11/30/2006                                                                                       View Comments

My Interview on Hannity & Colmes re the Decalogue

By Daniel Morgan

Here is the video on YouTube.



I wanted to point out a couple of things about the interview for clarification.
  1. I was contacted by FoxNews and asked if I would be willing to do this segment. I was not involved in any way with this story before, or besides, this small interview.
  2. I am not a lawyer, although they pitted me against one and tacitly framed me that way.
  3. The name of our group was mangled by Sean. It's the "Atheist, Agnostic and Freethinking Student Association" at UF. Oh well...
  4. I have never been to Dixie County (map) before last night. I have never spoken with anyone from Dixie County about the issue before last night. Thus, I am not "actively soliciting" any lawsuits. However, I would like to see someone from the area with the courage to challenge this illegal action on the part of the Dixie County Board of Commissioners.
  5. Sean said it was different than AL, and more "in keeping with" the KY and TX cases, although the KY and AL cases are almost identical here, and the judges ruled those displays unconstiutional, and had them removed. As I pointed out, the TX case involved multiple other monuments, and so it functioned in a true historic/sentimental way and not in the way this monument functions here -- as an endorsement.
  6. The Establishment Clause is best understood by the Lemon Test. This situation fails the test on obvious grounds, and by recent precedents in Alabama (Roy Moore case fell into the same district as ours -- the 11th Federal District -- and so the precedent here is unequivocal), Kentucky and Texas. For more background, see AL, KY and TX.
  7. I got in the little quip, "It'd make it illegal..." when Joey defended that the monument wouldn't make the community worse. It might've been hard to hear because all 3 of us were talking.
  8. Keeping the government religion-neutral is not "anti-religion".
  9. The 10 Commandments are unequivocally a religious endorsement of the Judeo-Christian worldview. Tell me what secular purpose the first four commandments serve? How are they consonant with our principles of democracy and freedom of religion? What about the name of YHWH in commandment 3? If the left tablet was gone, and the inscription at the bottom, there would be no controversy whatsoever, I am willing to bet.
  10. How would you feel if they put up a monument to Islam, or to Buddha?
  11. Read this for clear logical arguments against this sort of endorsement of religion (10 Commandments displays).
  12. I have no legal standing, nor real problem with generic "God" references, and while I wish the government would stay completely God-neutral, I would happily settle for it being religion-neutral. I would never bring a suit to remove "In God We Trust" or "Under God", although I disagree with the motives of putting them on our currency after the Civil War, and in our pledge during the Red Scare, respectively. Our Founders chose a secular motto for a good reason -- e pluribus unum.
  13. I really think that the sorts of people who want these affronts to judicial authority imposed are weak in their faith. They require the imprimatur of the government to help them believe. Although their believing ancestors were able to multiply and grow amidst various pagan and secular and extra-Christian governments throughout history, modern "born-agains" are apparently unable to comprehend why that is. They are also typically the types who are ignorant of the serious religious outcry against the secular Constitution, when it was written. I'm glad that our Founders had more brains, courage, and faith than these weak-kneed Evangelicals.
  14. The minutes of the Jan 19 meeting of the Board contains the following damning paraphrase/summaries, indicating they expect and are "bold" enough to do this despite the legality:
    Commissioner Driggers had a call from a resident who would like to see the Ten Commandments on the steps of the Courthouse. He wanted to know if the Board is bold enough to do this.

    All members agreed that they would like to see this accomplished.

    Attorney Lander stated that he will defend any law suits for free.

    Motion by Commissioner Land, seconded by Commissioner Valentine and carried to go ahead with having the Ten Commandments placed on the front of the courthouse steps.
  15. Although Joey Lander may be willing to defend the case for free, the county is certainly going to have to pay the legal fees of the ACLU or whomever takes the case. That sort of absurdity is a slap in the face to anyone who wants to use religion (and resources) for good. Rather than the county being able to use those funds to give back to their constitutents, they will piss them away on this religio-political nonsense. This sort of thing touches on the question I asked a while back -- what is the real agenda of the RR, versus Evangelicals generally?
  16. Read the Alligator article and the Gainesville Sun article for more.
  17. I'm sure this is the end of my involvement. I won't be commenting much more, aside from replies to comments here and at other sites about me or the interview. I've already gotten a lot of feedback from friends and family. Some positive, some negative.
  18. I really enjoyed the short segment, but I strongly recommend to everyone that they do more reading and less Primetime "infotainment-type" TV news watching. You never get the details, the understanding of the legal issues, etc., from sound bytes and talking points. Also, if you ever do something like this, go in prepared with quips and sound bytes, and expect to be misrepresented by those who strongly disagree with you (Sean Hannity).
Feel free to email me. Thanks for reading :)
________________
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Cross-posted to: AAFSA, GBLoGBB, DC, Ex-Xian

11/29/2006                                                                                       View Comments

Atheism Is Not a Religion

By Pete Blackwell

Some Atheists...assert that Atheism is not a religion but instead is the total absence of religion.... But this is like saying that "black," (which physicists define as the total absence of color) is not a color.... In common practice throughout the world, "black" is understood to be a color, despite the technical definition of the physicists. Likewise, "Atheism" is a religion, despite any technical definitions to the contrary. If black is a color, then Atheism is a religion.

—Rev. Bill McGinnis, "The Religion of Atheism"


You hear it regularly from talking heads like Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter (whose latest 'book', Godless, is subtitled The Church of Liberalism), and you're only going to hear it more now that the War on Christmas™ season is upon us: atheism is a religion just as sure as Christianity is, and all these heathens want to do is foist their religion on the good, god-fearing folk of America.

There's always an undercurrent of defensiveness and desperation in this claim, as if one's own faith is invalidated by the existence of a genuinely different approach to life and the universe. In making their convoluted arguments, people who conflate atheism with religion actually weaken the foundations upon which their own belief is built. Atheism simply cannot be a religion unless that term carries essentially no meaning.

Here's a handy list of qualities shared by almost all religions that atheism lacks:

There Is No God
First things first. Atheists do not believe in a god or gods. This is a tautology, of course, since the term "atheism" itself carries that literal meaning. Some atheists have suggested that the term cedes too much to religious believers and argue for a new coinage that captures what atheists do believe rather than what they don't. The fact that there is no such suitable term is a strong argument against classifying atheism as a religion, as we shall see. The denial of god alone, however, is not sufficient proof that atheism is not a religion, since many belief systems do not believe in god. Some, such as Buddhism, Taoism and Shinto—even Scientology—are properly classified as religions since they meet many of the other criteria listed below.

There Is No Common Belief
[The truth is out there] Contrary to what the O'Reillys and Coulters of the world will tell you, atheists are bound by no common ideology or belief. An atheist is someone who does not believe in god. Period. Beyond that, things get a little murky. There are the dreaded secular humanists, there are logical empiricists, there are existentialists, there are skeptics, nihilists—you name it. Not all atheists believe in evolution or put their 'faith' in science. This is why no one term could positively describe the entirety of atheism. Atheists as a whole are bound by a common disbelief—and nothing else.

There Are No Laws

Most religions feature a set of laws or regulations, ranging from what not to eat for breakfast to who thou shalt and shalt not kill and or covet. In atheism, this is entirely lacking. This is not to say that atheism is amoral (see below), but to note that there exists no universal atheist code of standards, either vague or specific.

There Is No Church or Ritual
It has become fashionable to claim that the Church of Atheism is the editorial board room of the New York Times or the chambers of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, but this is nothing more than sophistry based on the supposition that all atheists are cut from the same (non-ecclesiastical) cloth. In fact, this is far from the case. Atheists are everywhere, in all walks of life (watch out!). The idea of an organized church of atheism in which its rituals are practiced by gatherings of (un)believers is a non sequitur.

There Is No Unified Conception of Spirituality

Unlike atheist religions such as Buddhism, non-religious atheism has no spiritual credo. Some atheists may consider themselves 'spiritual', while a great many do not. Some may feel some sort of connection to nature or the universe while others may feel nothing of the sort. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud called this the "oceanic feeling", and saw it as the source of the religious impetus. He claimed to have never experienced this feeling himself. Whether or not atheists have experienced this oceanic feeling, it has never coalesced into anything that could be called a religion.

There Is No Scripture
Christianity has the Bible, Islam the Koran; Judaism has the Torah, Hinduism the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. Atheism has no scripture or sacred text. Darwin's Origin of the Species, while held in high regard by many atheists, doesn't count. The very fact that scientists are continually building on and even refuting Darwin's claims is proof that his version of the truth is not considered to be inerrant or divinely inspired.

There Is No Priesthood
In addition to having no rituals, atheism has no ritualistic leaders. Unlike virtually every religion known to man, atheism has no anointed hierarchy to lead its 'adherents' closer to the truth. This is not to say that there aren't prominent atheists. There are. But, absent the sacred texts and rituals of religion—not to mention a proper congregation—they do not constitute a priesthood or clergy.

There Is No Tradition
All religions have a tradition and a history. Atheism has many, but no single one that sustains a movement over centuries, as you find in every major world religion.

There Is No Founder

Buddha, Muhammad, Jesus, Moses, L. Ron Hubbard—most major religions have a founding figure or prophet. Atheism has no such figure. There are many old-timers like Galileo, for example, who rise to prominence, but none of these atheists 'founded' atheism and none commands the reverence accorded to the founders and patriarchs of the world religions.

There Are No Holidays
Most religions have holy days (still, despite the all-out assault on Christmas). Atheism has no holidays, and no framework to decide when such holidays would be or what they might commemorate. Festivus doesn't count.

There Is No Identifying Clothing

Yarmulkes, robes, veils, turbans, sacred underwear and other holy vestments hold great importance for the majority of religions. Atheism has no dress code, although comfortable shoes are recommended.

There Is No Concept of the Afterlife
Most religions attempt to answer the question of what happens to us when we die. Where do we go to be warmed in the loving embrace of the lord? Where do they go to be horrifically tortured? There's heaven and hell, of course, and reincarnation, nirvana and moksha. Atheists have no concept of the afterlife, except that, most commonly, there isn't one.

There Is No Creation Myth
Now wait just a minute! How is the Big Bang any less of a myth than Genesis? Keeping in mind that not all atheists believe in the Big Bang theory, it's different because it's a scientific postulate that can be tested and the effects of which can be empirically demonstrated. If in the end this theory does not stand up to scientific scrutiny, it will be chucked on the trash heap alongside the bodily humors and the Atkins Diet.

* * * * *

So, atheism shares none of the characteristics common to all belief systems commonly known as religions. Even widely-despised and derided belief systems like Satanism, Wicca, paganism and Presbyterianism are religions by these standards. Atheism is not. Arguing that it is means that faith in god, ritual, community, tradition, spirituality and theology are irrelevant. Religion then becomes an incredibly paltry thing. It is not a source of solace and spiritual wonder; it is not a vehicle for bringing symmetry to the chaos of life and meaning to the void—it's just the act of taking a position on the existence of god. That's it. How pathetic.

Those who would prefer not to do such grievous harm to the meaning of 'religion' have another argument at hand. Atheism may not be a religion, but it is a faith. Because the existence of god can be neither definitively proven nor disproved, atheism merely replaces faith in god with faith in science. While this argument is subtler, it poses no less of a threat to the underpinnings of religious belief.

There is a fundamental difference between faith and atheism that cuts to the essence of what religion is. A scientific-minded atheist believes that science can explain the world and the universe. This does not require that it already has explained everything; only that it can. This is a world view based on hypothesis and evidence. For most religions, on the other hand, faith in the absence of clear evidence is a virtue. Evidence (or at least purported evidence) is not entirely lacking from the religious world, but it is beside the point. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.

Religious faith is a complicated thing. It involves the belief in god, but it goes much further than that. Faith is the trust in god and the acceptance of paradox and contradiction. It revels in the revealed truth and embraces the unknowable. In religious people, it is the umbilical cord to the soul. Science is not anathema to faith; it simply operates on a different plane of thought. Faith is 'belief', but it's not the belief in just anything. To say that atheism is a faith because it stakes claim to a belief is to denigrate all true faith. To have a faith and to hold a belief are two distinct things. All faith is belief, but not all belief is faith.

Another common misperception is that atheists merely put their faith in secular 'gods' and call them by another name. Richard Dawkins is a popular choice, as are Darwin and Carl Sagan. But whether an atheist is drawn to the ideas of these men or to Nietzsche or Frank Costanza, it is not proof of 'faith'. Plenty of people are widely admired, from the aforementioned thinkers to Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman. We sometimes even use religious language and talk about how they are 'idolized' figures. But there is a difference between agreeing with someone or admiring them and having religious faith in them. Without this distinction, the concept of faith is utterly worthless and the designation of 'god' is a meaningless banality. Certainly the religious faithful do not believe this to be the case. But there is no way to hang the mantle of faith on atheism without eviscerating one's own beliefs.

Once it has been established that atheists have neither religion nor faith, it is assumed that they must therefore believe in nothing. Atheism is then synonymous with amorality and chaos. It should be quite obvious that this argument is a fallacy based on a false dichotomy in which all the attributes of religious belief are necessarily absent from non-religious belief.

There is a facile assumption that morality belongs only to the realm of religion, and the codes of religious law are offered up as proof. Where would we be without the Ten Commandments? Coveting asses, no doubt. But there is plenty of historical and anthropological evidence to suggest that religious morality is simply a reflection of taboos and strictures that have developed over millennia and are intrinsic to all cultures, regardless of religion (or lack thereof).

* * * * *

"All right... all right... but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order... what have the Romans done for us?"

"Brought peace!"

"What!? Oh... Peace, yes... shut up!"

—Monty Python, The Life of Brian


Once upon a time, Jesus said, "And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but perceivest not the beam that is in thine own eye?" I'm pretty sure that's a fancy way of saying, "What, you think your shit doesn't stink?" It's a little snippet of scripture that every atheist should know.

I'm aware that atheists are an embattled minority, far less likely to be elected to the presidency than Jews, Muslims, homosexuals, child molesters and Frenchmen. I know some of the vitriol and condescension of the true believers at Focus on the Family and FOX News is hard to stomach. That doesn't mean you have to return the favor.

One of the biggest selling points for the "atheism is a religion" trope is the common misperception that atheists know that there is no god. Certainly there are some who would say so, just as there are Christians who have no religious doubt whatsoever, but these are not (I hope) majority views. Insistence on the absolute correctness of your position is not a sign of either faith or rationalist purity; it's a sign of hubris and epistemological immodesty.

There's no question that certain religious groups would like to impose their narrow view of the world on everyone. These people need to be opposed at every turn. But this does not mean that religion as a whole should be denigrated or dismissed as irrelevant.

Religion has been central to the history of humanity and there's no reason to believe it won't continue to be. The wisdom of the Greeks and Romans survived the Dark Ages thanks to religion. Gutenberg designed his printing press to reproduce the Bible. Much of the greatest art and architecture in the world was inspired by faith. Religion has been central to movements for social justice, democracy, peace and charity for centuries. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, religion has been the cause of and solution to most of the world's problems.

That is not an endorsement of religion so much as it's an exhortation to intellectual honesty. All atheists are not represented by a jerk who wastes everyone's time with irrelevancies like trying to get "under god" removed from the Pledge of Allegiance, just like all religious people are not represented by Ann Coulter or Ted Haggard.

So much of the atheism versus religion debate takes place at the intractable fringes where there are so rarely either hearts or minds to be won. If we can surge past this white noise, however, we may come to a place where differences can be honestly respected and ideas can be exchanged in good faith (if you will).

Despite our differences we must strive for common ground, for that's the only place where we all can live.

What do you think?

11/27/2006                                                                                       View Comments

Why a Jewish Atheist Loves Christmas

By Alan M. Perlman, Ph.D.

    I have always thought of Christmas as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their hearts freely. And therefore, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!

Those are the words of Charles Dickens, and I have completely come around to his point of view.

I’ve always been a secular Jewish humanist – an atheist who believes that human problems can be solved by human beings, with no reference to any divine authority. But in Judaism, as in other cases throughout the world, ethnicity and religion tend to overlap. Just as many Arabs are Muslims (though some are secular), many Jews believe in God and in the truth of the Bible (i.e., the 19 books that comprise the Hebrew Bible or, as Christians and others call it, the Old Testament).

But we secular humanists do not, even though we identify with Jewish culture and history. And we secular Jews do share the American Jewish experience.

Early on, for me, as for many 1950s Jews growing up in Christian America, Christmas felt like a gigantic party to which we were not invited. In response, a lot of Jews made compromises with Christmas (putting up Christmas trees in their homes, for example), or exploded Hanukkah into a competitive festival – or both.

Then I looked closer at Christmas and saw the sordid underbelly that Christians knew was there all along: the overeating, the overdrinking, the overspending, the frantic gift buying and all the emotions that accompany it, the frantic partying...it all seemed so exhausting, and I became thankful for not having to be involved in it.

So now my attitude toward Christmas is more balanced, and I can watch benignly, participate a little, and feel myself in harmony with those aspects of Christmas that agree with who I am: the spirit, the season, and Jesus. That's right, Jesus. I'll explain.

The season and the spirit are obvious from the words of Dickens and to anybody who’s grown up with as many Christmases as I have. It's a time when everything smells good and looks good...and when Christians practice what they preach, or at least try to. Compassion, charity, and good cheer predominate. We become conscious, if only briefly, that we are all indeed brothers and sisters -- in fact, science tells us that the genetic differences between us are infinitesimal.

And what about Jesus? I'm not a Jew for Jesus, but he clearly had something important to say. As a secular humanist, I set aside all the storytelling, all the supernatural events, all the centuries of iconography and cathedral building. I think about the man himself.

Libraries are full of exegesis and speculation, but what do we really know? He was a preacher, a teacher, and, very importantly, a Reminder. (He was executed, apparently, along with many others, as an enemy of the state; secular humanists attach no particular significance to his death).

Just as it does in every era, religion had drifted loose from its original, spiritual moorings: good behavior, good works, a good life. Like the ancient Hebrew prophets, Jesus reminded people that it wasn't about fancy temples and priestly vestments, any more than today it’s about showing up at Christmas or the High Holidays in your furs and your Lexus. It is about good thoughts and good deeds.

Mythology aside, there can be no question that Jesus, however valid and memorable his preaching, was not unique. Equally -- and more -- sophisticated material on morality, psychology, and spirituality appears in the Tao te Ching, which dates from the sixth century B.C.E., and in the Upanishads, ancient Hindu texts from as early as the eighth century B.C.E.

But Jesus reminded people about the importance of compassion, humility, charity, and nonviolence...and about the individual’s responsibility for making moral choices. In the ancient world, such spiritually advanced individuals were few and far between. They were rare enough to have entire religions founded upon them, especially when they have such excellent PR and marketing as Jesus had.

His disciples spread his story quite well. Furthermore, in the competition for spiritual shelf space, Christianity had two big advantages over Judaism: it offered greater roles for women and required no circumcision.

But Jesus’ message soon became burdened with an accretion of mythology and superstition. I would bet dollars to doughnuts that if Jesus was indeed the humble soul I believe him to be, he would have said to his disciples something like, "Guys, please do not create a mythology around me, okay? Don’t make a god of me. Just pass on my message. No fairytales."

Well, they created fairytales anyway, and beautiful ones too, because people love stories, and good conduct apparently doesn’t sell on its own merits. But if you want a minimum of mythology, and perhaps a closer approximation of what Jesus may actually have said, I suggest you look at the Gospel of Thomas, which, of course, is not in the Bible, probably just because it contains so little of the supernatural.

If you put similar passages from Thomas and the accepted gospels side by side, you'll notice that the latter are more God-oriented. Keeping God center-stage means job security for priests – and power for Popes. It makes all the sense in the world.

But if Jesus was correct, then we don't need priests, rabbis, churches, synagogues, or any of the elaborate apparatus of religious myth and ritual. Part of his message was, as I understand it, that we can each be Christlike, through good behavior, 365 days a year. That would be a great way to celebrate his birth.

Merry Christmas!

________________________

Alan M. Perlman is a secular humanist speaker and author -- most recently, of An Atheist Reads the Torah: Secular Humanistic Perspectives on the Five Books of Moses. For information, go to www.trafford.com/06-0056

What if it's true?

What if it's true?A church banner from US-1 outside of Princeton, NJ

Sent in by a friend of ExChristian.Net

This church banner asks the question "What if it's true?" The apparent intent is to solicit church attendance from those who aren't sure whether or not they believe in the Christian mythology, just in case Christianity is actually true.

A recent Harris poll (Oct '06) found that of the 73% of Americans who believe in God, 16% aren't convinced there is a God.

Does it make sense to go through the motions of practicing a religion, simply because you aren't sure if it's true or not? Do Christians believe that simply practicing the rituals will keep them out of hell? Wouldn't their all-knowing God realize they were just pretending to believe?

What do you think?

11/26/2006                                                                                       View Comments

11/24/2006                                                                                       View Comments

Richard Dawkins reads from "The God Delusion"

Richard Dawkins at Randolf-Macon Woman's College reading from his book, "The God Delusion."

Part I, (37 minutes):


Part II, (70 minutes):

Richard Dawkins talks on Atheism

"There is no such thing as a Christian child, there is only a child of Christian parents. Whenever you hear the phrase Christian child or Muslim child or Protestant child or Catholic child, the phrase should grate like fingernails on a blackboard."

Atheist Interviews

Colin McGinn (born 1950) is a British philosopher currently working at the University of Miami. McGinn has also held major teaching positions at Oxford University and Rutgers University. McGinn is best known for his work in the philosophy of mind, though he has written on topics across the breadth of modern philosophy. Chief among his works intended for general audience is the intellectual memoir The Making of a Philosopher: My Journey Through Twentieth-Century Philosophy (2002).

McGinn's "Atheism Tapes" were available for a time on Google Video, but were removed. Now the interviews are available again on You Tube, so for as long as they last, enjoy:



Jonathan Miller interviews American atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett.
Atheist Tapes - Daniel Dennett 1
Atheist Tapes - Daniel Dennett 2
Atheist Tapes - Daniel Dennett 3

Jonathan Miller interviews biologist Richard Dawkins.
Atheist Tapes - Richard Dawkins 1
Atheist Tapes - Richard Dawkins 2
Atheist Tapes - Richard Dawkins 3

Jonathan Miller talks to philospher Colin McGinn.
Atheist Tapes - Colin McGinn 1
Atheist Tapes - Colin McGinn2
Atheist Tapes - Colin McGinn 3

Jonathan Miller talks to Nobel prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg.
Atheist Tapes - Steven Weinberg 1
Atheist Tapes - Steven Weinberg 2
Atheist Tapes - Steven Weinberg 3



Jonathan Miller (JM): In the summer of 2003, I began filming the series "Atheism - A Rough History Of Disbelief". As part of the process, I talked to a number of writers, scientists, historians and philosophers. Having secured their cooperation, I was very embarrassed to find that a large proportion of what went on ended up on the cutting room floor, simply because the series would have lasted 24 hours otherwise.

But as it happens, the BBC agreed with me that the conversations were too interesting to be junked and with these six supplementary programmes, they've made the extremely unusual decision to go back to the original material and to broadcast, at length, some of the conversations I had - conservations with people such as English biologist Richard Dawkins, the American philosopher Daniel Dennet, the Cambridge theologian Denys Turner, the American playwright Arthur Miller, the English philosopher Colin McGinn, and the American Nobel Prize winning physicist, Steven Weinberg.

When I talked to the English philosopher Colin McGinn, at his apartment in New York, we discussed at some length the meaning of the word "belief" and much of that discussion is in the Atheism series, but to begin with I just wanted to get from Colin a sense of what it felt like to be a sceptical English philosopher in a country as seemingly religious as the United States.

Colin McGinn (CM): Sometimes Americans will say, "So you don't believe in God.", and I say, "That's right, I don't believe in God.". And they say, "So, you don't believe in anything?". And I say, "I believe in many things." and I don't make jokes, with them about "I believe in tables and chairs.", and I say to them, "You know, I believe in various ethical causes and political ideas and other aesthetic values, intellectual values... there are lots of things I believe in.". And they say, "That's all you believe in?", and I say, "That's all I believe in.".

"Don't you believe in something god-like? You don't believe in the traditional God. Don't you believe there's SOMETHING there?".

And I say, "No. There's nothing there.". And it's very difficult to get across to people who are religious, that when you are an atheist, that you mean you don't believe in anything like that whatsoever. It's not that you think nature is God, or it doesn't have personal qualities or something like that. You don't believe in anything of that type. Nothing supernatural. nothing miraculous, nothing superstitious. No ghosts, no telepathy... you know... nothing of that kind. That's what it's to do with.

It's not that I'm picking on God somehow - or picking on the Christian God and not believing in him. It's just nothing of that type.

JM: Don't you then get the answer, which I get from people who are not necessarily religious - I mean they don't belong to any of the three monotheistic religions... They will say, not just simply "There must be something." to which I would give the same reply as you, but, "Where do you get your spirituality?"

CM: Yeah...

JM: It sounds as if... otherwise there's a shortage of some sort, but I've never been able to get from them whether it's like some vitamin deficiency.

CM: Exactly. Exactly what do they mean by that? Spiritual... Can an atheist be spiritual? I guess it's a matter of definition really... I mean you certainly can't be if it denotes anything supernatural, but... you know aesthetic and ethical values can approximate to what people call the spiritual... you know, the most deeply held beliefs about human behaviour might be counted as spiritual, I don't know. Feelings about nature might be. I mean, I wouldn't use the word, it doesn't seem to me to be a good word to use. A risky word to use, But it doesn't mean you don't have any deep views about things, you know, or deep convictions about things, but often people feel that.

JM: Well that's where I always say the clergyman crouching in the laurel bushes leaps out and says, "Aha! Your deep feelings are, in fact, unacknowledged... acknowledgements of the God you deny."

CM: Yeah, well, one of my deep feelings is that there is no God, and it's a bad idea to believe in God and it's been very harmful, so if that reflects my belief in God, well that's a strange situation! That's one of my deepest convictions - there is no God.

JM [To the viewer]: Now I happen to share Colin's conviction that there is no God and, in my case I never believed it, so I wondered if there had ever been a time in Colin's earlier life when he did believe in God.

CM: With me it was quite precisely delineated. It was... I can't remember the exact dates now, or the exact times, but I think I was about 17 or 18 when the idea of believing in God, and it was Christianity that I was exposed to, became real to me, and it went on for about a year, I would say, not much more than that.

If you'd said to me when I was ten, "Do you believe in God?" I probably would have said yes, I don't know, but it didn't mean anything - it was just sort of "Yeah, everybody does, don't they?" Like the cows... everybody believes in them. But then I actually started studying the Bible because I was studying Divinity A-Level. So I started studying it, but we had a very charismatic teacher - an admirable man, Mr. Marsh, who I wrote about in my autobiography - who was very enthusiastic and he was teaching us the Bible... and I was having to learn the Bible... studying it closely... Old Testament... New Testament... so I know much more about the New Testament than most Christians now... and I... even now, 25 years later, I know more about it than most religious people.

So I actually know it pretty well - it's what got me interested in philosophy... because at the same time I was getting interested in philosophy it was through thinking about religion, studying the Bible, and I think there were two factors... a confluence of two factors here - one was the interest in metaphysical questions, basic questions about the universe... What's it all about? What does it all mean? That kind of question.

And on the other hand there was an ethical component to it, because you find in the New Testament, obviously, a very strong emphasis on ethical aspects of life. I was an idealistic teenager, you know, and it was the '60s so that had a profound impact on me, the ethical side, and I was not brought up in a house where ethical ideas were particularly discussed... and it still has a profound impact on me, the ethical side of it.

So those two things made me think there was more to life than the mundane realities that I'd been used to living up there in Blackpool, you know, with the amusement arcades and the pubs and the fish and chips, you know, and the freezing cold... and there was this idea of philosophical thought, metaphysical ideas, and then these high ethical ideals. Good combination. Good combination.

So I got interested in it and so for a period I was influenced by that and I went to university studying psychology... and... since I stopped studying the Bible, and I wasn't seeing Mr. Marsh any more for our divinity lessons, and I kept it up a bit and I would occasionally talk to people about religion and it just sort of disappeared.

I remember going out and remember sort of trying hard to keep up with it, going to some sort of religious meeting and I was just sort of sitting to it and I thought, "This a load of rubbish. I just don't think this is true any more.". And then I was reading Bertram Russell, Why I'm Not A Christian, and in a few... I don't remember the details, but in a pretty short time I just decided it was all wrong. And I also decided you could keep the ethical side and the philosophical side and jettison the rest.

So Russell represented to me an alternative to religious idealism. It was a more secular idealism... so I realised you could have some of the aspects of religion that appealed to me, but without religion, and the bits that didn't appeal to me, like the virgin birth, miracles, strange ideas about how the universe came around, the sort of bits it's very hard to believe, you could just cut those bits off and you could keep the good bits. So you get rid of the theological baggage of religion and then you keep the sides of it that you like. And that's what I have done ever since, basically the same thing.

JM: Was there any crisis in, as it were... unhitching the metaphysical and divine from the ethical to which you continued to subscribe?

CM: Not in my case, which is... I think it differs from other people's case. In Russell's own description of his fall from theism, he describes it as a deeply painful, traumatic, irrecoverable episode - he spent his whole life somehow dealing with it. Not with me... it was relatively easy... it just happened quite naturally. As I say in my autobiography, it was like shedding the skin, you know... the skin comes off and you have a new skin and it seems fine.

JM: Was there a sense of relief as you shed the skin?

CM: No, I wouldn't say there was relief... disappointment... I think there was disappointment.

JM: Ah!

CM: I would have liked religion to be true. I'd LIKE it to be true, because I'd like to be... I'd like there to be immortality, I'd like there to be rewards for those who have been virtuous and punishments for those who've not been virtuous - especially the punishments would be good. You know, there's not... there's no justice in this world and it would be good if there was some cosmic force that distributed justice in the proper way that it should be and it still is to me a constant source of irritation and pain that wicked people prosper and virtuous people don't!

So there was a bit of disappointment about those aspects of it, but there was some exhilaration too. I mean... Russell has a description that I think is kind of appropriate of a feeling of a Godless universe as a kind of exhilarating universe. There's something hygienic about it. There's something bracing about it. Whereas the idea that there's this sort of... suffocating presence gazing at your every movement and thought... you know... and gauging everything you do... it's a bit oppressive to think that way.

JM: Well, OK, now here you are, the philosopher that you thought you might become...

CM: Yeah...

JM: ... you have now very fully become. Now, in your role as a philosopher, I'd love you to develop the arguments which were previously intuitional skin-shedding.

CM: Yeah...

JM: Now be more systematic and surgical about it, and say why, in fact, the notion of a god is incredible.

CM: Well, the one set of arguments is the sort of no-evidence arguments. Russell puts it by saying there's no more reason to believe in the Christian God than the Greek gods. No more reason to believe - in other words there's no positive evidence for it. There's no theory that you need to postulate God in to explain some natural phenomenon, which can't be explained by some other theory.

People will sometimes say, "Well, miracles were performed.". There's never any good evidence that miracles WERE performed. The judgement that they were is usually based on some prior opinion that God exists rather than being an independent source for believing that God exists. So... so there's no evidence in terms of what anyone's ever observed. There's no facts about the world that can't be explained without postulating God, so there's no REASON to believe in God, any more than there's any reason to believe in Zeus or the Greek gods.

So that's on the side of whether there's any reason to believe it. There's the question now: are there any reasons to disbelieve it? Any positive arguments against it?

...There are also some arguments for, like the ontological argument. I don't know if you want me to talk about the ontological argument?

JM: Well, tell us what that argument is.

CM: The ontological argument. This is a very nice argument. Anselm of Canterbury thought of it, I think it must be in the 15th century. He argued that the definition of God entails that God exists. Now this would be a fantastic result... just the mere definition tells us that God exists. So what's the definition of God? The most perfect conceivable being. Or lets say the most powerful conceivable being, is an equally good way of putting it. And then Anselm argued as follows - well suppose this most powerful or most perfect being did not exist... right... then he would lack the attribute of existence, but the attribute of existence is one of the perfections or one of the things that makes a being powerful, but since he is by definition the most perfect being, he must have the attribute of existence, therefore God exists.

So lets go over the argument again. Get the definition of God. How is God to be defined? Let's compare this with the unicorn. How is the unicorn to be defined? A unicorn is a horse with a horn growing out of the middle of it's head. There's nothing in that definition to imply that unicorns exist, and unicorns don't exist. But let's define God. An all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing being... right... these are some of his characteristics... and everybody will agree that's the definition of God. So now one of the definitions is he's the most perfect being. One of his attributes is utmost perfection, un-improvable perfection, OK? That's the definition of God. Now Anselm argues, but if God didn't exist, wouldn't he be less perfect than a being just like him in all those attributes except that that being existed? 'cause to exist is to be more perfect than not to exist. It's better to exist than not to exist. God is as good as you can be, as superior as can be so he must exist. So we know by definition that God exists.

It's a brilliant argument, but it's wholly unconvincing to everybody who hears it, they think, "There's something going wrong with that. That's a very strange argument."

JM: Alright. Tell us what's wrong with it.

CM: Well that's... the difficulty is that no-body's ever been able to pinpoint exactly what's wrong with it. I'll tell you what I think is wrong with it, although the issue is by no means clear. I think that what's very funny in the argument... the bit that goes... that strikes you as sophistical is the bit that says, "God's the most perfect. Existence is one of the perfections.". It sounds superficially plausible, but what does it really mean? "Is one of the perfections." I like to compare this to somebody who said, "Let's take the most tasty meal conceivable... The most tasty meal conceivable...". Does that mean anything, to say that? There's the most tasty meal I've ever had. But it's not well defined, the most tasty meal conceivable, or... you know... the best football game conceivable... not that I've ever seen. What does it mean? It's not a very clearly meaningful idea.

So if we say we're defining God as the most perfect being, and we don't really lay down very clearly what we mean by perfect, then what does it really mean, the most perfect being? ...You know... he has the most perfect colours...? We know he doesn't have the most perfect colours because he's not coloured at all... you know... it's not clear what it means. So we can't always think that phrases like, "the most perfect conceivable F" are always meaningful. Sometimes they are meaningful. The most perfect conceivable triangle, it means one whose angles are precisely 180 degrees. But the most perfect conceivable moral being - what does that mean? It's not clear that it's so well defined.

So that's what I think is wrong with it, but it's like many a philosophical argument, just because you can't refute it, doesn't mean that you should take it all that seriously, especially... you know... form your common sense beliefs on the basis of it.

JM: All right, so much for the ontological proof...

CM: Yes, that's the ontological argument.

JM: Umm... how about the other ones?

CM: I... here's one I like. People think... I think that psychologically this is quite important to people. That's why this argument is more important psychologically... people think, "Without God, life is meaningless. Where is meaning? It's just an empty charade of... you know... pointless and purposeless, valueless going from one thing to the next.". Well, the first reply to make to that is, you don't necessarily need to seek the meaning of life outside of life.

Here's the premise, the assumption of that argument - without there being a being outside of human life, human life would have no meaning. So the meaning of human life must be conferred by another being. Here's my question - what gives the meaning to that being's life? How does his life, God's life derive meaning? Well here's a dilemma, right? Either God's life has meaning intrinsically just by his existence, or not, right? Well if it does, then it's possible to have a meaningful life intrinsically, so why can't our lives have intrinsic meaning? Their meaning doesn't have to be conferred by another being.

JM: But the religious might want to argue, without even reverting to the ontological argument for the existence of God, the fact... the observable fact that we do have values...

CM: Yeah.

JM: ...and meanings is in fact evidence of the fact that something has

CM: Yes.

JM: ...given the meanings in the same way that the argument says something has given the thing design.

CM: Yeah. Well there's... I think there are two points there. One point is that the existence of values itself is an argument for the existence of God. Like an evidence argument. Another point though all together is the idea that morality can only have a foundation if it's based on God's commands or God's desires, God's wishes. The first one of course, the thing to say about that is there's just no reason to think that the existence of values in human society depends on the existence of God. I mean, why should it? There's just no clear logical argument for that, any more than the existence of ears is a reason. There are various aspects of human life - there's art, value, family, there's all sorts of things that we take to be valuable. Why do any of these require us to postulate God to explain their existence?

A more worrying question for many people is, they don't see that morality can have any foundation, can have any absoluteness, unless there's a god to certify it... legitimate it. That's a... you can see that point. It's a point that was discussed by Plato long ago in the Euthyphro argument. And he makes - well I think - Socrates makes a completely compelling refutation of that argument and it simply goes as follows.

The argument, you see, goes like this: Suppose you take as a moral principle, it's wrong to steal. People say, "Why is it wrong to steal?". Answer - because God says it's wrong to steal. God commanded that you should not steal. OK? The point that Socrates makes in that dialogue is to say, "How can God give this moral rule a foundation? Either the moral rule is intrinsically a sound moral rule, or it can't be given soundness and legitimacy from an external command.". Suppose we had the rule "It's right to murder.". Somebody said, "That's not right! Murder is wrong!". And somebody said in reply, "But God says it's right to murder.". That doesn't convince you that it's right to murder. If God says that something is right which isn't right, God's wrong. He can't make something right just by saying it's right. God can only... what God has to do is reflect what's right in his commandments so that's what he really does. It is wrong to steal. It's wrong to steal and wrong to murder. So God says that it's wrong and he's right to say that. Why? Because it IS wrong in the two cases! He doesn't make it wrong by saying it. He can't do that. If that were so, we'd have no reason to respect God's morality...

JM: So God as it were... appropriates our spontaneous and indigenous values...

CM: Yeah...

JM: ...which then get reflected back on this hypothetical entity...

CM: Right...

JM: ...which then seems to validate our beliefs.

CM: Exactly. So we don't need God to validate our moral beliefs - he couldn't validate them. He only... His validations only work insomuch as they correspond to what IS right and in wrong. He can't make something be morally right when it's not.

Another way to put it is, it can't be a matter of God's free decision or whim what's right and wrong. People can see that morality is what it is. They know what they ought to do. But human beings are weak. We have weakness of the will. We don't always do what we know very well we ought to do. And that is... in most people produces the phenomenon of guilt. Guilt is a powerful negative force in people's minds. People hate guilt, right, guilt is a bad feeling. So you need something to prevent guilt. To prevent guilt, you need something to make you do what you know is right, but since human beings are weak, they don't always do what they know is right, but God gives you an extra motive to do what's right, beyond morality itself. Morality gives you a motive, but it's a motive which is rather fragile. Rather... you know... momentary, intermittent and easily broken. But if you've got the idea of God there, it can sort of give it some more oomph, gives it more power, and then you can do what you know is right more easily, more regularly, and that's, you know, perfectly sensible. It's reasonable... it's not unreasonable anyway for an atheist to think that maybe we need God, or people need God, because without God they can't do what they know is right.

I don't believe that myself. I think people are not as morally depraved as religious tradition says. I think most people will do what's right in normal conditions. They won't always of course, but normally they will. They don't need God. And I think people who sometimes have lived with God as their moral support, their moral whatever it is they're getting from it, when they cease to believe in God, they feel that it was not as difficult to be moral afterwards as they suspected it might be. And in fact it was better, because there's a corrupting part to that conception of God, which is the idea that you're doing something good because God will reward you and think well of you. And that's a corrupting idea. It's much better to do something good because it's good, and only because it's good, and that's your only reason for doing it. But the idea you're going to get the warm fuzzy feeling, "Oh, God's really pleased with me today. I did this.", that's not what morality ought to be about.

JM [To the viewer]: Having discussed the various arguments that have been offered in favour of the existence of God, I asked Colin to summarise some of the best reasons for not JM believing.

CM: Well the classic argument against is the problem of evil. This is a... even religious people find this one very uncomfortable. So the argument is simply, God is meant to be a being who is all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good, so how come there is suffering and pain in the world? Why does God allow it? God, obviously if he is all-good, thinks that it's bad that this should occur, would rather it didn't occur, like any decent person would rather it didn't occur, and yet he lets it occur. Now that would be OK if he didn't have the power to change it, but he's meant to be all-powerful. I mean we're told by religious people he intervenes all the time in various ways, so why doesn't he intervene to prevent the death of a child, or the torture of a prisoner? He doesn't do it. So you don't want to conclude from that, "Well God is actually quite bad... quite a bad person.". That's a conceivable conclusion you might draw. But what you conclude from it is the combination of these two characteristics is inconsistent. He's all-good and he's all-powerful - you need all-knowing too of course because he has to know what's going on - but it's essentially the conflict between being all-good and all-powerful and the existence of evil.

The standard reply to that, the apologists of religion will give the reply, "God created human beings with free will.". Now there's the question, why did he do that, knowing the results were going to be horrific? That was a pretty wicked thing to do to start with. But let's put that one aside. The problem with that argument is that not all suffering in the world comes from the exercise of human will. Much of it comes from human... not human, natural catastrophes, or disease, accidents... All sorts of things can cause tremendous suffering in humans... You know, someones born with a genetic disease, no human being had any role in whatsoever in creating that. That comes from nature - God's creation of course, we're told.

So God created a world in which it was inevitable there'd be tremendous suffering on the part of completely innocent human beings.

JM: But there might be religious argument to the effect that he created this obstacle course...

CM: Yep...

JM: ...for his created creatures endowed with free will in order to bring out the best in them.

CM: Yes... and I always... this one to me brings out to me the sort of... hard-hearted, immoral side of this way of thinking about things. Because just think about what's being said when somebody says that. You've got the innocent child with some terrible disease, and God's up there saying, "I really need to test some people here. The obstacle course needs to be put there. Let me just pick on this two year old girl, put her through this terrible ordeal, and I'll test the other people.". I mean, if any human being had told you that's what they'd done - suppose I decided, in my wisdom, "I need to test some people here. I need to improve their moral characters, so I'm going to do this terrible thing to their child.", you know, you'd think I was the wickedest person it the world to do that. Well why isn't God? If that's what God does, I have no respect for him. I think it's a wicked thing to do. God shouldn't do that if God cares about human beings, he should not allow that to happen. to do.

JM [To the viewer]: Having discussed the argument both for and against religion, we turned to speculation as to the reason why so many people still had a need to believe.

CM: I don't think anybody has any very good ideas about why this is, especially why they believe in it to the extent that they do. What I would speculate about it is I think it's less to do with the idea of death and survival of death, and rewards in heaven and punishment in hell. I think it's a sort of cosmic loneliness. I think that's what's behind it. It's hard for people to accept that we are alone, and that nobody cares. Outside of us. I think there's a kind of constitutive reason for that, which is human consciousness is essentially sealed off from other consciousnesses. I'm sealed... mine has sealed off from you. We only know each other indirectly, through the symptoms of the body, and yet we yearn to be in contact with other people. Love is a lot to do with that. So we have this feeling that we are, as conscious, embodied beings, somehow lonely is out essence, cut off in out essence, and that's a feeling that we struggle against. You can see it in literature and so on, dealing with this theme. Frankenstein actually deals with it a lot.

So we feel this sort of metaphysical, existential alone-ness in the universe and God is a wonderful antidote to that, because in the case of God, God, we feel comes directly into our minds, and we're directly in contact with God. You see God doesn't know us through our bodies, God knows us intimately in our minds. And that satisfies a deep craving, I think, in the human soul, right, for communion with something outside the self.

JM: I'd just like to finish with one thing. Here you are, like myself, reluctant to use the word, "atheist" to describe what we are - because it's an accusation, rather than, as it were a conviction, in a country which, in fact, has become more intensely religious. Do you find it difficult to uphold such ideas in the America of the 21st century?

CM: Let me say something about the first point, the label... the label one has. Yeah, to be called an atheist it's a negative view, and it suggests that one is a sort of professional atheist... you spend your life arguing against God, the way Russell did. And I think that's a rather undignified and pointless procedure. Once you've decided there isn't a god, there's not much point in inveighing against it, unless you think that huge harm is done by the belief in God. But you don't... nobody spends their time trying to prove to others that the Greek gods don't exist. You know, you just decide that they don't, and that's the end of the story for you.

So I like to distinguish atheism from antitheism. Antitheism is opposition to theism. I am an antitheist, because I believe that religion is harmful in human life. So I am an antitheist. I'm not just an atheist who... suddenly, my only values are that I don't agree with it. I'm actively opposed to it. But then I distinguish that from what I call post-theism or post-atheism, which is the healthy state of mind where you've put all that behind you. Now we can't do that yet because there's lots of religion in the world, and lots of bad results of it.

But to me, the ideal society would be one where the question of religion didn't really arise for people, or if it did, it wasn't a heavy question for them. They would say to each other, "You know, those humans used to believe, back there in 2003, some of them believed there was this God and he did this... others didn't and they did TV programs about why they didn't. What a funny debate that was!". So it would be a post-theist society, where it just wasn't an issue.

11/23/2006                                                                                       View Comments

Defenders of the Faith

By Slavoj Zizek

For centuries, we have been told that without religion we are no more than egotistic animals fighting for our share, our only morality that of a pack of wolves; only religion, it is said, can elevate us to a higher spiritual level. Today, when religion is emerging as the wellspring of murderous violence around the world, assurances that Christian or Muslim or Hindu fundamentalists are only abusing and perverting the noble spiritual messages of their creeds ring increasingly hollow. What about restoring the dignity of atheism, one of Europe's greatest legacies and perhaps our only chance for peace?

More than a century ago, in "The Brothers Karamazov" and other works, Dostoyevsky warned against the dangers of godless moral nihilism, arguing in essence that if God doesn't exist, then everything is permitted. The French philosopher André Glucksmann even applied Dostoyevsky's critique of godless nihilism to 9/11, as the title of his book, "Dostoyevsky in Manhattan," suggests.

This argument couldn't have been more wrong: the lesson of today's terrorism is that if God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted — at least to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God, since, clearly, a direct link to God justifies the violation of any merely human constraints and considerations. In short, fundamentalists have become no different than the "godless" Stalinist Communists, to whom everything was permitted since they perceived themselves as direct instruments of their divinity, the Historical Necessity of Progress Toward Communism.

During the Seventh Crusade, led by St. Louis, Yves le Breton reported how he once encountered an old woman who wandered down the street with a dish full of fire in her right hand and a bowl full of water in her left hand. Asked why she carried the two bowls, she answered that with the fire she would burn up Paradise until nothing remained of it, and with the water she would put out the fires of Hell until nothing remained of them: "Because I want no one to do good in order to receive the reward of Paradise, or from fear of Hell; but solely out of love for God." Today, this properly Christian ethical stance survives mostly in atheism.

Fundamentalists do what they perceive as good deeds in order to fulfill God's will and to earn salvation; atheists do them simply because it is the right thing to do. Is this also not our most elementary experience of morality? When I do a good deed, I do so not with an eye toward gaining God's favor; I do it because if I did not, I could not look at myself in the mirror. A moral deed is by definition its own reward. David Hume, a believer, made this point in a very poignant way, when he wrote that the only way to show true respect for God is to act morally while ignoring God's existence.

Two years ago, Europeans were debating whether the preamble of the European Constitution should mention Christianity as a key component of the European legacy. As usual, a compromise was worked out, a reference in general terms to the "religious inheritance" of Europe. But where was modern Europe's most precious legacy, that of atheism? What makes modern Europe unique is that it is the first and only civilization in which atheism is a fully legitimate option, not an obstacle to any public post.

Atheism is a European legacy worth fighting for, not least because it creates a safe public space for believers. Consider the debate that raged in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, my home country, as the constitutional controversy simmered: should Muslims (mostly immigrant workers from the old Yugoslav republics) be allowed to build a mosque? While conservatives opposed the mosque for cultural, political and even architectural reasons, the liberal weekly journal Mladina was consistently outspoken in its support for the mosque, in keeping with its concern for the rights of those from other former Yugoslav republics.

Not surprisingly, given its liberal attitudes, Mladina was also one of the few Slovenian publications to reprint the infamous caricatures of Muhammad. And, conversely, those who displayed the greatest "understanding" for the violent Muslim protests those cartoons caused were also the ones who regularly expressed their concern for the fate of Christianity in Europe.

These weird alliances confront Europe's Muslims with a difficult choice: the only political force that does not reduce them to second-class citizens and allows them the space to express their religious identity are the "godless" atheist liberals, while those closest to their religious social practice, their Christian mirror-image, are their greatest political enemies. The paradox is that Muslims' only real allies are not those who first published the caricatures for shock value, but those who, in support of the ideal of freedom of expression, reprinted them.

While a true atheist has no need to boost his own stance by provoking believers with blasphemy, he also refuses to reduce the problem of the Muhammad caricatures to one of respect for other's beliefs. Respect for other's beliefs as the highest value can mean only one of two things: either we treat the other in a patronizing way and avoid hurting him in order not to ruin his illusions, or we adopt the relativist stance of multiple "regimes of truth," disqualifying as violent imposition any clear insistence on truth.

What, however, about submitting Islam — together with all other religions — to a respectful, but for that reason no less ruthless, critical analysis? This, and only this, is the way to show a true respect for Muslims: to treat them as serious adults responsible for their beliefs.

link

Why do Atheists care about Religion?



Description for this video by the author:
Atheists are often asked, "If you don't believe in God, why do you care about religion?" This is one atheist's answer to that very question.

Note... I was recently informed that the quote attributed to former President George Bush, Sr. is in question. He allegedly made the comment when he was Vice-President and campaigning for the Presidency. The statement was heard by one journalist without other verification. I have been informed that the details given by the journalist may have changed over time. I am dedicated to the truth and would not wish to pass on falsehoods.

Along these same lines, I was recently informed by someone that Maryland's statue was changed a long time ago. Atheists are no longer forbidden to hold public office there. However, a different individual told me that the statute is still in effect and that there are other passages in Maryland's laws that adversely affect atheists. Until I have concrete information regarding these things, please take them with a degree of skepticism.

Thank you.

The main music in the video is "Funky Like Humans" by Odd One Out. Song used with permission. The intro music was created by Imrational.

11/22/2006                                                                                       View Comments

The Loftus-Wood Debate is Now on DVD!

By John W. Loftus


What David Wood of http://answeringinfidels.com has called the Loftus-Wood Debate on God and suffering, is now on DVD! The production company did an excellect job. Both David Wood and I have written commentaries on the debate which will be posted before too long at David's website. David informs me he sent a copy to Reginald Finley and it will be aired there as soon as his schedule is open. Look for it.

11/21/2006                                                                                       View Comments

Freeing God of His Maggots

Excerpted from The Evangelical Phenomenon: What is it? How should the rest of us respond? - a panel discussion at Town Hall Seattle on November 16, 2006. These remarks were addressed to an audience of modernist Christians, non-theists, and Jews.

Sometime around 1986, after leading children to Jesus as a counselor at Child Evangelism Camp, after dialing to win souls during the "I Found It" Campaign, after attending the Wheaton College of Billy Graham fame, and after struggling for years to deal with the moral and rational contradictions in my fundamentalist Evangelical faith, I finally got mad at my God and said, "I'm not making excuses for you any more." I walked away, and didn't really look back.

But something is happening around us that is hard to ignore.

Like many others, I have spent much of my adult life honoring a "don't ask, don't tell" rule about religion. But for better or worse, the Religious Right has re-opened a public conversation about moral values and faith in America, even in Seattle. And because that conversation was started by Evangelicals and is largely dominated by Evangelical voices, much of the dialogue is about Evangelicalism itself. Over time I have come to feel a responsibility as an ex-Evangelical to push past my anxieties about conflict and to join that conversation.

Sometimes I talk with my brother, DF, who is still staunch in his beliefs. I don't have to tell you that in recent years our government has undertaken pre-emptive war and the systematic transfer of wealth away from the poor and middle class to the richest members of our society. These are moral matters, and one might hope that they could offer common ground among people who care deeply about morality. In fact, in many cases, they do. Evangelical Jim Wallis, Rabbi Michael Lerner, and humanist Paul Kurtz have found moral common ground here. But on these issues, DF's position is, essentially, "Bush says it, I believe it, and that settles it for me."

DF's a smart guy, and compassionate – a genuinely decent person. I not only love him, I like him. But as fundamentalists, we were taught to approach important questions in a certain way: to defer to hierarchy, to fend off doubt, to trust ideology more than data, to believe that the main thing you need to know about someone's character is whether he is born-again. I don't think that it's a matter of coincidence that DF takes this same approach to his civic responsibilities.

Fundamentalist thinking has profound implications.

A couple years ago, I sat down in Starbucks with an earnest young couple who hoped to win a convert, and they asked me (among other things), "What is the problem you have with the Bible?" And I said, "Well, for starters, there are those verses in Genesis and Joshua where God gives a bunch of land to his favorite blood line, despite the fact that it's already occupied by other herdsmen and subsistence farmers. And he doesn't just allow them--he actually commands them to kill every single man woman and child, even the livestock—except that in some battles they are allowed to keep the virgin girls for themselves."

And the husband, who spoke for the two, said, "You have to understand how evil those people were. They were engaged in human sacrifice, they were, killing children and laying their bodies on the altar of their god, Baal. They were the first abortionists, they had to be destroyed!"

And I said, "Every person? No baby was to innocent, no old person to helpless, no slave too indentured?"

And he said, "Yes. They were like a poison in the land. They would have seeped into the tribes of Israel and contaminated them, destroying their faith in God."

And I said, "But everyone? Can you imagine any village, any place in which every person is so evil that they deserve capital punishment? Every single person, no exceptions?

And, utterly exasperated, he said, "Yes. I feel that way sometimes about Fremont." (Note: Fremont a quirky, artsy suburb of Seattle that hosts a summer solstice parade with naked body-painted bicyclists, belly dancers, space-ship floats, peace activist carrying daisies, and the like.)

I sat there thinking, "Wow, I am in the presence of the human genocidal impulse. And not only am I witnessing it in this otherwise normal, moral person in front of me, I am feeling it in myself, because what he said is so terrifying to me that if I could push a button and make all people like him disappear right now, I would." I don't know if I was more horrified by what I saw in him or myself.

So, what is going on here?

Lots of psychological explanations come to mind. But it occurred to me recently that one piece of the answer has to do simply with our place in history. We are still caught in the Protestant Reformation. Let me tell you what I mean.

From the time of the Apostle Paul, --actually, even before -- Clear back to the Torah, the Prophets and the words of Jesus, part of what you see in Judaism and then Christianity is a struggle to separate tradition/orthodoxy/superstition from whatever transcendent truths may lie beneath. Paul chastises some of the early churches for superstitious rituals, Jesus challenges the way in which the Law has become a God unto itself, the writers of the Torah - in their own context - try to cleanse worship of earlier forms of idolatry.

The Protestant Reformation is another time when this sort of cleaning process took front and center. Even thought Martin Luther and Calvin had some horrible racist and sexist and violent ideas, in their own context, they genuinely were struggling to cleanse Christianity of what they perceived as accumulated superstitions: worshiping saints and relics, paying indulgences, the absolute authority of the papal hierarchy, the sanctification of feudal structures. The Reformation was a time of intense conflict. The reformers were fiery, and the establishment fought back, sometimes with theological arguments, sometimes with torture or executions.


Social psychology teaches us that in interpersonal systems, whether we are talking about a marriage or a whole society, people resist change. Even if, in the long run, change is for the better, it is threatening, and it means some things are lost. People who change get "change-back" messages.

Early in 20th Century – faced with findings in fields as diverse as linguistics, anthropology, psychiatry, physics, and biology, many Christian theologians said, we need to rethink our understanding of the Bible, Jesus, and the Christian faith. A new phase of Reformation was born. Until it went underground following the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, the dialogue was intense and public. It played out not only churches but in the nation's newspapers.

Traditionalists fought back in defense of the fundamental doctrines that had dominated Christianity for almost 1500 years: one god in three persons, original sin and universal sin, the virgin birth, the unique divinity of Jesus, cleansing of sin through blood sacrifice, salvation through right belief, a literal resurrection, a literal heaven and hell. A series of pamphlets entitled "The Fundamentals" reiterated the absolute, unquestionable status of these tenets of orthodoxy. From the title of these pamphlets we get the word "fundamentalism."

At the beginning, people labeled themselves fundamentalists, proudly. Now fundamentalism a dirty word: We talk in negative terms about Islamic Fundamentalism or Free-Market Fundamentalism . . . Fundamentalism is associated with not only unquestioning and absolute adherence to an ideology but also harshness and even violence.

Consequently, I think, we don't recognize theological fundamentalism when it is soft and kind. Today very few Christians self identify as fundamentalists. The torch held aloft by those early self-proclaimed fundamentalists is carried by people who call themselves "Evangelical," "born again," or even simply "Christian" based on their belief that they speak for the one true form of the Christian faith.

Layered on top of this orthodox retrenchment, Evangelicalism as a movement has some characteristics that distinguish it from earlier forms of Christian orthodoxy.

An emphasis on the Great Commission - go into all the world and make disciples of every creature over the great commandment: love the lord your God with all your heart soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.
A particular view of the Bible as the literally perfect and complete revelation of God, essentially dictated by God to the writers - For some Evangelicals, but not all, this has moved several other threads in Christianity from the margins to the center of their faith.
End times Theology- The book of Revelation, with its apocalyptic visions, has become central to the beliefs of many Evangelicals who expect that Jesus will return soon, all true believers will be bodily removed from Earth, and human society will descend into a bloodbath. Tim LaHaye's series of Left Behind novels sold millions and helped to popularize this kind of theology.
Dominionism- In recent years, a subset of Evangelicals has been drawn to the notion that Christians have a responsibility to take hold of the reigns of power in this country and the world and to run our social institutions according to selected biblical principles.

These ideas are being advanced through ever more sophisticated thought modification or communications techniques that draw on the domain expertise of Madison Avenue, small countercultural cults, and Hollywood: High quality multi-media attract the curious and model the group way of thinking and living; belief communities foster dependence and divert charitable impulses toward institutional growth; young recruits receive intensive shepherding , beautiful websites communicate that outsiders exist for the purpose of becoming insiders; and a parallel information economy helps to maintain the orthodox view of reality.

In Africa we have people fighting archaic tribal feuds with 21th Century Weapons
In America, in my opinion, we have people defending archaic tribal doctrines with 21st Century technologies of persuasion.

So, what got me out of the closet as an ex-evangelical?

I think that two key characteristics make this movement dangerous.

One is the value it places on certitude. Our strongest ally in the quest for truth is doubt. Our scientific understandings must ever withstand new tests that have the power to prove them wrong. Our theological understandings are subject to dialogue in the recognition that they are provisional at best, limited by the filter of the human mind, and articulated with words that fail us when we try to describe something as simple as a flower or a fine meal.

Second, as Sam Harris points out, by applying this certitude to the notion of received truth, by embracing the Bible as the definitive moral guide, fundamentalism separates morality from real questions of suffering. Decent people get to the point that they are more worried about sex than war. They put more energy into fighting about public symbols than fighting starvation.


Most Evangelicals I know are genuinely loving people. But if we want to serve the well-being of those around us, it is not enough to be loving. We also have to be right about real world causes and effects. In the name of love, megachurch counselors tell women to submit to men who have broken their bones. In the name of love, parents shame and reject their children who were born gay. Outsiders think of these things as hateful, but many of them are motivate by real love in the hands of people whose moral priorities have been co-opted. Every day, cruelties are perpetrated by those who truly seek to serve the God of Love. A few of them are unspeakable enough to be newsworthy or historic. Jonestown parents gave their kids the Kool-Aide in the service of love, not hate. Conquistadors baptized native infants and then ran them through with swords not out of spite, but to insure them access to heaven.

The only protection we have against horrors such as these is humility, a level of intellectual rigor that forces us to ask those questions that might show us wrong, and real evolutionary dialogue with others who see the world differently than we do. The mindset that I embraced for over twenty years is dangerous because it takes away these safeguards. Absolute certainty about revealed truth dulls our moral instincts and leaves us vulnerable to some of the darkest of human impulses.


******************

Political liberals and theological liberals have some tendency to honor tolerance above all other virtues. We forget that we are tolerant for a reason – because most of the time it serves the well being our fellow humans, the community that binds us together, and the natural order that sustains us. But our strengths and our weakness are always two sides of the same coin. Tolerance can also mean intellectual or moral sloppiness. It can mean that we fall into the habit of speaking hard truths so softly that they cannot be heard. Or not allowing ourselves to speak at all.

Victor Hugo once said:
It is not enough for us to prostrate ourselves under the tree which is Creation,
and to contemplate its tremendous branches filled with stars.
We have a duty to perform, to work upon the human soul,
to defend the mystery against the miracle,
to worship the incomprehensible while rejecting the absurd;
to accept, in the inexplicable, only what is necessary;
to dispel the superstitions that surround religion —
to rid God of His Maggots.

So I want to ask you a hard question. What is your role in ridding God of his maggots? What are your deepest hunches about what is real and what matters? What would it mean for you to join our public dialogue, to be the spokesperson for whatever insights life has given you –to do so knowing that we all are blind men struggling to understand an elephant, but also trusting that your fragments of insight about what is real and what is good are both a sacred responsibility and a gift to us all?

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and the author of The Dark Side: How Evangelical Teachings Corrupt Love and Truth www.lulu.com/tarico.

11/19/2006                                                                                       View Comments

A Christ-less Grave

Having demonstrated a complete apostasy from Christianity, it is apparent that I am bound for a "Christ-less" grave. My purposeless, meaningless, hedonistic life will be snuffed out one day soon where I will be subject to the dark cold oblivion of death. Everything I have built on this Earth will crumble and fall. All the goals and ambitions I thought worth my time will amount to nothing after I am gone. All memory of me will be erased from history all too soon. Any possessions accumulated will be dissipated as those who come afterwards divvy them up between themselves, and I will return to the dust from which I came, rarely to be thought of again. My existential world view offers me no hope of continued conscious existence, no escape from the Grim Reaper's sickle, and no assurance of a higher purpose beyond that shared by the plants and animals. The law of the jungle is the rule of life, and the vain pursuit of pleasure is the only motivation to continue breathing.

In contrast, the Christian has an everlasting purpose, thick with meaning that will never be overcome by the darkness of temporary flesh's demise. The heavenly treasures amassed will not rust nor be destroyed throughout all the never ending encroaching years of eternity. The law of Grace is the rule of life, and the pleasure derived from glorifying God and enjoying HIM forever is the only real stimulus to go on fighting the good fight.

When I was a Christian, I mindlessly nodded my head in agreement to the previous paragraphs, sadly contemplating the worthless lives of those outside the faith while silently meditating on my good fortune to be part of the Elect of God, chosen before the foundation of the world. A management philosophy I learned some years ago while still in the military states concisely that "perception is reality." The conclusions that can be drawn from understanding this simple three-word-truth are far reaching, if someone is interested in understanding one major aspect of how people comprehend reality. For instance, before Hitler came to power in Germany, the Fascists preached their gospel of Antisemitism continuously and persuasively. Over time, the bulk of the population became convinced that the ills in their society could be directly attributed to the Jewish influence in politics, economics, etc. Although this idea may seem incomprehensible to most of us today, many people in pre-WWII Germany, as well as most of the rest of Europe, had that perception firmly planted in their minds. To them, the "Jewish problem," and the need to erase it from existence, was an unarguable reality. History is indelibly marked with other examples like this of the consequences brought about through misguided political ideologies. Closer to home, in the work place, if employees have the opinion that management is evil, ever seeking out new ways to aggressively squeeze more labor out of them without compensation, the general morale will decline, confrontations will escalate, and productivity will suffer. If, however, employees are of the opinion that their employer is an ally, looking out to protect their personal best interests while still attaining business goals, the atmosphere will tend to be one of positive cooperation where people want to come to work. Close personal relationships are deeply affected by the "perception is reality" model. The pathologically jealous husband or wife will virtually tear a love affair to shreds with their suspicions of spousal infidelity, regardless of the actual innocence or guilt of the spouse. It many ways it doesn't matter what the truth is in any of these scenarios. What really matters is what the people involved believe to be true.

Christians believe their lives will go on forever. Christians believe that they have a higher, more meaningful purpose than the rest of humanity, partly from the belief that they serve the one true GOD and partly because they believe their efforts will be rewarded and never taken away from them. As Christians we were all told this — or something similar — so many times that we just came to accept it without thinking. To imagine being doomed to a Christ-less grave was to be stripped of any reason to live. If this life is all we have, say some Christians, then suicide might be preferable to mindlessly struggling against the unconquerable adversary of mortality. One Christian actually said he expected me to commit suicide very soon, since I now had no reason to live. That was three years ago.

Whatever people believe to be true, for them it becomes reality. As the Fascists demonstrated, if you repeat something often enough, people will accept it as true. Generations of propagandists around the world have profited from that very practice. Perceived reality and actual reality are often not in agreement, but it is the perceived version which gives people the impetus for their behavior.

The verifiable reality of being human is that we are all mortal. We have life, given to us by the union of our parents, and we do the best we can with the opportunities presented by our individual circumstances. Every one of us will eventually take a final ride in our own funeral procession; nothing can change that for any of us. People naturally tend to think of the world and its history in relation to their own lives. We usually think of things in the past as "when I was younger" or "back in my day." Elderly people often remark on how things have changed over the years. Of course what they mean is how things have changed in their own lifetimes. When we think about the time before we were born, that's all murky and unreal. Distant historical figures and the details of their respective realities are stories we cannot easily relate to. Many people are bored to tears with reading or thinking about history prior to their own birth. Seeing no relevance to their lives, learning history seems a complete waste of time to many. That lack of interest is easily understandable. Before I was born, I did not exist. Since I did not exist back then, my life is unaffected, and whatever happened back then seems irrelevant, at least at first glance. Now, the outcome of history does affect our lives, to be sure, but what I am trying to draw attention to is something else. The actual experiences of those who came before me, I cannot really share. I wasn't there; I wasn't alive. I did not feel their pain, and I did not feel their joy. I was not excited while they had an adventure; I was not saddened by their tragedy. I did not rejoice with their triumphs; I did not mourn their deaths. I wasn't there, so I didn't know or feel anything at all. I feel no disappointment in that lack of experience. I don't feel anything at all about all the uncountable generations before I was born. Millions of people lived and died before I was born, and although I missed them all, I haven’t felt terribly deprived of missing out on it. Since an apparent eternity is spread out going backwards in time before I was ever born, totally bereft of my individuality and presence, is my life therefore pointless? After I am gone, another incomprehensible expanse of time will follow the point where my life intersected with history. I will miss all that comes after just as I missed all that came before. My contention is that I will suffer just as much from that lack of experience in the future as I have suffered from the lack of experience in the past. In other words, not at all. I won't know about it because I won't be there. I won't be sad about it; I won't be anything at all.

This is not hopelessly sad pessimism; it is just plain reality. Life is not empty because it is not eternal. Life is great, grand, fun, exciting, hard, easy, full, empty or whatever we make of it. As a former Christian I am told by my previous religion that life without Christ is nothing. That is one point of view; that is one "perception." I would tell the Christian that a life spent striving to please an unverifiable mythological being in the hopes of attaining personal survival beyond physical life is not necessarily a better way to spend an all too limited lifespan.

All of us face the same fate, not one of us as human beings will escape the clutches of our own death. Throughout history people have had a difficult time accepting this hard reality and have invented complex religions and rituals to cloud their minds and fool themselves into believing that others may die, but they will go on. The only difference between the Christian in death and everyone else is what the person believes happens when he, she, or they die. There is no evidence of anyone surviving beyond the grave. There is no evidence that humans are significantly different from any other form of life on Earth, except perhaps the capacity of our brains. In every other way we share the fate of every other creature on the planet. The DNA of chimpanzees is so close to that of human beings as to nearly make us close cousins. We are smarter than they are, and more able to adapt and survive both individually and corporately, but we are as mortal as they are. It is arrogance as a species that encourages us to believe we are much more special in the scheme of life.

Coming to grips with the idea of personal mortality does not necessarily lead to a destructive self-absorbed lifestyle devoid of compassion, love, giving, mercy, etc. The reason some Christians think that a life without Christ is empty is because they are so preoccupied with their own personal individual survival into eternity. They reason that if there is no individual continuance beyond death, people should just grab for all the selfish fun they can, no matter the consequences. They reason to themselves that if there is no final judgment, then there is no restraint on heinous behavior. This is a childish and overly simplistic idea. What Christians demonstrate when they posit this nonsense is that they are themselves so selfish that if they are not going to get a big fat reward for all their subservience to deity, then they want to break out and have an orgy of pleasure before they die. They reveal their own innermost and shallow motivations. The greatest humanitarians are not those who do good because they believe that eventually they will be rewarded. The real humanitarian heroes are those who do what they do for the rest of humanity just because they love life, love people, and love making things better for others and the future. Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and a host of other famous non-Christians have contributed immensely to the betterment of humanity in ways that two millennium of Christians have never even attempted.

There is one final destination for us all; there is no difference regardless of our "perception of reality." The Christian believes differently, but has absolutely no evidence to back up their viewpoint other than the hearsay report of a highly suspect, contradictory book of myths. A book, no less, which was written and complied for the stated purpose of keeping adherents in line by using threats of horrific damnation and promises of indistinct rewards.

What is your perception? What is your reality?