Religion: Making Lazy People Feel Special

by mr dan
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When trying to understand what drives people to accept theological absurdities, non-belivers sometimes come up short of an answer.  After all, it does seem pretty difficult to grasp sometimes.  Some think the religious are brainwashed, some think they merely stuck with the religion they were born into and never bothered to question it, some think they just get a lot of merriment out of imagining my friends and me burning in Hell for all eternity.  While any of these may be true for some, I think for most it has a lot more to do with the id and our desire to be special.

Acceptance is undoubtedly one of our main desires, and though we all know that faith can be divisive within and between societies, there is probably nothing that better fosters the need to be part of an elite group than religion.   Like racism, sexism, classism, and a whole boatload of other kinds of chauvinism, religion teaches you that you are automatically better than everyone else just for being a member of that religion.  That’s the kind of acceptance and social sustenance that our brains crave.

We all want to be thought of as special.  We either want to be cherished as a unique individual, or respected because we belong to an elite organization.  But we’re also very lazy, and we’d love to not have to actually do anything and still be important and special.

For instance, a white racist will argue that he or she is the best because he or she is white, and therefore better than everyone else who isn’t white.  This kind of chauvinism doesn’t stop at skin color, as people claim that their ethnicity or country of origin – whether Italian, Irish, Puerto Rican, Nigerian, or native-born US citizen – is the best.  Sexists, of both the male and female varieties, will claim that their gender is superior.  Very seldom do they ever actually give a reason why that is so.  When they do, it is far from factual or logical, and usually just a list of rumors and myths.   Neither side in these arguments has any relevant statistical data or universal logic to back up these claims, yet they still cling to them.  In doing so, they think they eliminate the need to be in any way good or special on their own.

Religion does this too.  The idea that believing in Jesus or Muhammed or Vishnu makes one superior to the infidels who reject these figures is almost universal.  Yes, believers are governed by rules and guidelines, but I’ve never heard a Christian or Muslim chauvinist argue that they’re going to Heaven because they said the right prayers.  They’re going, they believe, because God chose them.

So what about me?  Do I get to be special?  Well, I kind of would like to think that I am.  I mean, I am the president of a regional atheist group (which means they let me hold the gavel).  I’m an occasionally-viewed YouTube personality (which means I have a webcam).  I’m a regular contributor to a really neat atheist website (which mean they needed content).  I play 5 instruments in a rock band (which means I own 5 instruments and have an inferiority complex).  And I can do this with my eyebrows.  I have no idea what that means, but I think it makes me a little special.

I know that being an atheist doesn’t make me a better person than a believer.  I try to behave in ways that make me a good person, but I still wouldn’t say that I’m better than most other people.  Okay, I’m totally morally superior to Osama bin Laden…and Rush Limbaugh.  But that still wasn’t automatic.  I had to work to make that the case. And if I wanted to work in the other direction, I could easily be worse than them.  In the absence of a deity, and with the full knowledge that my race, gender, citizenship and ancestry are of no relevance to my worth, I know that I have to make myself into what I want to be, and if I want someone to respect me, I have to give them reasons to.

mr dan is the president of CVA. The views expressed in this posting are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Connecticut Valley Atheists or its individual members.

Genesis 2 and a Few Million of God’s Mistakes

by mr dan
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It’s well-documented that chapter one of Genesis tells a tale of creation, and chapter two tells a contradictory version.  Equally well-documented is the Judeo-Christian rebuttal to this contradiction: “Nuh uh.”  But one thing that often gets overlooked in this creationist kerfuffle is just what a colossal screw-up chapter two makes God out to be.

In chapter one, as you may know, God creates the heavens and the earth, then vegetation, then the sun, moon and stars, then animals, and finally a pair of humans: man and woman.  And God is pretty damn impressed with Himself.

Then, for reasons that only Christians and Jews will pretend to understand, chapter two starts with a lifeless earth which is, for some reason, both completely covered in water and somehow dusty.  God makes a man out of this dust, then plants a garden in Eden and places the man there.

Then God says, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” So God creates all the animals of the earth, but doesn’t find an acceptable helper among them.  And so God steals Adam’s rib and makes a woman out of it.

While many people point out the obvious — that the sequence of events in these two chapters are incongruously incompatible — my more pressing question is, “How the hell was Adam supposed to mate with a centipede???

In what was surely a long and frustrating process, the Almighty tried to create a servant and mate for Adam.  Doesn’t this logically mean that God must have created the giraffe, and said, “Nah, that’s no good,” so he made the squirrel, and said, “No, that ain’t gonna do it,” and then made the amoeba and the pterodactyl and the sperm whale and said, “You know, I think we’re just really on the wrong track here.”

According to Genesis chapter two, every species of non-human animal on this planet was a prototype of a potential helper for man.  Do you have any idea how many animals that would have been?  Did you know that there are over one million species of beetles?  It’s very difficult to get an estimate of just how many species of life there are on this planet, but the best guesses range from tens to hundreds of millions, and every one of those species of animals represents God’s failure as a designer.

And then, when God was almost out of clay, He had an amazing revelation.  He said, “Instead of trying to come up with radically new and impractical designs for my helper, what if I make it almost exactly the same as the original, but just change the bits down there and make it smell nicer?”

And woman was born.

Engineers and inventors and designers can’t be perfect.  The guy who made WD-40 was unsuccessful 39 times.  But how can any being with unlimited power, unlimited intellect and a full knowledge of everything that’s ever going to happen screw up millions of times? How does it make any sense to worship this bumbling lummox who thought a gnat would make an excellent helper to a human being?

And even if you can believe this insane babble, there is still another hurdle to leap over: the fact that women were created to be servants to men.  That idea is incompatible with a just and moral deity, so again we find a contradiction between the way God is described and the actions He is supposed to have undertaken, and we can also blame God for all those “make me a sammich” jokes that are so far from funny.

If He were just, He would have made man and woman equal in stature, and if He were all-powerful, He could have made man self-sufficient.  And if He wanted or needed to make a helper for his man, He should have known the specifications to which it must be designed, and we wouldn’t have all these reject animals crawling all over the place.  But neither God nor the imperfect humans who invented Him were smart enough to think this stuff out.

mr dan is the president of CVA. The views expressed in this posting are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Connecticut Valley Atheists or its individual members.

the First Amendment Applies to Atheists Too

by mr dan
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I get a lot of questions about atheism.  Most of them are uninteresting and illogical and drenched in ignorance.  “Why do you guys worship Satan?” (We don’t.) “Why do you hate God?” (We don’t.)  “Why don’t you ever pick on the Muslims?” (We do, frequently.)  “If there’s no such thing as evil, then how did Rebecca Black get a record contract?” (Okay, that one’s a mystery to me.)

One of the only interesting questions I ever hear about atheism is “If atheism is not a religion, why does it deserve First Amendment protection?  How can atheists claim to not be a religion and then demand the same rights as other religions?”

I don’t hear this question too often, because, well, it is a somewhat logical question, which puts it rather out of the realm of most religious apologists.  But those who do manage to come up with it are still clinging to a few logical fallacies.  The first is thinking that the First Amendment only guarantees freedom of religion, and the second is thinking that atheists want the same rights religions have.

Freedom of and from religion is, in my opinion, the greatest freedom that this country grants us.  But the First Amendment to the United States Constitution offers us much more; it guarantees freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.  This means federal, state and local governments cannot prohibit the practice of or abstinence from any religion; it cannot limit or confine what we say about anything, including religion or nonreligion; it cannot prevent us from writing or printing or tweeting anything about anything, including religion or nonreligion; it cannot bar the formation or meeting of religious or nonreligious groups or organizations, and you can never lose your right to make requests of your government based on your involvement or noninvolvement in a religious or nonreligious organization or your views on religion or nonreligion.

You may have noticed that this amendment is refreshingly redundant.  It could just as easily have been thrown out and replaced with “Everyone gets freedom of speech,” because all the clauses of the First Amendment are simply different ways of reminding lawmakers that they’re not allowed to limit the way we express ourselves.  But the simpler a law or an article or an amendment is, the easier it is to find a loophole in it, so the writers expanded on it and made sure everything they could think of was covered.  Of course, some limits to free speech have to apply in order for us to all live together.  You can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater if there is no fire, and you don’t have the freedom to make death threats, and you most certainly can’t say XXXX XXXXXXXX XX X XXXXXX XXXXXX XXXX XXXXXXXXX XXX XXX XXXX XXXXX, but other than that you really can say anything you want.  And if you can say anything you want, then you have to be able think anything you think, and believe anything you believe.

Freedom of religion isn’t just the freedom to organize and believe in dogma, but also the freedom to answer any religious question any way you feel is right.  For example, “Is there a god?” is a religious question.  So is “Do we go into another realm when we die?” and “Did someone hide those dinosaur bones underground to test our faith?”  The first amendment grants us the freedom to answer any of these questions with a yes or a no, and in this way atheists, while not actually members of a religion, have the same right to answer and refute those questions for themselves without having to fear the wrath of the church or the government.

Rights are not the same as laws.  The right to bear arms is not an obligation to own a gun.  The third amendment doesn’t decree that you have to kick your son or daughter out of the house if they join the Reserves.  And every slow advance of voting rights has not made it illegal to abstain from the democratic process, though it would be nice if a few more people took an interest. The right to practice any religion we wish is the right to practice no religion at all.  The right to never be told by the government which faith we must accept is the right to never be forced to choose a faith.

So, again, there’s really nothing hypocritical or self-contradictory about atheists demanding the same rights as everyone else.  We want the same rights that all Americans have, and we want all Americans to have the same rights.  Sometimes atheists lose their jobs or their housing or are passed up for a promotion or can’t get a building permit or a license because they are open about their atheism, and that’s simply wrong.  And sometimes that happens to Muslims and Mormons, and it’s wrong then, too.  Americans think religious freedom is the right to stick the Baby Jesus on the town green, or hang the ten commandments in a courtroom or make all the public schoolchildren start their day with Christian prayer, even though that all clearly contradicts the First Amendment.  It’s not surprising that a faith which for the last 400 years on this continent has not had any legitimate threat to its supremacy would have such a mistaken notion about what freedom is.  All religions and all forms of nonreligion have and deserve the same rights – not officially recognized as superior or inferior, right or wrong, just humans having thoughts, abiding by laws, and exercising their freedoms.

mr dan is the president of CVA. The views expressed in this posting are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Connecticut Valley Atheists or its individual members.

Atheism: It’s REALLY Not a Religion

by mr dan
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I was once, as I often am, in my local diner, having coffee with another member of Connecticut Valley Atheists.  And as we were talking, one of my friends happened to show up.  This friend is also an atheist but not a member of CVA.  So he joined us, and after introductions he asked how we knew each other.  When I said we were both in CVA, his eyes rolled and he went off on a rant about how an “atheist group” is such an oxymoron and that having meetings makes it a religion.  He said that any time you get a group of atheists together talking about atheism, that makes atheism a religion — completely missing the irony that at that very moment at that booth in that tacky neon diner were three atheists talking about atheism.

I’m sure you’ve had this happen to you.  Mention that you’re an atheist and someone will invariably say to you, “Atheism is just another religion.”   And if you’re involved in any kind of atheist group like Connecticut Valley Atheists, or you’re a member of American Atheists or the Freedom From Religion Foundation, or you’ve “liked” the Facebook page of Support Atheism or the Atheist Advocate, then they will use that as proof that you are a member of some kind of cult.

But liking Catholicism on Facebook does not make you a Catholic.   Baptism and confession and communion and tithing and a loyalty to the Pope and taking the batteries out of your vibrator for forty days in the spring — these things make you a Catholic.  Atheist organizations don’t have any rules or requirements of their members.  We don’t baptize or make you take a loyalty oath.  You don’t have to confess your sins or follow commandments.  And we encourage you to rig up an extra battery pack to all your sex toys (anything worth doing is worth doing right).

Some atheists get a sense of community from an atheist organization, but we’re not allowed to say that out loud.  The second we feel like a group, they say, we become a religion.  This also doesn’t make any sense.  You can get a sense of community from a club or a classroom or a bowling team or your workplace or a group of friends.  A chess club does not make chess a religion, even if it does have bishops.

We’re also told that it doesn’t make sense for atheists to join any kind of group at all.  The reason we are atheists, they say, is that we’re against any kind of organized structure or authority.  This pervasive Megan Kelly ignorance is simply a frantic attempt to lie away our rationality.  No, we can’t be atheists because the idea of God is unbelievable to us, it has to be because we feel an urgent need to rebel against the Man.  Seriously, not all religions have Popes and Ayatollahs.  If I believed in God but just didn’t like the structure of the church, I could join one of the cookie-cutter non-denominational Christian groups that is so liberal they let their women wear pants, or join a spiritual-but-not-religious commune where pants are optional, or star in a terrible sitcom, get two girlfriends who never wear pants and do more coke than Sherlock Holmes (or the guy who played him last).

Most atheists who are in such an organization joined because they are tired of being an invisible member of their community, of feeling like they are the only one who views the world this way.   Some joined simply to meet other atheists, some to engage in charitable works or activism, some to host educational events and encourage people to think rationally.  Some did it just because they wanted to have one place in their lives where they could go and not be told that they are freaks for not believing in magic and fairies and Santa Claus.

Yes, to answer the stupidest arguments I’ve ever heard, there are books about atheism just like there are books about chess, but there is no Atheist Bible.  There are some celebrity atheists but no recognized head or pontiff. And there are organizations whose goal is to allow atheist individuals to interact with the community, but there is no sort of hierarchy of atheism or worldwide conspiracy — there’s no Atheist Vatican.  It doesn’t resemble religion in any way.  And we are not atheists because we hate religion or organization, we’re atheists because we lack a belief in any and all deities.  And honestly, if you can’t grasp even that simple a concept, I don’t put much stock in any of your other mindless ramblings either.

mr dan is the president of CVA. The views expressed in this posting are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Connecticut Valley Atheists or its individual members.

Hidden Jesus and His 7 Commandments

by mr dan
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Despite the diversity of the subjects about which I write in this blog, one of the most common questions I am asked is “Why are you obsessed with the negative aspects of Christianity?  Why don’t you ever talk about the good parts of my religion?”

Well, that’s kind of like me doing a video series on healthy eating habits and being asked why I never talk about the health benefits of Twinkies. That being said, Twinkies do have a gram of protein, and not everything written in the Bible is xenophobic, genocidal, sexist, racist, homophobic, anti-intellectual, pro-slavery drivel.  There are a few passages that I can respect.

In one example, Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us of a rich man who asks Jesus how to inherit eternal life.  Jesus answers, “Keep the commandments.”

“Which ones?” the man inquires.

Dumb question, right?  You might expect that Jesus would answer, “All of ‘em, stupid!”  But no.

“You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

“All these I have kept since I was a boy,” says the man.

“One thing you lack,” Jesus says. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven. Then come, follow me.”  And the rich man was very sad, because that was so not the answer he wanted to hear.

Did you notice anything wrong with that list?  Did it seem a little short? Did you recognize that a few of those are not in the Ten Commandments?  Did you notice none of them have anything to do with worshipping God?

Don’t misinterpret me here. I’m not trying to prove that Jesus was some secret atheist and there was a vast right-wing conspiracy to rewrite him as a Christian.  Remember that the man asks how to get to Heaven, not just how to be good, and Jesus does tell him that included in the deal is “following” him.  Still, it’s really interesting to note that having other gods, making idols, blaspheming, not keeping the Sabbath, coveting that which is your neighbor’s — these things don’t seem to bother Jesus much, at least not in this passage.  And there are actually 613 commandments in the Old Testament, so Jesus is missing more than just a few.

If any Christians I know had ever actually read this passage, I might think this is where they got the silly idea that Jesus throws out all the old laws, even though this is contradicted by Matthew 5:17-18 and Luke 16:17, which both say that everything in the Old Testament still stands and will stand until the end of time.  No, Christians got that idea purely from their desire to ignore the parts of the Bible they don’t like.

But regardless of the obvious theological implications of Jesus’ new partial list of commandments, they do make very good guidelines for living.  Don’t steal, don’t kill, don’t lie?  I’m right there with you.  Adultery? I can hardly think of anything worse.  Love your neighbor as you love yourself?  Well, as a rule it can’t be universally applied, but treating people with the respect you’d prefer to be treated with is an excellent principle for living.  Same goes for honoring your parents, because, well, not everyone has parents worth honoring.  Some people have abusive parents, deadbeat dads, deadbeat moms — and there is no wisdom or virtue in overlooking these despicable traits.  But putting aside these exceptions, yes, it’s a good idea to honor and praise people who may have been influential in your life or helped raise you.  And nobody should be forced to sell all their possessions and give the money to the poor, but it is a good thing to limit your extravagance and be charitable.

Of course, all of this interpretation is pointless because this is yet another of those passages that Christians just refuse to ever talk about.  So the real question, nagging Christians, isn’t why I don’t talk about the positive portions of the Bible, but why you never mention them.  Forget about Leviticus 18:22 and the part that says not to let women talk in church.  The world would be a much better place if everyone would follow these guidelines, compiled here by the authors of the New Testament but all of which predate even the Old Testament and are based on pure common sense rather than arbitrary religious tenets.   Stop asking what Jesus would do.  Start asking what you should do.

mr dan is vice president of CVA. The views expressed in this post are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Connecticut Valley Atheists or its individual members.

the Immoral Jesus, pt 3: the Fig Tree Tantrum

by mr dan
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You know that joke about how if Jesus lived in modern times, Catholics would be wearing electric chairs around their necks?  Well, it’s also likely that a contemporary Jesus would have thrown an out-of-order vending machine out a third story window.  In my continuing series on why Jesus as described by the Gospels does not always set an admirable moral example, I’ll look at the time he childishly threw a temper tantrum and cursed an innocent ficus.

This story comes from Matthew 21:18-22 and Mark 11:12-24.  The version in Luke 13:6-9 is rather different, but is clearly the same story.  It takes place only a few days before his crucifixion, around the time of the entry into Jerusalem, and it goes something like this:

Jesus wakes up in the city of Bethany.  Hungry from the previous hard day of overturning tables and threatening money changers with a whip, He goes out in search of food with His loyal disciples following.  He spots a fig tree and hopes to eat its delicious fruit, but as He approaches it, He finds it bears no fruit because it is not fig season.  Reacting with all the dignity and maturity that one would expect from a half-god spiritual leader, He says to the tree, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withers, and his disciples are astonished.

Okay, Matthew says it happened immediately.  Mark says it took a whole day for it to wither.  Luke says it never happened at all and instead has Jesus tell a parable about cutting down a barren ficus.  And John has absolutely nothing to say about it.  Which is so John.

If you take this story literally, it isn’t exactly moral behavior.  Mature people don’t consider it admirable to throw things around or stomp your feet or put curses on guiltless inanimate objects.  It’s just childish.  It’s callow.  It’s sophomoric.  It’s no way for a moral leader to act.  What do Christians and their WWJD bracelets have to say about a tantrum such as this?

Well, mostly they side with Luke.  They usually explain that this was a parable and that it never literally happened.  It’s funny how Matthew and Mark explain it on a timeline of events, the rest of which are all supposed to have happened, as if it was just as true as any of the day’s adventures.

But what does it mean when we look at it as a parable?  The tree is not a tree at all, but mankind.  And the fruit it fails to bear is love for Jesus.  And instead of being withered, men and women who have insufficient love for Jesus, no matter how decent and righteous they are, will be burned in Hell for all eternity.

Ah, now it makes sense!  It’s people!  The fig tree is like Soylent Green!

Wait a minute — that’s really, really terrible.  That’s even more immoral than actually cursing a ficus.  At least a fig tree doesn’t feel pain (though some may feel like arguing about this).  It doesn’t take an ethicist to see that this policy can only be described as morally reprehensible and devoid of any logic or compassion.

Punishments should fit the crime, and a solution should fit the problem.  I’m not going to take a sledgehammer to my refrigerator because I’m out of food; I’m just going to buy more food.  That’s just being rational.  And while our system of justice often fails to give sentences befitting of the crime, that does, on the surface, seem to be its intent.  Christian justice (with the exception of Purgatory, which most Christians don’t believe in anyway) is not based on a punishment which fits a crime but everlasting punishment for the sin of not believing that which is unbelievable.  If you ask me to accept the stories told in the Bible, you may as well be asking a tree to bear fruit out of season.  It doesn’t matter how much you want something; if I can’t do it, I won’t waste my time trying.

mr dan is vice president of CVA. The views expressed in this post are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Connecticut Valley Atheists or its individual members.

Getting Sober Without God

by mr dan
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Hello, I’m mr dan, and I’m not an alcoholic.  I know some of you may be saying, “Oh, he’s just in denial,” and, “You can’t get help until you admit you have a problem!”  But the truth is that I never touch the stuff.  There are many reasons why I don’t drink or use any drugs. Quite a ways down the list is that if I started and found myself unable to stop, most of the treatment programs designed to free you from addiction are for theists only.  Alcoholics Anonymous and the other 12-step programs modeled after it basically seek to replace your addiction with religion – they trade substance abuse for a lack of substance.

The cornerstone of Alcoholics Anonymous is of course the 12 Steps, which for some reason are written in the past tense and in highly theological vernacular.

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

For some reason they think that throwing “as we understood Him” after a few of the references to God makes it somehow open-ended.  But in five different steps participants – not all of whom are volunteers – are ordered to seek help from a deity.  It is especially 5 and 6 which make it unacceptable to nontheists, and, though he’s not mentioned in it, number 1 is also rather counter-productive.  To get better, they insist, you have to admit that there is nothing you can do to help yourself.  Does this sound a bit familiar?

Some laugh at this concern and insist that the 12 steps are not at all religious.  Others say the steps are mere suggestions and that no member of such a program is ever required to pray or admit that there’s a god.  Those may be the rules on paper and they may apply to some, but that is not the experience described by a number of people I know.  Some sought their treatment willingly and some were ordered to go, but once there, they were made to feel that the only way to sobriety was through the Christian God and his Son.  In the community of 12-step programs, suggesting that there are no gods is as great a sin as insisting you do not have a problem with drugs or alcohol.

If AA is currently working for you, as it has for millions of people, then I congratulate you.  Stick with it and do whatever it takes to make yourself better.   I don’t mean to denigrate AA or its methods, but it’s only one way, not the only way.  I look at it the same way that I look at religion.  You can believe whatever makes you feel good and I won’t bother you about it if you don’t bother me.  But once you encroach upon my life and tell me that I have to accept your teachings and your philosophies and your rituals, then I have a serious problem with you.  And when courts order citizens to attend programs which are in no uncertain terms proselytizing, they are in violation of the First Amendment.

If you are ordered by a judge or by your loved ones to attend a treatment facility, tell them you admit that you have a problem and you agree that you need help.  But tell them that your problem is substance abuse, not the substantial abuses of the church.  You have every right, legally and ethically, to demand a secular alternative.  Though the Supreme Court has not yet ruled in a case that sets a precedent against requiring AA attendance, they and the lower courts have agreed on multiple occasions that it does violate the First Amendment rights of specific individuals to be forced to attend a program which is undeniably religious.

Secular treatment programs do exist but they are inadequate.  The Secular Organizations for Sobriety, for instance, are very popular and effective in some areas but they are not truly nationwide.  Rational Recovery is another (and here are some others).  Check their websites for local groups, and if you can’t find one, make sure you contact them to let them know that there is an interest in your area.  If there aren’t support groups there may be individual counselors, online communities, and other resources they can recommend.

If you’re a freethinker who wants to give back to the community and you have an interest in or experience with drug and alcohol counseling, or simply want to use your personal experience to help others, consider starting a nonreligious support program in your community, or contacting one of the organizations I mentioned and asking how you can help.  Remember that it’s not just atheists you will be helping; any number of believers or agnostics who may be in need of AA’s services but do not feel comfortable in such an openly religious environment would really appreciate your help.

If you or someone you know is struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction, I hope you can get the help you need, with or without these organizations.  The best way to get sober is to do it with the help of (real) people who care about you.  Asking a magic man in the sky to remove your problems is neither wise nor admirable.  Your mind is too valuable for it to be poisoned with illicit substances or religious nonsense.  Your brain should be used for solving problems, helping other people and having fun.  To degrade it in any other way is just a waste of the short time we have here.

mr dan is vice president of CVA. The views expressed in this post are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Connecticut Valley Atheists or its individual members.

The Screaming Carrot Goes ‘Round the Moon — or, When Will I Confess My Faith?

by mr dan.
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I hear it all the time.  Science is just another religion.  It takes more faith not to believe than it does to believe.  Jesus could kick Darwin’s ass.  Faithful folk try to corner me into admitting that I’m the smug asshole because I don’t accept their religio-babble.  It isn’t just evolution and climate change.  Would you believe that I’ve actually had people tell me that my acceptance of heliocentrism — that’s the earth-goes-’round-the-sun one — is an article of faith Two hundred years ago they were teaching something different, and two hundred years from now they’ll probably be teaching something else.

::FACEPALM!::

It is entirely true that heliocentrism is the currently accepted astronomical model.  Like everything in science, it could turn out to be wrong, and if another theory better explained the workings of our solar system — if it even is a solar system — then we’d have to admit we were wrong and accept the new evidence.  But sonofmymom, people, this one really really looks airtight!  I mean, there’s so much evidence!  I don’t accept the geocentric model — not because I’m closed-minded or ignorant but because it has been demonstrated to be wrong.  Thousands, perhaps even millions of minds far more intelligent than mine have worked on this problem for the past 2300 years — and you know what?  I’m just gullible enough to take their word for it.

We know, for instance, that the sun is a hell of a lot bigger than the earth, actually about a hundred and nine times bigger with 330,000 times the mass.  Physics wouldn’t allow it to orbit an object roughly 3 one-millionths its own mass. At least not according to the currently accepted theory of gravity…which has yet to be proven but we’re pretty damn sure is correct.

Here’s another example:  As a vegetarian I’ve had countless people say to me with a smugness I’d previously thought impossible, Well how do you know carrots can’t feel pain, hmmm? The answer, I tell them, is very simple.  First, carrots lack a nerve system to send the message of pain and a brain to interpret that pain in any way remotely similar to sentient animals.  Second, carrots show no evidence that they feel pain — they neither scream nor wince nor turn away from the cook’s knife — so why assume they do?  Third, and this is the best one, there would be no evolutionary explanation for why a carrot should feel pain, since there is nothing a carrot can do to avoid danger.  You and I feel pain so that our brains go, “Ouch! That hurt — I’d better not do that again!”  A carrot which felt pain would be in constant anguish about which it could do nothing, and since such a trait is surely not an evolutionary advantage, it would not be likely to have survived.

And when I’m done with all that, they take their fingers out of their ears and say, Just because you have faith that carrots don’t feel pain doesn’t mean they don’t. And they walk away thinking they’ve won, and I eat a carrot and wonder how these people evolved from the same ancestors as I did.

I want to think that most of the people who use the heliocentric faith argument aren’t advocating geocentrism or any other theory, but polls in 1999 and 2006 have shown that 18% of Americans do believe that the sun goes around the earth.  As far as the carrot pain goes, I’m not sure what to think about what they think.  Other than the fact that, like the geocentrists, it is not grounded in reality.

The most frustrating part of all of this is that these people who go around saying that my acceptance of scientific evidence is an act of faith for which I should be mocked are the same people who believe in their own various deities for whom there is no evidence.  And when they admit to faith it’s a virtue, but when they accuse me of faith they mean it as an insult.  The dogma of science is foolish, but the dogma of religion is wise.  Well, my friends, dogma of any kind is foolish.  But science is not dogma.  Evolution, climate change, Big Bang Theory, heliocentrism — these aren’t things I believe in.  They are things supported by evidence, by facts; evidence to the contrary is nonexistent, insufficient, incredible, or demonstrably fabricated.  I don’t have faith that there’s no god or that carrots don’t scream silently when I bite into them; I just don’t have any reason to believe that that’s the case.

Oh, and, for the record, Darwin could beat the mitochondria out of Jesus.

mr dan is vice president of CVA. The views expressed in this post are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Connecticut Valley Atheists or its individual members.

Shame on Your Prayers

by mr dan
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I’d like to extend heartfelt congratulations to the Pittsburg Steelers for not praying hard enough this weekend. Your woefully inadequate appeals to the Almighty are an inspiration to freethinkers everywhere.

Now, I would be in no way clever or original if I pointed out that in any big matchup, both teams and their coaches and their fans and all the compulsive gamblers who bet on them are praying to God for their side to win.  And if both sides are praying, then there are only two possibilities: either one side was praying better, or prayer does nothing.

Let’s not bother to get into the does-prayer-work debate.  Numerous blind studies have proven that prayer doesn’t work.  Of course, in some cases, prayer can help in situations like a football game, because if a player believes that his prayer will be answered then he will play with greater confidence, and the role that confidence plays should never be understated.  That in no way proves that prayers literally get answered by deities or angels.

If prayer actually worked I would be so ashamed of those who pray.  I mean, I am anyway.  But if there really is an Almighty Creator, and you can upload your thoughts directly to him, and he’ll listen and do what you ask, why would you ask for anything as stupidly pointless as your most proximal sports team winning a game?  The world has real problems.  The Egyptians are demanding freedom and democratic rule while their government punches Anderson Cooper in the head.  The Palestinians and Israelis continue to fight over “territory.”  The North Korean government persists in being a bunch of d-bags.  The United States is fighting wars in two countries, even though the media has forgotten all about it.  Also off the media’s radar, the genocide in Darfur rages on despite ceasefires and peace accords.  The Haitians are still living in rubble a year after a devastating earthquake.  Australia is underwater, on fire and just got hit with a cyclone.  But no, no — your football game is important, too.

People all across the globe live with terrible illness, in deplorable poverty, and under oppressive rule.  Those who ignore and deny the findings of the scientific community continue to devastate the planet while decrying climate change as a myth or a hoax.  Your childish interest in games and self-serving instant gratification is more offensive than a Groupon.com ad.  I mean, even asking for it to stop snowing in New England would be more worthwhile than praying for your team to win the Super Bowl.

If I sound like I’m moralizing, it’s because I am.  It’s a privilege you earn by having your priorities straight.  Yes, I have selfish material desires too, but if I had the unlimited power of God’s omnipotence at my command, I would ask for these BIG things to be taken care of first.  If for some reason he didn’t want to snap his fingers and solve all these huge problems, then I’d ask him to at least inspire people to recycle or something.  And if He still refused to oblige that little request, then he is an utterly useless god, and I’d pray for him to leave my universe and never come back.

mr dan is vice president of CVA. The views expressed in this post are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Connecticut Valley Atheists or its individual members.

We are All Moral Relativists

by mr dan
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The list of reasons why atheism, or at least a turning away from organized religion, is perceived as a danger to society by orthodox communities never seems to reach an end.  Close to the top of the list is moral relativism, and how it has replaced absolute values, especially in the last century.   But relativism is not dangerous, nor is it new, nor is it nonreligious.  It’s been a part of every religion throughout every age, though none will admit it.

Moral relativism is a bit difficult to define.  Merriam Webster doesn’t even bother to try. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy opens its entry with this interesting sentence:  “Moral relativism has the unusual distinction—both within philosophy and outside it—of being attributed to others, almost always as a criticism, far more often than it is explicitly professed by anyone.”

If you like moral relativism, then you are probably what is known as a meta-ethical relativist, and you believe that there is not and cannot be a set of ethics that can apply to any and all situations, and that sometimes a given act can be right in some situations while wrong in others.  If, however, you hate moral relativism, then it’s likely the kind of relativism you hate is called normative relativism, which states that since there cannot be a universal ethics, then any behavior is and should be permissible.

I have never met or heard of a normative moral relativist.  I’ve never read the writings of one or had anyone try to convince me of its intellectual or ethical superiority.  No one has ever tried to talk me into it; I’ve only had people try to talk me out of it.  This is why there is such confusion and distain when discussing this topic.  People who endorse it and people who oppose it are talking about different things.

So to be fair, let’s stop talking about moral relativism.  Even though that’s what it says in the title; just ignore it. Let’s talk instead about the idea that everyone’s morality is flexible, and that almost anything can be acceptable in some situations and unacceptable in others.  Call it what you like; but everybody believes this.

What this all boils down to is that I simply cannot think of one statement that begins, “it is wrong to…” which always applies.  Consider this statement:

It is wrong to kill.

Most of us would agree.

But most of us eat meat.  That involves killing animals.

Okay, so it’s wrong to kill humans.  Except in self-defense.

Okay, obviously we have the right to defend ourselves if someone is attacking us.  Or someone we care about.  Or a stranger.

Alright, so it’s wrong to kill humans except when someone is in danger.  Or when they’ve done something really wrong.  Even if we’ve got them in custody where they can’t hurt anybody, most people think it’s okay to kill them to teach them a lesson.

Okay, so it’s wrong to kill humans except when someone is in danger or when we need to teach them a lesson.  Or when our country is at war with theirs.  Or when they’re very sick and in a lot of pain.  Or when they’re just beginning to develop in the womb and their continued existence threatens the life or health of the mother.

So you may not agree with ALL of the above qualifications — I don’t — but you have to see how even a statement as broad and simple as “It is wrong to kill” easily becomes “It is wrong to kill with a whole bunch of exceptions.”

But so far the exceptions to the rule in this example have been secular — or, at least, not particularly theological.  What of the Bible’s prohibition on killing?  It’s one of the Ten Commandments, literally written in stone (if you believe such things). Surely such an unshakable platform can have no exceptions.  Can it?

Exodus 20:10 states,  “You shall not kill.”  However, according to the very same book, the punishment for worshipping other gods, sacrificing to other gods, false prophecy, blasphemy, Sabbath-breaking, sex with an unmarried virgin woman, having sex if you are an unmarried virgin woman, certain forms of incest, homosexual acts between men, bestiality, allowing your children to see you naked, adultery, marrying your wife’s mother, having sex with your father’s wife, striking a parent, cursing a parent, disobeying a parent, kidnapping, negligent homicide and, of course, murder is, quite predictably, death.  So, basically, God’s commandment is “It is wrong to kill with a whole bunch of exceptions.”

Some argue that a more accurate translation of the commandment is “You shall not murder,” and so there is no contradiction, because capital punishment does not count as murder.  Well, I could argue with that logic until the Golden Calf comes home but I’ll leave it be.  Even if we accept that there is a difference between murderous and non-murderous killing, this again proves that some kinds of killing are acceptable and some are not, which is a biblical endorsement of moral relativism.

This is just one example from one holy book.  Moral relativism is present in all but name in every religion and philosophy that ever existed.  Any system which, for instance, decrees that a murderer should be killed, as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and even some Buddhist states as well as 18 countries across the globe still do, is espousing moral relativism by applying a different standard to the killer than to the executioner.

Why then does religion hold such hostility toward relativism? Consider this quote from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now known as Pope Benedict XVI, complaining about the evils of the secular world.

“We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate standard consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”

Wait a minute? A dictatorship of relativism?  That doesn’t even make sense.  A dictatorship is the rule of someone with absolute power. Right is what they tell you to do, and wrong is what they tell you not to do.  Relativism is the idea that right and wrong are not absolute and therefore you must decide how your actions will affect yourself and others.  The very concept depends on freedom of thought, which makes it antithetical to dictatorship and to religious rule.

So maybe Pope Ratzi is afraid of moral relativism because the organization he runs is more similar to a dictatorship than to anything else.  The dissolution of the concept of absolute truth, which Benedict considers the greatest threat to the 21st century, is only a threat to those who think they have the absolute truth, and who have been abusing this power to get people to do what they say — things like starting wars, oppressing women, denying rights to the disadvantaged, and forking over ten percent of your income so the Pope can live in a solid gold house.

What is right is that which has the greatest benefit and the fewest ramifications.  What is wrong is that which has the greatest ramifications and the fewest benefits.  These aren’t always easy to figure out, but clouding your options with arbitrary black and white rules will only make it impossible find a suitable answer.  Relativism is not a dictatorship — it’s liberation, and there’s no freedom so elusive as the freedom we never knew we’d been living with all along.

mr dan is vice president of CVA. The views expressed in this post are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Connecticut Valley Atheists or its individual members.