Posts Tagged ‘discussions’

Is Evolution To Blame For Our Denial?

A recent Newsweek article (March 29, 2010), Their Own Worst Enemies proposes that there is something “peculiarly American about the rejection of science.”  The article tells us what we probably already know: Americans seem to embrace or “believe in” scientific ideas less than other developed countries. In particular, a recent Gallup poll found that we are 33rd out of 34 countries in the percentage of our people who accept that species have evolved.

The title of the article references the scientists who are “lousy communicators.” They bring the message of the truth and expect that it will be absorbed, but take little responsibility for its acceptance. Lets say this really was a problem – as if finding fossils and genes, etc. were not enough of a job. Do European and Japanese scientists take courses in marketing and communication? Why are we so resistant?

I have lived in this country all of my life. I have lived in Amish country, Chocolate Country, Citrus Country, Mountain Country and Tree-Hugging Country. So perhaps I should be more desensitized to the lack of interest and education about the most basic workings of our universe. But I continue to be dumbfounded when people cling to the rejection of concepts proven by objective science.

I don’t think that all these people flat out reject the science either. The reality is even worse than this. A fair number of people just do not care. They do not look for the information and when faced with what could be illuminating discoveries and analysis, their eyes glaze over.

Since I really need an explanation – a scientific explanation – for the mass denial in my country, I suggest that its just evolution.

Yes, that would be perfect symmetry!

We are a young country. As Newsweek points out, the first White Americans came from ancestors trying to buck the system only a couple hundred years ago. They didn’t take well to those in charge in England and maybe shrugging off scientific authority is part of our makeup.  Of course, not all of us are descendants of those who came off the first boats. Many of us came from much later “boats” and shouldn’t be beholden to any reasoning that blames our current ignorance on the old White people in wigs with accents.  

However, as I play out this theory for argument’s sake, the people with authority who have ruled our institutions and built our media, are generally made from the same bones as those who were bold and arrogant enough to leave the royal hierarchy in search of  “religious freedom,” only to kill off the natives because they didn’t fit with their own ideas of what was “right” and “civilized.”  These same descendants (though not exclusively)  tend to be arrogant enough to claim expert on topics through the Bible.  It is put forth in the same Newsweek article that our current lack of enlightenment is a symptom of the Reformation – the idea that everyone can have direct access to the Divine. Everyone can know The Truth through the Bible (or google and Wikipedia) – why bother with complicated topics like archeology, biology and chemistry?

Perhaps the current state of our public interest and education around science, not to mention outright obtuse denial, is just part of societal evolution, if not genetic mutation.  In terms of our species a few hundred years barely allows for hair color to change in a family. We have time to redeem ourselves if our genetic stock has left us disadvantaged.

Maybe, given a few hundred more years we will be open to new discoveries by people who are smarter than us. My guess is that we will also legalize pot and Gay marriage, while banning guns, after we’ve had a little more time to evolve.

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Should God Get Into College?

The article “Harvard’s Crisis of Faith” in the latest issue of NEWSWEEK outlined a recent debate at Harvard University about the validity of teaching religion within higher education. Apparently there is no defined religious studies department at Harvard and there has never been a religious studies requirement either. Compared to their peers, they are the lone hold-out in creating a department dedicated to the study of religion and seem to have a problem with retaining faculty due to lack of esteem.

The basic line of reasoning for requiring a class within a “Reason and Faith” category is in acknowledging the  role that belief plays in our world as a whole. How can Harvard, or any institution of higher education, goes the argument, claim to prepare students for contributing to our global society without an understanding of religion as a part of the “human story?” The pro-side suggests that for better or worse “religion matters.”  This sounds reasonable. 

On the other hand, should we give space to belief and religion when there is no proof, evidence or basis for reason? Shouldn’t religion be reserved for schools of divinity, whose focus and impact is expected and limitedly regarded?   Shouldn’t rigorous evaluation and critical thinking be requirements of getting a degree? The  circular reasoning of faith hardly passes this test.

One of the main protagonists in the debate, Steven Pinker, is a professor at Harvard and author of The Blank Slate. He succinctly points out that

 “Reason and Faith are not yin and yang. Faith is a phenomenon. Reason is what the university should be in the business of fostering.”

 The angry, sick-of-facing-well-educated-people-who-don’t-“believe in evolution” side of me agrees that the sooner we stop diluting education with religion, the better off we all will be. We shouldn’t “respect” belief on college campuses to the extent that people can leave with a degree but without a knowledge of how their belief contradicts reality (like dinosaurs and the age of the Earth!!).

 **An example of this strange dissonance was illustrated to me when a good friend of mine  – who happens to be Muslim, a law student and a graduate of the public equivalent to an Ivy League school- argued that the idea of evolution was a ruse specifically designed against Islam. Yet, she admitted that she couldn’t explain a single tenant of evolution.

 The rational side of me agrees that by knowing what you DON’T believe in you are better equipped to make sense of the world and the diversity that shapes many of our societal challenges. For instance, I think I am more empathetic and better equipped to understand the majority culture of believers in America because I was once part of the their club. Belief can be very dangerous and everyone needs to develop literacy about the major, and not so major, world religions and the hold that they can have on human nature.

 I don’t believe that religion should be silently ignored OR openly disdained like a big sweaty elephant on college campuses.  I just don’t think we need to give GOD any more space than we would give one found in Greek mythology – he/it/she should stay within the context of culture, art, literature, politics, geography, philosophy etc, and not take up a whole building on campus.

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A Mission of Deconversion – True Altruism

History is overflowing with stories about the religious or ‘saved’ trying to convert heathens to belief in a god. Many believers feel they are ‘called’ to the task of converting people who would otherwise be damned to Hell without their intervention, all while securing their own spot in Heaven. The selfish nature of these “altruistic” missions has always seemed ironic to me.

But what about a movement to deconvert the faithful? Should this be OUR calling? Should we care about the millions of people who are squandering their only opportunity for happiness, this one life, on prescriptive fairytales and voodoo? Should we be working hard, as many New Atheists believe, to put an end to religion for the good of humanity? This would be true altruism!

 While we all hope that logic will prevail and the world will be a safer place without religion, do any of us actually expect to change the minds of believers? We haven’t a hope of convincing someone to give up their god if they aren’t already questioning and flirting with apostasy. Deconverting from a belief in god requires not only embracing truth, but abandoning faith. And faith is wrapped up with promises, community and a false sense of security. It doesn’t matter how water-proof and logical the arguments are for non-belief because Faith is the antidote for logic.

It is shocking to me the number of times that otherwise seemingly intelligent people have informed me that evolution is just my “opinion”, or that they can’t ‘believe in’ dinosaurs because they aren’t in the scriptures.  These denials of unbiased, scientific facts are exhausting because they remind me of the futility of reason in this debate.  

Is there a line of reasoning or argument that would help people who are happy in their belief and who have faith up the yin yang question their religion? I appreciate the resources available for those who are doubting or looking for community – books, videos, journals, comedy, etc. But beyond those of us Atheists who have already joined the club, who else is listening? Who is being convinced? 

I don’t think that deconversion can be coerced. We can’t offer promises that can compete with those offered by religion, at least not initially. While every deconverted Atheist I have ever met admits to being much happier without belief numbing their lives, these personal testimonies just don’t seem persuasive enough on their own.

Perhaps if Atheists could come up with the massive funding of religious organizations we could sponsor young skeptics to travel to the far ends of the Earth on a mission of deconversion. As an organized and well-funded group we could help to deconvert those who need it the most – those communities already touched by the mind-altering drug of ‘faith’. However, without the bait and impetus of salvation we probably wouldn’t get further than the corner pub.

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Who’s The Better Atheist?

 Lately my husband and I have debated about which of us is a better Atheist.

He is from a country where religion is less central to society and there is little pressure to have any belief. Many people there probably walk around their whole lives without ever having to think about or discuss their beliefs concerning a deity. He has always been an Atheist, although he never felt the need to label himself until coming to America, where the assumption of belief is part of the dominant culture. 

I however, am deconverted from a devout belief in god. I also grew up in rather conservative parts of America.

We often discuss the extent that religion is institutionalized in American society. The differences in our previous programming are evident. He doesn’t fully appreciate how most Americans view non-belief. He is proud of our non-belief and does not hide in any closet. He sees it as the most normal thing in the world.  On the other hand, I, the VisibleAtheist, am more cautious.

Visible is a notion I aspire to, not one that I have accomplished. I walk more gently when I am on “hallowed” ground. I know that some people WILL be uncomfortable if I inject the ‘A’ word into a conversation. And sometimes, I just need to get some work done, need to advocate for my child in a delicate situation or don’t feel like watching others squirm when I am trying to make friends. He is perplexed by my relative timidity in such situations.

I also have a profound respect for the few positive roles that religion plays in culture. I don’t know whether this sympathy is rooted in my personality or my religious past. Maybe it comes from a bit of both. However, my husband is more in line with the New Atheists in that he believes all religion is harmful, even in the context of culture. Perhaps this is part of his personality or comes from never being part of the “The Fold”.  Perhaps it’s a bit of both for him too.

On The A-Unicornist a fellow blogger referred to “Cultural Atheists.”  Adding this term to my lexicon gave me a framework for deconstructing our tension on the issue.  The definition of a Cultural Atheist according to The A-Unicornist is a person:

“who hails from a place where there is far less (if any) sociocultural pressure to accept supernatural magic as infallible truth. Thus, they tend to treat theistic claims about reality the same way they treat any other claim about reality – as claims whose credibility is contingent upon evidence

It reminds me of the different ways that Atheists often incorporate or claim Atheism as part of their identity. In my research I found that those who deconverted generally held their atheism very dear, were sensitive to societal exclusions and defended non-belief with passion. Anecdotally, I find that those who have always been Atheist are less connected to their non-belief as a part of their identity.  In short, I am more sensitive to just about anything having to do with religion and he is much more matter of fact in his knowledge that this is the way and the truth.

When we got married almost a decade ago I expected some cultural adjustments for each of us, but I never expected we would argue about who was a better Atheist. I guess it could be worse.


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Death Of An Afterlife

One of the greatest lures of religion is the ability to achieve the magical – an afterlife.  As a species we have imagined our superiority to include a fate beyond what the rest of the animal kingdom faces. Many people would be paralyzed if they did not get to believe in their version of eternity, instead of having to face the banal finality of death.

 For those who have deconverted from believing in a personal god, the death of an afterlife is a right of passage. Whether it is mourned like the loss of a close friend or celebrated like the death of a villain in the theatre, there is no denying it has a place in the process. Some find release and some struggle with losing the compelling picture of an afterlife constructed during belief.

I have been encouraged to believe in god, simply on the possibility of an afterlife.  The “What if you are wrong? Are you willing to take that risk?” argument makes me sigh with futility, although there was a time when I gave it some space.

During my deconversion I suffered a protracted phase of denial simply because I didn’t want to risk being wrong. In the end, I argued (with myself) that denying the giant tsunami-size force of logic in my own head was not going to fool the Christian god anyway – as he was all-knowing. I might as well stop fighting it. I was using a lot of energy trying NOT to THINK so that I could still “believe” in god and an afterlife.

* I’ve heard statements from deconverts who feel wonderfully liberated from the idea of eternity. The pressures to perform in order to get into heaven are heavy, and the consequences of not getting the formula right (fire, brimstone and gnashing of teeth) can be terrifying. And every religion has a different prescription to get there – some include arbitrary tasks like baptism, confession, saying a prayer correctly or joining just the right denomination.

* Others tell me that life is richer now that they can focus on this life and stop delaying gratification to some unknown eternity.

* And still others tell me they are relieved that there is no eternity because it’s just to long anyway!

Personally, when I look at my children, I still miss the comfort of thinking something could be there when we die. Just being honest here.  But yes, I also know that we have all gained much more in non-belief.

My mourning of an afterlife may have been born of my religious past. In my family we went through various Christian religions including: fundamentalism, Jehovah’s Witness and Catholicism. These traditions offer very vivid descriptions of what awaits you after death. They are not metaphoric either. People who practice these faiths really believe that streets will be gold, there will be gates to heaven, a big book with your name, etc. And Hell really does resemble Dante’s Inferno. It’s very important to be on “god’s side” if you want to enjoy true happiness. To my child-self, this was more than I could process, and like any foolish excess it left a big hangover. 

In my research study, the participants widely suggested that losing the afterlife was a point of discomfort and contributed to their want to “make religion fit”. But like myself, they got over it eventually and moved  on to the things we can control about life. I haven’t met an Atheist yet who is not happier without religion, despite or because of the death of an afterlife.

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Flailing About – Atheist Parenthood in A Time of God and War

As I am driving my kids to school today my 6yr old asks me the simple question about whether airplanes have guns. Of course, I leave nothing unexplained in my household and it never ceases to get me in trouble. This simple question leads to war planes, which may seem fair, then to Iraq and Afghanistan.  

Then my older daughter gets afraid that war could happen in the US.  She wants to confirm that war can’t happen here because “California is the best place”. Not wanting to promote blind  nationalism (or state-ism), I don’t feel ok letting this go. I get myself in deeper as I explain that “we are such a strong country and people don’t usually mess with us on our own turf”. The topics are  getting very jumbled up here and I am swerving in and out of traffic aware that I am confusing their minds even more and still feeling like I have an important opportunity to make an impression here. Of what, I don’t know.

And as I am giving a Kindergarten explanation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan I find myself spouting rationale that is way to conservative (think how Bush used to explain things, as if to a two year old…) and my sensibilities won’t allow me to leave them with this either. So I get into the whole Twin Tower disaster and try to explain what happened afterwards which led us into a war that Mama and Daddy didn’t agree with. I mentioned Muslim extremists here and of course their eyes really glazed over.

So, my sweet 7 yr old asks why anyone has to go to war. With my limited capacity to recall  history I think of a few recent examples. l tell them that with so many people believing in god in so many different ways, people often get upset and even go to war. I use the examples of Christians, Muslims and Jews, who all believe in the same god differently.

A lightbulb turns on for me and I seize on the point that I am going to try to salvage out of the past 25 minutes. I point out, “Isn’t it silly to go to war over god, something that isn’t even real?”  Such a good point but apparently a miss. The next thing I know they are saying so and so “doesn’t look Muslim, they are nice” and “I know a boy who believes in god, but no way is he a Christian!” 

Ah geez, now we are running late for the bell, climbing out of the car with our multitude of bags, jackets and lunches, and I have my kid thinking that a girl  in her class is a bad person because she wears a head scarf. So, I kiss them on the cheek and I try to sum it all up:

Just remember that lots of people believe in god – most of them are nice, even if they are wrong.  I point out a few of their favorite people who happen to be Muslim or Christian and watch as their eyes turn into saucers. No Way!! The bell rings and I send them on their way.

 Now, I am reminded that well-intentioned people always make things worse with their big mouths (think Harry Reid).  I have some back pedaling to do over dinner tonight. Next time perhaps I will take a page from my husband’s approach around topics like family dysfunction and pedophiles and just say, you don’t need to know about this yet…But probably not.

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