactly come as a huge surprise to encounter another hypocritical evangelist who doesn't see fit to practice what he preaches, will it?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Hovind: The prosecution rests, the defense slips on banana peels

Today the prosecution in the tax-evasion trial of YEC lunatic Kent Hovind rested its case. The defense, it is reported, will not present a case, perhaps as they haven't got one.

Just to give you an idea of what an inept loser Hovind has in his attorney, Alan Richey, this little gem: when IRS Agent Scott Schnieder was on the stand, Richey spent most of his cross throwing out stupid red herrings about Schnieder's qualifications and doing his best to tap dance around the facts. This so pissed off the judge that Richey was admonished for his irrelevant and pointless questioning.

"Does everyone in your office pay their fair share of taxes?" Richey asked Schneider. Schneider didn't respond because Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Heldmyer objected and the judge agreed it was irrelevant.

When Richey spent several minutes looking for documents, Rodgers excused the jury. She then told Richey he was wasting their time. Rodgers then suggested Richey come in earlier or stay later to make sure his files were organized.

Gales of derisive laughter!

American Family Association voter info guide for atheists

Those helpful bigots over at Donald Wildmon's American Family Association have helpfully produced a guide for atheist voters in Texas, so that we'll know for whom not to vote. How thoughtful of them. Of course, I think their purpose was to provide their own brand of "values" voters — and not us horrible evilution-loving, gay-marriage-approving heathens — with a list of approved candidates. But since we all know their "values" include hate, theocracy, ignorance and prejudice, the guide works just as well for us. Be sure to forward the PDF to everyone you know in Texas's reality-based community, so that we can express our values at the polls, too.