Thursday, March 31, 2011

This blog is now mobile friendly

Now that I have entered the ranks of the smart phone users, I see how irritating it is to try to read this blog on an Android. Luckily, blogspot has custom templates for mobile devices. It's activated now, so go ahead and read us on your phone, and you shouldn't have to twiddle your fingers quite so much.

We get the most amazing e-mails...

The following is an anonymous e-mail (wall of text, really) we just received. It was addressed to Jeff, so I won't waste time responding (hurray)...but this is one tiny segment of what we deal with. It may be a Poe, but the author certainly seems to have all the answers. Enjoy:

Hello, Jeff Dee. I would like to ask you a few questions about your video that was done 6 years ago about same-sex marriage. The first thing you said is that it is not bad for the kids. This is wrong. Every child deserves a mother and a father. The only time a child might not have either a father or mother might be because the parent leaves them (which is wrong) or one or both parents die (which is a tragedy). Gay couples go into a relationship knowing they cannot produce offspring so they should not have the right to adopt kids. Just like an old couple that might be 70 years old should not be allowed to adopt because they are near the end of their lives. And Matt said that nothing bad has happened since gay marriage has been allowed but what if 50% of the population was gay. Don’t you think
there would be something wrong in that situation? Matt also said that Rosie O’Donnel is single and she adopted a child. That is wrong as well. Just because she was able to do it does not mean it was right. And then you said that gays not being able to have kids isn’t a good reason why they shouldn’t get married because there are infertile couples that get married. Well, how would a couple know that they are infertile until they actually get married and try to have kids? Gays automatically know that it is impossible for them to have kids. They know it. Infertile couples do not. Then you said that because animals are gay, that makes homosexuality natural. Well, dogs also sniff each others butts. When some animals are born, the mother will
eat the placenta off her newborn. Does that make it natural for human beings to do that as well? You can’t compare animals and humans. What is natural for an animal may not be natural for a human. As well, animals can’t think. They don’t have the thinking power that humans do. They don’t know that homosexuality is wrong and they don’t need to care about that. When an animal dies, it dies. It doesn’t go anywhere. They rely on instinct. They don’t have rules like humans do. When animals kill other animals, does that make it okay for humans to kill humans? But then why did you say that because animals commit homosexual acts that it is okay for humans to do so as well? And then you used that left-handedness argument which was so pointless. God never said it’s a sin to write with your left hand. No one gets hurt from someone writing with their left hand. And then you said the word “bigots” but that would mean you’re a bigot too since you are intolerant of my religion. Bigot does not just apply to people who are against homosexuality. And just because someone isn’t in favour of homosexuality, it does not make that person a bigot. And the reason AIDS affects gay people is because they can only do anal. In the Bible, anal and oral sex is a sin. That is why even straight people are not allowed to practice that type of sex or else it is a sin. God is smarter than you think. And then you brought up the “small people” argument but that’s a physical trait. Even if they can change it, they shouldn’t because that is how they should be born into this world. Homosexuality is a choice. You can choose on your own if you want to be with the same or opposite sex. But that child in the uterus cannot choose if he/she is born small or regular. And then you said how just because a dictionary defines marriage as man and woman that it can change to say man and man or woman and woman. Well, Christians don’t follow the dictionary. We follow the Bible, and in the Bible it is defined as man and woman. So your dictionary argument was bad. And your legal/law argument as well. Just because the law says something is right that does not make it right. Laws and dictionary definitions change all the time but the Bible stays true, unless God changes it. And then Matt made that horrible argument how if a gay couple secretly gets married that live next door that it wouldn’t affect you because you don’t know about that. So something is okay as long as you don’t know about it? Well, what if the next door neighbour was a father and son and they both went off to get married secretly? So do you think incest is okay? Because who are they hurting this “father and son”. From Matt’s standpoint, if he wants to be consistent, then he can’t say that it is wrong for a father and son to go off and get married secretly. Also, what if the next door neighbour has sex with his dog yet no one knows about it? Does that make it right for that person to have sex with his dog? So do you think it’s okay for your next door neighbour to have sex with a dog since that doesn’t affect you, especially if you don’t know about it? And then you said just because the Bible says that homosexuality is wrong, that doesn’t make it true. Well the Bible says incest is wrong. So you, as an Atheist, can have no right in saying that incest is wrong. Because if society said incest is okay, would you then be in favour of incest? And you brought up the “trade deal” argument. Doesn’t that happen in society today where the man pays for the wedding, the ring, etc? It was just a different way of paying back then because there was no money. They had animals so they had to use that. And then lastly, you said there are no secular reasons why gay marriage should be against the law. But if you think about it, what is gonna stop incest from becoming allowed in law? What about pedophilia? Don’t you think society is getting out of hand? Sure, the gay couple next door may not affect my straight marriage directly, but it does affect it indirectly because it ruins society. Soon it could be allowed that you can have sex with animals. Is it okay to get married to an animal just because it is legal? Nah.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Ask and ye shall receive, Ray...

On Ray Comfort's post-show blog he wrote:

"Maybe the guys on "The Atheist Experience" were too nice. Someone needs to really take me down. It needs to be someone who is extremely eloquent and knowledgeable, and with a sarcastic and cutting tongue..."

While there simply wasn't enough time to address every failed bit of reasoning in Ray's comments, I think we did manage to hit some of the highlights. He accepts scientific findings, on the same grounds we do, unless those findings challenge or refute his existing beliefs - at which point he labels them faith-based, and rejects them. Yet while claiming he won't believe things on faith, the entire justification for his closed-minded certainty about the existence of god is predicated on that his perception of the experience he attributes to a god are actually reliable.

This is not only hypocritical, it's a particularly nefarious bit of self-deception that results in some of the most painful examples of cognitive dissonance that I've ever seen. In any other area, Ray seems to grasp that independent confirmation is a grand tool for increasing the accuracy of our perceptions of reality, but on the subject of the biggest questions - his own experience not only needs no independent verification, it trumps all information to the contrary.

When presented with a good analogy (the language analogy for speciation), he's rendered silent...just long enough to regroup and reject the claim with another unjustified assertion.

After presenting many bad analogies, logically flawed arguments, appeals to "common sense", implying that we're lying about recognizing design/creation and countless bald assertions, Ray finished the call by refusing to acknowledge a simple and obvious error that would have, hopefully, led to a correction that would have improved his own ministry efforts.

In the conclusion of his book, "You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence, But You Can't Make Him Think", he evaluates the 4 major world religion by testing them against what the Bible says. When I pointed out that this was a dishonest assessment, as it presupposes Christianity in order to affirm it (and that a Muslim could presuppose Islam in order to demonstrate that the tenets of Christianity don't resolve the problems intrinsic to Islam), Ray denied this and simply stated that it wasn't dishonest, because you have to begin with the Bible.

He responded to an exposition of a circular argument by simply saying "no" and restating that circular argument.

He's so mired in his certainty that he can't even see obvious errors like this - errors which have absolutely nothing to do with the truth of his claims. This was a simple attempt to get him to recognize a logical fallacy, in simplest terms, but he simply can't break free from his chains long enough to view the argument on its own merits.

Meanwhile, he acknowledges that his personal experience couldn't be justification for someone else and that it's the individual's own fault if they didn't have the same experience he has....and he does all of this while claiming that anyone who doesn't reach the same conclusions he's reached is unreasonable or possibly insane.

Clearly he has a different understanding of reason, than I do.

Common Sense, Ray, isn't what you seem to think it is. It's not a reliable pathway to truth, it's a visceral assessment of information with respect to what an individual already understands about reality. It's a quick, gut-check of whether or not the new information is likely to be reliable. It's not the end of inquiry, it's the first step - and until you're ready to go beyond that first step, you don't get to claim to be more reasonable or sane than those who do.

It's a tool that is forged from critical thinking skills and honed by inquiry and investigation. It's a tool that is dulled by appeals to absolute certainty and a stubborn refusal to change one's views as the evidence dictates. Refusing to recognize that there's a possibility that you're like leaving it sheathed.

I don't dislike Ray, though I know others do. Like a puzzle with a missing piece, he used to frustrate me and annoy me - because I was busy trying to solve it. Now, I'm just trying to find that missing piece.

If we do this again, I think I'd like to start by getting his take on logic, reason and fallacies. We may have to go back to basics before we have hope of moving forward.

So, there you have it. Not as eloquent as the Professor you were taunting, nor as sarcastic. If I get the opportunity, I'll ask Richard Dawkins how long he'd have lasted in that conversation before simply pointing out that it's pointless to attempt a discussion with an unreasonable, woefully uninformed buffoon who rigidly asserts his certainty while being blind to his credulity. One wonders if a child with his fingers in his ears is any less receptive to information that Ray.


Sunday, March 27, 2011

Thanks for your questions

I just want to say a sincere thanks to everyone who submitted questions under "Q for Ray" subjects. I know some people are disappointed that we did not directly read questions and attribute them to those who wrote in, but we did read through a lot of them before the show. I think everyone who watched the show would agree that the conversation was plenty jam packed without breaking to read a canned question.

However, both Matt and I read through several dozen questions, took notes, and found themes which helped us to formulate what to say. Some of you probably recognized pieces of your questions surfacing in the dialog. So... it may not have seemed like we were paying attention to you, but we were. Thanks for your support and we appreciate you.

Open thread on episode #702: Ray Comfort

Pre-show remarks: I'm going to go ahead and get this post up now, so folks will be able to comment as soon as the show ends today — or heck, even comment live as it's progressing. Anticipation for this one has been off the chain. I don't think I've ever seen anything like it in my 12 off-and-on years of being involved with AETV, and I imagine we'll easily have the largest UStream viewership we've ever had. With about 4½ hours to go at the time I'm writing this, already the chat room is packed. So if you haven't already done so, run to the store, stock up on popcorn or your preferred snack-of-choice, and get ready. I'll see you back here for the post-mortem.

By the way, you can stop sending us "Q for Ray" questions now. We've gotten literally hundreds of them (though the number of viable questions is significantly lower once we weed out all the banana-related ones), and I have no idea how much of the show will be devoted to viewers' questions and how much will be straight-up debate between Matt and Russell and Ray. So it'll go how it goes, gang. I'm sure we're in for a good time all the same.

Postmortem: Well, how about that, eh?

As you can well imagine, watching this was, for us co-hosts, an endless exercise in screaming frustration that we couldn't be on. There were so many moments where I could have shut Ray down in an instant on many of his usual arguments, though Matt and Russell did fine work, as I'm sure I don't need to say. I could probably do a whole blog on the first 10 minutes of the show alone. Suffice it to say that it was all roaringly entertaining, and extremely informative, for those who want to know how a mind (and I use that term advisedly) like Ray's functions. So many of the arguments Ray hopes to employ against atheists are nothing more than ammo we could easily turn around on him. It's pitiful that he does not recognize this.

In order to keep this post from reaching Atlas Shrugged length, I'll concentrate on two PRATT arguments Ray loves to bring up, and which we saw dusted off and put through their paces again today. "Something from Nothing" and "A Painting Requires a Painter".

That things in nature, including the universe itself, appear to be designed, is intuitive to us, because we are pattern-seeking creatures. But where Christians like Ray go phenomenally wrong is in confusing and conflating order and design. Design, at least as Christians use the term, implies intelligent agency and purpose. Order is entailed by the nature of existence itself. As George Smith points out, to exist at all is to exist as something. But order alone is not evidence of intelligent design. The great irony of Paley's Watchmaker argument is that it demonstrates this. To deduce that the watch in the desert must be a designed artifact, the observer is reaching that conclusion by comparing the watch to its surroundings. The watch stands out because it is wholly unlike the desert. The Watchmaker argument proves, if nothing else, that deserts are not designed.

Ray lives in a curious alterna-reality in which he claims everything is the product of divine design, which prompts the question of how he knows (other than the Bible told him so), what frame of reference he is using to distinguish design from non-design. I wonder if Ray has ever looked at those grains of sand he keeps bringing up under a microscope, though. When you do, do you know what you see? Something like this:

No two are alike. No two have precisely the same chemical or mineral composition. Ray would, no doubt, insist that God is so awesome that he literally can design each and every individual grain of sand as lovingly as a work of art. That in his omnipotence, God can effortlessly lavish such loving attention on even the smallest thing. And that's the problem when you argue with someone about their imaginary magical friend. There are no rules in magical thinking.

If sand grains were designed, wouldn't you expect to see more uniformity? Most designers, after all, prefer to work from schematics and templates, from blueprints and preliminary concepts. The photo above suggests a couple of options for those inclined to think like Ray. 1) The grains of sand are the random product of erosion and other natural processes that determined their shape, mass, composition, color, and all the rest of it. Or 2) they were designed by a God who, for reasons best known to himself, intentionally made them look random. But why? In order to trick us, or just to show off his artistic side, or what?

The problem with positing a God over natural processes in a nutshell: With nature, you're allowed elegant, simple, and in most cases empirically verifiable explanations for what is observed. With gods, you now have to add a whole new host of arguments and explanations to understand why this magic being would have gone about his business one way as opposed to another way. And not one of these arguments comes with evidence that allows you to test it. It's all down to that old bugaboo, "faith," in the end. Gods not only don't explain things, they pile on more inexplicable, unnecessary nonsense.

To be continued...

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Happy 70th birthday, Richard Dawkins!

...And many thanks for all you've done to popularize science and reason — and pee in the cornflakes of benighted, anti-science fundamentalist clods! (It's nice to know we're now on your radar as well, he added modestly.)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

It's happening

Barring a last minute surprise, Ray Comfort will be on AETV this coming Sunday via phone.

Been very uncharitable to the fellow here, but to be honest, he's been uncharitable to atheists. I thought about the fact that, here he is, about to appear on our program after so many people have begged him and us to make it happen — and the most recent post on the blog is one branding him a pathological liar.

But I cannot go back on that, because all his duplicitous and dishonest behavior down the years supports it. This is a man whose entire career in apologetics has involved flame-baiting atheists. It's the reason he changed the name of his blog to Atheist Central, after all. He repeats all of his P.R.A.T.T. arguments (watch last week's show for the definition of that acronym) no matter how many times they are annihilated, going the extra step of lying that no atheist has ever addressed them. He lies about science and evolution, claiming evolution does not provide explanations for things that numerous biologists have in fact clearly explained to him over and over again. He's about cheap publicity stunts, like publishing his own edition of Darwin, rather than learning and bettering himself and the world through knowledge and enlightenment. He is the undisputed poster boy, not only for Christian fundamentalism's irrationality, but its immorality. Someone who will look you in the eye and lie with every breath is an immoral person, full stop. Perhaps it's a good thing that he's making himself the face of belief.

Anyway, much as I think the guy should still be ignored, this is — as of today — going to happen. If you have questions for Ray, send them to with the subject line Q for Ray. This may likely take up the whole hour. If anything, it could be the best show we've had in years.

Ray Comfort - on the show this Sunday

I just got off the phone with Ray and he'll be on the show this Sunday for an interview/discussion. He'd like those of you with questions to e-mail them to me and I'll pick some of them to use on the air. I'll have plenty of my own questions...and I think this may be the fastest hour we've ever done.

(NOTE: As I've said before, Ray and I might even be friends...despite the disagreement, so while I won't be taking it easy on him, I'm hoping for a civil, reasonable discussion - including finding areas where we might agree.)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Ray Comfort, pathological liar

Once again, Ray Comfort is telling the readers of his absurd blog that the only reason he has not called into the Atheist Experience is because we have not extended an invitation to him.

But of course, we have. I did so here. This was nearly a year ago. Hilariously, Ray dodged my invitation by linking me to his interview request page. This is typical of his dishonesty.

Another thing that is typical of his dishonesty: If you go to the original post on his blog, you won't see the comment exchange detailed in my own post that I link to above. Because Ray has completely scrubbed his post of almost its entire comment thread.* (Unfortunately, the post is a little too old to find a cached copy of the original version with comment thread intact, but if any of our readers have l337 internet skillz and know how to dredge one up, by all means have a go.)

So you see, this is Ray's little game. If we go to his blog and extend an invitation, he will simply delete it, thus enabling himself to continue claiming that we just aren't inviting him, or maybe we're scaaared of him, or whatever sustains the deluded fiction upon which he has constructed his life.

Ray Comfort is a liar. The proof's in the proverbial pudding.

* I've been informed (in the very first comment below) that the comment thread was disappeared not by any duplicity on Ray's part, but by the installation of a new comments module, which can have the effect of losing all your past comment threads. (It's a reason I don't switch us to Disqus here.) So, thanks to BathTub and my apologies for the error. Still it does not change the point of the original post: Ray's continuing claims that we have not made any attempt to contact him are flat lies. According to Jen we've had an even more recent exchange with his staff.

Open thread on episode #701

Once more into the breach, dear friends. I must say, it does sound like the Fyrnsidu crowd might have some fantastic parties. (When I said that I thought I might have stumbled upon our caller Anna during my web search, I wasn't kidding. And she was very happy to be on, it seems.)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Unequally yoked: Advice for atheists in a relationship with a theist

The following is a guest post by Lynnea, whom you probably know by now from The Non-Prophets. You can read her regular blog at

The Atheist Experience TV show gets a lot of fans asking them for advice about how to deal with a loved one who is still into religion. The circumstances are frequently different: the atheist might have started out as a believer, or there might have been a known philosophical difference from the start. They might be considering getting more serious, or they might be already married with kids in the mix. It's always tricky to offer relationship advice on a problem that has been building and building. There are no simple answers for relationship compatibility issues, but I'm hoping to offer some concrete starting points where you can suss out the issues yourself.

1. Should We Stay Together?

First of all, don't consider your long term history together. This may sound strange, but dwelling on the past is not healthy, even if the past is positive. You need to be addressing the issues as they are now. Are the two of you getting along well? Is the religion issue making one of you hostile or walled off? Are you afraid of hostility or being shut-out if you were honest? If so, that's not a healthy relationship now. Don't consider how the relationship was years or months ago, and guiltily linger on that. Relationships should be continually developing and loving and giving, not something that just cuts off after a certain amount of time. There is no excuse, no reason that allows someone in a relationship to be treated poorly.

On the flip side, if the two of you are reasonable and caring to each other and you know about your religious differences, then you are at a good start. Relationships are built on respect and care, and if that's something you have then you are doing well. Being nice to each other a great indication of a good relationship, but there can still be some warning bells.

A slight caveat to considering your history: if things are peachy right now, but there's a history of extreme ups and downs then things will probably not get better. The cycle of abuse shows a relationship model of attacks, apologetics, happiness, tension building, and then more attacks, whether it's physical, psychological or emotional. If there's a history of domineering, disrespect, manipulation, hostility or other outbursts, then do keep that in mind. The cycle describes an relationship built on dominance and inequality, and the only way to break that cycle is to just get out. Watch out for a partner who refuses to allow your atheist books in the house, disallows you to go to atheist meetings, who forces you to come to religious worship, who tells you (with no remorse) that you deserve Hell, or doesn't allow you to talk about religion to the family. Those are all kinds of controlling behaviors, and abuse is about control. Here's a great guide about the kinds of relationship abuse, along with great extra resource links at the bottom.

Another warning bell to consider is if the two of you alright with your religious differences only because the differences are never discussed. Do the two of you avoid discing all difficult topics? When was the last time you had a serious discussion about politics, moral qualms, money, social problems, gender structures, etc? Do the two of you only talk about superficial stuff? If so, you might want to reevaluate if this relationship is really substantial or if you're just in the honeymoon stage of the relationship. If there's no deeper connection, no deeper common ground, then why would you want to be in a long-term relationship with this person? Seriously consider if you're there just because it's comfortable and tough to leave.

Now, it's quite all right to have topics that are avoided. If the two of you talk about social, financial, political and other issues issues, while religion is just the odd duck, then that's probably fine. Russell and I have topics that we've just agreed to disagree on and never bring up, because they're fruitless discussions (male infant circumcision, for example) but we are pretty much in agreement when it comes to other debates, and we enjoy those discussions thoroughly. There's only so much time we two can spend discussing World of Warcraft and other superficial things, before our conversations would go silent. Having these deeper connections keeps our conversations constantly new and fresh. Having deeper connections is important, and if those are lacking and have been lacking for quite awhile, then it's pretty easy to see where the relationship will go in the future: nowhere. It can be tough, but really look at these outside issues.

2. Trying to Deconvert a Partner is Usually Not a Good Idea

Perhaps a more popular question from atheists about religious partners is how to deconvert their theist partners. That's a much trickier topic to navigate.

The approach I take to this sort of question is to generalize it out. Instead of making it about religion, let's say instead, "I have a partner with a large character flaw. How can I fix that flaw?" It's the typical problem of starting a relationship with someone and then expecting them to change for you. Now, a small amount of personal change in a relationship is healthy and normal. It's part of being accommodating, loving and exchanging: imagine a relationship where Partner 1 improves zir habits about picking up the laundry, and Partner 2 works on their problem of calling when zhe will be late. Maybe one picks up bicycling in exchange for D&D and they both increase their sphere of hobbies. That's good. In a normal relationship, there is a certain amount of change that is willingly and happily made to accommodate and improve each other. It's a positive embracing of newer and better habits, hobbies and experiences. When it becomes unhealthy is when that change is forced or coerced, (or when the change is in forbidding previously enjoyed activities). If there is someone who feels continually pressured to change, then the relationship ceases to be based on mutual respect and love. Here, I recommend a deep evaluation of whether pressuring is an appropriate tactic. You might win and deconvert them, but more than likely you will just put an extra strain on the relationship.

And the thing is, religiosity is a very strong emotional and religious meme, and it is a tough thing to shake. In a way, it's like an addiction, as strong as an alcoholism. Try reframing this relationship deconversion problem as trying to get an alcoholic sober. You can see the problem, you can see the logical gaps, you can see how it's possibly destroying their lives and eating up their money, you can see everything. And you deeply care about this person, and would love for them to be freed from this one affliction that is ruining an otherwise perfectly good person. But anyone who has tried to help an alcoholic will tell you how fruitless it is. That person is in an addiction and sees no reason to change. You will have to accept that probably they will never want to see the light. You will probably have no influence on them leaving their religion or their alcoholism.

Now, this feels hypocritical for me to write, because I used to be a Christian who was in a relationship with atheists, and now I am quite the atheist myself, so I know change is possible. But I feel like my story is merely one anecdote, and I prefer to trust general facts instead of individual stories, even if that individual story happened to me. This is tough to do, but an essential part of being a skeptic. And looking back, I don't think I would have deconverted while I was dating my high school atheist sweetheart. At that time someone pointed out to me the bad things the bible says about women, and I had flippantly excused it with "Oh, that's only The Old Testament." I don't know that I was emotionally ready to deconvert, and any attempt to do so would have probably just made me feel hostile and disrespected. I did change my mind later, but that was only because it was something I came to slowly, and independently, through a love of skepticism and evaluation (and not until I was single). I changed not because of who I was with, but because I chose to follow the facts and they slowly led me to disbelief.

I don't think my story is all that typical of theists. After all, most of the theists I know are still theists. There are always those alcoholics who independently decide to kick the habit and cure themselves. There are those religious people who slowly realize that their faith is based on nothing. But it shouldn't be your job to sacrifice yourself on the unlikely chance that they will spontaneously change themselves, or that you can be the one to "fix" them. It likely won't happen. That spark and desire for change has to come within, and there's nothing you can do to put that into someone else's brain.

As another example, Russell and I took a premarital class to waive a marriage license fee, and in it the director gave a story about how on his honeymoon he flipped out and punched through the glovebox of the car. A scary story by itself, but then he then he continued that kind of behavior for 9 more years before finally figuring out that was unacceptable. He slowly realized he needed to change, and turned himself around. I'm glad that he had that self-realization, but would you have wanted his partner to have stayed through that for 9 years on the hope that he would change? Do you think that there was anything this woman could have said to make him re-evaluate his behavior, or would he just have ignored her? The truth is that something clicked in his head on its own, and he self-motivated his own change. A good method for self-evaluation is to pretend that a friend is in a similar situation, and ask yourself how you would give them advice. In my opinion, they shouldn't have stayed together. Take a step back and look at your relationship as if you were looking at a friend in a similar situation: would you advice your friend to wait it out? Can they be happy together if they stayed the same, for years and years? If you can't accept them for how they are now, then you need to re-look your standards or re-look your relationship.

3. Can Deconversion Attempts Be Acceptable?

I would like to point out a mitigating factor, even though I worry that it might just add confusion and false hope. Many people who are stuck in religion are there only because they've never been presented with contrary views or information. Their religion is treated with some sort of reverence that shields it against scrutiny, and they might be simply ignorant about their own faith. If they are the kind of person who cares about truth and knowledge and logic, then they might just need a bit of nudging in the right direction, and you never know where that nudge might come from. It might be from you, it might be from someone else, it might even be from someone religious. Faith is a Jenga tower, and you can never be sure which block will topple the whole thing down. In this case, it might be helpful for you to offer advice and arguments about religion and reason. Address concerns and doubts they have. Ask them the tough questions: always ask questions instead of telling them. Let them do their own research and point them in the right direction. Asking questions allows them to think about it themselves, telling them allows them to just shut it out. I recommend reading 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God, and The Demon Haunted World. And of course, Iron Chariots and TalkOrigins are fantastic guides as well.

Most importantly when communicating, evaluate how you have these kinds of discussions. Different ways of approaching a relationship disagreement can lead to vastly different results. If there is accusing, storming out, stonewalling, ignored olive branches or any other number of bad arguments habits, then you need to take a moment to work on your own communication skills. I highly recommend John Gottman's The Relationship Cure, which is all about how to communicate effectively, really in any situation. Interestingly, one of the best summaries of proper relationship communication techniques I could find quickly was in a section of a wikipedia article about open marriages (it's been flagged as inappropriately placed, so enjoy it while it's there).

As an atheist now, I frequently feel frustrated that I was a christian so long around so many atheists and skeptics who rarely questioned my faith, but on the other hand, I honestly could not tell you if attacks on my faith would have sped up my deconversion or whether I would have entrenched further. For example, this incredibly long YouTube series tells the story of a student decoverting after fervent debate with his professor, a guy who I would have chalked up as a lost cause. Meanwhile, as I've already said, I defended biblical subjugation of women with the dumbest argument that I actually believed made sense. I was a pretty hopeless case, and maybe I did benefit in some small way from having my faith prodded a bit when I was younger, but it took years after that. It's always worthwhile to try presenting arguments against religion: even if they fall on deaf ears now they might produce logical responses years down the line. Deconversion is a slow, gradual process that frequently requires input from multiple sources. They might thank you years down the line.

That said, I would like to reiterate that it is not your job and not your place to change and fix your partner. It might be possible to point them in the right direction, but if these debates go nowhere, then you really need to accept that this is how they are and this is likely how they will be for a long time. I've hesitated to give the above advice about how to deconvert a partner because I am worried that it might be used as a sort of grasping at straws for those who are in a relationship with someone who really is stuck. I'd say most people are in the kind of situation where their religious partner is not likely to be swayed. The majority of Christians I've ever known and discussed religion with are still Christians. And if you think that doesn't apply to your partner, then you're probably deluding yourself. Go ahead and attempt to change their mind, but be prepared for it to fail, and then be prepared to move on. You should not sacrifice yourself and your happiness to try and fix someone who is a lost cause. When was the last time you watched a romantic movie? They are formulaically based on the fantasy of changing a fundamental flaw in the love interest. That this is so attractive of a fantasy really speaks to how unlikely the chance for change really is. If you've tried to communicate your desire for a change, and that desire has been ignored, then you need to accept that this is a person with their own free will and thoughts and you might never be able to change them. Are you alright with coupling with someone who will have this attitude forever? Would this permanently leave your relationship more strained than positive?

4. Should I Just Go Through the Motions?

One of the side questions that gets brought up is that of going through the motions, for the sake of the relationship. Whether it's a religious ritual in a marriage ceremony or attending a religious service. If you are an out atheist to your partner, this pressure can feel uncomfortable. Perhaps you feel awkward about going through these motions, but are uncertain about why: after all if you don't believe that sprinkling water on a child does anything magical, then why not allow it to happen? This discomfort comes not from the actual act, but from the attitude of respect and mutuality in a relationship. The ceremonial implications with god might be imaginary, but the ceremonial implications between the two of you are very real. If there is a situation where you are expected to take the backseat and have no input, then that is being disrespectful to you. It is disrespectful to say that one person's views must be followed and the other person's must be ignored, for the sake of someone outside of the relationship. Here is where you need to find some sort of compromise that shows respect to your feelings and your partner's feelings. Have that wedding chapel ceremony, but exclude references to god from the vows. Compromise, and be wary of inflexibility. Inflexibility now means inflexibility in the future. It means you will be in a relationship where you will be pressured and coerced to continue going through the motions, and as we've already discussed, pressure to change is a real relationship-killer. Is that something acceptable to you?

Alternatively, if your partner doesn't know that you are an atheist, then you are in a bit of a bind. You are now in a relationship that's not based on mutual respect and trust, but instead lies and deceit. If you are afraid that telling your partner about your atheism will damage the relationship, then you have to examine how strong your relationship really is. If something like that can shake your strength, then be honest with yourself about if there are deeper issues: lack of deeper common interests, inabilities to communicate, etc. You need to ask yourself if this is a relationship worth keeping together on such shaky ground. Now sometimes relationships can be solid, but the religion has entrenched itself so deeply that even strong relationships will be torn apart by a commitment to the faith. In this case, it can be painful to admit that you are in a relationship with someone who would hurt you for something imaginary. But does that sound like a deep love, a faithful commitment? Does that sound like the sort of person you would want to rely on? Would you recommend a friend stay with someone who doesn't accept them, who has to lie? This can breed a relationship where you feel resentful and disrespected and trapped, and your partner feels an unknown distance growing between the two of you. It's much better to come clean, and then to accept the repercussions of that. Do it gently, if you are worried: say that you don't believe what you used to and that you're still the same person and that you care about your partner and will always be open to answering different questions, and that you hope they still care about you in the same way too. Give a negative reaction some time to cool off, but if there continues to be hostility, then realize that this is someone who does not respect you for who you are and is not contributing to a loving, respectful relationship.

5. What About Kids?

One of biggest and toughest questions I've saved for last: the issue of children. The easier issue of children comes with those who don't have them: discuss if you want children and come to some sort of agreement about how they would be raised, and how much religiosity they will have. Discuss schooling and strictness and punishment, really consider if you want to bring someone into the world who might be pressured into believing a religion. Can you accept watching your child be taught to believe for life in the imaginary? That's a pretty tough burden to accept.

If there are already children in the picture, it can be tough. Very young children really do benefit from having two parents, and you should consider the fact that splitting up might leave your religious partner as their primary source of religious information. Consider also that many atheists now are the children of very religious parents, myself included. All you need to do is instill a love for truth and knowledge, and atheism can come naturally later on its own.

When it comes to divorce, the damaging effects on kids is actually a bit overblown. The connection between emotional damage is actually with parents who are frequently negative and attacking of each other. If you and your partner argue frequently and heatedly, then a divorce might actually be more positive, because it would reduce that negative element by giving the two of you some space. Similarly, if the two of you have a loveless marriage, kids will pick up on that. Then, that sort of unfulfilling, unaffectionate relationship will be normalized for them. There's no positive in that.

If you choose to divorce, make a conscious effort to do so respectfully and calmly. There is a lot of societal/religious pressure to keep marriages together at any cost, but this might not always be healthy. Obviously it's not good to get flightily at the first few whiffs of trouble, and if trouble has just started then it might be a good time to look into relationship help. But if there are deep relationship issues, don't be afraid to break those off just because of children. Whatever choice is made, be sure to impress upon your children how much you care about them and reinforce that you will still be there in their lives because they are important; that's the biggest thing that kids need from their parents.

6. Where to go from here

I've covered a lot of ground here, but I hope that this can serve as a good starting point for those who are currently in a relationship and aren't quite sure what to do next. I find that frequently people know exactly what to do, but have trouble admitting that to themselves, and look for outside advice. So think about your relationship, think about the implications, think about the status of your relationship together. Think about how deeply committed and respectful and loving you are to each other. Think about how you would advise a friend in a similar situation. Think about what sorts of things you care about in a relationship. Think about if your decisions are influenced more by comfort or by true respect.

If you do decide to split up, don't focus on finding someone else. Focus on yourself; improve yourself; join classes and expand your interests and hobbies. Follow your passions and then if you are active with them, maybe you will find someone that way. If you don't, know that happiness and healthiness are more important than being in a relationship. There's plenty you can do to make the world a better place, and it's always nice to focus on ways you can improve the world.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Vote for us for Best Atheist Podcast

Voting ends March 8th about midnight for the Reader's Choice Awards. We're ahead, but not by much...

If you haven't voted, and you'd like to see us win, do so now.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Open Thread / Show #699: Tracie & Matt

I would like to talk a bit about something I explained in a recent viewer mail to someone who wrote in to ask the following (emphasis mine):

In agreement with the Big Bang theory, where the existence of the Universe was once an immeasurable "ball" of infinite density and mass, and wherein a reaction took place causing the creation of the Universe; was the matter always existent? Was the matter created? If everything has a beginning, would not the matter need a beginning as well? If science cannot explain such a question, then why is the unexplainable or supernatural not more plausible than "no, it wasn't created", considering that science will never be able to explain before the existence of time and space? (And yes, I'm aware of quantum gravity and physics)

After I replied, he said only: "I thank you very much for you reply, and the information relating my cosmological questions. This was very informative. Again, thank you!" This leads me to be hopeful that my response actually may have been helpful to a person who did not know why supernatural explanations are less valid than natural ones. If it can shed any light, then I would like to share it:

The second part of your question is why supernatural hypotheses would be considered less valid than natural hypotheses in claims of causation. The short answer is “things that do not exist cannot be the cause of other things.” This is not a claim that supernature does not exist. It is a statement asserting that in order for anything (including supernature) to be put forward as a valid cause, that “thing” must at the very least be existent. Nature (matter) is known to exist. Supernature is not known to exist. So, if we wish to posit supernatural explanations, we then compound the problem by putting forward an explanation that also needs an explanation. In other words, to make our supernatural explanation even begin to be valid, we need to find a way to show that there actually is such a thing as supernature that can do what we're claiming. Until we can examine supernature, we can't make any valid assertions about what supernature is or what it does.

So, we have an unexplained event-X. And we have nature which can be examined to see if it can do what is required to achieve X. Then we have supernature, which we can’t examine, neither can we demonstrate, and about which we can make zero informed claims. So it is literally just an unknown variable: Y. In this case, if we put supernature forward as the cause, we’re saying something we can’t explain was caused by a thing we can’t know anything about and for all we know doesn't even exist. So, mysterious event-X is caused by unknown, possibly nonexistent cause-Y.

Saying Y caused X where Y cannot be defined is not an explanation.

I hope this helps.

Part of why I put this forward is that it seems to me to be the first step in many conversations that gets shoved out of the way as though it doesn't matter. We forget to verify our cause exists and jump into arguments regarding what it does, what attributes it may have, what motivations (if any), and so on. However, we can't verify any of our claims about this cause-Y are valid if we can't examine cause-Y. It's a very different question to ask "can this occur naturally," where we have nature to examine and investigate the answer, than to invoke supernature, where we have no means to compare claims against the cause-Y we're claiming.

The practical benefit, I hope, will be less people arguing with theists about what sorts of things god does/doesn't do, and whether or not there is actually a god. I would hope that the atheist who finds himself arguing against endless or repeated claims of god's attributes or actions would see a light come on and ask "Wait--how can we be arguing over the attributes or actions of something we can't even say exists?"

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

A couple of videos by young black atheists

It's a slow day for me, and I thought I'd share some videos I've been watching.

First, John contacted us directly to share his video.

If you've watched the show recently, you've probably noticed that the question of attracting minorities to become outspoken atheists comes up more and more frequently. Now, this is a tricky question to answer, because first: as a white guy, any generalization I try to make about black people can be taken as unfair and racist, especially if I'm wrong. Second: I don't think a black atheist should have the burden of speaking for all black people any more than I can. I don't speak for all white people, nor do I speak for all Texans or all secular Jews. This is just my point of view.

Having said that, John offers some excellent food for thought on the subject of prominent black atheists. Just on the merits of a guy speaking for himself, you should watch him.

This second video is not really related, I just found it under "suggestions" and thought it was worth passing along as well.

Jean is college student facing a problem common to many, many young atheists today. In an age where everyone uses social media, it can be very hard to keep information intended for your friends separate from your family, coworkers, and casual acquaintances. Thus, lots of atheists simply wind up having the question of "Should I tell my parents?" answered for them, when they accidentally out themselves. At least four people I know (two being Matt and Jeff) have wound up in similar situations. You may not have your own show, but having a YouTube channel will do it for you too.

I don't have anything to offer people who find this out the hard way, but I want to encourage young atheists of all backgrounds to continue speaking confidently about what they believe (or don't believe). "Atheism" is a scary concept to people in part because it is unknown and hidden from view, and the stories that your pastor makes up about atheists stick. The more atheists who are out there defining what atheism is, the less completely theists get to set the agenda.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

"Atheism is a religion too!"

Doubtless you've heard this little nugget of inanity from more than one indignant apologist, and it's usually the sort of thing they resort to when everything else they've thrown your way has been flattened. The glib response is usually something along the lines of, "Yeah, like baldness is a hair color!" Then this is followed by tortuous explanations where you find yourself trying to describe the difference between belief that there are no gods and disbelief in gods, to a mind not exactly skilled in grasping nuance.

But there's an easier way to deal with this one, a way even Christians might understand, and it's illustrated by a post today from PZ.

Atheism is not a religion for the same reason theism is not a religion. The terms refer solely to the disbelief or belief in gods. But religion implies a ritualized, or at least organized practice. Indeed, a person can be theistic and yet not the least bit religious. Theism is not a religion, but Christianity, Islam, et al, are.

Similarly, atheism is not a religion, but...there are atheistic religions. And they are just as irrational and lacking in evidence as theistic ones. Buddhism, on the whole, seems generally benign, though its embrace of such fantasies as reincarnation (which is something you're encouraged to avoid) puts it squarely in the realm of delusion and woo. But then there are the Raelians, a gang of raving nitwits who reject God...only to replace him with aliens. It may be generous even to call Raelianism (if that's the term) atheistic, since they just put God in a UFO and only reject the traditional notion of a supernatural god. But to some, and to themselves, they are considered atheistic on those grounds alone.

We at The Atheist Experience have all encountered self-proclaimed atheists who go on to voice their eager support for other irrational ideas, like 9/11 Trutherism or "alternative" medicine.

So no, atheism itself is not a religion. But there are atheist religions, and there are individual atheists just as lost to reason and confused as many theists. It isn't enough to reject gods simply because you don't like Pat Robertson or the Pope or the Tea Party or what have you. Skepticism and critical thinking must inform everything you do. A person can get to atheism by means other than critical thinking, but it's possible to adopt even ideas that are right for the wrong reasons. Put critical thinking first, and atheism should not only flow naturally from that, but it will have a much more sound intellectual footing, and you'll be better inoculated against other slippery falsehoods that sneak through the back door of your confirmation bias too.