Friday, May 9, 2008

What Does Atheism Lack?

I've been thinking about the way in which some are caught up with the idea that atheism truly represents the lack of something. Namely, the lack of a belief in gods. Yes, this is semantically accurate and it also gives us interesting fringe benefits of being able to count chickens, cats, rocks, and paper clips as fellow atheists. Sounds silly? Well, that's exactly what we end up with when we stick to the formal definition of atheism. There really isn't much more point in saying that newborn humans are atheists than it is to say that kittens are, too. Neither of these creatures is a rational actor capable of making a formal decision on the subject of deities.

If you look at the theistic position in a purely semantic way, you would say it does indeed posess something because of the professed presence of a divine being in the universe. And if we were to compare the two positions merely at the level of semantics, we may conclude that the theist possesses a trait that the atheist lacks. This may sound like splitting hairs, but I think there are enormous implications here. For one, Pascal's Wager is made possible directly as an outflow of the semantics of these two terms. But when we look at the words a little more realistically, we see that there are no gods, so there is nothing substantive to actually be had in theism.

Atheists know that what theists really have is a highly specialized ability to lie to themselves. And nothing more. What theists "have" then, is the lack of something - virtue. In reality, atheism is not the lack of a belief - it is the presence of a type of virtue which theism lacks. Don't get me wrong - theists may possess many different types of virtues, all of which are completely unrelated to and unsupported by their theistic belief. But one virtue that no theist may ever possess is the virtue of reason. There are other qualities that atheism possesses as well - honesty, freedom of conscience, and at least in our modern religiously intolerant world - bravery.

So even though the semantics imply that atheists are the ones who lack of something, if you explore what that something is a little deeper, it turns out that it is really theism that lacks substantive qualities while atheism lacks nothing of substance. This is why Pascal's Wager is such a deceitful sleight of hand. To say that the theist gives up nothing is a lie driven by nothing more than semantics. In reality, to take up the theistic position is to give up many, many things. Pascal's Wager supposes that the freedom to think for oneself, the ability to be honest, the ability to admit when one is wrong and correct one's actions, are all to be counted as worthless. When we atheists look at the harm done to the human species by theistic belief, we have to remind ourselves that it is a direct result of these profoundly important traits which theism disregards as if they were worthless.

What we have here is a failure to communicate. I'm positive that if atheists were in charge of making up words, we would have called ourselves the reasoned or the rational while the theists would be called the unreasoned. Even more to the point, atheists would have invented some other word that very accurately conveys the possession of reason when dealing specifically with the subject of theism. The word would convey this idea semantically, while theists would be forced to accept another word that in no uncertain terms conveys the fact that they lack some specific quality that atheists possess.

But sadly, it has been theists who have held all the power throughout the millenia. In fact, "atheist" was from very early times used as a slur against enemies and outsiders, whether or not those enemies actually believed in a deity. Atheists, real life atheists who actually do reject the notion of deities, were forced to adopt the label because that is how theists had already framed the debate. We don't call ourselves a-unicornians just because some folks believe in unicorns. We call those people fools, instead. We don't call ourselves a-ufo-abductionists because some peoplebelieve in that, either. Again, we call them fools. It is only religion that has earned the special privilege of having those who reject imaginary creatures define themselves in terms of the imaginary creatures that someone else has created. And so we wear our atheism like a scarlet letter, with a sense of proud defiance and also a deep sadness about the society we live in. But at no time should we have to accept that it is atheists themselves who lack anything at all.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Rev. Wright In Hindsight

Why Wright Matters

It's been a tough call from the atheist perspective.

Let me start out by saying that every Christian preacher in the world is disaffected in some way or another. That's what leads them to religious preaching. They are altogether a very harmful lot. Rev. Wright is no exception. If we had everything that these people ever say recorded on tape, there is no doubt that we could find the equivalent or worse from every single one of them. One only need to look at the Bible that they preach from to realize that anyone who believes in that garbage is estranged from reality. The very fact that they devote their lives to preaching such drivel should be cause for alarm.

I didn't fully make the connection between religion, race relations, and how I feel about the Rev Wright controversy until Strappado wrote a new post touching on this subject. I highly recommend reading his post. A Duke study has actually attributed the low wealth of conservative protestants to many of their religious beliefs. So, even though Wright correctly points out that poverty among blacks is an issue in America, Wright himself is a part of the problem. The religious beliefs that white slave owners imposed on their black slaves hundreds of years ago are a continuing source of impoverishment in black communities.

By teaching his followers about Christian values, Wright is only helping contribute to their poverty. And I have a huge problem with the morality of that. But to really dig into this issue, as atheists, we'd have to take a long hard look at the whole civil rights movement from King to everyone else. How would race relations look like today if civil rights leaders were atheists? Would the leaders use such inflexible, inflammatory rhetoric to express their points of view? I've long noticed that the same love/hate paradox that exists in Christian Love exist in race relations. I'm sure the entire language of civil rights would be different than it is. Of course, it's a chicken or egg question - the racists themselves might not be racists if not for the reinforcement of those views by their religion. So who has to change first? I don't have an answer to that. I just know the religion is harmful.

Why Wright Doesn't Matter

All that said, the nature of the uproar over this one preacher has been nothing less than an insult to our intelligence whether we're blacks, atheists, Democrats, or even Christians. This whole controversy has been instigated by people we've long suspected to use race baiting in politics, whether it came from the Clinton campaign or right wing punditry. And the majority of the people who have attempted to latch themselves onto the Wright controversy also adhere to an intolerant, hateful religion of one sort or another. We all know what was said post 9-11 by the spectrum of the religious right.

But from another perspective, the things that Wright said weren't even religiously fundamentalist in nature. He didn't blame 9-11 on gays, abortions, and liberals the way countless and countless white pastors did over the last few years. The right wing wasn't decrying what Wright said because it was religiously extreme, they were decrying it because it sounded unpatriotic. But for Christ's sake (pun intended), Wright served in both the US Marines and in the Navy!

New Rule (Bill Maher style): if you're not a veteran, stfu and stop making political attacks on the patriotism of those of us who have volunteered to risk our lives to fight for our country, right or wrong. Simply pointing out that our country is wrong and does bad things is not unpatriotic. You know all the catch phrases that conservatives use, Freedom Isn't Free, etc., or that our military fights for the right of our citizens to burn our flag in protest (it does, I agree). Well, guess who has earned that freedom, earned that right to free speech, more than anyone else? Veterans. For crying out loud, if Wright has a problem with America, he's got the right to talk about it. Nothing unpatriotic about that!

But the greatest failure of the controversy has been to actually connect Wright to Obama in any meaningful way. It came down to accusations that Obama should have actually attended the given sermon in the first place just to be able to stand up in the middle of church and decry everything he's ever said before storming out and joining a nice and friendly white-oriented religion. This is the best that Obama's political opponents can do to portray him as unelectable?

Why I still support Obama

To his credit, Obama didn't waste time waiting to deal with this. He reacted quickly and successfully framed the controversy in terms of race relations. And moved on with his campaign, drinking pints fo beer and bowling with small-town Pennsylvanians. Even as the media was still trying to sort it all out, his poll numbers already recovered and in fact he widened his national lead over Clinton. This is a far cry from how Kerry dealt with the Swift Boaters.

His political detractors love to attribute his success merely to his outstanding oratory skills. But the fact is that not only is he an amazing public speaker, but he is an outstanding political strategist. And even in Pennsylvania, the supposedly racist state where blacks are unelectable, Obama is eating away at Clinton's lead just as his campaign has done in every other state where Obama campaigned prior to their primary.

For more on the Wright controversy and atheism, see vjack's post as well.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Happy Zombie Worship Day

Ah, Easter. The day that countless atheists get asked by their boyfriend or girlfriend, "Come to church pls pls pls pls pls pls pls pls..."

I hope everyone here also had a very pleasantly mind numbing Zombie Worship Day. As I contemplated the depths of foolishness in our world, some random questions crossed my mind.

Why would an all powerful god have just one son? Really? Come on now. So let's say this one was a blooper. Got nailed to the cross and OOPS, failed to rise again. Must have turned a little too much water into wine in his 20's, if you know what I mean. So big deal! God's god, right? Screw another virgin and bring forth 5 more sons. Why not? Seriously, why not?

Hell, maybe a daughter. Imagine how much sheep you could get for one of those! Godess, daughter of a virgin mother, only used once by your cousin Vinnie. NOW if you really want to talk about taking in all the sins of the world and come onto me... a lot more people would be going to Communion on Sunday mornings. I guarantee it.

But seriously, doesn't it feel kind of forced to claim it was God's only son? I mean it wouldn't really seem like such a big deal if he had more kids, would it? The whole punch line would fall apart without it. Greatest story ever told? Hah! Greatest plot convenience ever sold. The theological equivalent of sounds in outer space (ever try watching Star Wars with the mute button? Not as much fun!)

But imagine the prayers! "Almighty God, please bequeath onto us yet another one of your sons to die on this Glorious Day, Lord, so that the Midland Rebels may defeat their unworthy enemies and continue to the Texas State Championships, oh dear Lord God. Thus far this season, Father, you have sent 7 of your sons to die for our great football team, and we thank you, oh Lord. Thank You. Please, if there are any doves or pigeons or cats in a burlap sack that we can offer up... you know God, just saying, keep on doing what you're doing!" No wonder they thought it was best to keep this whole thing under wraps as a one time deal.

But alright, let's say there are logical theological reasons why a monotheistic god can only have one offspring. So then, how many sperm did it take for this god to impregnate the Virgin Mary? Being that he's an infallible, perfect god, then I can rightly reason that it would require no more than one solitary sperm. And since this god is perfect, he would have just the right amount of sperm for the job, no more, no less. By god, the Christian god has only had a single, solitary sperm! In all of eternity! He sacrificed his one and only sperm to save humanity! Incidentally, can you imagine having to create your own sperm? "And then God spoke, let there be a sperm, and so it was, a single sperm to save all humanity. And then God spoke, let there be an orgasm." But I digress.

So there you have it, and Bob's your uncle. I am in awe! Had I been in the possession of just a single sperm, I surely would have squandered it for the sake of a Penthouse by the time I hit 13. Sorry, humanity! No wonder Christians say that masturbation is a sin! You know, I think I'm really starting to understand this religion.

Monday, February 4, 2008

A Theory of Abstinence.

Reading ebonmuse's post, Is Sex For Procreation?, I decided to write my own post on this subject and dust off some of my old theories on this whole matter of abstinence.

I have a pet theory about why religions of all stripes love abstinence so much. This is really not based on biology or evolution because I have no background in that, but it's something I came up with because of my background in economics. So I don't have anything to link to or supportive evidence, this is all just my own little theory.

So, the theory is that abstinence could be nothing more than a means for fit males to prevent less fit males from reproducing. If unfit males can't manage the very high entrance costs of marriage, their chances of reproduction becomes lower. Abstinence, then, is more of a reproductive zero-sum game than a moral value. Let's call it a game - the rules are like this: the players all agree that not paying the cost of entry for reproduction (marriage) is cheating, not allowed, in other words it's abstinence. The game, then, is to get married in order to reproduce. And marriage is bidding war where the highest bidder gets the winnings.

There are two ways in which abstinence could work to the advantage of the most fit males. The first way is if everyone's life expectancy is low enough so that an early marriage pays off. In other words, abstinence works extremely well if the game is only played once. I can imagine that in our history, many unmarried males have died early deaths due to occupational hazards, war, starvation, and health problems. Raising the bar on what is required for a man to reproduce, then, creates an additional source of selectivity that benefits the most fit individuals - those least likely of all to succumb to hardships.

The second way it could play out is when abstinence gives a head start to the status quo. In this case, the abstinence game can be played over and over again. So, in this situation, there are two ways for a man to be fit. The first way is to already have all the required status symbols, social standing, wealth, and other resources to win on the first try. The second way is to keep accumulating those resources until the required level of fitness is met. Case in point, women tend to pair up with older men. It is no longer a zero-sum game in the long run, but in the short there is a slight nuance - every time the game is played, the most fit female is taken out of the game by the winner. The status quo always wins the day.

So that's all well and good, but what does any of this have to do with religion? If abstinence benefits the status quo and helps the most fit males find the best mates, how do the dominant males actually get the less dominant ones to voluntarily refrain from reproducing? What better way than with religion? We're all born atheists, but then some of us are taught to believe not in our own ideas, not to think for ourselves, but to accept wholesale the thoughts and desires of people other than ourselves. Abstinence and religion could very well be a match made in heaven. On a related note, saying that abstinence and marriage are moral virtues... now that's just a petty little slap in the face for the losers of this religious dating game.

At this time I want to point out that if this was all that there is to it, I'd actually be fine with that. The most fit males should probably mate with the most fit females - just don't call it a moral virtue, thank you very much. But then again, I think that the rules of the game have changed in the modern world, so much so that none of the things that I just talked about apply anymore. The religions still exist, but the rules of natural selection have changed.

So where do we stand now? I explained before how the more this game is played, the less it becomes a zero sum game, but that the status quo still tends to win every time. And in theory this would still work reasonably well so long as life expectancy isn't too long and the game isn't played too many times. That's because the status quo at any given time becomes a terribly bad way to predict the future. It may even be misleading.

As an example, think of the lifetime earnings curve for college educated versus high school educated people. Or, consider the remaining life expectancy of a 35 year old versus a 25 year old. Now consider the life expectancy of everyone going up at some number like .2 years per year. This abstinence game hinges on something very important - early marriage for women. After all, they are the commodity that men compete for. Now consider a woman marrying someone 10 years older than herself because of expectations she made by looking at the status quo. Given a woman's longer life expectancy, she could end up outliving her husband by decades. It's possible. Had she chosen a younger guy who was less fit at the time, she could have been better off. Anyway, this is just one for-instance.

The point is that the longer we live, the harder it becomes for fit men and women to enforce their dominant roles in the reproduction of our species by the traditional method of abstinence followed by marriage. It just no longer works, even if you believe in religious fairy tales. What works better is for women to deemphasize the status quo when choosing their spouses, to engage in more casual relationships that benefit from contraception, and to just wait longer to make a decision about marriage, if they get married at all. Forget abstinence.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Love Bomb Misses the Mark

This post was inspired by vjack's article on Christian Culture.

I don't know how many atheists are intimately familiar with the evangelical and cultist tactic called a love bombing. I saw an article about it on Truthdig. The article discusses overt, sinister examples of the tactic where evangelical leaders consciously direct the group members to carry this out. I think sometimes it's just a little more subtle and love bombing is far more extensive than what we give it credit for. I'd like to broaden the applicability of love bombing here because I think it gives valuable insight into a whole set of Christian behavior.

I've always been aware of many Christian behaviors that are built into and thought of as the Christian lifestyle itself. The group members themselves often aren't even meant to be aware of the reasons for their own actions. And often, the group members are so well conditioned into this lifestyle that the group can carry out sophisticated coordinated efforts even with no leader at their center. It's automatic.*

I don't think there's a single atheist who hasn't heard Christian leaders calling on their churches to go out into their cities and treat everyone in a loving, caring manner. They always stress the homeless, prostitutes, and even those "inner city" people. People who are facing crises, the weak and vulnerable. Churches then encourage their members to put together friend-making activities such as progressive dinner parties for new recruits. And smaller groups are encouraged to voluntarily go off the deep end with things such as cuddle parties or "ice breaker games" such as this. Christians are obsessed with inventing or adopting superficial friend-making activities.

Yet within minutes of talking about love, they will extol as godly and courageous the decision to cut off anyone at all who endangers the group member in even the slightest way from falling away from the group. Speakers pour their hearts out about how grief stricken they were about having had to make that tough choice between god and a parent, son, brother, girlfriend, or longtime friend. Oftentimes because they joined a new church that "rekindled" their faith. Invariably, the ostracized individual is made to seem like the one who abandoned the group members, not the other way around. And when enough time has passed and the majority of the believer's circle of friends are made up by members of the group, prayers are offered for those old ostracized lost/black sheep to "come home."

I've scratched my head in wonder many, many times at how seemingly contradictory these teachings are. I've been incredibly hurt and insulted time after time when befriending a Christian and trying to treat them as a normal friend or girlfriend. At first, it's easy to accept their affection and try to brush off or ignore their attempts to recruit me to their church. Sometimes, I might even attend their church with them, especially if they are a sweet, pretty female. Or, I will make sure to shut up and just nod my head when their friends and families talk about the importance of being Christian.

But invariably, it's a worthless endeavor. After some sufficient amount of attempts to convert you to their religion, the Christians will switch to the second mode of behavior. They start to tear you down at every opportunity, leveraging everything that you value about that relationship to make you feel guilty and insufficient for not being Christian. Then, it's over. Usually in a fit of anger and many threats. Usually cutting off all communications completely. If this happens to be a girlfriend or someone else you've become emotionally attached to, you stand at getting pretty badly hurt.

So really, these Christian modes of behavior aren't contradictory. They have very selective contexts in which they apply. It makes sense. They coalesce into what amounts to be a love bomb tactic. Except that it's part of the very lifestyle choices that they make, not an overt recruitment strategy. And they're not even aware of what they're doing. It's quite pathetic, really. Their very lives are sabotaged, their relationships with others manipulated, all for recruitment purposes by their church. It's incredibly immoral, isn't it? And they don't even realize it. I just can't imagine how Christians can possibly be happy except by sheer ignorance.

*I would compare this to my combat training. A fundamental goal of Marine Corps tactics is to practice every maneuver so many times that each fire team, squad, and platoon can instinctively act in a highly coordinated manner even under the chaotic conditions of battle. When Christians speak of their religion being a lifestyle, it draws so many parallels for me that it's eerie. The Christian lifestyle is that training which allows the group to act in a coordinated manner even when no leadership is present.

Monday, January 21, 2008

My War

My buddy and I were told to fill 50 sandbags after we got off 6 hours of ECP duty which was after a 4 hour foot patrol through Ramadi. He was a drummer in a local hardcore band back home. We both hated Bush. We figured we were the only ones. We thought we'd be sly and play My War. But the CO came outside and asked us to turn it UP a little - Black Flag was one of her favorite bands, apparently. If you think you know the Marine Corps, chances are, you don't. That was the lesson of the day.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

About This Blog

Warning: this is an atheist blog.

I can't say I'm sure what this blog will turn into over the long run, but the idea behind it is basically to save my fellow bloggers from having to host some of my extensive writing in the comment sections of their blogs. I figured... why not keep my comments short, write a longer reaction to their posts here, and make the world a happier place?

Hopefully over time it will turn into something more cohesive than just a random collection of rants, some of which may only be tangentially related to atheism. But if not, I make no apologies in advance. There's always the "delete this blog" button...