Book Review: God, No!

(Author's Note: The following review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site's policy for such reviews.)

Summary: Just what you'd expect from its author: outspoken, boisterous, crude, frequently vulgar, often hilarious. Unapologetically atheist, but more about Penn Jillette the person than about atheism per se.

God, No! is written by Penn Jillette, the louder half of Penn & Teller who's well-known for his skeptical and libertarian views. He's also known for being outspoken, boisterous, crude, and vulgar, and the book embodies all these traits in equal measure - although I have to say that it's often uproariously funny as well. Although many of the chapters have a strong atheist bent, I'd say it's less a book about atheism per se and more of a loose autobiography, comprising Penn's life, his professional career, and his views on family, show business, and whatever else he feels like writing about.

The book is divided into ten sections, each of which comprises several chapters roughly themed around one of Penn's proposals for a secular set of ten commandments (hmm, where have we heard something like that before?). Most of them I quite liked, such as "Do not put things or even ideas above other human beings." It's not hard to conclude that Penn's moral view is superior to the Bible's, though of course the same is true of pretty much anyone alive today who has a modicum of education and common sense.

So, let's start with the disclaimers: This one definitely isn't for the prudish or the easily offended. Aside from the ubiquitous swearing, some chapters were explicitly pornographic, especially the scuba-diving one and the one about Penn's visiting a gay bathhouse. (It's not what you think.) There was also quite a lot of nudity (mostly Penn's own, sometimes others'). Penn claims he's never drunk alcohol or tried any other kind of drugs, and given some of the exploits chronicled in this book, that would be hard to believe, except that he clearly isn't the kind of person to hold back any details about his personal life, however embarrassing. There was the aforementioned chapter about the bathhouse, as well as one about a hair dryer that's likely to have all his male readers cringing. (It's not what you think - or maybe it is...)

But mixed in with all that, there was a powerful and well-written atheist message. One of my favorite chapters was the one about Penn's friendship with three former Hasidic Jews - an amazing story about three different people who each had the courage to escape from one of the world's most oppressive and insular religious enclaves. One of them had as brilliant and poignant a deconversion story as I've ever read: he approached Penn after a show and explained that he was in the midst of leaving his religion. He wanted, of all things, to taste a bacon cheeseburger for the first time in his life, and he said it would be an honor if Penn would accompany him for the meal - and he did exactly that. This story could easily have been ridiculous (and okay, maybe it is, a little), but the way Penn writes it, it was unexpectedly moving. Seeing a man deliberately break a religiously-imposed taboo for the first time in his life, as a symbolic proof of his newly freed mind, is a powerful statement.

I do have to mention, as if you didn't already know, that Penn is a libertarian. He mentions both his libertarian views and skepticism about climate change, although he doesn't really explore either of them at length. The whole chapter about libertarianism is only three pages, and basically boils down to, "Even though I think funding cancer research is a good thing, it's still wrong to make me support it by paying taxes." (There's this thing called a social contract, which most libertarians seem to overlook.)

The chapter about climate change, likewise brief, is in the context of one of his talks at a convention. He says that he doesn't know enough to know if it's real, if it's dangerous, or if there's anything we can do to stop it. Fair enough, not everyone can be a climatologist; but if you really don't consider yourself qualified to render an opinion, then you should stay out of the debate altogether. If you say "I don't know" and use that as the basis for policy, then you have rendered an opinion whether you like it or not. And it's not a big leap to guess that the reason for Penn's refusing to render a verdict is that, if climate change is a real threat, preventing it would require collective action of a kind that his libertarian philosophy says is never necessary. Claiming to be perpetually unsure is one way to avoid this cognitive dissonance.

September 7, 2011, 5:42 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink15 comments
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How to Create (Not Find) the Meaning of Your Life

Guest post by Samantha Eliza Benten

A friend recently paraphrased a statement from The Nature of Existence (the documentary, I believe, though I haven't seen it) as follows: "People should spend more time thinking about the meaning of their own lives, than the meaning of life in general." This strikes a chord with a notion I've held since at least my senior year of high school. (That was when I came up with the BLT theory of the purpose of life, which is to say that a purpose is a goal that's chosen and striven toward and that most people strive toward some combination of beauty, love, and truth. ... More on that in another post, perhaps.) I'm very happy that the statement got me musing, and I'd love to get feedback on my initial reaction.

I suspect that people often prefer contemplating "big picture, god-given meaning" because 1) it doesn't require them to critically examine their lives or change their behavior, 2) if their lives feel unimportant, it helps them to think of themselves as being part of an important "big picture," and 3) the natural state of the world being coincidence, it's pretty easy to come up with incidental "meaning" in any given event.

Regardless, this is actually a huge pet peeve of mine: people claiming that everything in life "means something." There isn't inherent "meaning" in anything. Meaning itself is a function of perception and reaction. If you pay attention to something, and especially if what you learn by paying attention to it causes you to change an opinion or a behavior, then that observation is meaningful to you. The very "meaningfulness" of a person's life can actually be increased if they are willing to scrutinize the causes and effects of their own feelings and behavior — and if they're willing to use that knowledge to guide their future thoughts and actions, that creates not only a more meaningful life, but a life of more focused and purposeful meaning. And then, if you manage to affect the thoughts and actions of others through your conscious behavior, that's yet another layer of meaning. But without at least an effort toward self-awareness, life isn't "meaningful" at all — it's just a series of actions and reactions. So the only way to create a truly meaningful life, imho, is to live the most self-aware life possible.

Now, am I saying that people who "just live their lives" without thinking about the causes and effects of their actions have a "meaningless" existence? No — at least, not if we're treating the word "meaningless" as a synonym for "worthless," which is how I think a statement like that could easily be misinterpreted. I do not in any way mean that people have to be philosophers in order for their lives to be worth existing. (Though I do side with Socrates on that issue myself, I get that it's not the most important thing to the vast majority of people.) I'm simply pointing out that without conscious interpretation, there isn't any such thing as "meaning." Meaning itself IS interpretation and reaction. How can something have "meaning" if no one is aware of it AND no one is affected by it?

It bothers me how many people treat the phrase "everything has a meaning" as something passive, as a given. Frequently, they treat it as a god-given. They figure every moment of existence, no matter how trivial or how horrible, must be part of the "bigger plan" that God has for everything. To some extent, I understand the desire to be part of a bigger picture — to feel like your day-to-day existence is key to the unfolding of human history. And yes, I can understand why some people wish to "find meaning" in tragic events. If that consoles them about the loss of their loved ones, I would never try to take that away from them. But for me, the idea that the death of a loved one is "justified" by its role in the "big picture" is to see God (if he/she/it exists) as a chess master — willing to sacrifice the happiness and safety of billions upon billions of people in human history in order to ... what? Give the final generation of humanity a utopia? I'm not one who believes in the "end times," so what in the world would a deity be "working toward"? And if he is building toward something, why are we so much less important than those who'd come after us? Or, why are we supposedly more important than so many who suffered and died, for example, in the Black Plague? If I genuinely thought that human tragedy was compelled in order to flesh out some grand scheme, I wouldn't be consoled — I'd be furious. But hey, that's just me, and obviously there are uncountable numbers of people who'd disagree. So, what do I know?

Still, I feel like it would be more liberating if people focused not on "finding meaning" in tragedy, but on "creating meaning" out of tragedy. Instead of looking for signs of the person who's passed on or simply assuming they were a pawn whose sacrifice was necessary (again, not something I see as consoling, though they obviously don't interpret their view in these terms anyway), what about making a beloved's death meaningful by talking to those who knew them, honoring them by changing our lives in ways inspired by them, or even doing good deeds in their honor? What about bringing their memory and their feelings into our own lives and the lives of others in any way we can? Isn't doing something to honor someone who's died a fitting way to keep them in our hearts? Isn't that "meaning" enough?

September 6, 2011, 5:37 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink24 comments
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Thanks to Chicago Readers

Thanks to all who attended the meetup in Chicago this past weekend! As always, it was a pleasure to meet and talk to the real people who read Daylight Atheism, including one who made a very long drive to attend. (I still find it weirdly flattering that people are interested in meeting me.) I also got my first taste of real Chicago deep-dish pizza, which was delicious although - sorry, I'm a New Yorker to the bone - I still prefer the New York thin-crust variety.

I had a great time in Chicago, and in addition to doing plenty of sightseeing, I got to meet both Hemant of Friendly Atheist and Jerry Coyne, both of whom showed my wife and me wonderful hospitality. I still have to go through my pictures, but I may post some of the better ones in coming weeks.

And yes, the people who were there got to find out my big secret announcement in advance. The rest of you will have to wait a few more days. (If you were there, no spoilers!)

September 5, 2011, 1:15 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink9 comments
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Rebutting Reasonable Faith: The Evangelical Conspiracy Theory

In "The Aura of Infallibility", I mentioned William Lane Craig's belief in something he calls the "self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit", which he considers to be the most persuasive, crowning argument for Christianity. Basically, all it boils down to is that Craig has a really strong feeling that Christianity is true, and he believes that that feeling should be privileged above any and all evidence.

As Craig himself puts it, in question #136:

For not only should I continue to have faith in God on the basis of the Spirit's witness even if all the arguments for His existence were refuted, but I should continue to have faith in God even in the face of objections which I cannot at that time answer...

What I'm claiming is that even in the face of evidence against God which we cannot refute, we ought to believe in God on the basis of His Spirit's witness.

In essence, Craig is claiming infallibility for himself. On the basis of some warm and fuzzy feelings he's had, he declares himself an inerrant judge presiding over all the cosmos, deciding the truth of every factual proposition his warm feelings tell him about and refusing to admit even the possibility of error. This is a laughable and ridiculously arrogant self-exaltation, although he's by no means alone among religious people in making it; he just does it more explicitly than most of them. (As another example, take this from the official statement of faith of Answers in Genesis: "No apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field... can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record").

But it doesn't stop there. Craig also insists on believing that everyone else has these feelings too, which leads him to draw a morally outrageous conclusion that insults all non-Christians:

When a person refuses to come to Christ it is never just because of lack of evidence or because of intellectual difficulties: at root, he refuses to come because he willingly ignores and rejects the drawing of God's Spirit on his heart. No one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments; he fails to become a Christian because he loves darkness rather than light and wants nothing to do with God. (source)

In other words, Craig's position requires him to believe that everyone - everyone - in the world who's not an evangelical Christian - every atheist, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Baha'i, Sikh and Shintoist, every pagan past and present, every member of every indigenous tribe - is fully aware of the truth of evangelical Christianity and refuses to admit this out of a stubborn desire to sin. It forces him to believe in a worldwide conspiracy involving sustained, lifelong deception practiced on a daily basis by billions of people throughout history.

This contorted position arises from the four-part contradiction that all believers like Craig are forced to confront as a result of their theology:

(1) It's immoral to punish people for making an honest mistake.
(2) At least some non-members of my religion are honestly mistaken in what they believe.
(3) God will eternally punish all non-members of my religion.
(4) God never acts immorally.

Logically, all four of these statements can't be true; at least one has to be false. But believers like Craig refuse to surrender any of the theological points, and instead he jettisons the one empirical statement in the tetrad: that at least some nonbelievers are honestly mistaken. He thus ends up with a bizarre, massive conspiracy theory which holds that everyone in the world who doesn't believe as he does is being deliberately deceptive.

This is a paradigm example of how compensating for logical flaws in a belief system lead to immoral views of one's fellow humans. "God wouldn't damn people for making an honest mistake," the thought process goes, "and therefore, no one is making an honest mistake! Everyone who's not in my religion really knows I'm right and is just lying." Not only does this soothe the believer's troubled conscience, it gives them a convenient excuse to avoid having to deal with any nonbeliever's argument on the merits: all such arguments can be waved away because the believer "knows" that they're not being offered in good faith. Bizarre and ridiculous as it is, the evangelical conspiracy theory is one of the more effective means by which religious fundamentalists cocoon their minds away from the world.

Other posts in this series:

September 2, 2011, 5:39 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink29 comments
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A Change Is In the Air

Here in New York, it's been a hot, relentless summer. But in the last few days, the first hints of fall are making themselves known: the earlier fading of the light, a sudden crispness in the air, a touch of cool in the breeze. And since autumn is a time of change and transition in the wider world, it's only fitting that it be the time for a change in this site as well.

Daylight Atheism has been my home on the 'net for over five years. I've always thought of it that way, as you can probably tell from the category names in the sidebar on the right. When I started this project, I never gave much thought to how it would conclude or what would come next. But nothing lasts forever, everything is impermanent (which is one thing the Buddhists got right), and I'm no exception.

In the next few days, I'm going to make a major announcement about the future of this site. Stay tuned!

September 1, 2011, 5:44 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink34 comments
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Little-Known Bible Verses: The Holy Kiss

Fred Clark of Slacktivist has been on a tear lately, posting some outstanding articles about the theological roots of dominionism and its influence in American politics. And today, he wrote another post that inspired me.

This post was about a new book by the sociologist Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible, which deplores a group whom Smith dubs "biblicists" (I'd probably just call them fundamentalists). These are Christians who believe that the Bible is a perfectly self-sufficient guide to humanity which needs no outside authority to interpret it; that all one has to do is read the plain and literal words of the Bible to find God's clear and unmistakable plan for what to believe and how to live. Yet, somehow, Christians who all say they believe this keep coming to opposite conclusions on a bewilderingly huge range of theological issues. The review lists some of them:

For example, biblicists differ over human free will and divine sovereignty; penal satisfaction and Christus Victor; creation and evolution; sprinkling and immersion; divorce and remarriage; complementarianism and egalitarianism; just war and pacifism; pretribulationism and posttribulationism; amillennialism, premillennialism, and postmillennialism; everlasting torment and annihilation; soteriological exclusivism, inclusivism, and universalism; and on and on.

This is just what I wrote about in "The Aura of Infallibility": people who say they believe that the Bible is infallible really mean that their own interpretations of it are infallible. It ought to be incredibly embarrassing to people who consider the Bible a clear and authoritative guide that they can't agree among themselves on what guidance it actually gives. This has been noted by other Christian writers, most notably C.S. Lewis, who wrote that proselytizers should try to hide the existence of differing Christian sects from potential converts, because a person who was aware of this fact about Christianity would be less likely to become a Christian.

In any case, this brings me (finally!) to the subject of this post, which is a Bible verse coincidentally pointed out in the review of Smith's book. The Christian fundamentalists we're all so familiar with claim that the Bible is holy, inerrant and authoritative, and contains advice applicable to all Christians at all times, including divine ordinances on how to organize and behave in a church community. So why don't they obey this verse from Second Corinthians?

"Finally, brethren, farewell. Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss."

—2 Corinthians 13:11-12

This isn't the only verse in the Bible that teaches this custom, either. In fact, no fewer than five verses from five different books of the New Testament all order it - Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 1 Thessalonians 5:26, 1 Peter 5:14, in addition to the one cited above - which implies, given the strength of their recommendation, that the biblical authors saw it as essential. St. Augustine even says that the kiss should be on the lips to be done properly:

This is a sign of peace; as the lips indicate, let peace be made in your conscience, that is, when your lips draw near to those of your brother, do not let your heart withdraw from his. Hence, these are great and powerful sacraments.

Needless to say, the vast majority of evangelical churches politely ignore this. Even the fundamentalist churches that practice snake-handling tend to find this one a bridge too far. (It actually is practiced as part of worship in some Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, though not usually on the lips as far as I know.)

As silly as it is, there's an important point here. The next time you encounter someone who claims to interpret the Bible "literally", ask them if they do this at their church. If the answer is no, as it most probably will be, you'll have made your point: even supposedly "literal" interpretations are driven and shaped by the believer's culture and by their own ideas and prejudices, and not simply by doing whatever the text says.

Other posts in this series:

August 31, 2011, 5:39 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink46 comments
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Goodbye Religion? How Godlessness Is Increasing With Each New Generation

This essay was originally published on AlterNet.

Something strange is happening to American teenagers. If you believe popular wisdom, young people are apathetic, cynical and jaded; or, they're supposed to be conformists whose overriding desire is to fit in and be popular. But if you've been paying close attention over the past decade, you might have seen any of a growing number of cases that conspicuously defy these stereotypes: stories of teenagers who have strong principles they're unashamed to display and which they're committed to defending, even at great personal cost, against the bullying of a hostile establishment.

For example, in 2002, an Eagle Scout named Darrell Lambert was threatened with expulsion from the Boy Scouts, despite his having earned dozens of merit badges and having held literally every leadership position in his troop. His crime? He's an outspoken atheist. When the news of his beliefs reached scouting officials, they demanded that he change his mind. He was given a week to think it over. All he had to do was lie, but if he did that, he said, "I wouldn't be a good Scout then, would I?" For his honesty, he was kicked out of the organization he'd devoted his life to.

In New Jersey in 2006, a public high school teacher named David Paskiewicz was openly preaching Christianity in the classroom, advocating creationism and telling a Muslim student she would burn in hell if she didn't convert. A junior named Matt LaClair reported this illegal government preaching to the school administration. In a meeting with the principal, Paskiewicz denied everything — whereupon LaClair produced audio recordings of him saying the things he specifically denied having said.

In Indiana in 2009, the senior class at a public school was asked to vote on whether to have a prayer as part of their graduation ceremony. A senior named Eric Workman, knowing full well that school-sponsored prayer is illegal even if a majority votes for it, filed a lawsuit and won an injunction against the prayer. The school administration responded by announcing it wouldn't review graduation speeches in advance, clearly hoping that some student would use the opportunity to say the same prayer — except that the class valedictorian was Eric Workman, and he used his graduation speech to explain why the school's actions were unconstitutional and to explain the importance of the First Amendment.

Stories like these are multiplying all over the nation. In South Carolina just this year, a graduating senior named Harrison Hopkins put a stop to school prayer with help from the Freedom from Religion Foundation. In Louisiana, a senior named Damon Fowler fought against similar school-sponsored prayers at his graduation. In Rhode Island, an amazing sophomore named Jessica Ahlquist is leading the fight to get an illegal "School Prayer" banner removed from her school's auditorium.

Granted, stories like these aren't entirely a new phenomenon. There have always been brave young free thinkers who dared to stand up for their rights, and there has always been a hostile, prejudiced religious majority that's tried to silence them with bullying, persecution and harassment.

For instance, when church-state hero Ellery Schempp prevailed in a landmark First Amendment case against school-sponsored Bible reading, his principal wrote to the colleges he had applied to and asked them not to admit him. (It didn't work: Ellery was accepted to Tufts University, graduated with honors and became a successful scientist.) Likewise, when Jim McCollum and his mother Vashti challenged their school over a released-time program, raving bigots assaulted him, got her fired from her job, pelted their home with rotten fruit and killed their cat. (The McCollums didn't relent, and won a precedent-setting Supreme Court decision striking down religious instruction on public school time.)

Regrettably, this hasn't changed as much as I'd like. Most of the student activists I named earlier have faced harassment, some from peers, some from the teachers and authority figures who are supposed to be the responsible ones. Damon Fowler was demeaned by a teacher and disowned by his own parents for opposing prayer at his graduation. But what's different now is that young people who speak out aren't left to face the mob alone. Now more than ever before, there's a thriving, growing secular community that's becoming increasingly confident, assertive, and capable of looking out for its own.

When Fowler was kicked out of his house, a fundraiser on Friendly Atheist netted over $30,000 in donations to pay for his living expenses and college tuition. The Secular Student Alliance, a national organization that supports student atheist and freethought clubs, is growing by leaps and bounds in colleges and high schools. (This is especially important in the light of psychological experiments which find that it's much easier to resist peer pressure if you have even one other person standing with you.) Student activists like the ones I've mentioned are no longer just scattered voices in the crowd; they're the leading edge of a wave.

All these individual facts add up to a larger picture, which is confirmed by statistical evidence: Americans are becoming less religious, with rates of atheism and secularism increasing in each new generation. This demographic transformation has been in progress ever since World War II, but in recent years it's begun to seriously pick up steam. In the generation born since 1982, variously referred to as Generation Y, the Millennials, or Generation Next, one in five people identify as nonreligious, atheist, or agnostic. In the youngest cohort, the trend is even more dramatic: as many as 30% of those born since 1990 are nonbelievers. Another study, this one by a Christian polling firm, found that people are leaving Christianity at four times the rate that new members are joining.

What could be causing this generational shift towards godlessness? There are multiple theories, but only one of them that I'm aware of both makes good sense and is corroborated by the facts.

Over the last few decades, society in general, and young people in particular, have become increasingly tolerant of gays and other minorities. For the most part, this is a predictable result of familiarity: people who've grown up in an increasingly multicultural society see less problem with interracial relationships (89% of Generation Nexters approve of interracial marriage, compared to 70% of older age groups) and same-sex marriage (47% in favor among Nexters, compared to 30% in older groups). When it comes to issues like whether gays and lesbians should be protected from job discrimination or allowed to adopt, the age gap in support is even more dramatic (71% vs. 59% and 61% vs. 44%, respectively).

But while American society is moving forward on all these fronts, many churches not only refuse to go along, they're actively moving backward. Most large Christian sects, both Catholic and Protestant, have made fighting against gay rights and women's rights their all-consuming crusade. And young people have gotten this message loud and clear: polls find that the most common impressions of Christianity are that it's hostile, judgmental and hypocritical. In particular, an incredible 91% of young non-Christians say that Christianity is "anti-homosexual", and significant majorities say that Christianity treats being gay as a bigger sin than anything else. (When right-wing politicians thunder that same-sex marriage is worse than terrorism, it's not hard to see where people have gotten this impression.)

On other social issues as well, the gap between Gen Nexters and the church looms increasingly wide. Younger folks favor full access to the morning-after pill by a larger margin than older generations (59% vs. 46%). They reject the notion that women should return to "traditional roles" — already a minority position, but they disagree with it even more strongly than others. And they're by far the least likely of all age groups to say that they have "old-fashioned" values about family and marriage (67% say this, as compared to 85% of other age groups).

In a society that's increasingly tolerant and enlightened, the big churches remain stubbornly entrenched in the past, clinging to medieval dogmas about gay people and women, presuming to lecture their members about how they should vote, whom they should love, how they should live. It's no surprise that people who've grown up in this tolerant age find it absurd when they're told that their family and friends don't deserve civil rights, and it's even less of a surprise that, when they're told they must believe this to be good Christians, they simply walk away. This trend is reflected in the steadily rising percentages of Americans who say that religion is "old-fashioned and out of date" and can't speak to today's social problems.

The Roman Catholic church in particular has been hit hard by this. According to a 2009 Pew study, "Faith in Flux," one in ten American adults is a former Catholic, and a majority of ex-Catholics cite unhappiness with the church's archaic stance on abortion, homosexuality, birth control or the treatment of women as a major factor in their departure. But evangelical and other Protestant denominations are feeling the same sting. According to a survey by the sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell, moderates and progressives are heading for the exits as the churches increasingly become the domain of conservatives:

From the early 1970s to the late 1980s the fraction of Americans age 18 to 29 who identified with evangelical Protestantism rose to 25% from 20%, but since 1990, that fraction has fallen back to about 17%.

...Today, 17% of Americans say they have no religion, and these new "nones" are very heavily concentrated among Americans who have come of age since 1990. Between 25% and 30% of twentysomethings today say they have no religious affiliation — roughly four times higher than in any previous generation.

Even the mainstream, relatively liberal Protestant churches are dwindling and dying at an astonishing rate: collateral damage, perhaps, in a political war that's led young people to view them as guilty by association. As the journal First Things observes in an article titled "The Death of Protestant America," the mainline churches have fallen from more than 50% of the American population in 1965 to less than 8% today.

What all this means is that the rise of atheism as a political force is an effect, rather than a cause, of the churches' hard right turn towards fundamentalism. I admit that this conclusion is a little damaging to my ego. I'd love to say that we atheists did it all ourselves; I'd love to be able to say that our dazzling wit and slashing rhetorical attacks are persuading people to abandon organized religion in droves. But the truth is that the churches' wounds are largely self-inflicted. By obstinately clinging to prejudices that the rest of society is moving beyond, they're in the process of making themselves irrelevant. In fact, there are indications that it's a vicious circle: as churches become less tolerant and more conservative, their younger and more progressive members depart, which makes their average membership still more conservative, which accelerates the progressive exodus still further, and so on. (A similar dynamic is at work in the Republican party, which explains their increasing levels of insanity over the past two or three decades.)

That doesn't mean, however, that that there's nothing we freethinkers can contribute. On the contrary, there's a virtuous circle that we can take advantage of: the more we speak out and the more visible we are, the more familiar atheism will become, and the more it will be seen as a viable alternative, which will encourage still more people to join us and speak out. This is exactly the same strategy that's been used successfully by trailblazers in the gay-rights movement and other social reform efforts.

At the same time, the churches aren't entirely oblivious to what's happening. The rising secular tide of Generation Next hasn't gone unfelt or unnoticed, but is increasingly being reflected in dwindling donations, graying congregations, and empty churches across the land. As John Avant, a vice president for evangelization of the Southern Baptist Conference, lamented:

A study by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary's Leavell Center for Evangelism and Church Health showed that only 11 percent of SBC churches are healthy and growing... And we are doing worse with young people, with 39 percent of Southern Baptist churches in 2005 reporting baptizing no teens. (source)

The Catholic church is experiencing a similar slow fade, with declining Mass attendance and a crippling shortage of priests worldwide. Land once owned by religious orders is being sold off for conservation or public use, turned into schools or nature preserves. The Pope's response, meanwhile, is to accelerate the decline by ordering bishops not even to discuss the possibility of ordaining women or married men, even as he welcomes Holocaust deniers and ex-Angelican misogynists.

And religious giving has declined as well, leaving shrinking churches grappling with layoffs and angry creditors. The recession has worsened this trend, but didn't create it; like all the other patterns, it's generational, with each increasingly secular age group giving less than the last. As one conservative rabbi says, the dip in giving stems from a "growing disinterest in organized religion."

Of course, Christianity is still by far the largest religious affiliation in America, and likely will be for some time. But the numbers don't lie, and the trends of the last several decades show more and more evidence of the same secularizing wave that's overtaking most countries in Europe. The major churches, clinging to the inferior morality of long-gone ages, are increasingly out of step with a world that's more enlightened, rational and tolerant than it once was. And the more they dig in their heels, the more we can expect this process to accelerate. I, for one, can't wait to see the young atheist activists who will emerge in the next few decades.

August 29, 2011, 6:05 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink17 comments
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Weekly Link Roundup

The storm may rage and the winds may howl, but I'm still here! (So far.) Here's a couple of interesting stories I didn't have time to write more about this week:

• Following Rick Perry's urgent prayers for rain in his drought-stricken state, Tropical Storm Don formed in the Gulf, headed toward Texas, and then dissipated before dropping any significant rain. The drought continues. How long will it be before Perry's Christian supporters start to seriously consider if God is punishing him for something?

• The Filipino Freethinkers win "The One" category at the Tatt Awards! Congratulations to the FF, and thanks to everyone who voted for them.

• Following some very disappointing decisions at the United Nations, here's one that's a welcome change: the UN affirms that criticizing religion is a human right.

• Jon Huntsman torpedoes his chance at the Republican presidential nomination by announcing he doesn't deny two of the foundational theories of modern science.

• The U.S. defense agency DARPA plans to award half a million dollars in seed money for a feasibility study for a ship that could send human beings to another star. This money is a drop in the bucket next to the trillions that would actually be needed to construct such a ship, but it's good to see that some people still have the ability to contemplate the biggest and most adventurous questions.

• Sam Harris writes a superb article on Objectivism. "Many of my critics imagine that they have no stake in the well-being of others. How could they possibly benefit from other people getting first-rate educations? How could they be harmed if the next generation is hurled into poverty and despair? Why should anyone care about other people‚Äôs children? It amazes me that such questions require answers." (Edit: But please see this disclaimer.)

• In a previous post, I wondered if the Irish government would match its harsh condemnation of the Vatican with action by seizing and auctioning church property to compensate the victims of church-sanctioned sexual assault. I'm extremely pleased to read that they're doing just that, pressing the church to hand over control of land and schools and pay half the compensation bill for abuse victims in Roman Catholic children's homes.

August 28, 2011, 12:59 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink23 comments
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Batten Down the Hatches

As I've mentioned before on this blog, I'm a born-and-bred New York City native. And as you may have heard, there's a bit of rough weather headed our way this weekend. In fact, it seems like freak events are becoming the new normal: first, the absurdly huge blizzards we got this winter, then the earthquake earlier this week (yes, I felt it), and now the hurricane. Sheesh, nature, what did we ever do to you to deserve this? (Don't answer that.)

There's no need to fret about me: I'm fully stocked up with supplies, and I don't live anywhere near the evacuation areas, so I don't anticipate that safety will be an issue. However, it's possible that I may lose electricity for a few days, and if that happens, I'll naturally be a little scarce on the net. I do have an internet-capable phone, and even a solar charger for it - three cheers for ThinkGeek and their catering to survivalist paranoia! - but of course, there's no way of knowing what the state of the cell network will be. So, if Daylight Atheism isn't updated for a few days, that's most likely why. I'll be back as soon as possible, so don't miss me too much!

Also, a reminder if you missed the first announcement: I'm coming to Chicago over Labor Day weekend. There's a meetup being organized; if you're interested in attending, send me an e-mail and let me know. I'll see it at some point before I arrive.

August 27, 2011, 8:16 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink10 comments
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Tax Breaks for Ignorance

As you doubtless already know, America is suffering through an unprecedented economic disaster. With millions of people jobless and millions of homeowners underwater, the economy is stagnant and its prospects are dim. Which is why, in these hard times, nothing is more important than shoveling more taxpayer dollars into the gaping maw of the fundamentalist carnival sideshow:

A group of private investors and religious organizations is hoping to build a Bible-themed amusement park in Kentucky, complete with a full-size 500-foot-by-75-foot reproduction of Noah's Ark, a Tower of Babel, and other biblical exhibits on a 800-acre campus outside of Williamstown, KY. Their effort got a shot in the arm yesterday when the state approved $43 million in tax breaks for the project.

As the article notes, Kentucky has cut funding to education and Medicaid eight times in the past three years. But, somehow, its government has found room in the budget for a $43 million tax break, a 75% property-tax reduction over 30 years, $200,000 in direct incentives, 100 acres of reduced-price state land, $40 million in sales tax rebates, and $11 million in nearby road improvements, all of which are for the benefit of a creationist "amusement park" whose chief attraction will be a full-size replica of Noah's leaky boat. All this is to complement the "creation museum" which Kentucky already boasts, though I feel dirty even using the word "museum" to describe an institute devoted to the teaching of antiscientific ignorance.

This story is a prime example of something that I first saw pointed out by Sikivu Hutchinson. In economically depressed communities, storefront churches are both a sign of and a contributor to blight: a sign of blight because it means that profit-generating businesses can't get a foothold; a contributor to blight because churches, unlike businesses, pay no taxes and don't help broaden the revenue base. The same is likely to be true of these "creation museums": as soon as their builders have cashed the state's checks, we can expect them to turn around and claim that they're part of a ministry and should be entirely tax-exempt, over and above the massive tax breaks they've already been given.

This project is unlikely to help the state's economy, but it does help right-wing demagogues burnish their theocratic credentials for the benefit of the masses. In today's Republican party, being anti-science is a prerequisite, and dispensing government pork to some loon who claims that the universe is younger than the invention of writing is a solid bullet point on a politician's resumé. That said, I can't pin all the blame on Republicans: Kentucky's Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, also supports the project, which just proves that ignorance and pandering cross party lines.

Nor is it just Kentucky that's rewarding the purveyors of religious lunacy. In Texas (where else?), the state is funneling money to "crisis pregnancy" centers, those anti-choice fronts that typically do their best to look like legitimate family-planning clinics so that they can bombard women who come to them with religious propaganda.

What these stories show is that the Republicans' alleged fiscal conservatism has nothing to do with deficits, and everything to do with wielding the power of the government as a bludgeon to support their regressive, medieval views on science and women's rights. They're dead-set against raising taxes, except when it's raising taxes on abortion and family planning. They're ferociously opposed to more government spending, except when that spending is for the benefit of carnival-barker religious whackjobs or deceitful anti-choicers. They're more than willing to use the government's spending power to advance ignorance and take away choice, just never the other way around.

August 26, 2011, 5:49 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink13 comments
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