28 April 2008

An Unbelieving Life, Part 2: The Temptation

I realize that in the first half of this post, I committed what may be a grave mistake. Many religious people stereotype atheists as "angry against God", and certainly I was a very angry person as a child. However, my atheism is mostly as a result of an excellent education which involved a great deal of training in critical thinking; also, the fact that both my parents are very nebulously deistic and did not steep me for very long in any religious tradition. I am certainly angry about unreason, and bigotry, and I resent conservative Christian dogma because it turned my uncle into a monster, my ex-boyfriend into an unloving automaton, and my father into an angry, bitter old man. I have no such sentiments toward Judaism, however, and I even admire some belief systems such as Buddhism or Jainism.

With that being said, allow me to move on to the rest of the story.


I am in awe of the myth of Christ's sacrifice.

Yes, you heard me correctly. The idea that some special person in the long-distant past laid down his priceless life out of unconditional love for all humanity makes my spine tingle and my eyes fill with tears of awe and grief. When I was twenty-one, a useless college dropout with no job and seemingly no future, I turned to Christ in desperation because I couldn't stand feeling so bad anymore. What I found wasn't God's love for me, though; it was my own love, for myself and for the world in which I have the great fortune to exist. From the day I awoke from my god-soaked stupor and realized the true nature of my epiphany, I swore that I would dedicate my life to love and harmlessness.

I also developed a great tolerance for Christians. I finally understood what the big deal was, and I admired them for opening their hearts to unconditional love and acceptance of their brethren. Alas, if only it were true! The day that a group of my Christian coworkers gathered near my desk and began slandering homosexuals and unbelievers, I felt the fires of anger stir again in my mind. This was a different anger, though, one that blamed the ideas and not the people espousing them. Now, I am teaching myself to win arguments with Christians, to show them the hypocrisy of the dogma they are taught by their preachers and hopefully to lead them to a kinder, gentler, more informed practice of their beliefs. Like PZ Myers said in Expelled - I don't want to take away anyone's faith. I just don't want to see it ruining their lives and their minds.

Arguments against ID from a theologian

This article, by a Princeton theology graduate student, makes some pretty compelling arguments from within the Christian framework for why Christians should reject creationism and Intelligent Design. I am extremely pleased to be given the opportunity to learn about some more theology that suggests that Christianity and naturalism should coexist peacefully. Bravo, Mr. Congdon, for your well-informed, humane essay.


If they [non-Christians] find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well, and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? ...For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.

- St. Augustine

26 April 2008

Richard Dawkins, a rottweiler? You've got to be kidding me!

I have been watching a lot of Richard Dawkins on YouTube recently. Now, when I mentally contrast the allegations I hear about Dawkins being a firebrand, a furious mob-riler, intellectually lazy, and just plain ol' RONG, I have to laugh.

Dawkins listens patiently while brainless godbots drone on without sense or organization to their thoughts, and usually lets them finish before responding. He never uses hateful language against his opponents, and never raises his voice when arguing (even when he really should, because the other person is shouting him down!) I have heard him say "fuck", but only when quoting someone else. The man speaks in paragraphs. I occasionally find some view he espouses slightly annoying, but that's because I think I'm rather more tolerant of wishy-washy feel-good religion than he is. His logic is always impeccable; he is concerned first and foremost with equality, and justice, and mutual intelligibility.

The man is the very picture of British reserve, civility, and articulation, in short. Contrast him with Hitchens or Harris if you want to see what anger and true impatience with religion really look like.

Why you can't invite a fundamentalist to a roundtable

I just watched a clip on YouTube of a "rational" "discussion" between an atheist, a minister, and a politically liberal talk show host which aired on CNN. It was in response to an earlier segment discussing atheists in which no actual atheists were involved. No respectable media outlet would consider airing a discussion of marine biology without including marine biologists, so why make an exception for unbelievers? Fortunately, there was enough of a backlash that CNN went back and made amends.

The two things that stood out most in the debate were these: one, that I really want to start listening to The Rachel Maddow Show, and two, that the minister was an absolute boor. He interrupted the others repeatedly, blathered on and wasted precious seconds in an already too-short opportunity to have an honest conversation, wandered off the subject at hand, and generally displayed that complete lack of organized thinking that is so often characteristic of extremists. By the end of the segment, the other two were pleading with him to shut up long enough to let them finish a sentence, and I was shouting angrily at my monitor.

The format also frustrated me. Of an eight-minute segment, three minutes was spent interviewing Richard Dawkins (which was nice, but the theme was Atheists in America), and five were spent on this lousy excuse for a conversation. Five minutes! I felt like I was watching a speeded-up tape as everyone yammered out their thoughts as fast as they possibly could, in order to pack even the least smidgen of useful information into what little time there was. Does the corporate media really have such disdain for the American attention span?

Video is provided for your morbid curiosity.

04 February 2008

An Unbelieving Life, Part 1

I was born to secular parents. My father is a deconverted Baptist, and my mother a deconverted Jew. While they did expose me to Christianity and Judaism - the latter more than the former, since my father's religious upbringing was extremely dysfunctional - it was more in the interest of acculturation than imposing belief.

When I was thirteen, my parents left me in the care of my father's brother while they traveled on business. Seeing his chance to save my soul, my uncle forced me to watch creationism videos, lectured me on the Bible for five or six hours at a sitting, denied me food when I was hungry, and forced me to attend church services, including a Jews for Jesus sermon where he took me to see the pastor afterward. When I told that pastor that I was withholding judgement until I was older and knew more, he told me that delaying my decision was like knowing that I had cancer and withholding chemotherapy because I didn't want to be cured until I was 18.

When I told my parents what was going on, they cut their trip short, catching the earliest flight that they could buy tickets for. I have never forgotten watching my father lift his own brother up by the shirt collar and throw him out the door onto our front lawn. Needless to say, for many years afterward I was very biased against Christianity in all forms, and still am to a certain extent even now. (Living in a heavily Christian, anti-atheist country really doesn't help.)

When I was 17, I met my first real atheist while working in a summer internship in meteorology. I loved her American Atheist pendant, her belligerence in facing off against woolly-headed theist forum-goers, her zeal for science and reason and secularism. She provided a touchstone for my nebulous adolescent rage, teaching me to channel it into battling the forces of ignorance. That summer was the happiest of my high school life, because of the fellowship I found.

Formative experiences aside, I never had a particularly strong interest in or desire for theistic belief. I contend that, even if my experiences had not been so polarized, I would have ended up the same - tolerant and open-minded, but an unbeliever nonetheless.


Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word meaning "non-injury" or "harmlessness". As one of the yogic niyamas or prohibitions, it specifically denotes harmlessness to other sentient beings in thought and deed.

It seems evident to me, both from personal experience and from reading the research of others, that sentience is not a quality limited to human beings alone. My cats are thinking, feeling creatures; so are the cows, pigs, chickens, and sheep that the farming industry treats as machines and economic units. Furthermore, the provenance of the natural processes that they go through in living out their lives naturally belong to them, and not to me; I would not drink the milk of a human mother, because that milk is intended for her baby. So it is with a cow and her calf, or a goat and her kid, or a sheep and her lamb. I have no revulsion at the idea of eating the unfertilized eggs of chickens, but the idea of keeping a chicken for the purpose of having an egg machine repels me, and I refuse to support it.

The practice of biology and medicine is also affected by extending sentience beyond humans. It renders medical testing on animals absolutely unconscionable. Acknowledging sentience in other species does not prohibit testing using computerized simulations, or tissue cultures, or human beings who are capable of consenting because they understand the risks. Acknowledging sentience makes the mass killing of fish, turtles, frogs, rats, pigs, cats, and others for the purpose of dissection into mass murder, but does not prohibit the sourcing of animal cadavers from those that have died naturally.

None of this means that animals are above humans, or equal to humans. No one species is equal to another, since they all serve different purposes in their environments. An animal does not hold property rights the same way that a human does, but in our incredible talent for abstraction, we can assign an animal a right to a habitat that is diverse in the resources with which it evolved. We can also extend definitions of consent and custody to our fellow beings, inasmuch as it is reasonable to do so.

I am convinced that all humans have in them the capacity to understand sentience the way that I do. I am also convinced that many humans deny this capacity with great energy, because they fear the loss of those things to which they are accustomed to having as a result of the exploitation of other sentient beings. I understand that fear, having lived with it for the first 21 years of my life, and recognize that I am unusual in having renounced it. I do not expect others to change their behavior based on what I do or say, as nice as it would be if they did. This does not mean that I am silent, nor does it mean that I never become angry or impassioned when I see injustice being done. I am harmless, but I am not voiceless or toothless.

Why this? Why now?

What a person does in life influences the way they see the world. A person who works for the increase of reason becomes a better thinker; a person who works for compassion becomes more compassionate.

With that in mind, I present this blog. I hope it will help me become a better writer, and understand better what exactly I think and know about life.