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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Help the Foundation Beyond Belief Finish Off 2010

Earlier this year, I wrote about the Foundation Beyond Belief and encouraged atheists to join, and I'm happy that some people took me up on that invitation. Well, the end of 2010 is almost here, and it's fair for FBB members and potential members to look for a year-end recap of the group's achievements. What did we do this year? Dale McGowan has the answer:

In 2010 our members fed, clothed, and paid school tuition for 22 impoverished children in Nepal. We have funded science education in India and in US public schools and supported efforts to fight global warming and protect biodiversity.

We put textbooks in Uganda's humanist schools and peacebuilding teams in Uganda's conflict areas. We funded efforts to improve access to health care for marginalized populations on four continents and in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake. We helped launch a new Camp Quest in Virginia and helped build a new school for girls in Pakistan.

We've added humanist voices and dollars to the fight for LGBT rights, the key civil rights struggle of our time. We've empowered adoptions, fed the hungry, and worked to protect the most vulnerable—refugees in war, victims of torture, women under threat of religious violence, political asylees, people struggling with addiction, and those hoping for dignity at the end of their lives.

In total, FBB members have raised over $70,000 for 37 charities. For less than a year's work, that's pretty impressive!

In addition to all this tangible good, the Foundation Beyond Belief serves another important purpose: it enables atheists to make our charitable donations a positive collective expression of our worldview. Instead of our donations being blended invisibly into society's overall giving, it makes us visible; it shows that atheists are people of good will and compassion and that we care about creating a better world. In a society where atheists are still widely viewed as immoral and selfish, this is no small thing, and it makes us that much more credible and persuasive when we argue that discarding religion would improve human well-being.

The point of all this is that I believe the FBB is a more than worthy group. And now, it needs our help to finish off the year on a strong note. Unlike many non-profit groups, the FBB doesn't skim off the top to cover its administrative expenses: 100% of the money which members earmark for its chosen charities goes directly to those charities. This is a laudable policy, but it means that they do have some administrative debt that needs to be retired, so as not to finish the year in the red. I want to see the FBB's work continue and expand next year, so I'm making a donation for this end, and I urge you to do the same - even if it's just a few dollars. Donations are fully tax-deductible. The Foundation and I thank you for your help!

November 20, 2010, 3:40 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink4 comments
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Ensuring Access to Abortion

As a neutral observer of religion, one of the most striking characteristics I find is the rampant misogyny in nearly every religion in the world. Worldwide, women are denigrated as lesser beings, barred from positions of leadership, commanded to be subservient, and told that they're weaker or more sinful than men. Even in the relatively few religions where women play a significant role, it tends to be a late-arising development brought about by modern moral progress. By comparison, just consider how many major world religions clearly state in their founding documents that women and men are equal (can you think of any?). Why is the hatred and oppression of women such a common thread, even in faiths that otherwise have nothing in common?

In the wake of some recent discussions about feminism, I had an inspiration, and I'd like to share it: it's rooted in how religion propagates itself.

Despite the evangelistic efforts of some faiths, it's clear that the primary vector of religious memes is vertical, from parents to children. And conservative religious leaders know very well that women hold the key to that effort. Given the choice, most women limit the size of their families, but it's not in the best interests of religious authorities to allow that. Hence, all their misogynist rhetoric, demands for female subservience, opposition to sex education and contraception, and alloting sole authority over sex to men (who, it has to be said, have far less at stake): all part of a strategy to ensure that women don't exercise control over when or whether to have children.

This suggests a counterstrategy: to advance the atheist cause and stop the spread of religions that seek to grow by proliferation, we have to work to ensure that women have access to contraception, abortion and other reproductive health services. And for that reason, I was very pleased to read this article about a massive charitable gift by Warren Buffett:

Last year, The Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, named for Buffett's first wife, who died in 2005, gave more than $2 million each to Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Abortion Access Project Inc. and Washington-based Catholics for Choice and more than $40 million to Ipas, which works to expand the availability of safe abortions and provides reproductive health care.

There's also this encouraging article, "The New Abortion Providers". It details how doctors' groups are making a greater effort to train abortion providers and bring them into the medical mainstream, while anti-choice activists' attempts to intimidate and harass doctors are meeting with less success than they used to. There's an important point in it that clinics which only offer family planning services are easy for zealots to target, whereas if abortion care is brought into hospitals and performed like any other procedure, it makes it much more difficult for them.

And besides charitable gifts and support from the medical profession, there's one more very effective way we can give women control over their own reproductive destinies: make it possible for women to abort a pregnancy themselves, without having to travel or find a cooperative doctor or clinic. That's why I was greatly encouraged to read this column by Nicholas Kristof about the increasing use of misopristol, a cheap, common drug used to treat ulcers and hemorrhaging. It's one component of the RU-486 pill, but it's almost as effective at terminating pregnancy if taken on its own. It also causes a miscarriage indistinguishable from a natural one, which is crucial in countries whose theocratic laws punish women who are found to have exerted control over their own biology.

Unfortunately, there are still such countries. One of them is the Philippines, whose laws are largely dictated by the Catholic church. Abortion is outlawed there without exception, with the following result:

According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, more than half a million Filipino women undergo illegal abortions every year. Of this number, 90,000 suffer complications, and a thousand eventually die, the center said. Abortion-related complications, it said, are one of the top 10 causes of hospitalization among women in the Philippines. According to the World Health Organization, 20 percent of maternal deaths in the country are a result of unsafe abortions.

It's often observed, but still indisputably true: outlawing abortion doesn't prevent abortion, it just makes women more likely to die or be maimed in the bargain. As in many other countries around the world, Filipino women's lives are being sacrificed on the altar of Catholic dogma, their bodies treated as breeding stock to produce more children for the church. Atheists and freethinkers have every reason to stand against this - to reduce the power of a tyrannical religion, to promote human happiness by ensuring that every child is wanted, and to defend human liberty. But if we're ever going to succeed, we need to build alliances with all women and treat them as full and equal partners in the effort, capable of exercising autonomy over their bodies and minds alike.

August 6, 2010, 5:47 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink110 comments
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Strategically Supporting Religious Charities

Are there any circumstances under which an atheist can support a religious group doing social work, even if doing so may advance a religious message we disagree with?

This is on my mind because of the post I wrote last month about the Foundation Beyond Belief supporting a Quaker charity, and because I just finished reading Nomad, Ayaan Hirsi Ali's excellent second book, which serendipitously touches on similar ideas. Nomad is about the closing of the Muslim mind: the way that Islamic immigrants to Western countries often form isolated enclaves, rather than assimilate into their new society and absorb its values. The result is that barbaric practices like honor killing, female genital cutting, and violent jihadism that were once confined to third-world theocracies are appearing in Western countries, rather than immigrants taking up our ideals of tolerance and secularism.

To turn back this tide, Hirsi Ali proposes that the institutions of Western civilization need to make a greater effort to reach out to immigrants. This appeal, to my surprise, includes a section aimed specifically at Christian churches, encouraging them to make greater efforts to proselytize, and urging atheists to support them in this:

I hope my friends Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens... will not be dismayed by the idea of a strategic alliance between secular people and Christians... [p.240]

That is why I think we must also appeal to other, more traditional sources of ideological strength in Western society. And that must include the Christian churches... We should bury the hatchet, rearrange our priorities, and fight together against a much more dangerous common enemy. [p.243]

Even though Hirsi Ali stresses that she intends us to work together with "mainstream, moderate denominations" and not the fundamentalist "freak-show" churches that oppose women's rights and science, I was taken aback by her argument initially. After all, it runs against the grain of what atheists tend to believe.

Hardly any atheists are willing to aid religious groups that proselytize, and it's easy to come up with good reasons why. Doing so means that our contributions, directly or indirectly, will be used to advance religious beliefs that we don't agree with - and history has shown over and over again that churches which accumulate secular power, even the mainstream ones that are allegedly more enlightened and tolerant, tend to use it to restrict the freedom of nonbelievers. In most cases, there are secular competitors that do just as much good without spreading unreason. And even more important, there's a growing humanist and secular community still establishing itself, one that needs our support to build an infrastructure and could put our aid to worthier use.

All these arguments are good ones, and I think they offer convincing reasons why atheists shouldn't support religious groups under most ordinary circumstances. But there's a counterargument that I find more difficult to dismiss.

Although I think atheists should evangelize, we can take it for granted that we're not going to reach everyone, no matter how vigorous our effort. Becoming an atheist is a big leap, one that a lot of people just aren't ready to take. There are many who still need the comforts of religious belief, illusory though they are, and won't even consider our arguments in good faith. Given that this is so, isn't it better for us if those people join a moderate, liberal faith - one that respects secularism and teaches reasonable moral ideas, one we can easily coexist with - rather than a fundamentalist cult that attacks science, opposes equal rights for women and gays, and fights for theocracy?

This is a similar dilemma to the one that faces American freethinkers in the voting booth. For the most part, open atheists don't stand a chance of winning elections, which means our choice is usually between a Democrat who panders to religious voters but by and large respects separation of church and state, versus a Republican who courts the religious bigot vote and is an active supporter of theocracy. Given these choices, I believe it's better to support the religious progressive - even if I have to hold my nose and ignore insipid, god-drenched campaign rhetoric. Admittedly, this boils down to choosing the lesser of two evils. But withholding our votes in protest means only that the fundamentalists and theocrats, who definitely aren't going to sit an election out, become that much more influential.

That's why, on balance, I do agree with Hirsi Ali that there are cases where alliance with religious moderates, even evangelical ones, pays strategic dividends. Whether we should underwrite Christian efforts to convert Islamic immigrants, I'm not so sure. But I think it's worthwhile to, for example, support courageous reformers like Irshad Manji who are trying to liberalize Islam from the inside. This is basically the same argument I made in "The Soft Landing": we want the world's transition away from religion to be as calm as possible, not a world where the moderates fade away and leave only belligerent fundamentalists. When we can further that aim by tactically supporting religious moderates and reformers - shifting the overall tenor of a religion in a direction that's friendlier to us - we can and should.

I do want to stress one point: we shouldn't ally with believers when doing so requires us to give up our own voice. (This is how my argument differs from that of the accommodationists who tell us to pipe down and stop criticizing religion.) Our alliance will be most effective when we unite in pursuit of a common goal, not a common message. We'll always have differences of opinion and we should be free to air them. And we certainly shouldn't enter any alliance that's conditioned on our subservience.

August 2, 2010, 7:06 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink35 comments
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Meet a Foundation Beyond Belief Member

Editor's Note: Back in March, I wrote an essay encouraging atheists to join the Foundation Beyond Belief, a new charitable group doing good for human beings and the world in the name of freethought. I also offered to write a front-page post interviewing anyone who agreed to join the Foundation as a result of hearing about it on my site. This is the next in that series of interviews. Please welcome Petrucio!

Tell us a little about yourself. Who are you, where do you live, what do you do?

I'm Petrucio - that's not my name but I don't really go by my real name anywhere. I live in Florianopolis, Brasil, with my wife, our 6 month fetus, 3 dogs, and a lot of other non-invited smaller living beings. I'm a jack of all trades - I work some hours as a software engineer, I run a garage game company, and I play poker semi-professionally.

If you're an atheist, when did you first become an atheist, and how long have you been one? If you're not an atheist, how would you define your beliefs?

It all started when I had doubts about the many names that seemed relevant in the Bible stories - Jesus, Moses, Noah - and I didn't really make sense of all that. So being the inquisitive little fella that I was, I decided to go on reading the Bible from start to finish to answer all that. I didn't really got to reading all of it - because frankly, I think the Bible sucks worse than any book I have ever read sucked, despite what most atheists politely say about it being good literature.

But I went from interested theist to disgusted theist, to agnostic, and then to atheist in a slow process that took some 8 years. Reading ebonmusings some five(ish?) or some years back was the closing nail on that coffin.

Do you have a blog of your own, or another site you'd like us to know about?

I have something that I do not really call a blog, despite it being hosted on blog format and on blogspot. It's more like a repository of more complex articles I intent to post a few times a year at best. Kinda like ebonmusings.org, but without the proper care to organize it in a proper site and with proper formatting. And with more humor and some images to go, in an ebonmusings meets Greta Cristina sorta way. The idea behind it is that there's so few good sources of information on critical thinking in portuguese, and so many intelligent people falling for all the woo out there that could be thinking differently if only they had access to more information, that I wanted to make my own critical thinking corner in portuguese, if only to make the people close to me understand my views a little better.

At the moment it only has a post on Homeopathy and the translation of your article on The Problem of Evil (hurray, I finally made it!):
http://www.tuvene.blogspot.com

All the portuguese speaking readers out there can add it to their feeds - it will have no filler or off-topic posts, only the good stuff. But it will have very infrequent postings, so be sure to follow it.

I also wanted to plug in my game, it's something of a 'Magic: The Gathering' meets 'Age of Empires' card game, check it out at:
http://www.bellatorus.com
I've made some coupon codes for any readers to pay any price they feel like paying:
DAYLIGHT15 - 25% off for $15 bucks.
DAYLIGHT10 - 50% off for $10 bucks.
DAYLIGHT5 - 75% off for $5 bucks.
DAYLIGHT2 - 90% off for $2 bucks.
DAYLIGHT1 - 95% off for $1 buck.
DAYLIGHT0 - 100% off - $0 bucks, free, gratis, nada.
These codes are good until the end of August.

I hope I can make a skeptically themed game in the future. I think it can be such a great learning tool, with good potential to reach and influence much farther than our usual audience. You can flood my inbox with suggestions if you have any - petrucio at bellatorus dot com.

Have you given to other charities before joining the Foundation Beyond Belief? If so, which ones are your favorites?

I have mostly donated larger amounts to Doctors Without Borders on the "Oh my FSM, the shit has hit the fan!" basis. I have considered donating to the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and the James Randi Educational Foundation, but I don't remember ever getting to it. And I also subscribe a small amount to Mr Deity - not really a charity, but very high quality outreach, and I'm a sucker for edutainment.

What membership level did you join the Foundation at?

I started at 10 bucks to get the ball rolling, but I intent to donate at least 1% of all income in the future as the dust settles.

How do you plan to divide your initial donation?

I don't remember now what the division was, but it's more skewed towards education, since education is the solution to all life's problems (like alcohol, but without the hangover).

Is there anything else you'd like to say to atheists who are considering supporting the Foundation or other charitable groups?

Get yo ass out that chair and do it now; with such a great Foundation doing the middle work, you've run out of excuses.

July 25, 2010, 8:06 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink2 comments
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Building Bridges With Believers

I have a confession to make: I'm one of the New Atheists.

You know the type. Our reflexive, unjustified hatred of all religious people is matched only by the venom of our arguments against them. The mere thought of religion of any kind makes us irrationally furious, like waving a red flag at a bull. We ignore the existence of real religious people because we find fundamentalists easier to attack, and when we're not ignoring them, we're driving them away with our hostile, intemperate rhetoric. One thing's for sure, we're certainly not interested in making alliances with any kind of church to do any genuine good or work on solving any real problem in this world.

That's why, this month, I'm making a charitable donation to a church that's trying to do some genuine good and work on solving a real problem in this world, and I hope you'll join me.

As I've mentioned before, I'm a member of the Foundation Beyond Belief, a meta-charity helping atheists and freethinkers to do good in a visible way. Each quarter, the FBB chooses ten charities each addressing a different area of need, all of which must have a proven track record and a commitment to refrain from proselytizing. But it's always been part of the FBB's intent that a member charity could be founded in any worldview, as long as it meets those requirements.

This month, the Foundation's board is putting that principle to work. Their choice in the Peace category for the third quarter of 2010 is Quaker Peace and Social Witness, a branch of the Britain Yearly Meeting and the flagship organization of Quaker peace work worldwide, as well as a past recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

If we're going to support any religious charity, the Quakers are a good start. Quakers are nominally a Christian sect, but they don't have rituals, sacraments, or a formal creed. Their most important belief is the "Inner Light" - the idea that God exists within every person and speaks to them on an ongoing basis. As a result, they generally believe that the Bible is at best secondary to this process of continuing revelation, and that every person is equally free to interpret the will of God for themselves. (Like Unitarian Universalists, some Quakers also consider themselves nontheistic.)

Quakers have played a formative role in American history and in the separation of church and state. The Quaker William Penn founded Pennsylvania, whose charter gave a strong guarantee of religious freedom to all of its citizens. I've been to the Arch Street Meeting House in Philadelphia, the oldest Quaker church in the world, which was built on land donated by Penn:

The meeting room inside looks like a church hall, except that it doesn't have a pulpit, or for that matter, a minister. A Quaker service consists of all the members sitting together in silence for an hour, except that if any member feels they've received an inward revelation of God's will, they can stand up and speak it at any time.

Besides religious liberty, Quakers have been pioneers in abolishing slavery, in prison reform, and in equality for women and GLBT people. (That said, there are also conservative Quaker denominations that are more like evangelical Christians, and whose views on same-sex marriage and other issues are far less enlightened. Needless to say, the FBB isn't supporting any of their charities.)

As opposed to the accommodationists who claim that we can only cooperate with religious people if we totally cease criticizing them, the Foundation's choice points to an obvious alternative: we can work together with religious groups in areas where we find common ground, without surrendering our right to disagree with them on other subjects. But promoting peace in the world, I would hope, isn't a controversial goal, and it should be one where atheists and theists alike can work together to build bridges.

If there's any religious denomination whose work deserves the support of freethinkers, it's the Quakers. That's why I support the Foundation's choice. I split my monthly donation four ways, and this quarter, one-fourth of it is going to them. Of course, the great virtue of the Foundation Beyond Belief is that members choose how their money is allocated, so if you disagree, you can shift your donation to other charities. But why pass up a chance to prove that we can work together with theists if the cause is just?

July 3, 2010, 9:54 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink89 comments
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Meet a Foundation Beyond Belief Member

Editor's Note: Back in March, I wrote an essay encouraging atheists to join the Foundation Beyond Belief, a new charitable group doing good for human beings and the world in the name of freethought. I also offered to write a front-page post interviewing anyone who agreed to join the Foundation as a result of hearing about it on my site. This is the next in that series of interviews, and the last for now. Please welcome D!

Tell us a little about yourself. Who are you, where do you live, what do you do?

Hi, I'm the letter D! I live in central Illinois and I pay for rent & groceries by working as a quality consultant. In my free time, I enjoy reading science, learning about things on the internet, and writing stuff.

If you're an atheist, when did you first become an atheist, and how long have you been one? If you're not an atheist, how would you define your beliefs?

I think I first became an atheist when I was fourteen or fifteen, but I had a backslide when I was twenty and frantically working my way down to Business Ethics Hell. This lasted for a couple months before I realized I was possibly going crazy (call it an early-onset mid-life crisis). So depending on how you look at it, I've been off the God-smack for either six years or twelve years with one slip-up. While I am an atheist for lacking beliefs in supernatural hokum, I'm really fond of my father's position of "reconfirmed agnosticism", which is when you know you don't have all the answers, and you also know that nobody else does, either!

Do you have a blog of your own, or another site you'd like us to know about?

I write She Who Chatters, though I've reduced my output to one post every weekend. Oh, and there's another site I'd like y'all to know about, assuming that's an inclusive "or" in the question: my good friend Jack has recently started a new blog, The Slumgullion. He's an atheist working for Navy SIGINT, and he writes cool things that other people should know about.

Have you given to other charities before joining the Foundation Beyond Belief? If so, which ones are your favorites?

I have given to charities in the past. I've been a regular blood donor since sixteen, I've given to United Way through my office, I do Kiva, and I gave to Direct Relief when Haiti had its big earthquake. Aside from Ebonmuse's excellent suggestions in The Secular Tithe, I would say that Direct Relief is my favorite for their sheer efficiency.

What membership level did you join the Foundation at?

I'm only in for five bucks a month while I'm under the effects of my last year's pledge to United Way. Then I will be dividing that chunk out of my paycheck evenly between FBB & Direct Relief while I keep my Kiva funds recirculating.

How do you plan to divide your initial donation?

I'll probably put it wherever the greatest need is. I trust these folks to know what they're doing.

Is there anything else you'd like to say to atheists who are considering supporting the Foundation or other charitable groups?

Yes: DO IT! Do it now. You'll get some self esteem from skimming a little off your own top to help those who need it, you'll be doing some real good in the world, and you're increasing the fiscal fitness of organizations that are motivated by principles but not profits. It's win-win-win.

May 16, 2010, 3:49 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink0 comments
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Meet a Foundation Beyond Belief Member

Editor's Note: Back in March, I wrote an essay encouraging atheists to join the Foundation Beyond Belief, a new charitable group doing good for human beings and the world in the name of freethought. I also offered to write a front-page post interviewing anyone who agreed to join the Foundation as a result of hearing about it on my site. This is the next in that series of interviews. Please welcome John McNally!

Tell us a little about yourself. Who are you, where do you live, what do you do?

My name is John McNally; I'm a married father of two boys and a grown step-daughter. I make a living as a software engineer and we live in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee.

If you're an atheist, when did you first become an atheist, and how long have you been one? If you're not an atheist, how would you define your beliefs?

I've been an atheist for 19 years after leaving my childhood faith spent in the Methodist church. I was a pretty strong believer as a child, then didn't really give it much thought at all during my undergraduate years. Then in my early 20's while investigating other religions and philosophy, Christianity became unbelievable to me. I could never put it to words like Ebonmuse, but there was just too many inconsistencies and lack of evidence. The interest in religions continued, but basically I don't see any evidence for supernatural beings, so just decided I was an atheist. I married a lapsed Catholic who is not an atheist. There was some conversation about religion, but there were too many other priorities (such as baseball! Or soccer!). After moving to a new community, one day we drove by a Unitarian Universalist church. I remembered hearing about them performing commitment ceremonies (weddings, or similar) for gays and lesbians. Being liberal, that memory drew me in. It turns out their open mindedness extends to atheists as well and we've now been UU for about 5 years. My wife still is not an atheist and I am an atheist; though existentialist, humanist, UU is more descriptive.

Have you given to other charities before joining the Foundation Beyond Belief? If so, which ones are your favorites?

In addition to some local charities such as homeless shelters, we give regularly to Amnesty International and the UU Service Committee which is involved with human rights, environmentalism, and economic issues. A couple new ones this year were Doctors Without Borders and the Wisconsin Humane Society.

Our thoughtful charity giving started with an idea from one of my sisters. Each of us and our spouses decided several years ago to quit giving each other Christmas gifts and instead pool the money for a charity donation. We rotate who picks the recipient and most often it is a local charity for whoever is choosing. For awhile one of my sister's job was to help refugee immigrants and she'd use the money to buy stuff like a bus pass or driving lessons or used furniture to get them started. Another year it went to a coworker of my other sister who just lost everything in an apartment fire just before the holiday. Other times it was a formal nonprofit charity. I've really liked this idea as it connects you with family and you are giving more than you might (or be able to) on your own; and would encourage others to do it. You can give each person involved free choice or if that is not possible, I'd suggest everyone pick some charities to agree on and rotate amongst those.

What membership level did you join the Foundation at?

I originally signed up at the $10/month level, but soon afterward doubled that. The lower level was mainly due to the apprehensiveness due to just recently hearing of the foundation. But given the many deserving charities served by the foundation that level seemed too low.

As a regular church goer I wasn't the main target of Ebonmuse's appeal. However, I was really excited to hear of this idea. In the past most of our charitable giving has been as a couple and that will likely continue, but this is a very good way to express my individual identity.

Is there anything else you'd like to say to atheists who are considering supporting the Foundation or other charitable groups?

The Foundation is a great idea. Less than $1.50 a week, if that is all you can afford, will have an effect. I have a job with a good salary and benefits, but I can come up lots of reasons I couldn't give. I haven't gotten a raise in a long time, my wife works part time and has had her hours cut. I've had health issues including a recent double bypass and there are still health and dental bills on credit cards that we are paying off. And of course with kids there is no end to the expenses. But as a church goer I regularly hear recommendations to give 5% of my income to charity (unrelated to support of the church). We are not there yet, but should reach 2-2.5% this year. My recommendation to anyone is to just get started giving regularly and keep increasing the percentage as you are able and the Foundation Beyond Belief is great for that. It will feel good, I guarantee it.

May 9, 2010, 9:17 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink1 comment
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Meet a Foundation Beyond Belief Member

Editor's Note: Back in March, I wrote an essay encouraging atheists to join the Foundation Beyond Belief, a new charitable group doing good for human beings and the world in the name of freethought. I also offered to write a front-page post interviewing anyone who agreed to join the Foundation as a result of hearing about it on my site. This is the next in that series of interviews. Please welcome StaceyJW!

Tell us a little about yourself. Who are you, where do you live, what do you do?

I'm a married (not legally), feminist atheist that works in the Solar Power Industry. Right now I'm pregnant with our first baby, a son. I currently live on the ocean in Baja CA, Mexico, between Tijuana and Rosarito, but I cover the US Southwest for work, so I travel a lot.

If you're an atheist, when did you first become an atheist, and how long have you been one? If you're not an atheist, how would you define your beliefs?

I can't recall a time when I believed in a god, but I didn't call myself an atheist until a few years back, when I realized it was politically and socially necessary for all non-theists to declare themselves atheists - LOUDLY! I'm a feminist, humanistic atheist of the "strong" type (in Dawkins speak).

Do you have a blog of your own, or another site you'd like us to know about?

NO LONGER QUIVERING should be a must read blog for any feminist or atheist - anyone that cares about women's rights, and the damage done by religion, should check it out.

http://www.nolongerqivering.com

It's an eye opening, amazing, but often sickening, walk through the minds of women (formerly) involved in the biblical patriarchy/Quiverfull movement. If you have been feeling complacent about women in America, this will change your mind.

Have you given to other charities before joining the Foundation Beyond Belief? If so, which ones are your favorites?

Yes, I give to the ASPCA monthly. I also give to the Humane Society, Ferrets Anonymous (for ferret legalization in CA), and The Take Heart Project - a new group that seeks to assist women in leaving Quiverfull/biblical patriarchal relationships, particularly abusive ones. I've also organized donations of solar equipment for groups (religious, unfortunately) building/powering orphanages in Mexico and schools in Africa - if you have a charity project in need of solar power, I'm your woman!

Is there anything else you'd like to say to atheists who are considering supporting the Foundation or other charitable groups?

It's great to be able to support a charity that is outwardly atheist; not only am I sure that my money won't be going to converting others, but it makes our giving more public. I get tired of hearing that non-believers don't donate, when we DO, until now there was just no way to show it!

May 4, 2010, 5:54 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink3 comments
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Meet a Foundation Beyond Belief Member

Editor's Note: Last month, I wrote an essay encouraging atheists to join the Foundation Beyond Belief, a new charitable group doing good for human beings and the world in the name of freethought. I also offered to write a front-page post interviewing anyone who agreed to join the Foundation as a result of hearing about it on my site. This is the next in that series of interviews, which will be posted each weekend. Please welcome Alex Weaver!

Tell us a little about yourself. Who are you, where do you live, what do you do?

I live in Sacramento, and I'm a de facto single father in the process of "making it official." I work for the family engineering firm as a technician and am majoring in Physics at Cosumnes River College and Mechanical Engineering at Sacramento State.

If you're an atheist, when did you first become an atheist, and how long have you been one? If you're not an atheist, how would you define your beliefs?

I was raised in a household that was strongly politically liberal and was more or less secular but with a substantial residue of "believing in belief." I was more or less agnostic for the majority of my childhood, though I was not particularly hostile to religion and would occasionally sort of "play along" with rituals like prayers, etc., either on my own or with others. This reached a peak in middle school when I semi-attached myself to a small circle of friends which included the son of a local pastor and was persuaded to attend a Christian youth group his church offered, which I did for a while, off and on. I identified myself as "Christian" at that point and was fairly attentive to going-through-the-motions but in retrospect my mental state was inconsistent with either a sincere sense of conviction or a clear idea of what it was I was supposed to be believing - it was all sort of surreal to me. I wound up disengaging from that group when I wound up going to a different high school. I ran across some information on Secular Humanism as a teenager, though I don't remember where, and felt a strong sense of resonance. Some years later I ran across the Ebonmusings site while searching for supporting references for a paper on evolution for a "we can't believe you learned this the first time in high school" college English class, and was subsequently inspired to rethink my unconscious deference to religion and to adopt the identity of "atheist." I am 24 now and have called myself an "atheist" consistently since I was 18.

Do you have a blog of your own, or another site you'd like us to know about?

I technically "have" a blog and one or two comparable sites but have never had time or inclination to follow through with keeping them updated.

Have you given to other charities before joining the Foundation Beyond Belief? If so, which ones are your favorites?

I have previously given to Goodwill, to various local food bank style organizations, I believe to Planned Parenthood, to St. Jude's children's hospital, and one or two others that I don't remember well, as well as political advocacy groups which don't meet the "charitable donations" qualifications but whose mission I see as a way of giving back to and improving society (Equality California, for instance). I wouldn't particularly say I have a "favorite."

What membership level did you join the Foundation at? How do you plan to divide your initial donation?

I'd already written $25 of charitable donations into my "when the dust settles" long-term budgeting plan, so this seemed like a good place to start. I intended to increase my participation level later once I had a better understanding of what my expenses as a single parent would be like, though oddly there doesn't seem to be an easy, straightforward way to do that via the "my account" pages.

How do you plan to divide your initial donation?

I allocated 9% of my donation to each of the other nine categories, and the remaining 19% to the "Big Bang" charity, Smart Recovery. Their mission is a fairly personal one for me, given that my wife's alcoholism is a major driving factor in our divorce and particularly in my having custody of our daughter, and given my discomfort with many aspects of the 12-Step approach, which I've learned far too much about secondhand.

Is there anything else you'd like to say to atheists who are considering supporting the Foundation or other charitable groups?

I'm happy to be doing something practical to help, and would suggest others forward the link to the foundation web site to any local atheist/freethinker/freethinker groups.

April 18, 2010, 8:02 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink0 comments
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