Grieving Without Religion

Recently, a long-time reader (thanks, Stacey!) sent me an e-mail with a link to this wrenching story, about a married couple chronicling the grief and anger they've been feeling since their daughter was stillborn in late 2009. By their own account, this tragedy happened in part because they put their trust in irrational thinking and home-birth woo [see below —Ebonmuse], rather than medicine, and didn't go to the hospital until well after it became obvious that they should have. The father, Gabe, has written with searing eloquence about how the death of his infant daughter and the near-death of his wife has reawakened his skepticism:

So I ask myself, why did I keep on trusting birth? Why did I believe in a supernatural aegis of protection? Did I think my family was more special than her parents? Really, I never thought about it, except to be afraid of not knowing what might happen or not being able to control it, and so responding to my fear I would prostrate myself further to this way of thinking. It would decrease my self-examination and in so doing give myself a reassuring rush of comfort, like a hit of opium.

...Now I have this space where faith used to be, not at all convinced that it was ever a virtue. I detest the supernatural explanations for things that used to satisfy me, and I miss the feelings that they used to give me. I sit in the audience at my family's church, which I saw as pleasant and innocuous but not a path to truth before Aquila died, now finding myself powerfully put off by messages everyone else takes as endearing.

If the atheist movement wants to thrive, we need to create a secular community that appeals to people in all walks of life, and to do that, it's essential that we offer help help and support to everyone, whatever their needs. That's why I was glad to get an e-mail from Greta Christina about Grief Beyond Belief, a newly formed nontheistic grief support group that's undoubtedly much needed. (See her post about the launch.)

The Grief Beyond Belief page offers an online support network for people grieving the death of a child, parent, partner, or other loved one -- without belief in a higher power or an afterlife. Atheists, agnostics, humanists and anyone else living without religious beliefs are invited to join and participate on the page. Bereaved people in the process of questioning or letting go of previously held religious beliefs are also welcome to be part of the community and seek support.

In many ways, Grief Beyond Belief resembles other online grief support networks and forums. However, religious grief support -- including prayer, faith in god, and belief in an afterlife -- is not welcome in posts or comments. In this way Grief Beyond Belief offers a safe space for atheists and other non-religious people to share and process the death of a loved one. Recognizing that the death of a loved one sometimes leads to reevaluation of religious beliefs, every effort will be made to make the page accessible to people who are still struggling with these issues. However, the page is not intended as a venue for debate, but as a space for shared compassion and support. While religious believers may participate on the page, they are required to follow these guidelines.

Once a participant has "liked" Grief Beyond Belief, she or he will periodically receive a thought, question, quote or link in her or his News Feed addressing various aspects of grief, often focusing on grieving a death without faith. Participants are also invited to post memories, photos, thoughts, feelings or questions they would like to share, on which other members can comment. In addition, the page serves as a central location on the web where members can link to writing about grief and loss that is coming from an non-religious perspective. Bloggers are strongly encouraged to post links to blog entries on this topic on the Grief Beyond Belief wall.

Grief Beyond Belief's founder, Rebecca Hensler, discovered the need for such a group when seeking support for her own grief after the death of her three-month-old son. "I quickly found a network of parents who were also grieving the deaths of their children at The Compassionate Friends (a 42-year-old parental grief support group). But I often felt alienated by assurances from other members that my son was in heaven or by offers to pray for me, comforts that were kindly meant but that I do not believe and cannot accept. It wasn't until an atheist member reached out to me in friendship that I understood what I had been missing." Hensler soon discovered that she was not the only non-believer who felt a need for safe space to grieve without faith or belief in an afterlife. "I have been particularly moved by the experiences of non-believers who are attempting to heal from loss while surrounded by religious people pressuring them to join or rejoin their religions; at its worst that kind of so-called 'help' can verge on abuse."

The need for faith-free space to share grief and healing has been addressed frequently on atheist blogs, such as Friendly Atheist. (Hemant Mehta. "Are There Resources for Atheist Widows?" *Friendly Atheist*, June 2, 2011.) While a Facebook page may only meet a small portion of that need, Grief Beyond Belief serves to open the door to grieving non-believers seeking community and compassion.

June 24, 2011, 5:45 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink17 comments

Atheists Are Not Fascists

This week, my first article on Alternet was published, which spurred several comments asking that we not forget about libertarian and conservative atheists. That's why it's so amusing that this same week, PZ Myers points out the curious tale of a pundit named Jeff Sparrow, who's convinced that the New Atheist movement is so right-wing and "Islamophobic" as to be verging on fascist:

The so-called New Atheist movement, in which [Christopher] Hitchens is a key figure, is not progressive in the slightest. On the contrary, it represents a rightwing appropriation of a once-radical tradition ...

Although it's been said before, it needs to be said again: "New Atheism" isn't a comprehensive creed. It can't be "appropriated" because no one owns it in the first place. There is no Institute of New Atheism, no authorized journal which promulgates the official New Atheist views. It's more like a statistical average of the views of many people - and despite his contempt for us, Sparrow is notably incurious as to who does make up the New Atheist movement. He doesn't cite any surveys or interview any ordinary atheists on the street. Instead, he assumes that a single individual or a small handful of individuals are diagnostic of an entire movement, and makes no effort to investigate further. If he'd even looked at the rest of the lineup for the convention he's criticizing, he'd see that some of the other headline speakers include individuals who are known for strong progressive views. But somehow, this is completely omitted from his analysis.

I grant that New Atheists don't fit neatly on the usual left-right political axis. For the most part, we're defenders of the secular state, of stem-cell research, of marriage equality, and of reproductive choice. All of these are stereotyped as "liberal" positions (although there's no reason why conservatives and libertarians shouldn't also support them). On the other hand, we don't hesitate to oppose "hate speech" laws, to denounce ignorant and brutal customs like compulsory veiling and female genital cutting, and to proclaim that "culture" is no defense for trespassing on the rights of human beings. In many places, this puts us in the company of right-wing political parties (although, truthfully, any self-respecting liberal or progressive ought to get behind this as well). All this shows is that the usual left-right axis isn't a suitable lens through which to view every social movement.

It's regrettably true that Christopher Hitchens endorsed the Iraq war, a position not shared by the vast majority of atheists. No one else, as far as I know, is defending this position, much less declaring it to be representative of all atheists. The only difference is in how we respond. Sparrow's position, apparently, is that the only acceptable response is to anathematize him and cast him out, and if we don't, then it proves that we must agree with everything he says. This is intellectual McCarthyism at its finest.

Although atheists don't agree on politics, here's one generalization that you can rely on: we don't share Sparrow's instinctive desire to shut out opinions that differ from our own. We'd much rather debate, argue, have it out in public; we're known for that. I've personally seen Hitchens draw fierce opposition from other atheists. But the consensus - which I share - is that he's eloquent enough, intelligent enough, fearless enough that he's worth listening to even when we think he's completely wrong. We trust ourselves to be able to tell the good bits apart from the crazy ones.

Garden Lantern

Image by lapideo.

I acknowledge that there's a historical quirk here, in that some of the best-known atheist speakers and writers hold some views that aren't representative of atheists as a whole. But that just shows that we don't subject our spokespeople to a battery of litmus tests. Rather, we praise them for doing one thing and doing it well - making a strong, public case for atheism, and being among the first to do so - which doesn't necessarily mean we agree with or endorse all of their other views.

To return to an analogy I've used before, the atheist movement is less like building a cathedral, in which there's one master plan which all the builders must follow, and more like the advance of a wild garden. There are many different species of plants, each filling a different niche in the ecosystem, some of them competing fiercely with each other, but all of them playing a role in the pattern of natural succession.

Sparrow is like an explorer who steps into the spreading garden, pricks his hand on a thorn, and angrily concludes that the entire field must be thistles and nettles. If he'd looked around a bit more before jumping to this conclusion, he'd have seen the flowering plants that attract bees and butterflies, the spreading young trees shading cool pools of water, the berries growing ripe and sweet on green bushes. To anyone who takes the time to look around and explore the garden, the diversity is obvious. But if you dislike one plant and just want an excuse to clear-cut, it's obvious why you'd say that there's nothing growing there but weeds.

June 15, 2011, 5:41 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink77 comments

The Value of Autonomy

I've been following this debate between Ross Douthat and Kevin Drum about the morality of assisted suicide. In his latest post, Douthat made a telling, though apparently unintentional, statement:

The slippery slope that I discussed in the column doesn't amount to much if you don't disapprove at all of people deciding to take their own lives. Absent that disapproval (and an accompanying, even-stronger disapproval of the people who assist them), you won't be bothered by... people taking lethal prescriptions in Oregon because they're worried about "losing autonomy" or "being a burden" (both of which are more frequently cited reasons for choosing assisted suicide under Oregon's law than are concerns about physical pain)...

Douthat takes it entirely for granted that the fear of losing autonomy is an insufficient justification for desiring to commit suicide. But why should we believe this?

Not all suffering is purely physical. For a person who's severely disabled, such as with a disease like ALS, to the point of requiring 24-hour nursing care - the point of being unable to speak, to get dressed, to eat, to use the bathroom, even to sit up or roll over in bed without assistance - I would fully understand if that person decided their life had become intolerable and requested help to end it. In fact, it doesn't surprise me at all that people who commit assisted suicide cite loss of autonomy more than pain. Pain can be controlled with drugs, but loss of independence and dignity can't be controlled; and for many people, those things might well be worse than pain.

It's also true that some people who seek assisted suicide aren't "terminally" ill, in the sense that they can be kept alive indefinitely with life-support technology. But there's no reason why the only allowable justification for suicide should be a disease that's inevitably lethal. If the disease itself doesn't kill, but so alters the sufferer's life as to completely preclude future happiness, why shouldn't people be permitted to decide for themselves that they no longer wish to endure it?

Take the case of Edward and Joan Downes, which I wrote about in 2009. Joan Downes had terminal pancreatic cancer; her husband Edward was going blind and deaf, but unlike her, wasn't at imminent risk of death. Nevertheless, he decided that he didn't want to go on living without the woman who had been his love, his caretaker and his constant companion of over fifty years, and the two of them elected to commit suicide together so that they could die in each other's arms. (My eyes still sting a bit when I type that.) That was a poignantly beautiful, even heroic, death, and I hope, when my time comes, that I have one anywhere near as good. If this is the kind of conclusion that Douthat would prefer to see outlawed - if he would take away people's right to write an end to their own stories like the one Edward and Joan Downes did - then his view is cruel and senseless sadism.

Or take Terry Pratchett, who's been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's itself doesn't kill, but the end stages aren't pretty: mood swings, delusions, incontinence and paranoia, ultimately progressing to the complete loss of memory and even the capability for speech. Pratchett has announced his intention to end his life on his own terms, if necessary, when the time is right rather than suffer all this. But in Douthat's criteria, this would be outlawed, and people with Alzheimer's would be required to live as long as possible, regardless of the emotional pain and humiliation caused by loss of identity, regardless of the suffering inflicted on their family by watching a loved one's mind slowly disintegrate. (This, I presume, falls under the heading of "not wanting to be a burden" which, again, Douthat scoffingly dismisses as an illegitimate reason to commit suicide.)

To decide these cases and others, the only real question that needs to be asked is this: Who owns our lives? The humanist view is that we are the owners of our own lives, and we are entitled to end them when we choose. If a person is suffering from mental illness that deranges their reason and gives them an irrational desire to die, we should prevent that, just as we'd (hopefully) prevent a person in the throes of mental illness from taking any other rash and irreversible action. But if a person of sound mind genuinely desires to exit life, we have no moral grounds to stop them, nor to criminalize the actions of those who compassionately help them on the way.

For Douthat and those like him, however, their moral system is built on the basis that a being called God exists, that they know what this being wants, and that they're authorized to act on his behalf. In the name of these beliefs, they would force people to remain alive, force them to endure all the agonies of incurable illness, force them to endure all the humiliations of a disintegrating self, for no gain and no purpose. You couldn't ask for a better proof that religious morality is fundamentally anti-human in its outlook and its spirit.

June 9, 2011, 5:39 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink40 comments

Standing Up for Young Freethinkers

This is another story that broke while I was away in Spain, but I wanted to write about it. I'm sure it will no longer come as news, but it's definitely worth commenting on.

Greta Christina sums it up on Alternet, but in brief: A Louisiana public high school student, Damon Fowler, objected to a prayer that his school planned to have at the graduation ceremony. What followed was a flood of hatred, harassment and violent threats from seemingly the entire town. A teacher at his school openly demeaned him in a newspaper interview, saying that "this is a student who really hasn't contributed anything". Damon's own parents, proving themselves to be the biggest bigots in the entire mob, disowned him and kicked him out of the house. (He's currently living with his brother in Texas. One of the most amazing parts of this is that such an intelligent and principled young man could come from a house where hate and resentment clearly reign supreme.) And to top it off, at the graduation, the school had the prayer anyway.

Damon Fowler isn't the only student activist who's faced a backlash for standing up for the Constitution. In Rhode Island, a high school sophomore named Jessica Ahlquist has spearheaded a campaign to get a large and blatantly illegal "School Prayer" banner removed from her school's auditorium. When the school board refused, she agreed to be named as a plaintiff in an ACLU lawsuit. Again, the response from both students and teachers (not to mention the mayor) was predictable:

The morning after the press release, I walked into homeroom. The first thing I was greeted by were my classmates gossiping about how "mad retarded" I am for doing this. These students mind you, do not speak to me. Here they are passing judgment on me and what I believe without having talked to me for even a second. As I sat down, I said "good morning" to a couple of my peers who did not return the friendly gesture or even acknowledge my existence. During the pledge that morning, the students in my homeroom turned and yelled "Under GOD!" at me. The teacher said and did nothing.

Friendly Atheist has a series of posts about the Rhode Island church-state controversy and Jessica's involvement, including a video interview.

I'm not really surprised that student activists like Damon Fowler and Jessica Ahlquist are bullied, harassed and ostracized by their peers. Most teenagers are insecure and conformist, and they'll take any excuse to punish someone who stands out or acts differently from the crowd. But what's truly disgusting is that the teachers, the parents, the school officials, and the community - the people who are theoretically the mature adults in these situations, the ones who are supposed to know better - joined wholeheartedly in this immature, high-school-esque insulting and belittling of anyone who doesn't conform to arbitrary community standards of expected behavior. At least for them, their obnoxiously public religious beliefs haven't improved their moral sentiments, only multiplied their viciousness toward those who won't wear the expected marks of tribal conformity.

So far, none of this is new - there have always been students and families who bravely stood up to religious imposition in schools, and who were bullied, assaulted or run out of town for it. Just look at AU's roll call of church-state heroes and the backlash they faced from small-minded bullies:

Abington High School's principal... actually wrote a letter to officials at Tufts University, where Ellery had been accepted, labeling him a troublemaker and urging them to deny him admission.

But what's different now - in cases like Damon Fowler's, or Jessica Ahlquist's, or Eric Workman's, or Constance McMillen's, or Matt LaClair's - is that there's a secular community standing behind them. The FFRF has offered Damon a $1000 student activist award, his Facebook page has attracted over 15,000 supporters, and a donation drive on Friendly Atheist raised an astonishing total of over $30,000 to help him pay for college.

This is the most important function that "out" atheists can serve. Many freethinkers, especially the young ones, face unimaginable hatred and hostility just for having the courage to assert their rights. And we can't stop all of it, but we can stand in solidarity with them and let them know that they aren't alone. We can provide a safety net for those who are weighing whether to declare their identity, and by so doing, make them more likely to take that step and further expand and strengthen our community. What the religious bullies want is to force conformity - to make everyone think and behave like they do - and, I have to admit, I enjoy nothing more than the vicarious thrill of showing them that they can't make us bow to them!

June 7, 2011, 5:44 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink19 comments

Adapt or Die

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked.  Adam is on vacation.

My previous two posts on mockery have drawn a lot of criticism, including charges that I am an accommodationist.  If that were the case, the definition of accommodationism had gotten way too broad.  Trying to treat people with respect is different from asserting that their beliefs are true, or, at a minimum, not actively harmful.  Accommodationists have no desire to deconvert Christians or other believers, but there's a lot of room in the atheist movement for people like me, who want to change the minds of the other side and have grave doubts that mockery and disdain are the right tools for our goal.

Most atheists won't meet Christians who have never had their beliefs mocked, so few of us will plausibly shake their confidence by being the first person not to give their claims automatic credence.  There may still be misconceptions you can be the first to correct (I've heard plenty of "Why are you angry at God" and had to explain I don't believe in a God that would attract my ire), but you're less likely to get to a productive conversation about nuances if you open with anger.

And if Christians have been criticized before, why do we expect it will be our sneer that does them in.  After all, even if they aren't particularly well versed in their faith, they've probably heard the Beatitudes, specifically Matthew 5:10-12.

Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

Most Christians are braced for criticism and welcome it.  Whether they see an attack as an opportunity to evangelize, a moment to demonstrate righteousness in defense of their god or a chance to play the victim on the public stage, they're ready to take advantage of it.  And they didn't last for 2000 years by being flat out dumb; their responses have undergone a kind of evolutionary selection.   Almost all Christians have answers to common atheists or denominational questions, so a quippy attack is of limited efficacy.

In the long history of the various Christian traditions, those who couldn't offer something plausible enough to hold on to followers (or those who had unsustainable teachings, cf. the Shakers) died out.  Plenty of smart people have been Christians, and they've had a long time to kludge together apologetic responses to objections.  Sometimes, the relentless expansion of theology results in cruft that I like to label scriptural fanfiction, but the end result is a tangle of ripostes to any entry-level criticism you have to offer.

The simplest (and worst) response are the ones we're most familiar with, the fundamentalists who deny the scientific method, the legitimacy of any kind of statistical analysis, and even any human grasp of causality.  It's well nigh impossible to argue with these people.  You can always try pointing out they trust the conclusions of scientists in their day to day life, and ought to give them credence on bigger questions like evolution or the age of the universe, but you'll find some sects (esp Christian Scientists) have already embraced the reductio ad absurdum you were trying to set up and have rejected any semblance of an intelligible world in the here and now.  You're not likely to get very far with rational argument, and, although mockery may give you a spiteful pleasure, it's not likely to do the self-deceived much good.

Plenty of other Christians believe that their faith is compatible with the more ordinary truths of the world they live in, and they've been working to harmonize their dogma with the data on the ground.  Their answers may be convoluted or unverifiable, but they satisfy the people in the tradition.  It's  no good raising questions and smirking if you can't rebut the next reply.  When atheists overreach, they discredit our whole movement.

Luke of Common Sense Atheism joined Andrew of Evaluating Christianity to make the case that most atheists who debate William Lane Craig shouldn't.  You might know that WLC's arguments are bunk, but if you can't make the case against him cogently and quickly, your smugness hurts our image.  Arrogance can win you an audience, but if you can't back it up with argument, you're handing weapons to the enemy.

If your goal isn't deconversion, or, at the very least, sapping public support for policies sourced in Christian doctrine, then I'm not sure why you're having hostile confrontations in the first place.  Some commenters made the case that the stupidity of our opponents or the harm they do is sufficient justification for holding them up to ridicule.  I disagree.  If you're in it for the bloodsport, knock it off.  It's one thing to take an aggressive stance because you honestly believe you have the best interest of your target at heart and quite another to think that your own intelligence or skepticism entitles you to make the less privileged suffer.

I've spent more of my time here at Daylight Atheism talking about poor deconversion tactics than I planned.  Tomorrow, you can count on a more constructive post on strategy inspired by my recent trip to see Broadway's The Book of Mormon.  In the meantime, I do have a list of three avenues of questioning I offered in argument with a campus ministry group.

May 26, 2011, 10:30 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink40 comments

Whom Should We Mock?

This is a guest post by Leah of Unequally Yoked.  Adam is on vacation.

My last post on Daylight Atheism, asking non-believers to tone down the contempt for Harold Camping and his followers, and many of you disagreed.  Some commenters didn't believe there was anything intrinsically destructive about mocking others, others argued that ridicule was a necessary tactic to help people deconvert.  TommyP commented to say deconversion was catalyzed by the confrontational attitudes of unbelievers, while Elizabeth Esther wrote on her blog that she was alienated by the people outside her cult who treated her beliefs with contempt, so she could not share her doubts with them.

John Loftus and PZ Myers take an extremely confrontational, contemptuous tone towards Christians, and they've caught a lot of flack, both from accommodationists like Chris Mooney and more hard-line atheists.  I'm skeptical about the efficacy of these tactics, but I'd love to hear from commenters like TommyP in more detail about how mockery and contempt helped them give up their old beliefs.  Even if ridicule is helpful, and worth the danger of alienation and unwarranted pride, we should be careful of  adopting condescension as a default approach if we truly want to convince people.  Before you unleash your disdain, think about these factors.

Consider your audience

Assuming that mockery can work as a shock tactic, it still won't do any good if you write a blog for a primarily atheist audience or if you're joking around with non-believing friends.  If your criticism isn't accessible to the people you're ostensibly trying to help, it's hard to defend jeremiads as tactical rather than self-congratulatory.  And I don't think the Christian trolls who frequent atheist blogs promising hell are likely to be reachable enough to justify any rancor as public-spirited.

They have to care about your opinion to be shamed.

For plenty of fundamentalists, the fact that we're criticizing their beliefs is proof that we can't be trusted.  We're either deliberately in league with Satan or sadly deceived.  But even in milder cases, outright contempt is often a bad opening gambit.  You wouldn't be likely to be shaken by the contrary opinions of a complete stranger, so why do you expect a Christian will take your disbelief as disproof?  This kind of strategy is most likely to work with friends or family, who have a reason to want you to think well of them.  But if you already have built up trust and respect, you can probably mound a more nuanced, substantive attack (and if you can't, it's time to hit the books).

What's the marginal utility of your mocking?

The shocking fact of your disagreement will only make an impression of sheltered believers who are unaccustomed to dissent, and most of us won't have the opportunity to try to deconvert them.  For believers who are routinely exposed to criticism, whether the universally mocked Camping or more mainstream religions that still take fire, it's worth asking yourself how it is that your contempt will make a critical difference.  If you doubt it will, your time is probably better spent coordinating lobbying campaigns against culture war legislation or making your own beliefs defensible and accessible than writing invective on the internet.

Don't lose your compassion

If you do take up the weapons of mockery and ridicule, have an eye to your own character.  It's sad when people are dumb or gullible, and it's scary when those people are in power, but the more foolish you think they are, the less culpable they must be for their error, no matter how destructive.  Intervention may be necessary, but the mentally unstable aren't deserving of contempt of hatred, even if their actions harm themselves or others.  Abandon these tactics if they lead you into overweening pride and teach you that your intelligence/upbringing/etc gives you the right to humiliate and punish others.

So, if you're going to take a sarcastic, mocking approach, you'd best make sure:

  1. You're actually being heard by Christians
  2. Who care about your opinion
  3. Who need your unique brand of contempt
  4. and that you can hate the belief while loving the believer

Else, you should probably make a different use of your talents.

May 25, 2011, 6:43 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink42 comments

Join the FFRF's Virtual Billboard Campaign

A few months ago, I mentioned the FFRF's "Out of the Closet" billboard campaign, an effort to put a human face on atheists with ads showing that we're normal, friendly people like everyone else. Today, I'm pleased to announce that the FFRF has expanded this project with a virtual billboard campaign on their website, allowing anyone to create a custom banner with an image and a quote of their choice. (See mine below, or see some of the staff picks on the FFRF website.)

As simple as it is, this may be one of the most effective things we can do to improve our public image and get our message out. The religious right has worked hard to spread poisonous stereotypes about who we are, what we stand for, even what we look like. By associating atheism with a friendly, smiling face that could be your friend or your neighbor, we go a long way toward counteracting those prejudices in the public's conception and making people more likely to listen to what we have to say. If the spirit moves you, go make a billboard yourself, and join the growing horde of out-of-the-closet atheists!

April 27, 2011, 7:57 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink7 comments

Charity Yes, Interfaith No?

We atheists are nothing if not argumentative, and the latest argument is over whether an atheist can or should participate in "interfaith" charitable work. Chris Stedman, a member of the humanist chaplaincy at Harvard, asserts that "we must actualize our commitments to justice and compassion" by participating in interfaith projects as often as possible. Ophelia Benson and Jen McCreight were unimpressed, pointing out that there's something paradoxical in a nonbeliever participating in a movement explicitly based on faith. I especially like Jen's comment:

What do you call interfaith volunteering where atheists participate?


...Atheism is not a faith. In fact, it's the complete absence of faith. Therefore, it is not interfaith.

This is a personal dilemma for me: the Unitarian Universalist church my wife and I attend supports a local food bank called the Interfaith Nutrition Network, and I've donated money to support their efforts in the past. I felt some uneasiness about donating for just this reason, but as the INN is non-sectarian and the need is great, I decided at the time that the potential good to be done outweighed other considerations. I suppose, then, that I either have to declare myself a hypocrite or else conclude that atheists can rightfully participate in interfaith efforts at least sometimes.

Still, something about the notion leaves a bad taste in my mouth. And to be honest, I think it's Chris' scolding, condescending tone. (Yes, I'm making a tone argument!) For one, he describes himself as a former "rejectionist atheist". This is clearly meant as a pejorative, but I can't see how it wouldn't apply to all atheists, unless he means to compare the "bad" atheists who speak out forthrightly about their rejection of religious belief with the "good" atheists who don't. And then there's this:

Can we set aside intellectualizing and debating, even just for a moment, and start putting our money where other people's mouths are? I hear a lot of talk among my fellow Humanists about truth and knowledge - but not yet enough about love and compassion... Until we can show that the nonreligious care just as much about improving the world as the religious do, we've got no business saying that "religion poisons everything."

This treads dangerously close to saying that our arguments against religion are invalid if we don't do as much interfaith charity work as Chris Stedman thinks we should. I happen to agree that everyone should do whatever they reasonably can to make this a better world. But I emphatically deny that this has any bearing on whether one's views on religion are factually correct or should be voiced in public. We can (and should) say that religion poisons everything as often and as loudly as we like, no matter how many dollars we've donated or hours we've volunteered.

There's nothing wrong with atheists working together with religious believers to advance moral goals that we have in common. I've advocated this myself in the past. But when we cooperate with religious groups, we should be very careful to do so as equals. Participating in "interfaith" work undermines this. It means that you're starting out on their turf, and it lends credibility to the harmful frame that faith is necessary as a source of morality - especially when you make a big deal out of how it's essential for atheists to do "interfaith" work. I have an alternative suggestion: Why not just do regular charitable work?

It's not as if we're not doing this already. Atheists have the largest lending group on Kiva. We have the Foundation Beyond Belief and other secular charities. We organize food and clothing drives, book drives, blood drives. We participate in disaster relief.

It's perfectly fine for Chris Stedman to call on atheists to do more, but he should acknowledge these already meaningful and substantial efforts. To do anything less is insulting to the nonbelievers who do work toward making a better world (and, again, reinforces a pernicious religious stereotype that no genuine good can happen that's not done in the name of "faith"). Interfaith work per se isn't necessarily bad, but using it to scold your fellow atheists most definitely is. Rather than trying to prove that we can be good people just like theists, we should just be doing good, in whatever ways the opportunity presents itself. The rest will follow naturally.

April 25, 2011, 8:16 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink20 comments

A Humanist Easter Homily

Today is Easter Sunday, the day when Christians celebrate Jesus' supposed resurrection from the tomb. But though they believe this holiday commemorates a unique and singular event, their timing is suspicious. As you may have noticed, Easter is very close (making some allowances for calendrical drift) to the vernal equinox, the first day of spring.

This strongly suggests that the story of Jesus' death and resurrection is another offshoot of the ancient harvest myth: the story of resurrection invented by primitive people who watched in wonder as seeds were buried in the earth, seemingly consigned to oblivion as if they were dead bodies, only to burst forth into new life. In the ancient world, a pantheon of dying-and-rising savior gods sprang from this belief. The New Testament unintentionally testifies to the origin of its own mythology when it has Jesus incorrectly state, "I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24).

It's not just Christianity that unknowingly beats in time to these ancient agricultural rhythms. I attended a Passover seder earlier this week with my wife's extended family. Throughout the service, I was contemplating how the litany that observant Jews recite every year claims that this holiday is observed to commemorate the Jewish people's ancient deliverance from Egypt. But archaeological evidence shows that the whole story is a pious fiction: they were never enslaved there in the first place. There was no exodus, no wandering in the desert, no genocidal conquest of the promised land; the people we call the Israelites always lived there, they were always neighbors to the Canaanites whom their holy writings despise. It seems more likely that Passover, too, began as a spring festival whose real origins were gradually forgotten as it was pressed into the cause of serving a nationalistic myth.

I think that part of the reason this isn't more obvious to everyone is that modern society is suffering from agricultural estrangement. As the world becomes increasingly urbanized, billions of people spend their lives in cities where they have little, if any, direct contact with nature unless they make a specific effort to seek it out. Agriculture, meanwhile, has become an industrialized endeavor where a few varieties of food crops are grown in enormous monoculture.

But nature in all its tangled complexity can't be treated with the logic of a factory, and our society is paying the price for it: soil erosion and depletion, loss of genetic diversity, extreme vulnerability to changing climate, and a never-ending struggle against fast-evolving pests. I recently read in Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire how modern potato farmers, to protect against late blight - the same fungus that caused the catastrophic Irish famine - spray their crops with an organophosphate fungicide that's so toxic they won't step into the field for any reason for almost a week after spraying.

This battle has already been lost on some fronts. For example, the Gros Michel, once the most popular variety of banana in the world, was wiped out by a fungal disease, and the current favorite, the Cavendish, may be next. In nature, the genetic diversity naturally present in every population usually ensures that at least some individuals will resist any disease or pest; but industrial agriculture, which prefers that every plant be a uniform and genetically perfect clone of every other, makes no allowance for this.

If we had a more decentralized, more diverse agricultural system - one that more closely approximated an ecosystem, rather than an assembly line - we wouldn't be nearly as vulnerable. That's why it makes me glad to see the growing prominence of urban farming, like this organic farm in the Battery district of lower Manhattan, the prevalence of community gardens, or small farms on urban green roofs. Shrinking cities like Detroit have also been experimenting with large-scale urban agriculture, partly to remedy the chronic lack of fresh, healthy produce (Detroit, incredibly, has no major chain supermarkets).

Granted, no major city is likely to ever be fully self-sufficient. It probably doesn't make economic sense for cities to grow all their own food, even with fanciful ideas like vertical farms - essentially, glass skyscrapers turned into giant greenhouses. There will always be economic incentives to grow crops in rural land that's not in as much demand for living space.

But the benefits of decentralized agriculture, including urban farming, would be more than purely economic. It would restore that ancient biophilic connection with nature that so many millions of people have lost, and it would give us a greater sense of where our food comes from and how dependent we are on the earth - that sense of time and space, of season and climate, without which we feel adrift and rootless. The psychological benefits of a green environment are considerable, and it's even possible that it might give more people a rational insight into where some of our species' most popular myths first came from.

April 24, 2011, 9:35 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink40 comments

Another World Creeps In

I'm an atheist, in part, because I'm a moral person.

When I first read the books that are called holy, what I found were countless passages that are abhorrent to the conscience: God drowning the planet in a global flood, massacring the innocent firstborn of Egypt, ordering Abraham to murder his son as a test of faith (and rewarding him for being willing to do it!), commanding the Israelites to wage genocidal war on other tribes, promising to torture nonbelievers in a burning hell forever, ordering the subjugation of women and the killing of gays, and so on and so forth. I find myself unable to give my allegiance to any text that praises such atrocities as virtues, much less to believe that these books were written by a perfectly good and benevolent being.

Liberal and moderate believers tend to deal with this by mythologizing these stories beyond all recognition, but I find this approach to be fundamentally dishonest. However many layers of allegory you bury these tales under, their brutal, violent message still bleeds through. What's worse is that millions of theists go to church every week and read from scripture that still includes these stories unaltered. Why not release a new version of the Bible, one edited to reflect our evolving moral understanding, that omits them altogether?

But whatever the flaws of this approach, at least it tacitly concedes that these stories are immoral, their messages unacceptable. Other believers, some of whom I've been talking to in the last few days, take a different approach. They say that there's another life, by comparison with which everything in this life is inconsequential, and any action God takes - up to and including the violent killing of children - is justified if it ushers souls to a better destiny in this other existence. Here's one shining example from a recent post of mine:

...according to Christianity, death isn't the end of the story. What if, instead of "God ordered the Hebrews to kill the Canaanites", we read it as "God ordered the Hebrews to teleport the Canaanites from the desert to a land of eternal happiness where everyone gets a pony"? Does that change the verdict? Granted, the particular mechanism of teleportation in this case is downright unpleasant, but compared to eternity, it amounts to stubbing your toe while you step onto the transport pad.

The problem with this apologetic is that it has no limits. It can't be contained to the handful of troubling cases where the apologists want to use it; like a river in flood, it inevitably bursts its banks and starts to rise and sweep away all firmly rooted moral conclusions. After all, what act could not be justified by saying that it creates a greater, invisible good in a world hidden from us? What evil deed could this not excuse? The same reasoning that's used to defend violence, killing and holy war in religious scripture can just as easily be used to defend violence, killing and holy war in the real world.

Garden Lantern

Image by lapideo.

To a humanist who takes this world as the standard of value, morality generally isn't difficult or complicated. There are wrenching cases where real and significant interests collide and force us to make painful choices, but for the vast majority of everyday interactions, it's perfectly obvious what the moral course is. In the light of rational humanism, we can see morality bright and clear, like looking out at a beautiful garden through a glass patio door.

But when you introduce another world, one whose existence must be taken entirely on faith but which is held to far surpass our world in importance, your moral system becomes weirdly distorted. That other world seeps in like smoke, like fog beading on the windowpane, obscuring our view of the garden outside and replacing clear shape and form with strange and twisted mirages. Like a universal acid, it dissolves all notions of right and wrong, and what we're left with is a kind of nihilism, a moral void where any action can be justified as easily as any other.

This is what Sam Harris means when he says moderates give cover to violent fundamentalism; this is what Christopher Hitchens means when he says religion poisons everything. At one moment, these religious apologists seem like perfectly normal, civic-minded, compassionate people. But ask the right question and they instantly turn into glassy-eyed psychopaths, people who say without a flicker of conscience that yes, sometimes God does command his followers to violently massacre families and exterminate entire cultures, and the only reason they're not doing this themselves is because God hasn't yet commanded them to.

These beliefs have wreaked untold havoc on the world. This is the logic of crusade and jihad, of death camps and gas chambers, of suicide bombers detonating themselves on buses, of inquisitors stretching bodies on the rack, of screaming mobs stoning women to death in the town square, of hijacked airplanes crashing into buildings, of cheering crowds turning out to see heretics being burned at the stake. They all rely on the same justifications: God is perfectly in the right working his will through intermediaries; God is not subject to our moral judgments and his ways aren't to be questioned; God is the creator of life and he can take it away whenever he chooses; and if any of these people were innocent, God will make it up to them anyway. These are the beliefs which ensured that most of human history was a bloodstained chronicle of savagery and darkness.

Only lately, and only through heroic effort, have we begun to rise above this. Only in a few rare instances have people come to the realization that this life matters most. And still we humanists, who see morality as a tangible matter of human flourishing and happiness, must contend with the fanatics who shrug at evil, or actively perpetuate it, in the name of the divine voices they imagine that they're obeying. They rampage through the world, killing and burning and insisting all the while that they're doing God's will. And the crowning absurdity of it all is that they insist not just that their beliefs make them moral, but that they're the only ones who are moral, and that we, the ones who value and cherish this world, are the nihilists!

Here's another apologist from the same thread I quoted earlier, the one comparing ancient Hebrews impaling Canaanite babies on spears and chopping them up with axes to the slight pain of a stubbed toe:

What is at issue is that atheism per atheism does not really allow for things such as morals at all...

What in the world is so bigoted about stating the incongruity between atheism and morality?

The black-is-white, up-is-down audacity of this claim shows how severely religion can warp a believer's moral compass, to the point where they're willing to defend genocide as good and condemn those who don't share that opinion as evil. I say again: I'm an atheist, in part, because I'm a moral person, and because I value human beings and the world we live in more highly than the dictates of ancient, bloody fairytales. Come what may, I see the garden of human value in the light of reality, and no apologist for genocide and destruction will ever convince me that I should instead look for guidance in the fog.

April 15, 2011, 5:47 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink21 comments

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