Posts Tagged ‘religion’

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.

add to del.icio.us :: Add to Blinkslist :: add to furl :: Digg it :: add to ma.gnolia :: Stumble It! :: add to simpy :: seed the vine :: :: :: TailRank :: post to facebook<

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.

add to del.icio.us :: Add to Blinkslist :: add to furl :: Digg it :: add to ma.gnolia :: Stumble It! :: add to simpy :: seed the vine :: :: :: TailRank :: post to facebook

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.

add to del.icio.us :: Add to Blinkslist :: add to furl :: Digg it :: add to ma.gnolia :: Stumble It! :: add to simpy :: seed the vine :: :: :: TailRank :: post to facebook

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.

add to del.icio.us :: Add to Blinkslist :: add to furl :: Digg it :: add to ma.gnolia :: Stumble It! :: add to simpy :: seed the vine :: :: :: TailRank :: post to facebook

Atheist Babies

I have no intention of blogging about my kids as if the whole world appreciates their antics. Like the time my two year locked herself in the bathroom and proceeded to…oops, almost got carried away in the world of baby blogging.

However, I would like to discuss the idea of raising children in the absence of religion, and even more specifically as Atheists. Why wouldn’t Atheists raise Atheists? Just like Christians certainly wouldn’t go out of their way to raise Muslim children or Jews to raise Christian children. I reiterate to my kids often that when they are old enough to make their own decisions, I will respect whatever they choose in terms of belief systems. Just so we’re clear, I respect thoughtfully made decisions, even if I think they are wrong. And by respect, I mean I will refrain from personal attacks or derision to your face or behind your back.

I am met with great shock or quiet amazement when I tell others that all children are Atheists. Yes, by definition ALL children ARE Atheists. Age parameters may vary here depending on your child’s critical thinking skills. The definition of Atheism is cited in many places as a strict denial of god, but really it is just an absence of belief in a god. Some Atheists may be staunch in their denial and some may simply not believe. The commitment to Atheism runs a vast spectrum. 

What young child really has the ability to BELIEVE in a god? I mean believe in a way they don’t believe in fairies and Cinderella. They may pray on their knees at bed time, but children are great imitators and prone to do what gets them praise. You can baptize an infant at birth but they still won’t believe in anything other than their milk, and will be in the club with Atheists, at least for a while.

As an Atheist parent, I am often faced with explaining religion and belief. As I have experiences through my children’s eyes, eyes without filters, religion encroaches on my life more frequently. I have created personal filters for when god is mentioned on television, when a friend innocently says “Thank God for that!” or “What a blessing” or even “God Bless You” when I sneeze. When the news speaks of religious wars I can analyze these things. When adult friends speak of going to church I certainly don’t feel left out, like my children may when their friends spend Sunday mornings in this elusive place called church.

How do we explain to children what we really think, without telling them what to think?  Just as being a Visible Atheist is important for society and all of us non-believers, it is important for us to be visible to our children. To help them learn to think about the world as confusing messages assault them left and right. 

Even I was so well programmed in religion as a child that I often feel guilty and blasphemous when I explain the concept of religion to my children – equating fairy tales and diverse cultural beliefs to that of the trinity. I can’t help but feel a slight sting when my 6yr old says “but people in church are wrong, god is not real” and “when I grow up I will choose no god”.  I think the sting comes from the idea of tacitly holding a view that is programmed, like I once did with Christianity. While I smile at my words in her cute little voice, I will feel truly proud when she comes to these thoughts because her mind is ready to understand. 

I once was trying to explain my position on raising Atheist children to my dear sister, who is a devout Christian. My then 4yr old daughter told her that she didn’t believe in god. My sister cried. This was the very worst thing she could imagine. For these small children to already have written off a life she thought led to salvation seemed to her a tragedy. I understood the passion and sadness in her heart, since I had once believed and feared for the soul of my mother (who did happen to be Christian, just not very good at it).  At the time my sister told me that she thought I should raise them with an access to a belief in god. I don’t think she was able to see how impossible this would be for me. I would no more be able to do that than raise my children as shoplifters or reality TV personalities. I just think its wrong.

This past Christmas my oldest child started putting logical thoughts together. I often use stories from the bible to illustrate how similar fairy tales and christianity really are. Like Noah and the Ark or Jonah and the Whale, Adam and Eve, etc. They just adore these stories, by the way. She asked me how it could be that Santa and the Tooth Fairy are real but god is not. It threw me for a loop because I adore the magic that Christmas and fairies are for my children, but I was also very proud of her and will have to tell her how she has unlocked the magic box with her clever mind.

I know all parents are probably a little saddened by this passage in childhood – when magic is slightly less sparkly and common sense starts to prevail – but I have to admit I blame religion a little bit for taking one more thing from me while children of Christians can equate seasonal fantasy with the rational behind fairy dust for a bit longer.
add to del.icio.us :: Add to Blinkslist :: add to furl :: Digg it :: add to ma.gnolia :: Stumble It! :: add to simpy :: seed the vine :: :: :: TailRank :: post to facebook

Making Atheism Visible

The dialogue around Atheism hasn’t quite tapped into what goes on in my life experience. I am an Atheist. A deconverted Atheist, meaning I once lived a very religious life, with beliefs and convictions that matched.  I am a fan of living the “examined life” and like many Atheists I am pretty convinced that I have managed to navigate a minefield of institutionalized superstition that has most people completely duped.  However, now that I am living the life of an Everyday Atheist I find that I want to make my Atheism something positive. I want to raise my children as happy Atheists who’s thoughtful approach to life brings them true happiness and success.

Much of the discourse on Atheism seems to take a couple different tones: 1) Self-righteous and vindicated in the fact that we know the facts and that others are trapped in fairyland or 2) Quiet and capitulating to the more powerful majority. I don’t think either of these approaches is helpful to the Atheist cause (if there is one).

The self-righteous, often caustic approach is great when your preaching to the choir. I enjoy a good humorous jab at religion and pointing out the ludicrousy of it all. I enjoy being in company where the Atheist dialogue makes me roll with the laughter that only those in the “club” could appreciate. And I am the first to admit that I love living in the San Francisco Bay Area because I love the thinking, liberal bubble I can operate within.  

However, if I am looking for new thoughts or hope to make a decent argument to believers, this approach loses its utility. I am looking for a new dialogue about the experience of being Atheist, not just about the validity of Atheism.  I am looking for visibility, recognition, public office (not for me but for the like-minded), a place of inclusion for my children, and to encourage others to think before they follow like cattle.  

And I looking to help change the second tone of the Atheist dialogue, because the quiet, change -the-conversation, pretend-its-not-important approach to NOT talking about Atheism has got to go down into the distant past, fast. 

So, I begin this blog with the minimum goal of articulating my experience as an Atheist, through all the many complexities as it relates to society, the world, politics, economy, family, etc. But really I write with the not-so-humble goal of destimigtizing thoughtful nonbelievers and making us more visible in politics, family, society, community and the world.