Curiosity as a Purpose of Life

One of the most common questions religious believers ask atheists is where we find purpose in life, what makes our existence meaningful and worthwhile. I've written about this subject on Ebon Musings, but I want to add to my answer. Both atheists and theists can give the usual answer of wanting to do good in the world, helping our fellow human beings and so on, but I've realized that atheists can offer another answer, something that believers genuinely can't say: atheists are inspired to go on living by curiosity. We want to know who we are and why is it that we're here.

In a proximate sense, of course, we do know the answer to this question. The evidence tells us that our species arose several million years ago, descended from hominid forebears. Through excavating fossils and comparing DNA, we can trace our evolution back through early mammals, through therapsid reptiles, through the first tetrapods, almost all the way back to the origin of life. Our family roots aren't in doubt. But in a larger sense, we want to know: is there a reason why the universe exists? Is there a reason why it's the way we experience it, and not some other way - was there any necessity to the whole scheme, or was it just chance? What else (or who else) is out there in the cosmos that we haven't yet discovered? What will be the fate of humanity, and what role will we play in whatever's to come?

These questions must have answers, and they may be answers that we can find out. But in the meantime, they're great mysteries, tantalizing us with the promise of unseen truth, awaiting discovery like hidden treasure. We're motivated to live because we want to witness the joy of finding out. We want to see what the answers will be, and when it comes to our own future, we can even help create them. In the atheist worldview, the universe is like a wiki, and it's our task to cooperate in writing it - to uncover the truth, tell the as-yet-untold story of existence, and define our place in it for ourselves.

Members of organized religion, by contrast, can't say this. They believe that they already possess final truth about the reason for the universe's existence: God created it to glorify himself, and humans to worship him and have fellowship with him. They believe that nothing else we could learn, nothing we could ever find out, is as true or as important as these central dogmas. And they believe that the future, if not already foreordained, will inevitably unfold in accordance with God's omnipotent will, and nothing we can do will change the outcome. To them, the universe is a final draft, a closed canon; we're just characters in a script, and the ending has been written since the beginning of time.

But even if we don't know the true answers yet, we can be certain that these ancient, anthropomorphic religions clearly aren't them. These beliefs are too human-centered, too small; they reflect the narrow, provincial perspective and overblown self-importance of their creators in according humanity a privileged and central place in the workings of the cosmos. Even more ridiculous, they postulate not a creator worthy of the vastness we observe, but a pathetic and irrational creature that thinks and acts just like the alpha male of a chimpanzee tribe: benevolent toward his obedient servants, violent towards strangers and outsiders, jealous and obsessed with whether everyone is paying him sufficient homage, constantly fearful of competition. These primate instincts don't define the universe.

But then, what does? What's the deeper meaning that underlies it all? Is there some sort of intentionality, some incomprehensible sentience that constructed the universe for a purpose unimaginable to us? Or is nature truly blind and insentient, and it's simply inherent in the nature of complex and dynamic systems to give rise to local condensations of complexity like us? Is our cosmos the only one there is, or do we live in a quantum multiverse where our world and our lives are just one winding pathway in an infinite set of ever-branching ramifications? Are we someone else's dream, simulation, or science experiment? Is intelligent life common in the cosmos, or incredibly rare and precious?

These questions are staggering, but I don't find it inconceivable that someday we, or our distant descendants, will be able to answer them. Even if we'll never know, I want to be able to say that we gave the attempt our greatest effort. This curiosity, the urge to reflect, to explore and to know, is a sort of hunger, and trying to sate it is part of what gives my life meaning and drives me onward.

March 9, 2011, 6:57 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink42 comments

An Open Letter to Jeremy Stangroom

Dear Mr. Stangroom:

It's come to my attention that you've recently devoted your blog to the purpose of highlighting uncivil statements by the so-called New Atheists. This is a laudable pursuit, as I strongly believe that the world needs to know exactly who these people are and what they stand for. To that end, may I submit some statements from my own blog, Daylight Atheism, for your consideration? After all, if you're showcasing the viciousness and rudeness of outspoken atheists, I wouldn't want to be overlooked.

"As you'd expect, most doctors [in Catholic hospitals] suffer agonies of conscience when forbidden to save the life of a dying woman... regardless of the actual outcomes, these accounts show the Catholic hierarchy's cold, callous attitude. Whether a woman dies is of no importance to them, so long as their dogma is respected, and they're ready and willing to enforce that on every woman who comes into their power. The most hideous absurdity is that these monsters have the audacity to label themselves 'pro-life', when their beliefs have the exact opposite effect in practice."

"In all these stories, we're hearing the shrill screams of Christians who've discovered that they're not the only ones allowed to speak in public, and are furious over the perceived loss of that privilege. It doesn't matter what the actual message atheists are promoting is. No matter how meek, how inoffensive, how conciliatory we make it, its mere existence will draw hatred and fury from religious bigots, because they really want is for us not to exist. Nothing less will satisfy them."

"It's no wonder that so many believers react with outrage and try to censor us when atheists unapologetically stand up and proclaim our existence - especially if the message is that the godless can be good people too. As peaceable as that is, from the standpoint of religious culture warriors, it's the most dangerous message we can possibly convey."

"Ridicule has its uses: If skillfully deployed in an argument, it can be more persuasive than anything else - nothing gets someone on your side like making them laugh. It helps break down the stifling aura of solemnity and respect that religions have convinced themselves they deserve, and that they use to smother legitimate criticism. And it communicates, more eloquently than any cool and dispassionate argument ever could, that it's okay not to believe this stuff!"

"The one thing that absolutely terrifies a prejudiced majority is anger, no matter how righteous or how justified, from any oppressed or marginalized group. That's why any member of such a group who does express anger for any reason whatsoever will immediately be tarred with the standard, well-worn insults used to belittle and dismiss the speaker's concerns and equate their passion for justice to irrational insanity... The reason why they do this is obvious: because a movement led by its least ambitious, most conciliatory members isn't going to get anything done. The guardians of tone are really the guardians of popular prejudice, concern-trolling for all they're worth in an effort to prevent us from making anything more than cosmetic changes. They counsel us to be meek, to be mild, to be small and bland and inoffensive, because that makes it much easier to ignore us altogether."

Thanks for your consideration! I hope you'll post about some of these statements, as it would be just awful if I was allowed to get away with saying such things in public.

Adam Lee

UPDATE: I get a response!

March 3, 2011, 7:29 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink27 comments

Atheism Is Breaking Out All Over

Right around the time I received James A. Haught's editorial "Fading Faith", I was working on a similar post of my own. It was motivated by the brutal murder of Salman Taseer and the other signs that religious eliminationism is growing throughout the world, which drove me to wonder if there's any reason left to hope. Although recent events argue persuasively that the liberal spirit is alive and well, I think there's still room for this post as well: evidence that atheism is breaking out all over, and that a secular spirit is rising throughout the industrialized world.

In many ways, the U.K. is at the epicenter. Even the guardians of orthodoxy have noticed, as in this article from Nick Spencer lamenting how "the overwhelming feeling [toward Christianity] is one of disinterest and disengagement" among Generation Y. This essay by Johann Hari, deploring the guaranteed seats in Parliament for clerics, expresses a more positive perspective on the same news:

Britain is one of the most blessedly irreligious societies on Earth... The British Social Attitudes Survey, the most detailed study of public opinion, found that 59 per cent of us say we are not religious.

As in Britain, so in Germany: 60% of Berlin residents are nonreligious. Even more inspiring was the news that, after the brutal 2006 "honor killing" of a Turkish woman, the city government introduced a secular ethics class to the public school curriculum. When religious interest groups pressed for a ballot initiative to add a religion class as an alternative to the ethics class, that referendum was soundly defeated by voters.

Similarly, a recent census in Melbourne, Australia found that 32% of the city's 3.6 million residents identified as nonreligious, and 13% as atheists. (The article didn't make it clear whether these were overlapping categories.)

Even in Indonesia, atheists are using the internet to find each other and organize. Although this movement is just getting off the ground and isn't as large as in Western countries, it's still an achievement worth recognizing - especially in a Muslim-majority country where every citizen is required to carry an identity card stating their religion, and for which only six officially recognized options are allowed, atheism not among them.

It was such a stigma that prompted a 35-year-old teacher from West Sumatra, known online as "XYZMan," to start an email mailing list in 2004 to allow atheists to discuss their beliefs. The list now has more than 350 members.

Despite the success of the mailing list, XYZMan said he is forced to keep his own atheism secret in the real world...

"If everyone knew that I'm an atheist, I could lose my job, my family would hate me and also some friends," he said in an email interview.

"It's also more likely that I could be physically attacked or killed because I'm a kafir (unbeliever) and my blood is halal (allowed to be spilled) according to Islam."

And last but not least, that wealthy bastion of religious fundamentalism, the U.S. The slow decline of all Christian denominations, accompanied by the steady growth of the unaffiliated, has long been noted by demographers (see the charts and graphs in the linked article). But even more pertinently, it's not just our absolute numbers that are growing, it's our electoral clout:

In every presidential election since 1988... the ranks of what pollsters call "the religiously unaffiliated" has grown. In 2008, some 12% of the electorate - or 15 million voters - identified themselves as nonbelievers. That's bigger than the Latino vote (9%), the gay vote (4%), or the Jewish vote (2%), and it's competitive with the African American vote (13%).

There's also this excellent article detailing the growth of atheist political organization, with welcome coverage of groups like the Secular Coalition for America, representing our interests in Washington, or the Secular Student Alliance, organizing the next generation of freethinkers in colleges and high schools across the country (despite resistance from bigots). This may be the most important part of the atheist movement - creating an infrastructure that can absorb our growth and make us a visible social force, rather than an amorphous collection of individuals. Such an organization could effectively speak out for the rights of nonbelievers around the world and forcefully advocate all the causes that freethinkers should care about.

March 2, 2011, 6:45 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink15 comments

A Milestone for the Foundation Beyond Belief

[Editor's Note: In the past, I've written about how it will advance the atheist movement for those of us who have the means to make charitable donations that serve as a positive, collective expression of our worldview. Specifically, I've written often about the Foundation Beyond Belief, a clever and worthwhile meta-charity, to praise their work and encourage freethinkers to support them. I'm happy to reprint this press release announcing the FBB's achievement of a major milestone. —Ebonmuse]

Early Thursday morning, total donations from the members of Foundation Beyond Belief to our featured charities quietly surpassed $100,000.

Foundation Beyond Belief

That money has done a lot of good in our one and only world - feeding the hungry, educating children, providing access to health care, protecting biodiversity, fighting climate change, and supporting organizations that work for peace and basic human rights.

One of the central ethics of humanism is mutual care and responsibility. In the absence of a supernatural caretaker, we know that the responsibility for improving this world rests where it always has - with the people who live, think, feel, and act in that world.

The humanists in this unique philanthropic community have made the choice to step forward, becoming more active in creating a better world as an expression of our worldview. For the remainder of 2011, we'll be working to increase our impact even more, connecting our members more tangibly to the work of our beneficiaries and increasing our own direct efforts through a humanist volunteer corps.

In the meantime, thanks so much for your help in reaching this landmark. And on we go to the next!

Dale McGowan
Executive Director

February 25, 2011, 12:59 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink2 comments

On Taking Offense, and the Easiness Thereof

I wanted to point out this comment from an ongoing discussion, because it's such a perfect example of the kind of Christian privilege that American believers take for granted:

Well, I guess you atheists are more easily offended than me. I do not see how a statue of the Ten Commandments makes anyone a second-class citizen.

It's certainly easy, isn't it, for a Christian to proclaim that he wouldn't be offended by government-sponsored denigration of his beliefs, because he's never experienced it. I'm guessing this commenter has never had a stake in important litigation where, in order to have his case heard, he has to pass through courthouse doors beneath a massive sign reading "THOU SHALT NOT BELIEVE IN GOD". He's never had to buy and sell things using currency that reads "In Atheism We Trust", or be expected to pledge his patriotism with an affirmation containing the words "one nation under no gods". He's never had to lobby for his rights before a Congress where only one member is an outspoken Christian and most of the rest proclaim that Christians are vile radicals who are unfit for public office. He's never been told by his elected officials that he has no right to have them represent him, or told by one of the top jurists in the land that the law "permits the disregard" of his viewpoint.

But atheists do face equivalents of all these bigotries, and more besides. Ten Commandments monuments in courthouses are part of this, and are a reminder of the countless ways in which American believers consign atheists to second-class status.

And on that note, I have to comment on a related topic. There's a great, thriving atheist community on Reddit, and I've gotten a lot of hits and feedback from posting my articles there. They've even accomplished some truly great and tangible things, like raising over $40,000 for Doctors Without Borders. It's never occurred to me that any atheist would feel unwelcome there, at least until I saw these two posts on Jen McCreight's blog.

Whenever I see that I got an uptick in traffic from reddit, I'm always afraid to go check the link. Because inevitably when someone links to my blog, many of the comments will be disparaging remarks about my gender or looks. Hell, even some of the positive comments are about my gender or looks, which are still annoying - can we please comment about the content, and not my boobs, please?

As you might expect, this resulted in a flood of comments from outraged males. Quite a few of these explained that for the grievous act of having a blog which is openly female, which doesn't try to hide that the author is a woman, she should expect to be the target of sexist leering. Here's one stellar specimen from Reddit:

Author at the Presidio

Fig. 1: I will not have my opinions dismissed for posting this.

It's the equivalent of a woman dressing up like a prostitute, giving a dissertation on Lawrence Krauss's "A Universe From Nothing" while dancing on a stripping pole, and then being surprised that someone mentions something other than Krauss's speech.

Let's leave aside, for the moment, the fact that Jen's picture includes the top third of her torso, and that this is equated to "dressing up like a prostitute" and "dancing on a stripping pole". There are plenty of popular male atheists who have pictures of themselves prominently featured on their blogs, but who (I'm guessing) hardly ever have this used against them as an excuse to dismiss or belittle their arguments. It's women and women alone who can expect condescension and hostility merely for making it obvious what gender they are. Or as another Reddit poster put it:

You need thicker skin. It seems like you are looking to be victimized.

What this person obviously meant to say was, "By being openly female, you are looking to be victimized." It rather puts the lie to the other commenters who said they've never noticed sexism on Reddit, doesn't it?

Of course, there will always be emotionally stunted trolls who think it's the height of wit to make sexist or racist comments and then chortle heartily if they get an outraged response. The internet, like every other human gathering place, has its troglodytes, its bigots and its yobs (which is a fantastic Britishism and I'm officially stealing it). The real issue is how the larger community responds. Does it agree that sexism is unacceptable and say so firmly? Or does it deny, minimize, or attempt to deflect responsibility? Does it belittle the woman who's targeted, tell her that it's "no big deal" and she should just "get over it", or worst of all, tell her that she brought it on herself and call her a sexist for pointing it out? (This is the kind of I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I schoolyard taunting that said trolls think of as brilliant repartee.)

This is how we make the atheist community larger and stronger: when someone feels unwelcome, we take the time to find out why, and if there's something happening that makes them feel excluded, we fix it. If you instead pour scorn on the person who speaks up, if you call them thin-skinned, easily offended, a chronic troublemaker - this is the response of bigotry, and since it's something atheists have so often been on the receiving end of, we ought to understand that. If we want the atheist movement to be a coherent force that can effectively challenge theocratic intrusion and religious privilege, we need to stop pushing people away, and start making sure that anyone who's on our side feels welcome among us.

February 5, 2011, 11:21 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink55 comments

Fading Faith: The Rise of the Secular Age

By James A. Haught

[Editor's Note: I'm proud to feature the writing of James Haught on Daylight Atheism. Mr. Haught has been an editor and columnist for the Charleston Gazette for over fifty years, as well as an eloquent and prolific freethinker and author of books like Holy Horrors. I've been a fan of his ever since I discovered him, through the Freedom from Religion Foundation, soon after becoming an atheist myself. You can read more of his work at his own website, To Question is the Answer, or in this interview on The Eloquent Atheist. This essay is from his latest book, also called Fading Faith, and is reprinted by his permission. —Ebonmuse]

Philosopher-historian Will Durant called it "the basic event of modern times." He didn't mean the world wars, or the end of colonialism, or the rise of electronics. He was talking about the decline of religion in Western democracies.

The great mentor saw subsiding faith as the most profound occurrence of the past century - a shift of Western civilization, rather like former transitions away from the age of kings, the era of slavery and such epochs.

Since World War II, worship has dwindled starkly in Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan and other advanced democracies. In those busy places, only 5 or 10 percent of adults now attend church. Secular society scurries along heedlessly.

Pope Benedict XVI protested: "Europe has developed a culture that, in a manner unknown before now to humanity, excludes God from the public conscience." Columnist George Will called the Vatican "109 acres of faith in a European sea of unbelief."

America seems an exception. This country has 350,000 churches whose members donate $100 billion per year. The United States teems with booming megachurches, gigantic sales of "Rapture" books, fundamentalist attacks on evolution, hundred-million-dollar TV ministries, talking-in-tongues Pentecostals, the white evangelical "religious right" attached to the Republican Party, and the like.

But quietly, under the radar, much of America slowly is following the path previously taken by Europe. Little noticed, secularism keeps climbing in the United States. Here's the evidence:

Rising "nones." Various polls find a strong increase in the number of Americans - especially the young - who answer "none" when asked their religion. In 1990, this group had climbed to 8 percent, and by 2008, it had doubled to 15 percent - plus another 5 percent who answer "don't know." This implies that around 45 million U.S. adults today lack church affiliation. In Hawaii, more than half say they have no church connection.

Mainline losses. America's traditional Protestant churches - "tall steeple" denominations with seminary-trained clergy - once dominated U.S. culture. They were the essence of America. But their membership is collapsing. Over the past half-century, while the U.S. population doubled, United Methodists fell from 11 million to 7.9 million, Episcopalians dropped from 3.4 million to 2 million, the Presbyterian Church USA sank from 4.1 million to 2.2 million, etc. The religious journal First Things - noting that mainline faiths dwindled from 50 percent of the adult U.S. population to a mere 8 percent - lamented that "the Great Church of America has come to an end." A researcher at the Ashbrook think-tank dubbed it "Flatline Protestantism."

Catholic losses. Although Hispanic immigration resupplies U.S. Catholicism with replacements, many former adherents have drifted from the giant church. The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey found that 20 million Americans have quit Catholicism - thus one-tenth of U.S. adults now are ex-Catholics.

Fading taboos. A half-century ago, church-backed laws had power in America. In the 1950s, it was a crime to look at the equivalent of a Playboy magazine or R-rated movie - or for stores to open on the Sabbath - or to buy a cocktail or lottery ticket - or to sell birth-control devices in some states - or to be homosexual - or to terminate a pregnancy - or to read a sexy novel - or for an unwed couple to share a bedroom. Now all those morality laws have fallen, one after another. Currently, state after state is legalizing gay marriage, despite church outrage.

Sociologists are fascinated by America's secular shift. Dr. Robert Putnam of Harvard, author of "Bowling Alone," found as many as 40 percent of young Americans answering "none" to faith surveys. "It's a huge change, a stunning development," he said. "That is the future of America." He joined Dr. David Campbell of Notre Dame in writing a new book, "American Grace," that outlines the trend. Putnam's Social Capital site sums up: "Young Americans are dropping out of religion at an alarming rate of five to six times the historic rate."

Oddly, males outnumber females among the churchless. "The ratio of 60 males to 40 females is a remarkable result," the 2008 ARIS poll reported. "These gender patterns correspond with many earlier findings that show women to be more religious than men."

Growing secularism has political implications. The Republican Party may suffer as the white evangelical "religious right" shrinks. In contrast, burgeoning "nones" tend to vote Democratic. Sociologist Ruy Teixeira says the steady rise of the unaffiliated, plus swelling minorities, means that "by the 2016 election (or 2020 at the outside) the United States will have ceased to be a white Christian nation. Looking even farther down the road, white Christians will be only around 35 percent of the population by 2040, and conservative white Christians, who have been such a critical part of the Republican base, will be only about a third of that - a minority within a minority."

Gradually, decade by decade, religion is moving from the advanced First World to the less-developed Third World. Faith retains enormous power in Muslim lands. Pentecostalism is booming in Africa and South America. Yet the West steadily turns more secular.

Arguably, it's one of the biggest news stories during our lives - although most of us are too busy to notice. Durant may have been correct when he wrote that it is the basic event of modern times.

February 4, 2011, 6:20 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink14 comments

Encouraging Diversity in Atheism

I wrote last month about the importance of making non-white atheists feel welcome. I intend to continue banging that drum, and now I again have occasion to do so, thanks to this article from Religion News Service, "Atheists' Diversity Woes Have No Black-and-White Answers".

This article complements the last one I discussed. Alom Shaha's essay was about being a person of color and an atheist, looking at the community from the inside. This one is more about looking in from the outside, how the atheist movement appears to the wider world when viewed through the lens of racial diversity. It also chronicles the struggles of some minority atheists to find a face like their own in a sea of white males:

"Anytime you go to an atheist meeting, it tends to be predominantly male and white. We know that," said Blair Scott, national affiliate director for American Atheists, which has 131 affiliate groups. "We go out of our way to encourage participation by females and minorities. The problem is getting those people out (of the closet as atheists) in the first place."

...But diversity remains elusive. As of late December, American Atheist magazine hadn't been able to find enough black atheist writers to fill a special Black History Month edition for February. In another telling sign, the Council for Secular Humanism tried in vain to present a diverse array of speakers at its four-day October conference in Los Angeles. Most of the 300 attendees were white men, as were 23 of the 26 speakers.

It's important to emphasize that this is not solely an atheist problem. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that Sunday at 11 A.M. was "the most segregated hour in this nation", and the evidence suggests that little has changed. According to research, only 5% of American churches are racially integrated, and half of those are in the process of becoming all-black or all-white. Still, that doesn't mean that we as atheists have no responsibility to address this issue - and at least most religious denominations have substantial black memberships, even if they don't often mingle with white churchgoers.

Why is the atheist movement so racially homogeneous? The article mentions the theory I find most plausible: that the power of religion in minority communities is a cultural legacy of racism. In the past, racial and ethnic groups that faced hatred and hostility from a deeply prejudiced larger society turned to religion to encourage social coherence as a means of protection - an attempt to evoke sympathy and fellow-feeling from those who'd otherwise be biased against them. Even today, when minorities have greater legal protection, this attitude persists and leads to intense suspicion and exclusion of anyone who doesn't conform to the community norms. (Writers such as Sikivu Hutchinson have suggested a similar explanation.)

There are two lessons that I think should be drawn here, and one is that we don't have unlimited time to get this right. Stereotypes like this have a nasty habit of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies; after all, if "everyone knows" that all atheists are white people, that's likely to discourage blacks, Latinos, and members of other minority groups from wanting to join us. (And if that conclusion doesn't occur to them on their own, religious apologists will be happy to suggest it.) Atheism as a movement is still in its early stages, which makes it even more important that we take the effort and pay attention to diversifying now. It's an effort that'll bear fruit in the long run.

The other is that this isn't a problem white atheists can solve on our own. We can and should do everything possible to present an inclusive and welcoming environment to atheists who are minorities, and ensure that they don't feel out of place; and when they do speak up, we should do everything in our power to support them. There's more progress to be made on all those fronts. However, the only way that religion's power in minority communities will ultimately be broken will be if people who are members of those communities come out as atheists and push back against social pressure to conform.

Fortunately, there are signs that this situation is changing. These efforts are still in their beginning steps, but existing atheist and humanist groups are realizing the value of championing diversity, and people of color are organizing themselves as well:

A new group, Black Atheists of America, drew about 25 attendees at its first national meeting in October. Also last year, the Institute for Humanist Studies was born in Washington, D.C. with a goal of helping atheism become more diverse.

...some activists like [Alix] Jules are holding to a vision of integration. He chairs a newly formed diversity council for the Dallas Coalition for Reason, which includes the area's 15 atheist groups. Last year, the coalition started targeted outreach campaigns to minority groups... Dallas' Fellowship of Free Thought used to be almost exclusively white, Jules said, but now the group counts members with black, Hispanic and Middle Eastern backgrounds, including former Muslims.

If we keep at it, these efforts will naturally blend together, leading to an atheist movement that looks more like society in general and that incorporates a broader range of backgrounds and viewpoints. And that, in turn, means we'll be able to more persuasively appeal to a larger number of people, speaking to them in the cultural language they're most familiar with and phrasing our message in a way that more strongly resonates with their own concerns. In short, encouraging diversity in atheism isn't just something we should do for the sake of political correctness, but a wise investment that will pay dividends down the line.

January 10, 2011, 7:51 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink130 comments

On the Uses of Ridicule, Part II

A few months ago, I wrote a post about the uses of ridicule and the role it played in my own journey to atheism. I want to say some more about this subject, and a Daylight Atheism reader (thanks, Peter!) pointed me to this white paper from the Institute of World Politics that I'll use as a jumping-off point. It's titled "Ridicule: An instrument in the war on terrorism", but it has some broader lessons that the atheist movement - or any other underdog group fighting a battle of ideas - can usefully employ.

The paper opens with an observation from an unimpeachable authority:

Used as a means of positive persuasion, humor can be an important public diplomacy tool. "If I can get you to laugh with me," said comedian John Cleese, "you like me better, which makes you more open to my ideas. And if I can persuade you to laugh at the particular point I make, by laughing at it you acknowledge the truth."

Following this, there's a discussion of the many dictators and tyrannies that banned jokes and satire which poke fun at the powers that be - both ancient, such as the Roman empire and Talmudic rabbis, and modern, from Castro's Cuba to Vladimir Putin's Russia to Hugo Chavez's Venezuela. But the gold medal for lacking a sense of humor must surely go to the mullahs of Iran, who, in the 1980s, went so far as to have foreign humorists who lampooned the regime assassinated. (The paper doesn't name the targets, and I haven't been able to find other sources referring to these events. If anyone knows more about this, please let me know.)

This is just what we should expect. Most actual or would-be tyrants try to pass themselves off as infallible - they claim to be flawless, to possess limitless strength and wisdom, to never make mistakes and to always know what's best for everyone - or, in the religious case, they simply claim to be servants of God. Laughter is highly effective at dispelling this fog: by magnifying and exaggerating the leaders' flaws and foibles, ridicule punctures their pretensions and cuts them down to size. It's all but impossible to think of a person, or a government or a text, as perfect and flawless when you're laughing at them.

By humanizing leaders and authority figures, ridicule clears a path for more substantive criticism. The authors write that, in pre-revolutionary France, constant ridicule "stripped away" the moral legitimacy of the church and the monarchy, paving the way for their overthrow. It "arguably motivated and radicalized the public more than the high-minded philosophies of the revolutionaries" - something that should strike a chord with all assertive modern atheists. Religious institutions usually aren't afraid of philosophical criticism, because their members have been trained to wave away rational argument through faith. But a good laugh is something that anyone can understand, and it hits at the same emotional level where religious faith usually resides.

Another telling point is that, in addition to banning humorous displays by others, cruel leaders and autocratic governments tend to lack a sense of humor themselves. They generally require "either adulation or fear", no other response in between. This description ought to sound familiar to atheists who notice that the Bible contains a distinct absence of humor. Ironically, as the paper points out, Adolf Hitler in particular was known to take pleasure in playing cruel jokes on others - similar to the way the Bible always depicts God's laughter as merciless mockery of the doomed, never as genuine merriment.

Ridicule cracks this brittle facade and brings all clay-footed idols crashing down to earth. Against opponents who take themselves absolutely seriously and have no room in their worldview for irony or ambiguity, it's a highly effective weapon. Religious texts also teach their followers to expect hostility and persecution - in fact, they thrive on it - but ridicule and satire are harder for them to deal with. For all these reasons, ridicule is a uniquely - and asymmetrically - powerful means of persuasion, which is why it should be an essential part of the atheist movement's strategy.

January 3, 2011, 6:41 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink34 comments

Breaking the Religion-Morality Link

One of the first posts on Daylight Atheism, "A Mile Wide and an Inch Deep", was about the pathetic levels of Biblical knowledge in a nation that's theoretically 85% Christian. Well, thanks to a widely reported new survey, we can add another fact to that picture: not only do Americans not know much about the Bible, they don't go to church very often either.

In a more recent study, Hadaway estimated that if the number of Americans who told Gallup pollsters that they attended church in the last week were accurate, about 118 million Americans would be at houses of worship each week. By calculating the number of congregations (including non-Christian congregations) and their average attendance, Hadaway estimated that in reality about 21 percent of Americans attended religious services weekly — exactly half the number who told pollsters they did.

As the article notes, the most striking fact is how often Americans lie to pollsters about attending church. America is an outlier among the industrialized nations not in the number of people who actually attend religious services, but in the number of people who say they do. Sociologists can pin down this deception in several ways: for instance, when Americans are asked, "Did you attend religious services in the past week?", high percentages say yes. But when people fill out "time-use surveys" which ask them to list what they were doing throughout the day, without priming them with the idea of attending church, the percentages in the pews are much smaller.

This should be greatly interesting to the New Atheists, since it both validates our basic approach and suggests a strategy for our future efforts. What these findings show is that in America, "being religious" is still synonymous with "being a good person", and vice versa. Whether because they don't have the time or out of simple disinterest, millions of nominally religious Americans skip church each Sunday. But when a pollster asks these people if they went to church that week, they hear the question as, "Are you a moral person?" And since no one wants to think of themselves as immoral, they often answer yes anyway.

What this means for atheists is that it's less important to convince people that their religious beliefs are false. Between their lack of church attendance and their lack of biblical knowledge, the actual teachings of religion are already irrelevant as far as tens of millions of Americans are concerned. What's more important is to break the perceived link between religion and morality that motivates people to claim religious membership as a marker of good character. That link is a vestigial trait: a holdover from the days when, for better or for worse, religion genuinely could claim to be the only source of moral guidance.

And that, in turn, suggests a strategy. The most effective way for atheists to sever that link is to come out! When we're known to our friends and neighbors as friendly, generous, compassionate people who are also nonbelievers, it will be far more difficult for them to cling to the prejudice that the godless are all wicked misanthropes. This also suggests that when we criticize religion, we should focus less on its factual claims (which, again, are irrelevant to most theists) and more on its moral claims. When we argue strongly that religious books condone horrible practices like slavery, genocide and the oppression of women, we can attack that link from the other direction, proving by example that belief in God doesn't automatically make one a good person.

It's no wonder that so many believers react with outrage and try to censor us when atheists unapologetically stand up and proclaim our existence - especially if the message is that the godless can be good people too. As peaceable as that is, from the standpoint of religious culture warriors, it's the most dangerous message we can possibly convey.

December 27, 2010, 8:41 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink11 comments

An Atheist's Yule Sermon

I woke up at 3 AM earlier this week to see the lunar eclipse. Dressing in the dark, my wife and I went out into the freezing silence of the winter solstice to see the moon: a small disc high in the sky swallowed by the planet's shadow, glowing coppery-red with the reflected light of every sunset on Earth.

I'll admit, it wasn't the most spiritual experience I've ever had (being fully awake tends to facilitate those transports of awe and wonder). But I'm glad I saw it, nevertheless. If nothing else, it was a rare opportunity: the next few lunar eclipses won't be visible from North America, and the next time a total eclipse coincides with the solstice, it will be in 2094. By then, I think it fairly safe to say, none of us reading this now will be around.

And the rarity of this conjunction got me thinking - about how fortunate I am to be alive in this time, in this place. If I had been born a thousand years ago, it would have been into a nasty, brutish world wallowing in superstition and feudalism. If I had been born even a hundred and fifty years ago, it would have been into a world where the wealthy and the powerful classes ruled everything, where science and medicine were rudimentary at best. Even today, there are millions of people who live in brutal dictatorships or absolute theocracies, who subsist in grinding poverty or live in tribal cultures that haven't changed appreciably since the Stone Age.

I could have been born in one of those times and places, but I wasn't. And I recognize that being alive when and where I am was an enormous stroke of good fortune. To be born in a country where there's no official religion or state church, where human rights are protected by law, where the people are free to speak their minds and their votes determine the government - considered over the span of human history, that's a rare and exceptional privilege.

But even within the circle of citizens of First World democracies, I can't deny that I've been extraordinarily lucky. I wasn't born into crushing poverty or abuse or neglect, but into a loving, well-to-do middle-class family. I wasn't raised in a fundamentalist household where my mind was poisoned with dogma and indoctrination, but into a secular home where my parents let me make up my own mind. I've been fortunate in qualifying for - and being able to afford - an education in a world-class university. In the midst of a severe recession, I have a stable, well-paying job. I don't deny that I've worked for what I have - but I also can't deny the major role that chance played in my being born into a life where I'd have the opportunity to achieve all these things. The vast majority of people who've ever lived wouldn't have had any of those opportunities.

And that knowledge, that I've been the beneficiary of incredible privilege, gives me the uneasy feeling of possessing something I haven't earned. Why should I have been the fortunate one while so many others were left behind? I didn't do anything to deserve it - I couldn't have, since it came to me from the moment of my birth - and I can't repay it since there's no one to whom such repayment would be due. There's only one other response that eases my conscience, and that's to turn and offer a helping hand to those who didn't get the same opportunities I've had and who could do well with them, given the chance.

That's why, this holiday season, I've been making donations through sites like Kiva and Global Giving, which allow you to choose which projects to donate to and show exactly what your money will be used for. Of course, there's an ocean of need out there, more than any one person could ever alleviate - just browsing these sites will make that plain. But even if no one can do everything, everyone can contribute something, and if we all joined in that effort, the amount of good that could be accomplished is enormous, and I, for one, intend to do my part. If you feel as I do that you've been the recipient of undeserved good fortune, why not join me in extending that hand, and help in the effort to make those same opportunities available to all members of the human race?

December 25, 2010, 9:57 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink9 comments

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