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Category: atheism (page 2 of 17)


Regular readers will notice a lull in the frequency of posting here on Good Reason. Part of that is that I got a new job that’s keeping me busy, but then I have been busy before. And lately I’ve felt like I’m running out of things to say. But it’s not really that.

Something’s been paining me about Movement Atheism. Elevatorgate was an uncomfortable wake-up call, but I managed to hit snooze. The recent TAM difficulty renewed my discomfort. In both cases, a female atheist blogger expressed perfectly reasonable discomfort with unwanted sexual attention, and was met with rape threats (from the most unhinged) or self-serving counter-arguments (from a lot of atheist guys). The casual and not-so-casual sexism of atheist guys really bugged me. Weren’t we progressive thinkers? Why was this going so wrong? And then Thunderf00t’s actions on Freethought Blogs gave me a rising sense that something bad was happening to my movement. This made it easy not to blog. I was busy, after all. I had other things to do. And it hurt to watch, so I turned away. In the words of Leonard Cohen, I ached in the places where I used to play.

So I was encouraged by this blog post by Jen McCreight.

I don’t want good causes like secularism and skepticism to die because they’re infested with people who see issues of equality as mission drift. I want Deep Rifts. I want to be able to truthfully say that I feel safe in this movement. I want the misogynists, racists, homophobes, transphobes, and downright trolls out of the movement for the same reason I wouldn’t invite them over for dinner or to play Mario Kart: because they’re not good people. We throw up billboards claiming we’re Good Without God, but how are we proving that as a movement? Litter clean-ups and blood drives can only say so much when you’re simultaneously threatening your fellow activists with rape and death.

It’s time for a new wave of atheism, just like there were different waves of feminism. I’d argue that it’s already happened before. The “first wave” of atheism were the traditional philosophers, freethinkers, and academics. Then came the second wave of “New Atheists” like Dawkins and Hitchens, whose trademark was their unabashed public criticism of religion. Now it’s time for a third wave – a wave that isn’t just a bunch of “middle-class, white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied men” patting themselves on the back for debunking homeopathy for the 983258th time or thinking up yet another great zinger to use against Young Earth Creationists. It’s time for a wave that cares about how religion affects everyone and that applies skepticism to everything, including social issues like sexism, racism, politics, poverty, and crime. We can criticize religion and irrational thinking just as unabashedly and just as publicly, but we need to stop exempting ourselves from that criticism.

Ah, the Second Wave. Remember that? Coming out as an New Atheist, and not afraid to say it. Heady days. And remember how we used to feel like we were on solid ground when we said that ‘atheism is nothing more than a lack of belief in gods’? Except when you looked around at other atheists, that wasn’t really true. We really did have other things in common besides just our lack of belief. We were attracted to a constellation of issues, including skepticism, secularism, science, political progressivism, and (pretty uniformly) equality for LGBT people.

I see this third wave — or as a commenter on Jen’s thread dubbed it, A+ — as a simple way of acknowledging that atheism can incorporate positive values, including social justice and gender equality. It can go beyond what I call ‘mere atheism’ and reflect the values that atheism draws us toward, but does not necessarily encompass.

An example of how this works: How do we get from atheism to respect for LGBT people? Many times I’ve seen atheists complain about LGBT posts on Reddit: “How did this get here? What does this have to do with atheism?” Well, not much to do with ‘mere atheism’, but a lot to do with actual atheism. It may be partly “the enemy of my enemy” thinking; religions have had gay people oppressed and killed, we don’t accept the right of religions to do this; ergo, we oppose it. And just as Richard Dawkins’ use of the ‘coming out’ metaphor has been apt in the case of atheists, we feel like our lack of societal acceptance and even ostracism from our families helps us make common cause with LGBT people, who endure much of the same.

So how do we get from atheism to acceptance of women as equals, deserving of respect? I see a clear line from skepticism to feminism. To be a skeptic is to constantly remind yourself that you may be wrong, that you need to keep revising your accepted beliefs, and there’s always more that you could be a little more skeptical about. Well, I’ve realised that I can do better at challenging my attitudes about sexism. Oh, but I don’t consider myself a sexist person, right? Maybe sexists never do. And if I’m truly not a sexist — if I’ve incorporated that value so thoroughly into my thoughts and actions — then why not say so?

So I’m saying so. I’m stepping beyond ‘mere atheism’ and reaching out for that third wave: A+. In some ways, it’s quite natural to do so, and in other ways, I can tell I’m going to have to do a lot of listening, thinking, and updating. But as a skeptical atheist, I can do that.

“Is Life Meaningless?” What’s behind the question?

I was in a debate with Ben Rae of the UWA Christian Union this week, and the topic was “Is Life Meaningless?”

I’ll have a bit to say about this, and I think there may even be video (though I hope not — I have a condition that makes me curl into a ball of pain when seeing myself on film). But I wanted to post an idea that occurred to me as I was passing the staircase.

The way the event went down, there was a lot of Ben saying that life was meaningless without Jesus, and a lot of me saying that, no, life had meaning, atheists have the ability to create meaning in life, and that even Christians have to construct it.

But why would a Christian want to assert that life is meaningless without a god? In a word: marketing. You have to sell the problem before you can sell the solution, and what we saw was Ben selling a lot of problem. There’s really nothing that a religion can offer someone who’s happy and well-adjusted. They do awfully well with miserable people, though.

It would make sense, then, for religions to try to increase human misery in an effort to sell their system, which in fact, they do. It could be considered their chief enterprise.

Australia 2011 Census data: ‘No religion’ makes big gains

Data for the 2011 Australian census is out. I mentioned in a previous post that if ‘no religion’ went higher than 20%, I’d be ecstatic. Well, ecstatic I am, because we’re at 22.3 percent, up from 18.7.

Here’s the graph. Notice the red line, which is the trendline for the data for 1971–2006. The data for 2011 is way above this projection.

This places the “no religion” category in second place among religions (if it were one). It’s the only major group to post gains as a percentage of the population.

As to numbers:
2006: 3,706,553 people answered “No religion”, or 18.7%.
2011: 4,796,787 people answered “No religion”, or 22.3%.
For perspective, this means we have more people than the Uniting Church, Presbyterians, Eastern Orthodox, Baptists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Buddhism, Muslims, Hindus, and Jews combined.
That’s over 1 million people who either dumped their religion since the last census, or came out as ‘No religion’ for the first time. So if it seems like small potatoes that we only got a 3.6% gain over the whole population, just remember that we’ve had a 29% increase in our numbers. We gained more than the entire population of the Uniting Church, in just the last five years.
The ‘No religion’ group does not include people who did not answer the religion question. This latter group has shrunk since 2006, so we’re likely pulling some people from there. I’ll bet the AFA’s “No Religion” campaign had some influence on this.
What does this mean for us atheists? Well, we have to be careful about these numbers — people who put down ‘no religion’ may not be atheists. There may be a sizeable proportion of ‘spiritual but not religious’ people in that figure. We don’t have (or I couldn’t find) specific breakdowns for ‘Atheist’ or ‘Agnostic’ categories. I’ll be looking forward to those (as well as smaller Christian categories like ‘Mormon’ or ‘Jehovah’s Witness’).
But this does mean that one in five of us has no religion, and it’s getting close to one in four. Doubtless some of those are newly deconverted, and they’re going to need support. If you’re one of the ‘old guard’ who’s been an atheist for a while now, get involved and get with a group or start your own, whether online or IRL.
It’s taken a while to get here, and it’s going to take a while longer to reduce religion to a minority, but the social trends are moving in our direction. This is great news! Now is the time to celebrate, but also time to keep up the pressure on religion by staying visible.
The next challenge will be to encourage critical thinking among the populace. We all know people who have deconverted from a religion, but who maybe haven’t made the move to skeptical rationalism. This means they’re still vulnerable to proto-religions like New Age woo, or other delusions like altMed. Critical thinking doesn’t happen automatically, and it’s something even atheists aren’t always good at. I’d like to encourage everyone to get informed, and get skeptical.

Coming soon: “No religion” in the 2011 Australian census

Data for the 2011 Australian census is coming out on Thursday, and I’m like a kid on Christmas Eve. I can’t wait to see what percentage of people listed themselves as ‘No Religion’.

Why do I care? Am I insecure in my atheism, and I need backup to feel validated? Not really; it’s just that we’re on the brink of a moment in history here. More and more of us are coming out as ‘not religious’, and it’s cool to see it grow. Sure, Thursday’s data dump gives us more numbers to crunch, but the numbers represent the stories of people who have walked away from religion (and in some cases but not all, gods and supernaturalism). This weakens the hold of religion in our society, and provides an ever-larger pool of people that could be turned on to skepticism, humanism, and other positive values.

So what should we expect the numbers to do for 2011? I grabbed the “no religion” numbers from the Australian Bureau of Statistics website, and did some plotting.

The Numbers application will give you trendlines, but it doesn’t let you extrapolate beyond the data. (Boo.) So I took the linear trendline, and laid a longer red line over it. That’s kind of bodgy; sorry about that.
Anyway, if you enlarge, you’ll find that the line crosses the 2011 axis just over 20 percent. So that’s my prediction — a little over 20%; anything more is gravy. Maybe the AFA’s “No Religion” campaign did its work, and we’ll see 22 or 23. I’d be ecstatic with 23, but I think that’s a bit high.
Place your bets in comments. More on Thursday.

The Three Horsemen: Act 2

Setting: A very long book-signing queue

Dramatis personae:
Richard Dawkins (RD): A scientist. A public intellectual. A colossus among men.
Daniel Midgley (DM): A Daniel Midgley

Curtain rises.

DM: Hello again!
RD: (peers at DM as if for the first time, appears to recognise) Oh, hello.
DM: (hands over a copy of ‘The Magic of Reality’) This is the copy of your book that I read to my son.
RD: I’m glad! (Signs)
DM: Do you think that disgust was the mechanism for our evolved sense of morality?
RD: Yes. I do. (Hands back books)
DM: Thank you! (exit)

End of Act II

Global Atheist Con: Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is Richard Dawkins. His talk was entitled “Now Praise Intelligent Design”.

Intelligent design gets a bad rap, you know. The term’s been sullied to the point where it’s been described as ‘creationism in a cheap suit‘. But all of us rely on intelligently designed things to make our lives easier. Even Dawkins believes in intelligent design — for man-made objects, as he’s explained on Colbert.

But back to the talk. Dawkins wants us to take back intelligent design, the better to design our future intelligently. In fact, Dawkins suggests a few terms we should be taking back:

  • Morality
  • Pro-life. You know who the real pro-lifers are? Médecins Sans Frontières, that’s who.
  • Spirituality. The feeling of transcendence at seeing the night sky is available for all of us. (Personally, I never use the term ‘spirituality’ because it’s so vague and easy to misunderstand, and I don’t want to dignify it with anything important, but that’s me.)
  • Christmas. Christians are only the latest to put their stamp on the set of pagan festivals surrounding the Winter Solstice.

And, of course, intelligent design. Dawkins explained that brains and computers are the only things capable of intelligent design, and they have origins that we know and understand. It used to be that people thought that if something looked designed, it was designed. Then Darwin showed how evolution by natural selection could create things that were apparently designed. Dawkins calls this ‘neo-design’, and differentiates it from ‘paleo-design’. Evolution (paleo-design) created us, and now we create things (neo-design).

Unfortunately, says Dawkins, paleo-design is often bad design, as evidenced by the recurrent laryngeal nerve in giraffes. This nerve takes a long path down the neck, only to connect a few centimetres from where it started. The long trip was necessary because that nerve had to work in every giraffe throughout generations of evolution, so as necks got longer, the nerve had to stretch. No intelligent designer would design a giraffe this way (nor would it give us back-to-front retinas), but evolution would. It has no plan for the future. Neo-design does, but even then we can hit problem when designing big things like a society — we sometimes lack the political unanimity to carry out a solution.

Can our morality be designed and if so, how do we design it? Dawkins seemed to relish this part, as he threw out some (perhaps half-warmed) red meat to the crowd. The idea that we should get our morality from the Bible is, in Dawkins’ words, “a sick joke”. It says “Thou shalt not kill” (which anyone could work on their own), but then Moses kills 3,000 people. The New Testament isn’t much better: God couldn’t think of a better plan than to come down as his alter ego to be horrifically tortured and killed to atone for the sin of Adam (who never existed) so that he could forgive himself.

And yet, for many people, morality and religion have a very strong mental link. When the RDF commissioned a survey into people’s responses on the census, they asked people why they’d ticked the “Christian” box (that’s 54% of the total), and many responded “Because I like to think of myself as a good person.” Yet when asked “When faced with a moral dilemma, do you turn to your religion?”, only one tenth of the 54% said yes. The bulk of the 54% said they looked to their innate moral sense. Even this doesn’t tell the whole story. Inescapably, we get our morals from the time in which we live. Darwin and Huxley were oppsed to slavery, but they would have been considered reactionary and racist by today’s standards.

Dawkins then launched into a discussion of some gray areas of morality. What about euthanasia? An absolutist might offer a blanket condemnation, but a consequentialist could point out that, if prolonging life is the goal, then legal euthanasia might prolong life. How? A number of people kill themselves while they’re able to, knowing that when they become incapacitated, they wouldn’t be able to, and no doctor would be allowed to help them.

What about eugenics? asked Dawkins, and I detected a tension in the audience. After all, eugenics is something religious people hurl at us when we talk about designing our own morality. So what about it? Yes, we condemn the idea of manipulating genes to engineer ‘superior’ humans, but most people are okay with negative eugenics, that is, testing a cell for a bad gene. What’s the difference between this and positive eugenics, say, for having a blue-eyed child, or a child who is a great musician? Even Dawkins said this was farther than he wanted to go, but then pointed out that most people mould children by non-genetic means — not by manipulating genes, but by forcing the child to practice the piano for hours a day. It’s anyone’s guess as to which is more cruel, thinks I, glibly.

Dawkins finished with a discussion of how religions evolve and survive. What’s the mechanism?

1. Is it that religious people are healthier, and this helps regions to propagate?
Dawkins says the evidence for this is sketchy, and that he only mentioned it for completeness.

2. Does religion spread by piggybacking on useful things?
For example, children are susceptible to indoctrination, and that’s a good thing because accepting things that adults say gives children knowledge that helps them to survive. Religion, however, exploits this feature of childhood in parasitic fashion.

3. Does religion help groups survive?
Dawkins describes group selection as ‘silly’, but allows that some groups might have attributes that help them survive better than others. Even so, says Dawkins, that’s not proper group selection.

4. Could the question have a memetic answer?
Memes (or ideas) spread quickly throughout a population, and remain robust despite opposition. As an illustration, Dawkins showed this graphic of the London tiger rumour as it progressed through time, all tracked through Twitter. Click to go to the interactive graphic — it’s really interesting. It’s like doing an epidemiology of rumours.

Overall, good talk, with a lot of diverse foci. I’m interested to see what he gets into next.

Global Atheist Con: Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the author of ‘Infidel’. Her talk was entitled “The Arab Spring”.

I want to like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, but I’ve always been wary of her. I find her admirable because of what she’s been through, and her strong stand against Islam. So why the discomfort?

It’s like this: There are two ways to be anti-Islam. You can be a secularist, or you can be a racist. (No, Islam’s not a race, but people in this group conflate the two.) And while I don’t think she’s a racist, I think she got in with a lot of the very worrying anti-immigrant crowd during her time in the Netherlands, and I think she holds a lot of right-wing views, especially about support for Israel. Maybe the best way to say it is that she’s a hero that I sometimes disagree with, much like Christopher Hitchens (whose place she has stepped into). So I attended her talk ready to be convinced, and was encouraged by much of what I heard.

She started by relating the events of the Arab Spring of 2010. What would a secular spring mean to Northern Africa? Her list:

  • An end to human rights violations
  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of press
  • Freedom of conscience
  • Women’s rights
  • Work
  • Voting
  • Protection from violence
  • Economic growth
  • Peace with Israel
  • End to Islamic terrorism
  • Youth would develop a confidence in life before death, instead of a life after death.

However, says Hirsi Ali, what we’re seeing is not a secular spring, but rather a Muslim winter, as old repression is being replaced by religious repression.

There are, however, signs of hope.

1. Voting patterns. Secular parties aren’t winning, but they do exist.
2. The Iran uprising of 2009, which saw citizens protesting against theocrats.
3. The Muslim Diaspora: Ex-Muslims are growing, writing, and communicating with each other.
4. Freedom of expression is increasing. For example, Hamsa Kashgari, a 23 year old Saudi journalist, tweeted an imaginary meeting with Muhammad that was thought to be blasphemous. He fled Saudi Arabia, but was returned, and forced to apologise. Once you start having thoughts like these, says Hirsi, Ali, you do not go back, even if you are forced to apologise.

Hirsi Ali was especially critical of liberals in the West, who were failing to protect secularists in the Arab world. Why is this so? Her view is that these liberals are falling victim to a version of romantic primitivism. Particularly galling were middle-class Western women who convert to Islam and cover themselves. She also thinks ‘white guilt’ may apply.

Most troubling to me was Hirsi Ali’s assertion that conservatives and Christians were the ones who really comprehend the threat that Islam poses, particularly with regard to nuclear proliferation. I assume that means the people that used to be the cheering section for Team Bush, starting wars of choice with the wrong countries. Methinks most Christian conservatives don’t care much for people who look like Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

So what can be done to encourage a true Secular Spring in the Middle East? Her suggestions:

  • Develop a secular liberal narrative in the Middle East
  • Have policy training for people in these countries
  • Defeat radical Islam, which threatens our thinking. 
She mentioned that gatherings like the GAC with speeches and comedy were good, but that we need to place change on our agenda, not just gather to listen and laugh.

Pre-debate interview: “Where Do I Come From?”

Before the big fight, there’s always a session where the fighters get together and talk some trash. Well, that’s what we did today on RTRfm — it was me and Rory Shiner talking about the upcoming debate at Wesley Uniting Church in Perth. Except there wasn’t any trash talk, and we didn’t smash (very many) chairs over each other. I did, however, make a pointy point. Here’s the interview.

Where Do I Come From?

The point I made was this: Christianity says that it’s good at answering the question of “Why are we here?” But it isn’t! Their answer for the purpose of life is terrible, and it makes no sense.

If you can make it, do. This was between me and a Christian; throw the Hindu guy into the mix and I don’t know what will happen. There may be twice as much babbling, which means I’ll have to try and make twice as much sense.

Global Atheist Con: Lawrence Krauss

Laurence Krauss is a physicist. His talk was titled “A Universe from Nothing”, which by no small coincidence in the title of his book.

“A Universe from Nothing” is also the title of this video he gave in 2009.

It would probably be a good idea to watch this video, rather than reading what I’m writing about it. I’m not a physicist, so I’m very likely to get it wrong. Krauss explains the origins and fate of our universe in a clear style which even Cardinal Pell would understand. (“Though he’s never thought about anything deeply in his life!” snipes Krauss.) This feeling of understanding ends immediately after the talk, leaving you with pages of notes full of gibberish. Perhaps my gibberish will make sense if you watch the talk first.

Here are some thoughts that I’m sure I got right.

• People ask, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” But nothing isn’t as nothing as we used to think it is. ‘Nothing’ has energy. Empty space is actually a brew of particles that pop in and out of existence on tiny timescales. These particles have an impact on the mass of our bodies. Gravity plus quantum mechanics allows space itself to appear from nothing. So a universe from nothing is not only plausible, but likely.

• It was once thought that the universe was slowing down, and would end in a ‘big crunch’. (I remember hearing that back in the 70s.) But now that appears to be wrong. (Krauss: “Was the data wrong? It often is. The first set of data is always wrong.”) It now appears that we live in a ‘flat’ universe that will keep expanding forever, but more and more slowly. Krauss says that only a flat universe could arise from “nothing” and keep existing long enough for us to be here.

• “The best state to be in if you’re a scientist in to be confused. And I am.”

• “The real universe is more inspiring than any fairy tale.”

Debate: “Where Do I Come From?”

This is exciting for Perth people: I’ve been invited to be Teh Atheist in a debate entitled “Where Do I Come From?” Also appearing will be Christian pastor Rory Shiner, and Kanaga Dharmananda for the Hindu team.

It’s going to be at Wesley Uniting Church, on the corner of William and Hay St, this Thursday afternoon (3 May 2012) at 12:30. I have to say: some religious people aren’t too keen on atheists — these guys invite me to their church to speak. That says something, I think.

That Hindu cosmology — I bet you could make that stuff sound pretty close to the scientific view, even if it is a series of guesses. I wonder what the Christian guy will say to that.

It seems a number of Perth Atheists are coming. Come and join the atheist cheering section! (Are you allowed to cheer in church?)

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