Back from the Reason Rally

Atheism clashes with ChristianityI’ve recently returned from the Reason Rally, held on the National Mall in Washington D.C. (photos here).  There were an estimated 20,000 people there, in the rain, which is a lot more than I would have predicted.  The organizers figured that it was the biggest secular gathering in world history by a factor of ten.

The atheist glitterati were all there—Michael Shermer, James Randi (founder of The Amazing Meeting), Richard Dawkins, Greta Christina (my favorite atheist blogger), PZ Myers, Tim Minchin (whose beat poem “Storm” is awesome), Eddie Izzard, Jessica Ahlquist (American Atheist’s “Atheist of the year” for her lawsuit against the religious banner in her public high school), Rep. Pete Stark (the only open atheist in Congress), Sen. Tom Harkin (not an atheist [!] but a senator who welcomed us anyway), Penn Jillette, Todd Stiefel (whose foundation helped sponsor the event), Nate Phelps (an eloquent and estranged member of the infamous Phelps family), and many more.  The Rally proceeded without a break for over seven hours.

The 2012 American Atheist conference was the following two days and had 1300 attendees.  The theme this year was “Come Out,” and many speakers talked about both the need for that and for dealing with the challenges that coming out as an atheist can impose on someone living in America today.

After being away from the office, I’ve got a lot to catch up on, and I’ll be busy with the Northwest Freethought Alliance conference here in Seattle this weekend.  I’ll get back to a regular posting schedule soon.  Thanks for all your comments to the posts of the past couple of weeks; I’ll be responding ASAP.

Any brief summary will be inadequate to cover the Rally and conference.  I’ll just summarize some of the highlights.

  • Roughly ten Christian protesters held signs at the Rally.  Discussing apologetics with Christian sign carriers is one of my hobbies, but each was surrounded by lots of atheists—sometimes conversing thoughtfully and sometimes haranguing.  The only one that I talked to at length admitted that he had no arguments in favor of Christianity but was just mindlessly on the Mall, witnessing for Jesus.  I wondered what the point was, since he’s not informing anyone of anything.  He had no new arguments, and simply stating the tenets of Christianity (all he seemed capable of doing) to atheists better informed than the average Christian was pointless.
  • Taslima Nasrin from Bangladesh spoke of the Muslim response to her writings—riots, burned cars, and house arrest.  After hearing this, it was hard to compare any struggle atheists might have in coming out with hers.
  • Physicist Lawrence Krauss said that philosophers asking “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is like Johannes Kepler asking “Why are there five planets?”  It’s an irrelevant and outdated question!
  • Too often, the Christian says, “Morality is built on a foundation of God’s existence!” and the atheist response is a tepid, “But we are moral, too.”  We need to take morality back.  Our morality is superior—it’s built on something besides myth and wishful thinking.
  • Richard Dawkins spoke of a poll his foundation did in the UK.  Of self-identified “Christians,” many accepted non-Christian beliefs (ghosts, fate, reincarnation), many don’t believe in the power of prayer, many don’t read the Bible and know very little about it, and some don’t even believe that Jesus was a historical figure.  Conclusions: most “Christians” aren’t, and we shouldn’t accept Christians’ self-identification but rather ask what they mean.

Asked why they had been recorded as Christian in the 2011 Census, only three in ten (31%) said it was because they genuinely try to follow the Christian religion, with four in ten (41%) saying it was because they try to be a good person and associate that with Christianity.

But when asked where they seek most guidance in questions of right and wrong, only one in ten (10%) said it was from religious teachings or beliefs, with over half (54%) preferring to draw on their own inner moral sense.

  • Jerry DeWitt is a cheerful ex-pastor who left religion half a year ago through the Clergy Project, a group trying to find a soft landing for doubting pastors.  I’ve written before about Rich Lyons, a local ex-pastor who had to get through the process solo and suffered from PTSD after leaving his pulpit.
  • PZ Myers gave an interesting quote from Sean Carroll: “The reason why science and religion are actually incompatible is that, in the real world, they reach incompatible conclusions.”
  • PZ Myers on trying to juggle science and religion: “Squatting in between those on the side of reason and evidence and those worshipping superstition and myth is not a better place.  It just means you’re halfway to crazy town.”
  • Religion is a natural part of the human mind.  Okay, and smallpox is natural, too.  That doesn’t mean you resign yourself to it.
  • This chart from a 2009 Gallup poll documents the long-term change in religious preference in the U.S. and shows that the increase in atheism and erosion in Christianity has been fairly steady and not just a recent phenomenon.

  • In a cartoon, two guys are talking.  One says, “New Atheism indeed—it’s just the same old indisputable scientific evidence again.”
  • Religion makes you happy?  Okay, but so does a puppy.  There’s no need to abandon reason for happiness.
  • On the subject of atheist accomodationists (“Do you have to be so shrill?”) versus confrontationists (“Don’t mince words—tell it like it is!”), Greta Christina likened the atheist movement to a toolbox.  If you’re a hammer, be the best hammer you can be and let the other tools be the best they can be.
  • Christina drew parallels with the gay movement and noted that for many straight people, simply knowing a gay person was key to dismantling their prejudices.  Similarly, we need to come out (where practical) to help Christian America dismantle its anti-atheist prejudices.  One important difference: when you come out as gay, you’re not telling straight people that they’re wrong.  That’s not really true with atheism.
  • The Secular Student Alliance has grown from 50 chapters in 2007 to 250 a year ago and even more today.  The Campus Crusade for Christ (now “Cru”) has three times as many chapters, but it has an annual budget of half a billion dollars and is losing chapters.

Curiously, no one talked about what I like to talk about: critique of Christian apologetics.  I’m not sure what to make of this.  Does no one care about this topic?  Has everyone already moved on, comfortable in their conclusion that the emperor has no clothes?

Ah well, I guess I’ll just be the best hammer I can be.

How can you have judgment if you don’t have faith
and how can I trust you with power if you don’t pray?
Newt Gingrich (October, 2011)

Homosexuality in Nature

Homosexuality--just one of the dangerous things that Christianity can lead toChristians often argue that homosexuality is unnatural.  That is, the purpose of man/woman sex is clear—it’s what propagates the species.  Any other kind of sex simply isn’t using human anatomy for what it was meant for.  There’s only one way to properly fit the jigsaw puzzle pieces together.

The Catholic Church is a vocal proponent of this idea that homosexuality is unnatural.  Let’s pause to savor this for a moment—that’s a community of celibate men, if you can imagine such a thing, calling another lifestyle unnatural.

But the fact is that homosexuality is natural.  It’s widespread in nature and has been observed in 500 animal species, including all the great apes, of which humans are a part.

The science that explains homosexuality is immature—homosexuality might be the consolation prize, for example—but why isn’t the point.  It’s clearly natural, and that’s been recognized within society.  We’re decades past the time when homosexuality was categorized as a mental disorder.

But natural doesn’t mean good, the Christian will say.  Rape, violence, and cyanide are natural, and they’re harmful.

True enough.  Then let’s move the conversation from natural/unnatural to good/harmful.  Rape, violence, and cyanide are inherently harmful, but homosexuality isn’t.

Saying “I have homosexual inclinations, so I should act on them” is like saying, “I have alcoholic inclinations, so I should act on them.”

Once again, the issue is harm.  Alcoholic inclinations cause harm, and homosexual inclinations don’t.  What’s the problem caused by consensual homosexual sex (besides offending the Old Testament god)?

Homosexuals can be treated.  They can become un-gay.

Here’s an interesting data point from the More Musings blog:

[Alan] Chambers is the president of Exodus International, the largest ex-gay organization in the United States. … The most significant statement Chambers made that evening was this:

“The majority of people that I have met–and I would say ‘the majority’ meaning 99.9% of them–have not experienced a change in their orientation, or have gotten to a place where they could say they could never be tempted, or are not tempted in some way, or experience some level of same sex attraction.”

Quoth the President of the Largest Ex-gay Ministry in America.

But if everyone were homosexual, the population would die out!

Yes, and if everyone were female, the population would also die out.  So what?  No one’s saying that being female is bad or immoral or unnatural.   It’s not the case that everyone is female, and it’s not the case that everyone is homosexual.  No problem then!  Anyway, animals have apparently been gay since forever, and evolution stumbles along just fine.

I’ll close with something I recently found that’s currently at the top of my I Wish I’d Said That list:

Homosexuality exists in 500 species.
Homophobia exists in only one.
Which seems unnatural now?

Photo credit: Gabludlow

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Marriage—Designed for Procreation?

Christianity and atheismThe most popular argument against same-sex marriage from Christians that I see is that the purpose of marriage is procreation.  (It makes me wonder if the only advice they would give a couple considering marriage would be about sex positions and lubricating oils.)

Where did this idea come from?!  My guess is that a couple of Christian strategists had a conversation something like this.

First Guy: We’ve got to find some way to differentiate same-sex marriage from straight marriage.
Other Guy: Yeah—some significant difference.
First Guy: So what would a gay marriage not be able to do that a straight marriage can?
Other Guy: Let’s see—they can love each other, they can support each other through difficult times …
First Guy: They can provide sexual satisfaction, they’ll have two incomes in many cases …
Other Guy: Hey, wait a minute—they can’t make babies! 
First Guy: Sure, that’s it!  Let’s just spin it to imagine that that’s the sole purpose of marriage!
Other Guy: The sole purpose?  But what about all that other stuff?
First Guy: Whatever—the argument just has to be plausible at first glance.  It doesn’t have to actually make sense.

Seriously?  Is that all you get out of the marriage vows?  “I promise to be your faithful partner in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, in joy as well as in sorrow,” and so on doesn’t sound like “Make babies!” to me.

And what would these people do with marriages that don’t produce children?  Some couples don’t want children and others can’t have them.  More than 10% of couples have a fertility problem.  In other words, if every single homosexual person paired up and got married tomorrow, they would still be far exceeded in number by the straight couples simply unable to make babies.  As anti-gay-marriage advocates lie awake at night and worry about other people’s happiness, I wonder if this fact troubles them as well.

And what about couples beyond child-bearing age?  My wife and I are too old for more babies, for example.  Does that make our marriage invalid or inferior?

It’s easy to smoke out these Christians’ true opinions on the subject.  Ask these opponents to same-sex marriage why a straight couple should get married instead of living together, and the procreation argument goes out the window, replaced with profound thoughts about love and commitment—precisely the reason same-sex couples want to get married.

The marriage-creates-babies idea is clung to like a life preserver, but the simple fact is that marriage doesn’t make babies, it’s sex.  And, as I’ve said in a previous post, let’s remember that the apostle Paul was against sex and made clear that the best marriage was no marriage at all.

A variant of this argument is that a straight couple provides a better environment for a child than a same-sex couple.  I’ve heard evidence that this is true and other evidence that it doesn’t make much difference, but I’m in no position to evaluate them.  It certainly seems to me that other factors in life—having enough money, no domestic violence, no drug use, a safe neighborhood, and so on—can overshadow the parents’ gender.  But this argument is irrelevant in those situations when two biological parents simply aren’t an option.

Imagine a lesbian woman, divorced with a child.  The mother could live alone, she could live with a woman partner, or the two women could get married.  What’s the best situation for the child?  Mom and Dad isn’t an option; they’re divorced.  Mom and Stepdad aren’t an option; Mom’s a lesbian.  Seems to me that there’s room in this situation to allow for Mom’s happiness, and that could provide another adult to help with the parenting.  Where’s the problem?  We probably agree that single-parent households aren’t best for raising children, and opposing same-sex marriage only stands in the way.

A final element of the Christian position is a rearguard action.  Concerned about the charge of bias, they argue that their position does not discriminate against homosexuals.  After all, they say, the restriction that someone can only marry someone of the opposite sex applies to everyone equally.

I’m sure this absurd argument was as foul-smelling when it was applied to those in love with someone of a different race in 1967 when mixed-race marriages were still prohibited in 17 states.  “There’s no discrimination here.  You can marry anyone you want … as long as that person is of the same race as you.”

Yeah, right.

Christians don’t need to be born again. 
They need to grow up.
— John Shelby Spong

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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The Irrelevant Wisdom of the Ten Commandments

atheism and christian apologeticsFew Christians can list the Ten Commandments in order, but almost all are familiar with them:

  1. Have no other gods before me
  2. No graven images
  3. Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain
  4. Keep the Sabbath day
  5. Honor your mother and father
  6. Don’t kill
  7. No adultery
  8. Don’t steal
  9. Don’t lie
  10. Don’t covet

These are the well-known Ten Commandments from Exodus 20.  What could be ambiguous about this list?  Stay tuned as we run through the story.

It takes 11 more chapters for God to finish giving all his secondary commandments, first rules for how the people should conduct themselves and then rules for the temple and priests.

After weeks of waiting for Moses to return from Mt. Sinai, the anxious Israelites make a golden calf in chapter 32.  Moses is furious when he finally returns.  He smashes the tablets, has the calf ground up and force-fed to the faithless people, and orders the Levites to slaughter thousands of their fellow tribesmen.

Then follows an indeterminate amount of time during which God descended on Moses’ tent as a pillar of smoke and “the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend.”

As a side note, it’s interesting that this appearance of God to Moses (Ex. 33:11) as well as that to Abraham (Gen. 18:1–2) is denied in other parts of the Bible.  We’re later told, “No one has seen God at any time” (John 1:18) and “No man has seen or can see [God]” (1 Tim. 6:16).

Back to our story: Moses goes up Sinai a second time in Exodus 34.  God says, “I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets which you shattered,” so we know that this nothing new, just a replacement set of commandments.  But the contents are very different:

  1. Make no covenant with the Canaanite tribes
  2. Destroy their altars
  3. Make no idols (“molten gods”)
  4. Observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread
  5. “The first offspring from every womb belongs to me”
  6. Rest on the seventh day
  7. Celebrate the Feast of Weeks
  8. No leavened bread during Passover
  9. Bring the first fruits of the soil to the Lord
  10. “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk”

The chapter ends with these words: “And [Moses] wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.”  This is the first time this label is used in the Bible.

You want to display the Ten Commandments in public?  Go for it, but put up this list.  It’s the official list, after all.

Contrast this with the story of the first tablets, which concludes at the end of chapter 31, “[God] gave Moses the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written by the finger of God.”  There is no mention of a “ten commandments,” and these stone tablets presumably contain all of the rules given in chapters 20 through 31.

Another detour: chapter 34 has this savage claim, “[God] will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Ex. 34:7).  And yet, three books later, we get this contradiction: “Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin” (Deut. 24:16).

I guess this too can be rationalized: Deut. 24 is talking about what man must do.  Man needs to treat people fairly and punish only the wrongdoers.  Ex. 34 is talking about what God will do.  God has a long memory and will hold a grudge against you to punish your descendants.

Speaking of punishments, the Ten Commandments list crimes without giving punishments.  For you traditionalists who like the “thou shalt not” set of commandments, “Positive Atheism” has handy list of the corresponding punishments.  God has a pretty limited imagination, and you can guess what they are: “He who sacrifices to any god, other than to the LORD alone, shall be utterly destroyed” (Ex. 22:20), “the one who blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death” (Lev. 24:16), and so on.

Display the Ten Commandments in public, just put up the correct ten.  I dare you.

Say what you will about the Ten Commandments,
you must always come back to the pleasant fact
that there are only ten of them. 
— H. L. Mencken

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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