Monday, January 24, 2011
A: Some atheists are arrogant. Some are jerks. Some are rude, unrefined, condescending, and fatuous.
Just like every single other generalized group of people you'll ever meet, whether related to religion or garden clubs or PTAs.
Atheists are people just like you, some good and some bad. And if you frequent Internet sites frequently, odds are you'll run into more than your share of jerks of all stripes, atheists included.
But what generally motivates this question is when people run into a "strong atheist" who makes the positive assertion that "there is no God". This comes across as an unwarranted and unprecedented assault on the listener and all people who believe in anything spiritual or theological. I suspect it's this feeling of being assaulted that's behind the reflexive charge of arrogance more than anything.
People are entitled to their beliefs, whether it's in Xenu or animism or Jesus or the Aztec sun god. Or the belief that there are NO gods.
If it's arrogant for an atheist to proclaim that he or she believes there are no gods, why is that more arrogant than claiming that not only do you know whether or not there IS a god, but you know WHICH god out of the 2,000+ it is, and the exact manner in which he, she, or it wants to be worshipped? Why is one arrogant and the other is a moral exemplar?
Nothing in the statement "I do not believe any gods exist" is any more inherently arrogant than the statement "There is only one God, and Mohammed is his prophet", or any other equivalent statement you'll find in most religious or mystical traditions.
Because atheism is so rarely expressed aloud, I suspect its shock value is increased, well past the point of the other equivalent positive statements about the exclusivity of any given religion that we're all used to hearing every day.
The fact is that we're all probably wrong in some way about the universe, because it's infinite and we're finite. But we're all entitled to believe in something without being called names because of it.
Sunday, March 30, 2008
Welcome to the Eighty Eighth edition of Carnival of the Godless! One of my passions is comics, so I've grouped our submissions together according to how I think they'd translate into the visual world of that medium. To help you plan what you'd like to read when, One-Panels will be quick reads, Daily Strips a bit longer, Sunday Strips a moderate amount of time, and Graphic Novels a serious session.
Some comics take place entirely in one panel, and while at first glance you might think such a format would allow only superficial, silly stuff, in fact its very brevity can force a lot of power. For example, this "Ziggy" strip when read a certain way has very wry existential implications:
Note that there's a slot to pay, but no slot for anything to come out of. I can't think of a more thought-provoking way to look at religion, and the posts in this category have that same short, edgy, powerful punch.
The "standard" comic strip appears every day but Sunday in the daily paper. They feature recurring characters and a history that requires some familiarity with the general idea of the strip. The posts in this category take a bit longer to read and also require a bit of background to really understand, but are just as powerful as one-panel examples.
Deborah presents Opting out posted at In a strange land, saying, "First time submitter....
My daughters' allegedly secular state school has no simple way for parents and children to opt out of the "Christian options program" just before the Easter break."
Evolved presents Why do these theistard cultists need tetanus shots? posted at Evolved and Rational. Worshipers in the Philippines nail themselves to crosses and the state's biggest worry is about them getting tetanus?
The Sunday comic strips allow the creators a lot more room to make their point, and they get to use color instead of black and white. They take a bit longer to read, but still retain that comic-strip ability to make a powerful point.
Newbie Atheist presents More sins? What?s next - cheap prescriptions? posted at The *Angriest* Pharmacist, saying, "For your consideration; a fun post from a non-atheist site that looks at new rules on sin from the Vatican"
Greta Christina presents On The Amazingness of Atheists... And Why It's Doomed posted at Greta Christina's Blog, saying, "Why the atheist community is so amazing; why that amazingness is doomed; and why that's exactly as it should be."
Greg Laden presents Greg Laden's Blog : PZ Myers Expelled, Gains Sainthood posted at Greg Laden's Blog. The great PZ Meyers Expelled Incident is destined to be an Internet classic, and Greg's post is a wonderful, comprehensive summary of links to get caught up on just what happened.
Christian Bachmann presents A double-edged word of comfort posted at Joy of Freethinking, saying, "The equation death = peace is often used as a word of comfort at funerals, but its consequence is very tricky and may be even a risk for humanism."
Steve Snyder/SocraticGadfly presents Pharyngula gets creationist movie boot and lies posted at SocraticGadfly, saying, "My take on the New York Times story about Pharyngula (P.Z. Myers) getting the boot from the "Expelled" screening."
Skeptigator presents Promoting religious advocacy for secularism posted at Freethought Fort Wayne, saying, "Originally pulled this out of my drafts for the Blog Against Theocracy however I thought this might be a nice positive message."
Graphic novels take comics into its longest and most in-depth format, telling novel-length tales while still utilizing the powerful tools of simplified iconic figures, word balloons, and the other hallmarks of the medium. These entries take the longest to read and provide a lot of food for thought; get ready to settle in for a while and really think.
Jeffrey Stingerstein presents Emotional Truth Versus Objective Truth (and how they relate to theism and atheism) posted at Disillusioned Words.
Hank Fox presents Does Jesus Make You Happy? posted at HankFox.com, saying, "We regularly see purported scientific studies that claim belief in God makes you happier, that atheists are less content than those who regularly go to church. Just how reliable are those studies?"
John Wilson presents On agnosticism and atheism: opening a can of worms posted at Armchair Dissident, saying, "I reply to a commenter - well known to me - on the question, "is atheism rationally defensible". Short answer? Yes. This is the longer answer."
Jeffrey Stingerstein presents untheist, atheist, nontheist, intheist? Let?s Call the Whole Thing Off! posted at Disillusioned Words. A lot of different terms get thrown around meaning similar things, but just what the heck do they all really say?
That concludes this edition. Submit your blog article to the next edition of carnival of the godless using our carnival submission form. Past posts and future hosts can be found on our blog carnival index page.
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
A: According to at least one survey by the Barna Group, atheists and agnostics are less likely than believers to feel "completely/mostly satisfied with your life today" (68% to 91% for evangelicals) and feel more "stressed out". So, yes, overall atheists are less happy than believers, at least in America. But 68% is a long ways from "all atheists are unhappy."
Furthermore, although everyone is different, I think it's fair to say that being an atheist in America is harder than being a Christian. Atheists are different. Atheists are a minority. Atheists are more hated than even terrorists. A number of states forbid atheists from holding public office. A President in our generation said that he didn't think atheists should even be considered to be citizens. Religion is pervasive in our culture, and to be an outsider to all of that powerful social force is quite a challenge.
Given all of that, it's not too surprising that an atheist in America would feel less satisfied than those in the powerful majority.
At the end of the day, however, I think the best reply to the question of happiness belongs to George Bernard Shaw, who said "The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one."
Monday, February 25, 2008
A: Sometimes, when a man and a woman are very much in love, they ... no, wait, wrong lecture.
Seriously, most atheists would answer this question with "My parents." And that would be it. They do not believe that an almighty Creator was involved in any way, just regular old people doing that regular old thing. A god is as unnecessary to explain human conception as it is to explain the conception of weasels.
But just because an atheist is someone who lacks God-belief doesn't mean that all atheists believe in metaphysical naturalism (the idea that the physical, natural world is all there is). For instance, a Buddhist atheist might believe that there is a non-material component to all life, which we are unable to measure through our normal senses, but which accrues various amounts of karmic debt. This insubstantial essence lives on beyond us, and in fact incorporates itself into future iterations of the self. In that sense, such a person might reply "My parents, me, and the karmic nature of the universe."
Most atheists, however, would likely consider this sort of non-divine supernaturalism as claptrap and nonsense. By far the most common answer is that we are created by the same mindless forces of nature responsible for every other living non-human creature we have ever seen.
Friday, February 22, 2008
A: Before I go on, I want to be sure you understand a few things.
First, I'm neither a parent nor a therapist; I'm just someone who has experienced a range of reactions from people I love about my atheism, and who has a strong desire to help families stay together whenever possible.
Second, every family is different; what I have to say here may or may not apply to yours.
Finally, this is not a guide to how to get your child to reconvert back to your religion. It's not intended to be persuasive regarding any particular system of belief, it's just meant to address some of the natural concerns and questions parents of faith might have when their child tells them they're an atheist. Ultimately my goal would be to help families in this situation stay together, emotionally available to each other, and supportive of one another.
Having said that, here are some thoughts that might help you deal with this new revelation from your son or daughter.
First Things FirstSo what do you do if you're religious and your child tells you that he or she is not? I imagine you're shocked, unsettled, and probably a bit angry. But you need to think very carefully about how this is going to affect your relationship with your child going forward. Decide quickly -- do you want to continue having a relationship with them, or is their atheism so painful to you that you cannot bear to deal with them? From that one decision everything else flows.
I'm going to assume that you do want to keep some sort of relationship with your child, or you wouldn't keep reading this. I want to say, therefore, that I applaud you for that; it takes courage and great strength of character to try and work through what must feel like such a fundamental rejection of what you stand for. I think -- no, I know -- it's worth it, though. This after all is your son or daughter, the little being you gave life to, who's shared your home for all these years. To throw all that away in response not to what they do but to what they think, would be a great tragedy.
Now that you've decided you want to figure out some way to live with this in your life, therefore, I'd like to address a few of the things that are probably racing through your mind.
What Do They Even Mean By "I'm An Atheist"?You're probably thinking of other belief systems that have a creed or a list of rules, some kind of organizing document that says "You have to adhere to all of these to be one of us." Atheism isn't like that, though; there isn't a group people sign up for and whose terms they agree to in order to call themselves an atheist. Atheism isn't a creed or a religion or even a philosophy, nothing so organized as that.
That's what it's not, but as for what it is -- well, it's simply a description, meaning "someone in whom no god-belief is present".
In some ways it would be easier if there were a list of beliefs you could read to know where you stand with your child, if they were joining a new church that had a creed or a holy book you could research. But atheism's not that easy to pin down, because as I said it's just a description of an absence. You'd do as well asking what all people who don't collect stamps have in common.
Because atheism is a description and not a creed, we don't have any lists of beliefs or standards you have to agree to in order to join up. There's not even anything TO join, because we're not a club. We're not an organization.
That's why you'll see some atheists who say they want to stamp out all religion, and others who like religion very much, just not for them. Some will be immoral scumbags, and others will be among the very nicest, best people you'll ever meet. Some will be raging liberals and others will be staunch conservatives. Some will prefer living in big urban environments while others are happy in a trailer out in the middle of nowhere.
Without any kind of central tenets or dogma, you don't ever know quite what you're going to get with an atheist, which I suspect is part of what's so disturbing to religious people about them.
So what kind of an atheist is your child going to be? The honest answer is, they're probably not going to be that different from the young man or woman they've been all along.
Are They Going To Stay an Atheist?It's impossible to say at this point what destination your child's journey is ultimately going to arrive at. Think about the kids you've known in your church. Some of them start out all gangbusters, full of faith and fire, only to peter out quickly and return to whatever life they had before. Others burn quietly, but for longer, and become pillars of the community. Some join the church out of anger, or jealousy, or greed. Others join for fellowship, faith, or love.
Atheists aren't any different; we all arrive at our unbelief for a variety of different reasons. A blogger named Hank Fox once outlined four different types of atheists, and although I think his list would apply to lots of folks I think it's a good place to start setting your expectations. Here's his list, slightly edited for presentation:
- "Rebel Atheist": Decides he’s an atheist more or less just to piss off his mom and dad.
- "Revenge Atheist": Believes in a god, but happens for some reason to hate him. “You killed my kitten / gave me cancer, you bastard, and I’ll never say I believe in you, ever again.”
- "Inherited Atheist": The guy who picks it up from his atheist parents, and just never thinks seriously about religion, or whenever he does, thinks it’s just some nonsense like Elvis worship.
- "Awakened Atheist": Someone who realized one day that some part of her religion didn’t make sense, and worked her way through question after question over a span of years, and eventually came to the firm conclusion that it just wasn’t true, any of it.
Aren't Atheists Inherently Immoral? And Doesn't That Mean My Child Will Be, Too?No, absolutely not! Regardless of why your child has come to atheism or how long they hold to it, atheists are just as likely as theists (a generic term for anyone who does hold a god-belief) to be moral or immoral, good or evil, upstanding or wicked. This study, for instance, clearly shows that there is no correlation between atheism and immoral behavior.
I know it seems counter-intuitive to you, but faith or its lack isn't a very good indicator of how moral or immoral someone is. I would bet if you think back on people you've known in your church, you can come up with examples of people who seemed very pious but who turned out to be just rotten. And I bet the opposite is true, too, that you can think of some who seemed like the worst Baptist/Catholic/Hindu or whatever you ever saw, only in the end they turned out to be just great, great people.
If you've raised a good kid, who knows how to love others and to treat them well, then you've got nothing to worry about in the morality department. Just like there are good and bad people in every church, there are good and bad atheists as well. Who your child is on the inside is far more important than what they think about god, in terms of their personal morality.
But I Don't Want My Child Going to Hell!I understand how painful that thought must be to you. From a religious perspective, though, I would encourage you to remember that the only one who decides who's going to hell and who isn't, is God. If you believe Him to be a truly merciful, loving god, then trust in Him to do right by your child. Don't put yourself over Him and substitute your judgement for His; trust that He'll do the best thing when the time comes.
If you want to keep a close relationship with your child, however, I wouldn't encourage you to take up this argument with him or her. An atheist doesn't believe in Hell, so at best this is an empty threat. At worst, it's likely going to drive your child even further away from you; Hell is one of the more common reasons atheists give for losing their faith in Christianity. The reasoning goes that no God who is all-loving would condemn someone to infinite, eternal torture for sins committed during a finite lifetime. Pushing that aspect of your faith to your child as a reason they should abandon atheism is likely going to have the exact opposite effect you're hoping for.
What's the Best Way To Talk To My Child About This?Getting angry when you talk about this is not going to be helpful. In the words of the Bible, "This man speaks harshly, Who can listen to his words?" It's important to try and stay calm and reasonable. That can be hard, especially if you think your son or daughter is telling you this just to hurt you. You may think this is a childish, silly position to take. You may be taken by an incredible urge to slap some sense into them.
I can almost guarantee you that this decision or realization is not something your child has come to lightly. It's a serious matter, and deserves serious, adult attention. Talk to them, one person to another, and really listen to what they are telling you. This is your son or daughter; nothing about their belief system is going to change that. They love you, and you love them, and even though you might be furious with each other, don't lose sight of that.
I'm not suggesting you give up your beliefs or to say anything you don't honestly believe -- in fact, I'd say just the opposite. Be open and honest with them, and give them the chance to do the same.
Just remember that their atheism doesn't mean they've suddenly become evil. They're not joining a cult, or planning on ignoring all morality and law. They're just searching for answers, even as you are, trying to figure out what it all means and why they're here, what it is they're supposed to be doing with their lives. Tell them you love them, no matter what (even if you don't feel much like it at the moment, you know you do), and even though you think they're wrong it's not going to change that love.
Atheist or theist, Christian or Muslim, black or white, ultimately that's all any child wants from their parent, to be loved for who and what they are. You don't have to agree with their position, you don't have to condone it or celebrate it, but you do have to deal with it openly and honestly, and always with love.
If you want to continue having a relationship with your child, it's absolutely essential that you not belittle or harangue them. They're making an adult decision, you need to deal with them as an adult. Put yourself in their shoes, imagine how you would want someone to react if you were telling them about your faith for the first time. Your child deserves that same respect and openness.
Most importantly, don't lie to them. Don't say "I completely understand and everything's fine, I'm ecstatic for you" if you're not, in fact, fine and ecstatic with it. Say instead "I hope you understand that this is difficult for me to accept, because I love you and my faith is very important to me. It scares me to think of you not having the same faith I have. But I hear what you're saying and I'm going to try very hard to understand and accept that this is what you believe; it's your life, and I know you have to live it, no matter how I might feel about it personally. Regardless, even if I'm angry or upset or not really understanding right now, I love you and always will."
So Now What Do I Do?All you can do is love 'em. If you've raised them well, if you've loved them with all your heart, then they're going to turn out fine no matter what faith they end up with (even if it's no faith at all). Be open and honest with them. Keep the lines of communication open. You don't have to give their atheism your blessing, but try to express your feelings in a non-judgmental, non-condemnatory way. "You're going to hell but I love you anyway" is probably not the right approach, nor is "I'm sure this is just a phase and you'll grow out of it." Try something along the lines of "I love you no matter what, and although this isn't something I am happy about, ultimately your faith is your choice and I'm going to do my best to respect your decision."
It's all about honesty, love, and keeping the lines of communication open without being too judgmental or harsh.
And the fact is that there are millions of atheists all over the world living happy, fulfilling, moral, loving, complete lives. This may be the end of your religious hopes for them, but it most certainly isn't the end of your hopes for their moral, intellectual, and emotional well-being.
I hope this has been helpful for you. I want to repeat that I'm not a parent, nor a psychologist, so please take all of this as nothing more than what it is -- the perspective of just one guy, an atheist who has a love for kids and a genuine desire to help families stay together in love and support.
Families are precious gifts; please don't let the differences between your faith and theirs ruin that.
A: Because we can't reach the &@#! alarm clock!
In a nutshell, what this question really implies is that the questioner believes that all meaning in life comes from God. If you don't believe in God, therefore, your life can have no meaning, so why bother?
Let's turn the question around, however, and see how it sounds then. "If as a Christian your whole goal in life is to die and get to Heaven, why wait? Just off yourself now and cut out all those pointless years of mortal existence." I can hear the spluttering now, but the original question is just as silly to an atheist as this one is to a Christian.
Atheists find meaning in all kinds of things. We have families to feed, bills to pay, causes to advance, friends to see, lessons to learn, achievements to attain, and mountains to climb, just like theists do. Giving meaning to something yourself, instead of having it imposed by a "higher power", doesn't make that meaning less real. Is the love someone feels for a spouse they themselves chose less powerful than the love someone feels for a spouse their parents chose for them in an arranged marriage? Does it matter that the feeling is self-assigned rather than other-assigned? As long as it's sincere, it doesn't seem to me that one is better than the other. Just different.
Thursday, February 21, 2008
A: No. Atheism doesn't lead inevitably to anyplace, any more than starting in St. Louis inevitably means you have to end up in New York. It's a starting place, not an entire route; the final destinations at the end of the trip are as many and varied as there are atheists.
Regarding nihilism specifically -- the general philosophical position that our existence (action, suffering, willing, feeling) has no meaning -- it's certainly possible that someone starting out with "I don't believe in god" might end up there.
But that's just one possibility among uncountably many other ones.
For instance, an atheist might believe that while there is no God, there are other planes of existence to which we might be able to aspire, and thus continue our lives as trans-humans. Or they might believe that we humans are capable of creating our own meaning, which gives our lives purpose and direction. Or that there certain actions are more aligned with the natural order of the universe, and that acting in accordance with those rules is healthier. Or that they live on in their children, and this is the meaning for which they live.
You get the idea -- there are lots of different ending positions you might arrive at after beginning with a lack of god-belief. To argue otherwise would be like someone telling a theist "Ah, since you believe in a god, then your fondest wish must inevitably be to die so you can go join Him, and therefore this life has no real meaning for you."
In general, whenever you hear someone say "Atheism means ...", swap out "atheism" for "theism" and see how much sense it makes. Atheism and theism are both very, very broad terms; trying to tie either of them down to very specific positions generally leads to errors.
(Update: I rarely update this site any longer. For more discussion on this topic, please see Jason Rosenhouse's excellent post "Must Atheists Be Nihilists".)
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
A: No, science and atheism are two completely different things. Someone can be a scientist and be an atheist or a theist of any sort. There are Christian scientists, Hindu scientists, Muslim scientists, atheist scientists. Science doesn't say anything one way or another about metaphysical issues (subjects having to do with the supernatural, or ideas that are not based in a physical universe); it is concerned solely and exclusively with that which is natural.
Most atheists subscribe to metaphysical naturalism, the idea that the natural world is all there is, period. Scientists subscribe to methodological naturalism, the idea that when trying to figure out how things work, only natural phenomena should be considered. Conflating the two is an error. One can be a scientist, employing methodological naturalism to figure out why volcanoes erupt (weak spots in the mantle allow deep magma to surge to the surface, not "Baal is angry with us") while being, say, a Christian (God created the world such that the mantle has weak spots in it that allow magma to surge to the surface). The two are similar, but different, and conflating the proponents of one with the proponents of the other is a mistake.
Implying that science is the same thing as atheism is like saying "Muslims believe lightning is a natural force, not bolts from an angry god. Science also believes lightning is a natural force, not bolts from an angry god, therefore science is Muslim in nature." Or put another way, it's the error of thinking that because set A and set B have subset C in common, set A equals set B.
Saturday, February 2, 2008
A: A weak atheist is one in whom no god-belief is present. A weak atheist makes no claims about the general existence of a god or gods, he or she simply has no belief in any them.
A strong atheist, on the other hand, not only has no god-belief, but also makes a positive assertion that in fact there are no gods at all.
Weak atheism is an absence of belief. Strong atheism is an active belief.
On this site, the general word "atheist" is generally equivalent to "weak atheist".
For more on this distinction, see Wikipedia.
Friday, February 1, 2008
A: Most people think of religion as involving two main things -- belief in at least one god, and a set of rituals devoted to perpetuating a given dogma. Atheism fails on both counts, since by definition it does not hold any god belief, and there are no rituals or dogmas to follow.
More broadly, of the eight definitions of "religion" given by dictionary.com, only one is even vaguely applicable to atheism: "something one believes in and follows devotedly; a point or matter of ethics or conscience: to make a religion of fighting prejudice." But even this definition is applicable only to strong atheism, the positive belief that there are no gods. Atheism as defined on this site (or weak atheism as it's called elsewhere) -- the absence of god-belief -- fails this aspect as well, since it is not a belief but a lack of belief.
Atheism by itself is not a system of beliefs. At most it is one belief, that there are no gods, and in general it's not even that -- it's just a description of an absence. Atheism can be part of a larger set of beliefs, which together form a coherent philosophy of the world, but by itself it is no more a philosophy or a religion than a foundation is a house.