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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Be Careful What You Wish For (Why I Hate Hate Crimes Legislation, But I Love Hate Speech)

By Sarah Jane Braasch-Joy

In loving memory of my baby brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 - 02/02/10)

I saw a woman in niqab on the UC Berkeley campus the other week. I was shocked. I didn't approach her. I didn't speak to her. She was with two other women in hijab, on the opposite side of a wide walkway.

But, I was shocked. And, appalled. Here was a woman (or, at least, I assume she was a woman), in the heart of what is arguably the most politically liberal university campus and city in the US, a fount for civil rights and 60's hippie culture, engaging in a brazen act of gender segregation and slavery in the egalitarian public space of a secular, liberal, constitutional, democratic republic. I think it is a great shame for a woman living in a secular democracy to perpetuate a barbaric, patriarchal religio-cultural tradition when women are fighting and dying across the globe to be free from gender segregation and slavery.

My views on public anti-mask laws (burqa bans, colloquially) as both public safety and gender desegregation measures are well known. We can no more tolerate gender segregation in the public space than we can tolerate racial segregation in the public space, above and beyond the simple fact that we can neither protect nor prosecute those whom we cannot identify, creating an untenable public safety and security hazard.

I expressed my great upset at witnessing this barbarism on the UC Berkeley campus on the English-language facebook page, which I maintain for Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Submissives). Ni Putes Ni Soumises (NPNS) is the amazing women's rights organization, with global headquarters in Paris, France, which grew out of the outrage over the egregious gender violence being perpetrated upon the Muslim immigrant women and girls of the ghettoized suburban housing projects surrounding the major cities of France. I maintain this page to spread the Ni Putes Ni Soumises message of Secularism, Gender Equality, and Gender Desegregation throughout the English-speaking world.

There are a handful of misogynistic Islamists who occasionally try their hand at debating me on such subjects as US constitutional law and abortion rights on my NPNS facebook page. There's little I enjoy more than publicly humiliating them online. In truth, I owe them no small amount of gratitude. Every time they bait me, and I engage them, my readership jumps precipitously. And, I relish the opportunity to vent a little of my barely contained rage.

So, of course, my misogynistic Islamist readers couldn't pass up a choice opportunity to point out my obvious anti-immigrant racism and bigotry. (I'll admit to being purposely and purposefully provocative in describing the event as an abomination.) But, after comparing the burqa/niqab to the offense of having to watch a woman walk across campus in a mini-skirt, my Islamist interlocutors took a more interesting tack.

They accused me of having perpetrated a hate crime against Muslims and threatened me with hate crimes prosecution, under the guise of being terribly concerned that I not place myself in legal hot water, of course. It was a public service on their part, really. Of course, I pointed out that, not only did I reject their presumption of the role of spokespersons for the Muslim community as a whole, but that gender-based hate crimes are also included in the federal hate crimes act, not to mention the fact that I refuse to be deterred from exercising my constitutional right to free speech.

But, here's the thing. They're right. I have reason to be worried. And, they don't. Because it's always ok to hate women in America. This is why they felt no qualms about hatefully haranguing women with impunity and turning around and intimating that I was opening myself up to hate crimes prosecution by attacking the niqab. (In fact I said nothing hateful whatsoever about Muslims, or even Islam. Ni Putes Ni Soumises is not anti-religion or anti-Islam, just anti-religionism and anti-Islamism. Most of the women advocating on behalf of secularism for NPNS are Muslim immigrants themselves.)

But, they understand that religious groups enjoy a privileged position, which is denied to women. They understand that the likelihood that they should ever be prosecuted for a gender-based hate crime is all but non-existent, while the possibility that I could ever be prosecuted for a religion-based hate crime is quite real. They understand that even if they should decide to go on a raping rampage against women, that their misogynistic diatribes will never be unearthed, nor will any serious attempt ever be made to unearth them, in all probability. Because no one cares if you hate women in America.

For the rest of my life, if I should ever get into any kind of a dispute or altercation with anyone who claims to be Muslim, I could conceivably be prosecuted for a hate crime. My vehement anti-religion, and especially anti-Islam, ramblings on facebook, my personal blog, the Freedom From Religion Foundation's website, and Daylight Atheism could be used against me in a court of law.

What my misogynistic Islamist pals don't know, and how could they, since I was representing not myself, but Ni Putes Ni Soumises during our little exchange, is that literally nothing can deter me from exercising my right to free speech to advocate on behalf of women's rights as universal human rights without compromise. I am a loner. I will never marry nor have children, which is a tactical choice. I am responsible for no one. I have no possessions. I have no money. I have no family. I have no community. I have no allegiances to any person or group or organization or corporation. I am as free as can be. I have my freedom, which is the only thing I value. I am beholden to no one and nothing, save my dead brother's memory and my own conscience. Jacob's suicide freed, enraged, and empowered me. I also know a thing or two about the law. In other words, you can't scare me. What are you going to do? Kill me? Put me in prison? We're all going to die someday. I choose to take advantage of every possible moment, while I'm still here, to leave a glorious legacy for my beloved sibling and myself. And, I choose to use my freedom and my knowledge to fight for secularism, gender equality, and gender desegregation.

Since I hate to mince words, let me just say: Hate crimes legislation is stupid. Seriously stupid. Abominably stupid. I hate hate crimes legislation. But, I love hate speech. Hate crimes legislation has a chilling effect on free speech and freedom of association. This is why hate crimes legislation is in direct contravention of the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Under hate crimes legislation, anyone who has ever said anything, which might be deemed hateful, directed at one of the groups protected under the legislation, opens themselves up to hate crimes prosecution in perpetuity, if they should ever find themselves in a dispute or altercation with someone who claims membership in any of those aforementioned protected groups. I want the haters out in the open, in the disinfecting sunlight of free and open discourse in the public marketplace of ideas. When people feel like their voices aren't being heard, that's usually when violence erupts. Thus, the paradox of hate crimes legislation. Hate crimes legislation couches the criminal penalty for hate speech within a crime of violence. But, in my opinion, nothing moves one to violence so much as being denied the right to speak one's mind.

Hate crimes legislation is thought crime legislation. Hate crimes legislation criminalizes the motive behind a crime. Criminalizing the motive is criminalizing the why. Criminalizing the motive is criminalizing thoughts. A hate crime is an additional penalty, above and beyond the penalty imposed for whatever crime of violence. It is an additional penalty to punish the perpetrator for his/her motive. It is an additional penalty to punish the perpetrator for his/her thoughts, for his/her reason for having acted violently. This is thought crime. Pure and simple.

But, since we don't live inside a Philip K. Dick story, we can't read people's minds, which is why we can only know someone's thoughts by their speech, or, in some cases, their actions. Which brings us back to my point about the chilling effect that hate crimes legislation has upon free speech. If my speech opens me up to legal liability in perpetuity, then I'm not going to speak. (Well, I am, but my imperviousness is rather anomalous, I would think.)

There are two most commonly cited justifications for implementing hate crimes legislation, and both are egregious errors. First, proponents of hate crimes legislation argue that we already penalize perpetrators of crimes for their thoughts, because mens rea (mental intent) is always an element of any crime. Second, proponents argue that, even if hate crimes legislation is thought crime legislation, this is ok, because it is thought crime legislation, which is only ever prosecuted after the point at which the perpetrator has acted violently against someone.

Mens rea (mental intent) and motive are NOT the same thing. Mental intent is always a required element of whichever crime. We don't punish people for perpetrating crimes, which they do not intend to perpetrate unless they should have been aware that they were perpetrating crimes. We don't charge people who have seizures behind the wheel, precipitating fatal car accidents, with murder. But, if they were aware of a dangerous medical condition and failed to take reasonable precautions, then that degree of negligence or recklessness could rise to the level of criminality.

The Model Penal Code defines mens rea as having done something purposely, knowingly, recklessly, or in a grossly negligent fashion. What should already be obvious to even the legal layperson is that none of these criteria for satisfying the mental intent element of a crime addresses the issue of motive. Motive is a wholly separable and severable issue. Motive is equivalent to the reason behind having perpetrated a crime. Motive asks the question, "Why did the accused perpetrate this crime?" Motive does not ask whether or not the accused intended to perpetrate the crime. If I am behaving in a criminally negligent fashion, I still have a motive, presumably, for my behavior. Perhaps I am aware of a dangerous medical condition of mine, which induces seizures. Perhaps I fail to take reasonable precautions. Perhaps, I get behind the wheel, because I am feeling incredibly ill, and I intend to drive myself to the hospital emergency room. I have a seizure and get into a fatal car accident. What was my motive? My motive was to drive myself to the hospital emergency room for medical care. What was my mental intent? Did I intend to have a seizure and get into a car accident, resulting in the deaths of innocent bystanders? Should I have been aware of the possibility of having a seizure and getting into a fatal car accident? Was my degree of negligence gross? Does my motive tell you anything about whether I should have been aware of the possibility of having a seizure and getting into a fatal car accident? What if my motive was to drive myself to the movies?

Motive is never an element of any given crime, EXCEPT in the case of hate crimes legislation. Motive can be admitted as evidence of mental intent, but it is not an element of the crime. If I chose to drive myself to the movies, and I bought a ticket online immediately before getting behind the wheel, this can be admitted as evidence that I behaved in a grossly negligent fashion. But, I am not being penalized for wanting to go to the movies; I am being penalized for failing, in a gross manner, to act as a reasonable person would have done under the circumstances. Likewise, without inventing an even more extravagant scenario, perhaps there were extenuating circumstances, in the case of my having chosen to drive myself to the hospital, which led me to believe that I had no other options than to do so.

Conflating motive and mens rea is a serious error, which places our entire American legal system in jeopardy. Allow me to explain why. I'll continue with the preceding example, because I find that examples serve best in explaining difficult legal concepts. And, these concepts are difficult for everyone, lawyers included. Let's say that our legislators, responding to a popular mandate, decide to promulgate stupid crimes legislation, wherein those who perpetrate crimes of criminal negligence for particularly stupid motives, like, say, going to the movies, face additional penalties, and that this legislation is a response to moral majority outrage over the loss of life and the infliction of serious bodily harm while engaging in frivolous activities for frivolous purposes. The public is incensed by the flagrant disregard for public safety and welfare.

Stupid crimes legislation entails the imposition of vastly harsher penalties for particularly stupid motives. But, it only imposes those penalties upon those who actually end up negligently killing someone or inflicting serious bodily harm. The legislation is justified as a response to the increased and senseless harms inflicted upon the general public for especially stupid reasons. If you accidentally kill someone in the course of attempting to save someone's life, you're ok. You might still be punished for your criminal negligence, but you won't face additional penalties. But, if you accidentally kill someone in the course of going to the movies, you receive additional penalties, if convicted. The laws penalize only those motives, which are considered frivolous or stupid. Entertainment activities are generally considered frivolous or stupid.

Makes no sense, does it? It's going to make you think twice about going to see that brand new movie release or concert, won't it? Either way, you didn't intend to either purposely or knowingly kill someone. Your intent is no different. You weren't aware that you would kill someone, but you should have been aware that you could kill someone, and that negligence on your part was gross. But, now, you're going to receive additional penalties on the basis of the stupidity of your motive during the course of perpetrating a crime of gross negligence. Because the jury will be morally outraged that you ended someone's life while doing something as frivolous as going to the movie theater. You're not actually being criminalized for going to the movies, but for wanting to go the movies.

Does it make a difference that you won't actually risk these penalties until you've killed someone? None whatsoever. You're still being penalized for the additional crime of wanting to go to the movies, of thinking that you want to go to the movies. Which evokes a myriad equal protection concerns. Someone who wants to go to the movies is being punished differently than someone who wants to save someone's life. For the same crime. The only difference is motive.

Additionally, hate crimes legislation violates the constitutional rights of the accused. You can almost always bring in evidence of a defendant's motive to prove mental intent. However, Rule 403 of the Federal Rules of Evidence still applies. Rule 403 of the Federal Rules of Evidence says that if the prejudicial nature of the evidence outweighs its probative value, meaning that if the evidence is going to so inflame a jury so as to call into question the defendant's right to a fair trial, then the evidence is out, no matter how on point and illuminating it is. But, hate crimes legislation throws the Federal Rules of Evidence out the window, as well as their goal of protecting the constitutional rights of the accused. Hate crimes legislation specifically says that if evidence of motive is so inflammatory that it calls into question the constitutional right of the accused to a fair trial, because it will provoke moral outrage in the jury, then it's admissible. And, not only is it admissible, but it is an element of the crime, and the accused faces harsher penalties, because of the inflammatory and morally outrageous nature of the evidence. It is no longer about merely proving mental intent. It is about purposely and purposefully enraging the jury. It is about criminalizing morally outrageous thoughts/speech. It is about penalizing the perpetrator for his/her morally outrageous thoughts. Hate crimes legislation tells the jury, "If you are morally outraged, then not only consider this evidence, but convict and punish on the basis of your moral outrage." If we uphold the Federal Rules of Evidence, then the Federal Rules of Evidence, which prohibits egregiously inflammatory motive evidence, will negate the existent of hate crimes legislation.

Regarding the second justification for hate crimes legislation, let's return to the Philip K. Dick story, in which we seemingly live. Hate crimes legislation is essentially future crimes legislation. If you speak hateful speech, then you will be penalized both now and in perpetuity, by the imposition of a legal liability, for some future violent crime, which you may commit. You will forever be in a position of legal vulnerability, especially with respect to anyone who claims membership in any group protected by hate crimes legislation. You are no longer fully and equally protected by the law. You are no longer a full citizen of the US.

Finally, hate crimes legislation is the granting of rights and legal personality to social groups, placing individual human rights, especially women's and children's rights in jeopardy. Proponents of hate crimes legislation also put forth the argument that hate crimes don't just affect the individual who has been transgressed, but that these crimes are harms against communities of persons, social groups. But, I'm afraid that someone is going to have to define these protected groups with some degree of certitude, including their boundaries, their membership, their protocols for inclusion/exclusion and acceptance/rejection (coming, staying, and going), their rules, their leadership, etc., etc..

Human beings are real. Social groups aren't. Not nations, not religions, not ethnicities, not cultures, and not races. Group identity is inherently arbitrary and illusory and fluid. There is no objective definition of a social group. The experience of being a self-identified member of a social group is a wholly personal and subjective experience, which only exists in the mind of one or another group member. It matters not that human beings are social creatures that evolved to live in social groups and make decisions communally. This says nothing about the objective reality of social groups. Each member of a social group experiences the group in an entirely different way than any other member. He/she understands his/her role, value, and status within the group differently. There is no objective leadership, no objective set of rules of conduct, no objective protocol for entering, maintaining, or leaving a social group. And, this is as it should remain. Social group identity should remain an arbitrary, illusory, and fluid entity, entirely the process of self-initiation. In the same way that government should pay no heed to religion whatsoever, neither to advance nor deter, government should pay no heed to social groups whatsoever, neither to advance nor deter.

Why? Why should this be so?

Just think about the consequences of legally defining social groups. By recognizing a social group as an objectively definable entity, and legalizing this so-called objective definition of whichever social group, and granting this legal fiction rights and legal personality, we do nothing so much as violate the personhood, autonomy, integrity (bodily and otherwise), and humanity of whichever social group's members. Group identity is no longer an ephemeral process of self-identification. It is now a process of government indoctrination. Typically, the government cedes its authority to write this legal fiction for whichever social group to the "leaders" of the group, which almost always means the powerful group members, and usually means men. Legalizing group rights is a license to oppress the less powerful members of a group, rendering individual human rights meaningless.

A recognized group with legal rights and personality is an entity, which will seek to perpetuate itself. The group leaders, powerful male group members most likely, will seek to control the means of reproduction of the group members, i.e. women's bodies and children. Is it any surprise that group leadership will define women group members, who may or may not have had a choice in residing within or without the group, as the sexual and reproductive property of the group? Is it any surprise that a legalized group will defend its right to police its own members, promulgate and enforce its own laws, and defend itself against attack by other groups? No one suffers more under religio-cultural / legal communitarianism than women and children. No one loses more rights than women when groups are granted rights.

Religio-cultural / legal communitarianism is a threat to our secular democracy. Legal communitarianism renders equal protection, rule of law, individual human rights, and secularism meaningless. If a religio-cultural social group can hold itself apart from our secular law and democratic institutions and make itself immune to our Constitution, then our democracy will not survive. And, our government will not be able to protect the most vulnerable and least powerful group members from egregious human rights abuses. Hermetic groups, which are impervious to government intervention, are human rights abuse laboratories. Power differentials coupled with a lack of transparency inevitably lead to human rights violations. And, women and children suffer most of all in these scenarios.

You might think I extrapolate too far from the purpose and effect of hate crimes legislation, but I don't. We lose a little more of our secular democracy each day. I want to take some of it back. I want to start with the repeal of hate crimes legislation.

I would extrapolate even further. We are a single, global human family. A single, global human race. We are one tribe. One global community. We are one. Nothing divides us. If we are not able to come to terms with this fact, then we will not survive. It is really that simple.

Promulgating criminal law based upon a subjective sense of moral indignation, be it moral majority outrage or otherwise, always sounds like a good idea until you're on the receiving end of that moral indignation. In other words, be careful what you wish for.

Additionally, hate crimes legislation raises Due Process and 5th Amendment Double Jeopardy questions. But, this essay is already sufficiently lengthy. Suffice it to say that Due Process questions particularly arise in the instance when the accused is subjected to sentencing enhancements determined by a judge, in lieu of determination of guilt by a jury. Fifth Amendment Double Jeopardy issues are evoked, because the accused is being prosecuted twice over for the same crime.

There are so many ways to think that hate crimes legislation is stupid. Even if you're not convinced by one argument, it is hard to imagine that anyone can remain immune to the persuasive power of the aggregation of arguments against hate crimes legislation.

And, now we see why it's always ok to hate women in America. Women having full access to their humanity is a direct threat to the existence of social groups. Both women and groups being able to wield the power of hate crimes legislation at the same time, against one another, renders hate crimes legislation meaningless. They cancel each other out. Like matter and anti-matter.

And, so, we wait for someone to be prosecuted for a gender-based hate crime.

And, we wait. And wait.

Excuse me if I don't hold my breath.

August 22, 2011, 10:20 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink60 comments
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Walking Away from the Watchtower

Last week, I posted a link to my review of Millions Now Living Will Never Die, the Watchtower's 1920 apocalyptic misfire, on Facebook. It got a comment from Vanessa Sampson, an ex-Jehovah's Witness who said that her own discovery of the Watchtower's fallibility was a major factor in her ultimately deciding to leave that religion and become an atheist.

Vanessa gave me permission to use her name and to share her story, which I think is an outstanding example of the courage and intellectual honesty required to walk away from religion. That's especially true when, as in this case, the religion in question is a cult that commands its members to cut off all contact with anyone who leaves, even if that person is a dear friend or a family member. But as unjust and outrageous as that policy is, their loss is our gain. Join me in extending a warm welcome to Vanessa, and if you have a deconversion story of your own, feel free to share it in the comments.

I had been studying for one of the meetings, and they wrote to address the problem of false prophecies. The explanation was, "Jehovah's Witnesses do not claim to be inspired prophets. They have made mistakes. Like the apostles of Jesus Christ, they have at times had some wrong expectations. —Luke 19:11; Acts 1:6."

I remembered reading that before, but I was inexplicably struck with a question, as sudden as a lightning bolt: If the Governing Body are not inspired prophets, why are we listening to them? Witnesses are expected to accept the Governing Body's interpretations of scriptures and prophecies without question; failure to do so is a disfellowshippable offense. But, if they are not inspired, then why did I follow them? How were they any different from the Pope or the leaders of the LDS Church, all of them muddling their way through their understanding of scripture. Sure, they all believe that they are guided by God, but why should I agree?

I immediately decided that I simply misunderstood. Perhaps it was speaking of the great crowd of Witnesses, we ordinary run-of-the-mill folk. Of course, new light is always being shed, as more and more Biblical prophecies are being gradually fulfilled. If the first-century Christians, who were most certainly inspired, didn't understand the prophecies, then how could I expect the Governing Body - made of anointed, and therefore inspired, men - to be perfect in their understanding?

I resolved to settle the matter, which seriously bothered me. After all, this wasn't just a simple disagreement over what constitutes modesty or whether this or that person should have seen that movie or whether my room was clean enough. If the Governing Body wasn't inspired by God, then why the hell was I putting my faith and trust in them? And something else bothered me: if I hadn't misunderstood the meaning of the quoted paragraph, then it was a glaring contradiction in Watchtower teachings.

It has been published in the Watchtower - and ingrained in the minds of all Witnesses - that "it should be expected that the Lord would have a means of communication to his people on the earth, and he has clearly shown that the magazine called The Watchtower is used for that purpose" and that "the Watchtower is not the instrument of any man or any set of men, nor is it published according to the whims of men. No man's opinion is expressed in The Watchtower."

It was clear to me that those statements are blatant lies if the members of the Governing Body are not divinely inspired.

I knew, as I was doing the research, that this was a turning point in my life. I had grown up as one of Jehovah's Witnesses. I didn't view it as simply my religion; it was my core identity. If I decided to no longer be a Witness, all of my closest friends and family would be required to stop speaking with me or face expulsion. This was not something I could push aside, so - as the hours went on - the list of things I researched grew extensively.

Before going to sleep that night, I had to admit that whenever the numerous prophecies and Biblical understandings that the Watchtower Society purported - such as the various years that Armageddon was supposed to come, and the "new light" that comes - later failed to happen and needed to be changed, the Watchtower Society always defaulted to their "but we're human and we make mistakes" excuse. That was unacceptable for me. If the Governing Body is claiming to be Jehovah's sole channel of communication on Earth, how could they make such mistakes?

Once my faith in the Governing Body had dissolved, I began to question everything. I was not angry, and did not feel intentionally deceived by anybody who had shared "the truth" with me. It seemed to me like just another example of a child that grew up in a religion and discovered it to be different than believed.

But, still unable to accept the idea of leaving everyone I loved and had grown up with, I told myself to just wait and see if anything happened to make me change my mind and decide that I could remain a Witness. I knew that I couldn't just pretend to believe and continue on as before; the thought of it made me sick to my stomach. Within a few days, I accepted that I had to disassociate myself.

Because I was a wreck emotionally - feeling like a dead woman walking, mourning my former self and all of her friends and family - I pushed myself to base my decisions on logic and rational thought. Having decided that I could no longer be one of Jehovah's Witnesses, I felt that I had to at least get an idea of what I now believed to be true. A comment from the August 15, 1981, Watchtower, convinced me that mainstream Christianity might just be correct after all:

"From time to time, there have arisen from among the ranks of Jehovah's people those, who, like the original Satan, have adopted an independent, faultfinding attitude...They say that it is sufficient to read the Bible exclusively, either alone or in small groups at home ...But, strangely, through such 'Bible reading,' they have reverted right back to the apostate doctrines that commentaries by Christendom's clergy were teaching 100 years ago..."

What I gathered from was that if you just read the Bible, without the input (and mental manipulation, in my mind) of the Watchtower Society, you'll believe what most Christians do. It seemed like they were actually discouraging Bible study! That was one of the realizations that just blew my mind. I felt so stupid, so gullible. But at the same time, I reminded myself that these were the things I had been taught my entire life, by every adult I loved, trusted, and respected who loved me back. What reasons did I have not to believe them?

I mentally noted that I needed to resolve my thoughts on conscientious objections to military service, and just how Biblical the doctrines of the Trinity, immortal soul, and hellfire were. I didn't think I could ever accept the idea of hellfire, and couldn't quite grasp the concept of the Trinity, but if my going over the other Bibles convinced me that those were correct, I'm sure I would have accepted them. I refused to not accept any idea just because I'd always been taught not to.

I had also decided not to just be searching for a new religion to join. If I couldn't find one that matched my to-be-discovered beliefs, then I would become one of those people that reads the Bible privately at home. If the right religion wasn't obvious to me, I couldn't see how a loving God would punish me when I was obviously searching.

I clung to my faith in the Bible because I was firmly convinced that Biblical prophecies had been consistently proven right, and that it had a harmonious message throughout and its scientific comments - such as the earth being round, how the universe was created, and the water cycle - were obviously ahead of its time and divinely inspired.

However, once I realized those were the reasons why, I immediately sought to confirm those reasons in my mind. I wanted to question every assumption I had. I wanted to be absolutely sure that I was believing what was right!

I didn't even want to believe in the Bible, or Jesus, or God, without reaffirming to myself that I had solid proof - or at least, beyond a reasonable doubt - of doing so.

But as I peeled away the layers of my belief, I never found sufficient explanations. An online friend of mine, an atheist, correctly explained evolution to me. (Witnesses only accept the Watchtower's skewed explanation.) He spent a good two hours answering my questions - ranging from "How could the world have turned out so perfect for humans to live on by mere accident?" to "Then what's the meaning of life?" - and even though he never once pushed me toward atheism, that laid the concrete foundation. By the time I left home, less than a month after my deconversion, I no longer felt that one must believe in God to live a happy, ultimately good life.

Because I was already 18, once I "came out," I would've been required to move out. I was the oldest of four, raised by a single mother, and I couldn't bear to have to make her choose between Jehovah and her eldest daughter. She wouldn't have wanted to kick me out, and I just couldn't put her in that position, so I moved out first. I was emotionally fragile, so I felt that I couldn't handle the elders meetings for my disassociation, so I left letters and moved out while my family was at the meeting. I made sure to leave them various ways of contacting me so they wouldn't worry, and immediately responded to anything I received.

My mother - who has a mental health history - emailed me and thought it might be best if I went to the hospital, because she believed that I was having a psychotic episode. My best friend IMed me to ask me if I was on drugs, but once I convinced her that I was entirely serious in disassociating, she said that she had to go and I never heard from her again. Another friend e-mailed me to convince me to stay, at least for another year or two, and said that my decision to leave was worse than suicide. But, after about a week, my mother was the only one who would correspond with me, and that lessened to about once every three months, just to make sure I was okay.

Over the next two years, I shed my "Witness subconscious" - as I call my knee-jerk response to view certain things as immoral - and became unrepentantly pro-choice and a staunch supporter of marriage equality. Last year, I started donating blood. I enrolled into college, which is discouraged by the Watchtower Society. I ended up taking a women's studies class as an elective, which helped me gain confidence in myself as a woman, not having to view myself as a subordinate in the "headship arrangement." I gained perspective by having an atheist roommate for one semester, and then a Southern Baptist the next. I feel like a more ethical, rational, tolerant and loving person now that I no longer believe in God.

August 17, 2011, 5:26 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink21 comments
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Religious Gas-Lighting

By Sarah Jane Braasch-Joy

In loving memory of my baby brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 – 02/02/10)

Religionists are those who wish to make religious law the law of the land and impose their personal interpretations of religious law upon others. They come in many flavors, be they Christianists, Islamists, or what have you. The Republican Christianists in the US are a particularly vile sort of religionist.

See, we have a little thing called the First Amendment to the US Constitution, including both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. The First Amendment is a thing of great beauty, and whatever else may be said about the Founding Fathers, they got this point right. The First Amendment to the US Constitution establishes a near-impenetrable wall of separation between religion and state, despite the Republican Christianists’ efforts to tear it down.

So, the Republican Christianists in the US, since they can’t pass through the wall, are forced to scale the wall. They have to make like wolves in sheep’s clothing and disperse themselves amongst the secularists. They have to feign secular purposes for their religious doctrinal commandments, which they would impose upon the American citizenry. They have to pretend that their personal interpretations of religious canon just happen to coincide with moral majority opinion. It’s not that they are trying to impose religious law upon the citizenry. Oh, no. It’s just that moral majority opinion just happens to coincide perfectly with their personal interpretations of religious law.

This is why you will always see an anti-abortion and anti-women advocate begin with sweeping pronouncements about how EVERYONE wants to make abortion rare. EVERYONE wants to reduce the number of abortions to an absolute minimum. EVERYONE hates abortion. EVERYONE thinks abortion is evil.

They don’t want to make women sex slaves and baby incubators, as God demands. Oh, no. They just care so much about the human rights of the unborn babies.

They don’t want to shove their religious doctrine into my uterus. They don’t want to rape me with religious law. Oh, no. They just care so much about the health and safety and wellbeing of women, that they are willing to forego their commitment to small government and a free market and their libertarian principles, in order to spend time with me in my doctor’s office to help me make my own medical decisions.

They don’t want to legalize the sub-human and second-class citizenship status of women. Oh, no. They just want women to make fully informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive choices. They want them to have all of the information.

Or, all of the misinformation.

We can’t let them get away with this anymore. We have to call a spade a spade.

This is also why I would broaden the definition of secularism to preclude the consideration of, not just religious doctrine, but also subjective moral opinions, in the promulgation of secular law. And, think about it. Religious opinion is just another subjective moral opinion. Regardless of the number of adherents.

This is also why I refuse to play their game. This is why I reject the moniker of pro-choice. I am Pro-Abortion and proud. I do NOT want to make abortion rare. I do NOT want to reduce the number of abortions to an absolute minimum. I do NOT regard abortion as a necessary evil or as an evil at all. I do NOT hate abortion. I LOVE abortion. I want to encourage women to have abortions. I think abortion may save our overpopulated, dying world and our species. Abortion is safer than pregnancy. It is almost always in a woman’s best medical interests to abort a pregnancy. If you want to save the world, have an abortion.

I am not going to let them get away with their misinformation campaign. I am not going to let them get away with pretending that the moral majority agrees with them. I am not going to let them spread lies.

We will not be gas-lighted anymore. The best way to counteract the societal effects of cultural gas-lighting? Counter-stories of truth and facts and reason and logic.

I am so incensed by the prevalence of “Pregnancy Crisis Centers”, I can’t even tell you. Why are we letting them get away with this? Why? Why are we letting them masquerade as medical professionals to trick and coerce women out of having abortions? Why are we letting them put women’s health and lives and wellbeing at risk? Why are we letting them advertise under false pretenses and spread potentially harmful medical misinformation? Why are we letting them violate the privacy of private citizens? When the government turns a knowing blind eye to violations of our secular laws, based upon religious doctrine, it perpetrates egregious Establishment Clause violations. The charade is over. The cat is out of the bag. The jig is up. Everyone knows where the white elephant is. The emperor is naked.

To show what an abomination it is to allow these “Pregnancy Crisis Centers” to continue operating as they have been, consider the following scenario:

Jehovah’s Witnesses oppose blood transfusions. Blood is regarded as sacred. Knowingly and willingly giving blood or receiving a blood transfusion is regarded as the gravest of sins against Jehovah God.

Now, the blood supply in the US has actually had a checkered safety record. There have been real concerns, in the past, about the hazards that blood transfusions pose. I am not intending to be an alarmist. I know that every precaution is made to keep the blood supply safe and that transmissions of diseases from blood transfusions are now rare. But, my point is that, compared to abortion, there have been real reasons to be concerned about the safety of blood transfusions on a large scale.

Imagine for a moment that the Jehovah’s Witnesses are the majority Christian sect in the United States. Suppose that they decide to create a slew of non-profits, which they refer to as Blood Crisis Centers, with the goals of dissuading persons from having blood transfusions and of spreading medical misinformation about blood transfusions. Suppose that they employ insidious tactics, such as placing their Blood Crisis Centers near the entrances of hospital emergency rooms, making their Blood Crisis Centers look like medical clinics, and having their staff look and act as if they were medical professionals.

Would we stand for this? Not for one moment.

Would we be confused about the religious motivations of the perpetrators? Not for one second.

Would we allow the perpetrators to feign secular purposes? Are you fucking kidding me?

I find that removing the issue from a context to which we’ve been desensitized, after having been bombarded with religious propaganda and sophistry disguised as secular in nature, and placing the issue in the context of a non-mainstream Christian sect, illuminates the problem as little else can. Therefore, I’ve taken the liberty of employing a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times and changing all instances of abortion to blood.

The following is a parody of a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, which can be found here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/25/opinion/25mon3.html?_r=3

This parody constitutes a ‘fair use’ of this copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law, 17 U.S.C. § 107.

Why Won’t They Say?

In a setback for ill persons facing a particularly vulnerable moment in their lives, a federal judge has temporarily barred New York City from enforcing a new law that would require so-called blood crisis centers masquerading as licensed medical facilities to disclose basic facts about their services.

These centers, run by blood opponents, have sprung up in many places around the country. They typically draw clients with advertisements that appear to promise neutral blood counseling. Staff members in medical attire collect information and perform blood tests and try to convince ill persons not to have a blood transfusion. Ill persons who share personal information are also unaware that the centers are not covered by medical confidentiality rules.

The New York City law would require these centers to disclose in ads and waiting-room signs whether they have a licensed medical provider supervising services and whether they make referrals for blood transfusions. Client information they collect would be subject to confidentiality rules.

The decision by Judge Adam Lee of Federal District Court in Manhattan acknowledges the city’s interest in preventing deception related to time-sensitive health care. The judge still granted a preliminary injunction, mistakenly perceiving a violation of free expression in the law’s modest consumer protections.

The law does not prevent the centers from disseminating their anti-blood message or discriminate against the centers on the basis of their viewpoint. Rather, it requires them to make truthful, factual disclosures about their services. The judge claimed the measure’s description of the facilities it covers is too vague. But the criteria seem adequate to guide enforcement.

As the law stands, medical doctors can be required to convey certain factual information to ill persons to help them make informed choices. Under Judge Lee’s ruling, blood crisis centers pretending to be real medical facilities cannot be made to disclose essential facts about their real services. That makes no sense at all.

August 2, 2011, 5:52 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink62 comments
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An Atheist's Confession

By Sarah Jane Braasch-Joy

In loving memory of my baby brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 – 02/02/10)

My beloved baby brother, Jacob, hung himself last year in my parents' basement. I wouldn't wish my pain on my worst enemy. It's been a year and a half, and, sometimes, I still can't get out of bed or stop crying. I'll be in public, and I'll inexplicably, to anyone else, burst into sobbing, jagged tears. I blame a lot of people for his death, especially my parents. But, mostly, I blame myself. I walked away from my life to save my life, when I was still a child myself, but, in doing so, I walked away from Jacob. I had promised to take care of him, to love him, to keep him safe and well, and I broke that promise. Now, I am broken. I will never forgive myself.

I would make a Faustian bargain, I would sell my soul to the devil, I would torture myself, to get five more minutes with him, to be able to tell him one last time how much I love him, to tell him how sorry I am. I would gouge out an eye. I would hack off a limb. I would sacrifice my life.

I would try to contact his spirit. And, I did try. When I was in Paris still, in the months following Jacob's suicide, I spent my days curled up in a fetal position on the floor of my apartment, screaming, and intermittently vomiting. At first, I couldn't even get up off the floor to go to the bathroom to vomit. I would just vomit on the floor and lie in it. It was the one time I was grateful for the indifference of my Parisian neighbors. I thought I would die of grief. I wanted to die, but I was stopped from killing myself when I thought of the pain I would be inflicting upon my remaining two siblings.

I begged Jacob's ghost or spirit or essence or alternate version living in a parallel universe to visit me, to communicate with me, to contact me in some way. I promised not to be scared. As I was raised as a Jehovah's Witness, which is a demon and occult-obsessed cult of demonology, not being scared of demons or evil spirits is not something that comes easily to me, even decades after leaving the religious community. They believe that demons are real. They believe that demons can hurt you physically, sexually, and psychologically. They believe that demonic attack is an ever-present threat. They don't believe in hell, so they have to bring hell to earth. I was already in hell, and I would have let a demon rape me, if it meant being able to see my baby brother again.

I tried everything. I bought all the books. I lit the candles. I did the research. I burned his ashes. I prayed to his picture. I cast a sacred circle with salt after I swept it clean with a broom. I built an altar to the four directions/elements. I cast the spells. I recorded my ceremonies and played back the video/audio, searching desperately for a message from the beyond.

I sat in my fucking sacred circle of salt, before my altar, and I screamed for Jacob to haunt me, even if he wanted to hurt me, even if he was mad at me, even if he hated me. I cut myself.

But, he didn't come.

I am slowly creating a new life for myself. Each day is a struggle. I can't tell you how maddening it is to want justice for your loved ones and for yourself when there is none to be had. You go crazy, you kill yourself, or you continue on. I sometimes envy my other beloved baby brother, Aaron. He's a heavily medicated paranoid schizophrenic. I sometimes just want to let go and lose my fucking mind too.

I've decided to devote the rest of my life to trying to fix all of those things, which hurt me and mine so much. In Jacob's honor and in Jacob's name. I am going to leave a glorious legacy for the both of us. I am going to live for the both of us.

Jacob is my savior. Jacob's death gave me back my relationship with my baby bro, Aaron. Jacob's suicide released me from my fear. It enraged me, and I am using that rage as motivation.

And, in a funny way, Jacob helps me to be less afraid of the dark and less afraid of demons.

Because, if there is a spirit world, then I know that Jacob is in it. And, I know that he would never let anyone or anything hurt me.

I know he would kick a demon's disembodied ass before he'd let him touch me.

I will always love you, Jacob.

And, you can come visit me anytime you want.

July 26, 2011, 4:55 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink16 comments
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The Baffling Era of Religious Suicide-Massacres

By James A. Haught

Osama bin Laden achieved a remarkable feat: He mobilized the power of religion to spur devout young men to kill themselves in order to murder defenseless strangers. Grotesquely, the suicide-killers felt they were performing holy acts that would please God and assure them martyr rewards in paradise.

The annals of faith-based killing are long: human sacrifice, the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch-hunts, Reformation wars, drowning of Anabaptists, jihads, pogroms against Jews, China's Taiping Rebellion, Mexico's Cristero War, and many modern ethnic conflicts fueled by "religious tribalism." A new phase was led by bin Laden, who orchestrated the 21st-century phenomenon of Islamic suicide-bombing. Mercifully, his personal chapter ended when Navy Seals stormed his Asian hideout on May 1.

The modern Islamic "cult of death" - the worst menace of current times - baffles most Westerners. Logical minds cannot comprehend why idealistic young men, and a few women, volunteer to sacrifice their lives to slaughter unsuspecting, unarmed folks. It makes no sense. Pundit Anthony Lewis wrote: "There is no way to reason with people who think they will go directly to heaven if they kill Americans." Columnist William Safire said the volunteers do it because their "normal survival instinct is replaced with a pseudo-religious fantasy of a killer's self-martyrdom leading to an eternity in paradise surrounded by adoring virgins." Columnist David Brooks wrote that the bizarre phenomenon is "about massacring people while in a state of spiritual loftiness."

These fanatics lack normal empathy for fellow humans. While in foreign lands or amid dissimilar ethnic groups, they don't see surrounding families as affectionate mothers, fathers and children, but as "infidels" deserving death. If the suicide-killers ever acquire nuclear devices, the unthinkable will be upon humanity.

The raid that ended bin Laden culminated a three-decade saga of "blowback." Inadvertently, the Reagan-Bush White House in the 1980s unwittingly helped ignite the Muslim terror movement that now hurts America. Here's the record:

In the late 1970s, radical reformers seized power in Afghanistan and created a Western-style government that began educating girls. Horrified, Muslim extremists and armed tribes rebelled. One of the rebel leaders was warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an extremist known for throwing acid on unveiled schoolgirls while he was in college.

Such mujahideen (holy warriors) were on the brink of toppling the new Afghan government when the Soviet Union sent its Red Army in 1979 to suppress the uprising. Globally, the Cold War was seething. To damage the Soviets, the Reagan administration secretly sent the CIA to arm, train and pay the rebel tribes to kill Russians. Hekmatyar's group got millions of U.S. dollars.

Meanwhile, ardent young Muslims from many lands rushed to Afghanistan to join the "holy war." One was Osama bin Laden, 17th son of a rich Saudi contractor who had a dozen wives. A pious Wahhabi Muslim, bin Laden used his wealth to recruit and pay fighters.

The combined CIA-zealot resistance worked. The Russians were driven out and Afghanistan's modern government was crushed. Warlords like Hekmatyar took over, but soon fought among each other. Then an Islamic student group, the Taliban, seized control and created a cruel theocracy that stoned women to death and inflicted other extreme Puritanical strictures.

Covertly, bin Laden assembled numerous former Afghan volunteers into a shadowy international network, al-Qaida, dedicated to waging jihad (holy war) against the West. His suicidal operatives helped kill U.S. soldiers in Somalia in 1993, blow up two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, and bomb the USS Cole in 2000.

Bin Laden issued a fatwa (sacred edict) calling on "every Muslim who believes in God and hopes for reward to obey God's command to kill the Americans and plunder their possessions wherever he finds them and whenever he can." He was indicted by U.S. authorities and put on international "most wanted" lists.

Then 19 al-Qaida suicide volunteers perpetrated the historic atrocity of Sept. 11, 2001, when they hijacked airliners and crashed them into U.S. landmarks, killing 3,000 Americans. It was the most horrifying day in the memory of most U.S. residents.

The holy killers left behind a testament they had shared among themselves, saying they were doing it for God: "Know that the gardens of paradise are waiting for you in all their beauty," they assured each other, "and the women of paradise are waiting, calling out, 'Come hither, friend of God.' They have dressed in their most beautiful clothing."

Idiocy. Infantilism. It's sickening to realize that 3,000 unsuspecting Americans died because of this adolescent male fantasy. To believe that God wants mass murder is lunacy. As famed British biologist Richard Dawkins wrote:

"The 19 men of 9/11 - having washed, perfumed themselves and shaved their whole bodies in preparation for the martyr's paradise - believed they were performing the highest religious duty. By the lights of their religion, they were as good as it is possible to be. They were not poor, downtrodden, oppressed or psychotic; they were well-educated, sane and well-balanced, and, as they thought, supremely good. But they were religious, and that provided all the justification they needed to murder and destroy."

The mastermind of this crackpottery is dead in a hail of Navy Seals' gunfire. But the suicide-martyr phenomenon he fostered probably will continue impelling idealistic young men to sacrifice their lives in massacres.

Bin Laden wasn't the sole creator of the Islamic cult of death. His Egyptian partner, Ayman al-Zawahiri, pioneered it in the 1990s. Since then, many far-flung Muslim extremist groups adopted suicide-bombing - often using it on fellow Muslims of opposing sects, or against disapproved Islamic governments. Some researchers list as many as 17,000 Muslim terror attacks since the 9/11 horror, with a total body count beyond 60,000 victims. That's an average of five murder missions per day - so many that news media ignore smaller assaults. The phenomenon has a boundless supply of righteous-feeling volunteers eager to throw away their lives to kill for God and their faith.

As Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg said: "For good people to do evil things, it takes religion."

(Haught is editor of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, and is author of two books on religious violence: Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness, and Holy Hatred: Religious Conflicts of the '90s.)

May 31, 2011, 5:40 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink27 comments
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You Call That Religion?

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

Spoiler Alert: the post below discusses the final number of the musical The Book of Mormon.

The Associated Press, in a review titled "Zany Musical 'The Book of Mormon' Will Convert You" said despite the sacrilege you might expect from a show imagined by the creators of South Park, the production was ultimately "pro-religion."  Or, more precisely:

Ultimately, believe it or not, this is a pro-religion musical, or at least a story about the uplifting power of stories. Far from being nihilistic, the moral seems to endorse any belief system — no matter how crazy it sounds — if it helps do good. Amen to that. Consider us converted.

It's not often that atheists have occasion to make common cause with fundamentalists, but the increasingly diffuse definition of religion the AP and others are using is actually bad for both sides.  For religious people, the danger is clear enough: the vague moral therapeutic deism embraced by these dull heretics offers an out from every hard teaching or structure of religious authority.

At the end of the show, the Mormon missionaries have strayed from their theology but decide to stick around to offer what comfort they can to the African village they've tried to convert.  When their doctrine doesn't fit the situation, they just change it around or invent new scriptures to lend weight to their moral intuitions.  In the finale number ("Tomorrow is a Latter Day"), they proudly preach their new, flexible dogma:

I am a Latter Day Saint!

I help all those I can.

I see my friends through times of joy and sorrow.

Who cares what happens when we're dead?

We shouldn't think that far ahead.

The only Latter Day that matters is tomorrow!

Now, I hate to ever end up on the same side as David Brooks ("Creed or Chaos" 4/21/11), but we atheists are also hurt by this spiritual movement.  Defining the diffuse but well-meant spirituality of the schismatic Mormons in the finale as essentially religious leaves atheists out in the cold.  If a general desire to do good for others, divorced from any creed or Authority is limited to religion, it's no wonder that so many Americans doubt that atheists have any moral inclinations and are therefore unwilling to vote us into public office.

Christians steeped in orthodoxy complain that too many of their brothers and sisters in Christ are substituting their own judgement for God's.  They're correct, and we atheists ought to work to get these so-called Christians to own up to it.  The Brits were right on with their "If You're Not Religious, For God's Sake Say So!" campaign to encourage nonbelievers to identify as atheists on the census; weakly-affiliated parishoners boost the numbers and credibility of creeds they no longer profess.

We end up on the same team as the defenders of the faith; we're pushing people to pick a side.  While they offer apologetics, we're trying to heighten the contradictions and get people to admit that they've already concluded their faith is untenable, they just need to come out and say it.  Moral Therapeutic Deism lets believers shrug off all the challenging or horrifying aspects of their faith; it gives them permission to be lazy thinkers.

The broad definitions of religion and spirituality supported by Book of Mormon and confirmed by the Associated Press may help to degrade religion, reducing it to a social gathering instead of a spiritual communion, but that kind of victory is ultimately bad for our cause.  It leaves us no room to develop and offer a compelling atheist philosophy and morality.

May 28, 2011, 9:56 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink8 comments
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The Mormon Test

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

When in argument with Christians, it can be hard to find a good way to explain why you doubt their precepts.  John Loftus has a good idea with his Outsider's Test for Faith, but most Christians believe that their faith can pass the test; it's hard to show them how their faith looks if you haven't been steeped in it.

Sometimes I've tried comparing and contrasting with other, conflicting denominations and asking why I should find one compelling over the other, but it's easy for Christians to escape that maneuver by claiming that they do agree on the most important aspects of God's nature.  According to them, I should be convinced by what binds them together.  It's also easy to end up in an endless cycle of counter-citations and courtier's replies if you try to get technical with objections and apologetics.

I have a couple standard questions, but, after seeing The Book of Mormon on Broadway, I've got an idea for a different opening gambit.  As we heard during Romney's first campaign, Mormonism has a lot of mind-boggling propositions embedded in its theology.  According to data from the Pew Research Center, over a third of Americans do not believe Mormons are Christians, and that proportion is higher among white evangelicals.  In other words, most Christians have no emotional ties to Mormonism and are less likely to get defensive when talking about it.

So the question to pose is: what evidence should compel me to believe in your faith rather than Mormonism?  There are plenty of parallels to push on.  Apologist Lee Strobel makes much of the fact that early Christians were willing to be martyred for their faith and that, despite persecution, the Church grew and thrived.  The same is true of the Church of Latter Day Saints.  The Mormons were persecuted and threatened as them moved west.  According to standard Christian apologetic logic, we should give them more credence for persisting and creating new converts.

Of course, the problem for Christians is that they find Mormon theology to be false prima facie.  If you're a little shaky on Mormon theology, take a listen to the ballad "I Believe" from the musical.  In the song, one of the missionary leads sings a song that encapsulates parts of Mormon dogma.  It starts off mainstream ("I believe that the Lord God created the Universe / I believe that he sent his only son to die for my sin") but it quickly gets stranger:

I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America...

I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob

I believe that Jesus has his own planet as well

And I believe that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri

Except, according to some Christian apologists, the implausibility of beliefs can be proof of the certainty of the believer.  After all, they say, no one would profess such a ridiculous seeming belief if they didn't have good reason to think it were true.   (Though the Mormons are certainly proof that widespread ridicule is insufficient to kill off a religion or halt its expansion).

Try turning the old defenses around and asking Christians how they account for the extremely rapid expansion of a church they regard as false.  They can't take the out they do when questioned about Islam; Mormonism didn't convert by conquest.  Framing the question more pleasantly ("I don't understand how...." rather than "Bet you can't explain...") could get you more a more considered response and a more charitable hearing once you try to pick their answer apart.

May 27, 2011, 4:50 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink23 comments
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News Round-up

By Richard Hollis (aka Ritchie)

I just thought I’d do a quick whirl through some stories of note in the papers this week:

Firstly, and probably most obviously, the Rapture failed to materialise. The herald of doom for this event, Harold Camping announced his shock and surprise that a literal, physical Rapture did not arrive in exactly the way he prophesised. Instead, the Rapture was of a spiritual nature, and we are still on track for a 21st October Armageddon. To his credit, he did guardedly offer an apology to those who feel wronged by him (and much good may it do them). I confess I raised an eyebrow that he’d make another prediction dated for so soon. He might have fumbled his way through one failed prophecy with most devotees still loyal, but surely two in the space of five months will be a fatal blow to his credibility? Or am I crediting his followers too much?

Secondly, a doctor in Britain is being threatened with the sack for refusing a written warning for counselling patients with talk of Christian faith. Alone, the incident might be unremarkable, but what troubles me particularly is the way it has been portrayed in the British media. Many of Britain’s leading papers are none-too-subtly right wing, and though the church holds far less power and influence in Britain than in the USA, the right still equates Christian values with traditional British values to be conserved at all costs while society goes to Hell in a handbasket. Taken along with the Christian van driver who would not remove a crucifix from his work van, and a couple who owned a B&B and were sued for refusing double beds to non-married couples, citing their religious beliefs for justification, the pattern is hauntingly familiar: religious people feel entitled to special dispensation and feel discriminated against when they do not get it. The papers report it this way and a worrying number of their readers dance to their tune. Sensationalism still works, even on an audience semi-aware to look out for it.

Debate rages over whether the world’s last remaining samples of the smallpox virus should be destroyed. The lethal virus was officially eradicated in the wild in 1979, leaving only small samples in laboratories remaining. But fears that samples could be stolen and used for biological terrorism have prompted fresh pleas for their destruction. In truth, this issue has been smoldering at the World Health Organisation for the last 25 years, lost in a cycle of deferring verdicts and appeals.

Seven Italian scientists were indicted this week in Italy for not predicting the April 2009 earthquake which devastated L’Aquila. Weeks before the quake, locals were worried by tremors, but the seismologists described a big forthcoming quake as “improbable”. The following disaster killed over 300 people. On the 20th September, the scientists will face charges of manslaughter. Many scientists have rallied around and tried to defend their colleagues – there is still no reliable way to predict an earthquake. A devastating case, and once which raises extremely important questions about the faith we should place in science and the culpability we should lay at the door of the experts.

Finally, I'd like to indulge you all in a bit of British trash. Our papers have been rather preoccupied with a story about a top, well-respected footballer, married with children, who was found to have had a six-month affair with a model and ex-reality TV star. So far, so unsurprising. But the case is of note firstly because of its legal implications - the footballer took out an injunction against his former lover, while she was thrown to the wolves. This sparked, as much as anything, a rethink of the uses of injunctions for personal cases. In the end, the truth got out via Twitter, and the police could not prosecute several thousand people breaching the injunction. But it also makes me reflect on a particular essay by Richard Dawkins in which he decries sexual jealousy. Far from being the appropriate default response for a jilted lover (justifying, apparently, all manner of revenge), he argues, we humans should try to rise above such jealousy. I'll leave it for you to savour in his own words here. It's an old essay, and the particular affair which prompted it is unrelated, but still it is a very stimulating read.

May 27, 2011, 12:58 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink6 comments
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Adapt or Die

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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