Ten Claims of Religion That Are Mutually Exclusive

mutually_exclusive_eventsTheists have a script.  No, seriously.  They must.  How else could it be that the very first response of every single theist ever to every single atheist ever is that we are ignorant about their scriptures and their religion?  We haven’t read the whole thing, they complain, or we are taking it out of context, or we are cherry-picking the worst parts, or we are mis-translating, or yada yada yada. So let me put this caveat out there right up front: Every single one of the following statements can be found at any of countless online Christian ministries.  The sentiments represented are ubiquitous not only in the Christian meme-o-sphere, but in discussions with Christians themselves.  There has been no cherry-picking; there is no context to these outside of the standalone images and “whisper quotes” circulating on the Internet; nothing has been translated from ancient Hebrew into English by Google.  This is their theology, in their own words, in all its contradictory and self-refuting glory.

1. “Nothing can stop God’s plan!” → “Pray because prayer changes things!”

Say what now?  If nothing can stop god’s plan, doesn’t that include prayer?  And if it does, then why pray?  And if it doesn’t, why are they lying and claiming that nothing can stop it when something actually can stop it?

2. “God never gives you more than you can handle!” → “God WILL give you more than you can handle!”

So, is god making you suffer because he knows you can take it – or is he trying to break you so that you feel you have no choice but to run to him?  (This claim is everywhere in online Christian circles – which, as an aside, is kind of a dick move on god’s part.) He either does or he doesn’t.  Which is it?

3. “Every person in your life was sent by God for a reason!” → “God will never send you another woman’s husband!”

So let me get this straight: If a married man comes into my life he was sent by god, but because he is married he wasn’t sent by god? Or, he was sent by god, but not so I could fall in love with him? So if I fall in love with him, that wasn’t the plan?  But then, how does that square with item 1A above about everything happening being part of god’s plan? Does anyone else’s head hurt?

4. “God gives us what we need, not what we want!” → “Sometimes God gives you what you want so you can see it’s not what you need!”

Geez Louise, god, can you stop being a dick for like five minutes?

5. “Everything that happens is part of God’s plan!” → “Don’t blame God for the bad things that happen to you, blame your own bad choices / people’s free will!”

In my unscientific observations, the “everything according to god’s plan” line usually comes up in the context of first world problems – unemployment, relationship woes, financial troubles, and similar personal challenges.  Those are the times when it’s convenient to say god is working in your favor even if you can’t understand how.  The moment you bring up hunger, or rape, or child abuse, or famine, all of a sudden god is no longer responsible, because whoa, man, you can’t blame god for that shit when it’s people who are bad!  This leaves theists with the uncomfortable dilemma of having a god who intervenes in the easy stuff, like finding you a job, but can’t be bothered with the big things, like making sure babies don’t get raped; or of claiming two things that cannot simultaneously be true.

6. “God is directing all of your steps!” → “People have free will!”

If god is directing all of my steps, I don’t have free will.  If I have free will, god is not directing my steps.  Ironically, if theists would simply choose one of these it would be logically defensible (though it would still be false).  As it stands, these claims are incompatible.

7. “God is all-powerful!” → “Satan exists!”

There is no reason for an all-powerful, all-loving god to allow a character like Satan to run wild tempting and destroying people unless he (a) is not all-powerful and is incapable of defeating Satan, or (b) he is not all-loving and Satan just makes a good scapegoat or good entertainment (or both).  If Satan is real, then your god is either impotent or incompetent.

8. “God is all-forgiving!” → “Hell exists!”

“There’s nothing I won’t forgive you for!  Except for this list of things that I won’t forgive you for!”

9. “God is all-loving!” → “God will punish the wicked!”

“You can freely choose whether or not to love me! And if you choose not to, you will burn in a lake of fire for all eternity!  And yeah, genocide and war and child rape and disease and famine and natural disasters, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love you coz I do! For realz! Even those idolaters and fornicators and blasphemers and apostates and unbelievers that I am condemning to hell!  Love ya, mean it!”

10. “God is always in control / has a plan / answers prayers / will make a way / has put you where he wants you / is the reason for everything you have / bestows blessings / heals / creates miracles!” → “God can’t stop people from raping children / committing murder / starting wars / perpetrating genocide / torturing / lying / stealing / hurting each other because that would take away their free will!”

And finally we get to the crux of why religion does not hold water: Because Christian theology claims perpetual, continuous, incessant intervention by god in the most minute details of your life while simultaneously claiming god cannot intervene to stop suffering because that would take away free will.  If intervention impedes free will, then god should never intervene in any human affairs for any reason.  If he intervenes to, say, send the right people into your life, or send you the storm to make you see he is the only shelter, or answer your prayers, or direct your steps, how is that any less an infringement upon free will than saving children from rape and starvation? Or stopping the Holocaust? Or teaching humans to be kind to each other?  Never mind, I’ll answer that for you: It isn’t.  It’s just that it’s easy to give god credit for being The Best Thing Ever when the stakes are low, but when the stakes are high god miraculously no longer plays by the same rules and must be held to a different (read: lower) standard than his flawed, sinful creations.

Christian apologists, if you’re out there, you’re going to want to attack me for misunderstanding or misrepresenting your religion.  However, you might want to consider redirecting that energy to the myriad Christian ministers and self-appointed spokespeople who are out there selling a version of your faith with which you disagree and making so many claims that cannot simultaneously be true.  After all, it’s not actually my responsibility to correct your theology.  That’s supposed to be your job.

Posted in Anti-Theism, Christianity, Morality and Ethics, Uncategorized | 20 Comments

Can’t We All Just Get Along? (Spoiler: No, We Can’t)

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Photo: AP

A couple of days ago I shared an article on my Facebook page excerpted from Dabiq, the publication of ISIS, which outlines the reason they hate non-Muslims.  It is written by ISIS; it is not the assessment of white westerners seeing their actions through the lens of enlightenment values, but the words of the Islamists themselves.  Their reasons for hating and killing us will come as a shock; no one could have predicted or anticipated their astonishing revelation.  They do what they do – are you ready for it?  Are you sitting down? – for Islam.

“The fact is, even if you were to stop bombing us, imprisoning us, torturing us, vilifying us, and usurping our lands, we would continue to hate you because our primary reason for hating you will not cease to exist until you embrace Islam.”

One might think that when the terrorists themselves come right out and say point blank that they do what they do for religion and for no other reason, and that they will continue doing it until the world succumbs to their religion, that would be the end of the debate.

You would be wrong.

Because no one but no one is going to tell the Regressive Left that Islamism has anything to do with Islam, least of all the Islamists themselves.  Those terrorists are not true Muslims, you see, and if you suggest that they are then you are saying by default that all Muslims are terrorists, and that makes you a racist bigot.  Period, end of discussion.

But Godless Mama, surely you are exaggerating, you say.  Acknowledging the “Islam” in “Islamism” isn’t racist, you say. Islam isn’t even a race, you say.  You must be misunderstanding them, you say.

Oh how I wish this were true.  It does seem so absurd as to be unbelievable. And admittedly, sometimes the accusations and knee-jerk Regressive responses really are absurd.  Occasionally, however, they cross the line from absurd to downright sinister.  Witness this breathless defense of ISIS posted to my page just today:

 “ISIS is a terrorist organisation that means to cause harm to ALL kinds of people… fellow Muslims included.  If their true cause was to promote Islam, then how does killing fellow Muslims achieve that?  How do beheadings, bombings, abductions and other atrocities make Islam more attractive to those that they are looking to convert?
. . .

consider the following…
When one is looking to hunt down witches, it is extremely important to define the following:
1. What exactly is a witch?
2. How is a witch confirmed as one before the fire around her is lit?
3. Is a witch’s way of life illegal in itself or are her specific actions to be defined as legal or illegal?
4. If the latter holds true in 3, then how is a witch different from anyone else?
5. If the former holds true in 3, then who is it that decides what constitutes a legal way of life and an illegal one.
. . .

If our goal is to stir up ‘counter hatred’ then how different are we from those who stir up hatred?
Instead of looking to make every Muslim in the world feel guilty for their choice of belief, we should rather look at those so-called ‘forces for good’ that keep releasing ISIS leaders from captivity.
The very same ‘forces for good’ that were allied to the very same ISIS leaders when the enemy was someone else. Those ‘forces for good’ who seem to be the only ones who benefit when ISIS go crazy. Hollywood needs villains just as badly as heroes… the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality is pure Hollywood.
Why wasn’t Islam an issue when we had communists to bash around?
Before communists we had black people.
Before black people we had Native Americans.
Before Native Americans we had someone else.
Before someone else, some other people.
There will always be a ‘them’ as a counter to ‘us’, until the time that humanity finally settles on ‘we’.”

Yes, that’s right, folks: ISIS is nothing more than a Hollywood invention designed to keep us distracted and focused on an arbitrary, artificial enemy based on the whims and desires of those in power.  They can’t possibly be actual Muslims because their barbarity is such bad PR that it would turn people off from voluntarily converting to Islam, and as you know voluntary conversion has been a cornerstone of ISIS action and propaganda – no coercion here!  If you oppose ISIS and the ideology they claim as their mandate (Islam), then not only are you playing into the hands of your government and corporate masters (sheeple!), you are just as guilty as ISIS for perpetuating an “us and them” mentality.  The real solution is to seek common ground with terrorists – to not view ISIS as “them,” but focus on our common humanity that makes us a “we.” And if you can’t do that, you are no better than the terrorists.

The problem with this advice is that the folks who comprise ISIS do not appear to actually have any humanity.  These are the folks who keep young girls and women as sex slaves; who burn children alive; who dissolve people in caustic acid, drown them, and force young boys to saw their heads off with knives.  They throw homosexuals from rooftops and stone women to death in the public square for adultery.  They have no regard for civil or secular law, for the principle of free expression, for the freedom to choose a different religion or no religion at all, or for any of the enlightenment values that we in the West take for granted – except to the extent that they can exploit that openness for their own ends.

For my part, if ever there was going to be a “them” to my “us,” the savages who make up ISIS – people who are wholly untethered from any sense of morality, decency, empathy, or humanity – fit that bill.  I do not want to seek common ground with people who unapologetically perpetrate evil, especially in the name of preposterous iron-age superstitions.  It’s one thing to vilify a group of people with arbitrary characteristics for imagined slights or inferiority; it’s quite another to seek justice against those who gleefully commit atrocities without hesitation or conscience.

If your response to my condemnation of fascists, child rapists, torturers, and serial killers is to call me a bigot and make excuses for the suffering they cause and the destroyed lives they leave behind, you need to take a long, hard look at where you’ve parked your high horse – because it sure as hell isn’t on the moral high ground.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Ten Books That Will Make You an Anti-Theist

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I don’t think there is any doubt that in the aggregate, religion – not just belief without evidence, but organized, capital-R Religion – has historically been and continues to be a bane to humanity.  One of the reasons this realization escapes so many people is the cultural deference to religion and its ubiquitous portrayal as inspirational, beautiful, comforting, and wholesome.  One must be willing to go out of one’s way to get any exposure to the less attractive aspects and effects of religion – but once one resolves to do so, one discovers that the well of evidence that religion is harmful is deep indeed.

The following books, which I have listed in no particular order, merely scratch the surface of religious malfeasance.  However, they present such damning evidence so persuasively that it would be difficult for any but the most fanatical believer to defend the institutions they expose.  Note: These are not books for making people into atheists – that is an entirely different list.

God’s Bankers by Gerald Posner

It may surprise some readers that my selection of an indictment of the Catholic Church doesn’t involve the child sex-abuse scandal; indeed, there are many compelling (if horrifying) such works from which to choose.  God’s Bankers, however, tells a story that is far less familiar to most of us, and reveals a side of the church that is rarely acknowledged but no less sinister.  From selling indulgences to wealthy nobles to hiding Nazi gold to laundering money for the mafia to ensuring that individual dioceses held all liability for pedophilia lawsuits, the Vatican has consistently put protection and expansion of its financial assets above all other concerns, even while dictating and legislating the morality of its more than one billion followers.  In this exhaustively researched history of Vatican finances Posner offers an up-close examination of the seamy underbelly of what is arguably one of the wealthiest and most powerful – and most corrupt – institutions the world has ever known.

God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens

For those who are already familiar with Hitchens’s uniquely delightful, scorched-earth approach to defeating theists of all stripes, God is Not Great is more or less a collection of his most famous and irrefutable arguments, though having been written by Hitchens, no amount of repetition can ever be too much.  For those who are less familiar with Hitch, and especially for people newly coming into their own as atheists, God is Not Great will repeatedly make you want to leap out of your chair and shout, “Fuck yeah!”  Not only does Hitchens eviscerate the claims of religion, he lays bare the myriad ways it retards human progress and threatens the very survival of civilization.  (For those of you who prefer to listen to your books, the audio version has the wonderful advantage of being narrated by Hitch himself.)

Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola

This study of atheist clergy, told mostly in the voices of the participants themselves, gives readers a glimpse into the struggles faced by people who pledged themselves to serve god only to eventually realize that there is no such thing.  Trapped by a lack of marketable skills, financial opportunities, and the fear of social rejection – or, in some cases, of the loss of the automatic authority, respect, and stature that comes with the title of Reverend – these individuals struggle with whether and how to leave their ministries and what message to preach in the meantime.  It is difficult not to have both empathy for these men and women who, on the one hand, feel betrayed at the discovery that their religion was not what they had always been taught; and contempt for them on the other hand for feeding their parishioners the same misrepresentations and lies of omission that deceived them in the first place.  In either case, what the authors and the study participants make clear is that church leaders are duping young people into the clergy, and churchgoers themselves are deeply complicit.

Doc: The Rape of the Town of Lovell by Jack Olsen

John Story was a gentile doctor in a small Mormon community.  Though he was not one of them, he was devout in his own religion and ran his practice authoritatively and with the modern curiosity of an examination table fitted with stirrups, and in short order was one of the most respected and powerful men in town.  In the ensuing decades he sexually abused and raped hundreds of women and girls – people who were kept in ignorance about sex and their own bodies based on scriptural demands for feminine chastity and cowed by strict religious conditioning never to question male authority.  Women and girls who did speak up were swiftly shamed into silence or punished by their LDS leaders.   When enough victims finally came forward, Story’s most vigorous self-defense was his claim of devout religious belief, and his strongest defenders all declared that god was on their side.  Doc is a chilling tale of how fundamentalist religion grooms women to be victims of abuse and provides safe harbor for abusers.

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer

From the absurd origins of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to the disavowal of polygamy that gave rise to the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), Krakauer delivers a devastating blow to whatever claims of respectability the Mormon Church may still have had.  In riveting prose so characteristic of his writing, he weaves the tale of Mormonism’s bloody history with the modern story of two brothers who murdered their sister-in-law and her infant daughter because (so they claimed) god told them to.  Under the Banner of Heaven makes plain how thin the line is between religious devotion and religious fanaticism and how fundamentalism opens the door to unspeakable atrocities committed without remorse.

Beyond Belief:  by Jenna Miscavige Hill

Many of us think of Scientology as a Hollywood eccentricity that commits no real harm, since its adherents are mostly wealthy celebrities wasting their money on spiritual silliness.  I was genuinely shocked at how wrong that perception truly is.  Yes, the doctrine of Scientology is blatantly nonsensical and in many ways laughable and it is difficult to understand the mindset that accepts it as plausible, let alone rational.  But for the lives of people living within Scientology – teaching their classes, running their hotels and restaurants, building and maintaining their properties, and living in their military-style housing under military-style rules – it is an omnipresent, all-powerful force that controls their every action, punishes them severely for any misstep, and leaves many of them living in fear and servitude.  As you read the book make sure you never forget: This organization does not pay taxes.

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Infidel is the poignant, disturbing, and inspirational memoir of how New Atheist and human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali survived and escaped a life of religious brutality to become a role model and beacon for free-thinkers in the Muslim world and elsewhere.  She is unflinchingly honest even on matters that could be less than flattering for her, and she does an admirable job of conveying the mixed emotions of a child who was subjected to terrible things by her family, but loves and empathizes with them nonetheless.  Her frank assessment of the role of Islamic ideology in her plight as well as that of millions of other Muslim women, girls, apostates, freethinkers, gays, and secularists has put her in the crosshairs of Islamists and Regressive Leftists alike – and yet I challenge anyone to read her book and then claim with a straight face that her diagnosis of the Islam problem doesn’t have merit.

A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres

Though it is now the subject of much tasteless humor, the Jonestown massacre was anything but funny – indeed, it was a tragedy and a crime on an almost unthinkable scale.  Contrary to what many assume, Jim Jones lured followers to his People’s Temple not by starting out as a cult leader who professed that he himself was god, but as an evangelical Christian preacher.  Once he had a congregation of fanatically devoted followers, he started singing a different tune – but by then they were already committed to him.  When he founded Jonestown he convinced his congregants to relocate there by proclaiming it as their sanctuary on earth; they didn’t know that it was the final stage of his years-long plan to kill them all.  Add in the fact that a third of the Jonestown victims were children and many were forced to drink poison at gunpoint, and the story is clearly not the light-hearted joke it is so often made out to be.  As with so many other tragedies borne of irrational belief, the story of Jonestown reveals how willingly people will act against their own best interests, and even the best interests of their children, when they believe it is sanctioned by god.

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris

Any intellectually honest person must admit that there is something happening in the world today that is peculiar to Islam.  Unfortunately, the repercussions are not merely peculiar, but deadly and potentially devastating.  There is simply no question that people will do irrational, sometimes terrible things when they believe they have divine warrant and in that regard, Islam is no different than any other religion.  What does make it different is the frequency and scale with which such warrants are served, combined with the principles of the doctrine itself, in which political conquest is fundamental in a way that has no analogy in other mainstream religions.  Beyond the very real threat that Islamism poses to free, secular society, an honest look at the dogma itself shows it to be every bit as heinous as its Abrahamic counterparts, putting the lie to the “religion of peace” canard.  As an aside, Harris has become a controversial figure for many of the ideas put forth in this book.  I submit that those who make accusations that Harris is racist or supports torture have not in fact read it, or if they have they are knowingly misrepresenting it.

Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things that Piss Off the Godless by Greta Christina

When confronted with the question of why atheists are angry (or why we talk about god so much when we don’t believe), Greta Christina’s list is the best response I have found yet.  Her list encompasses religious abuses both great and small, everything from depriving people of basic human and civil rights to creating divisions within families to hampering scientific and social progress.  What is unique about her book is not only that she seems to capture every legitimate argument that atheists and anti-theists make against religion, but the compassion she has for believers who, she correctly observes, are themselves often the victims of their own indoctrination and dogma.  It is an outstanding manual for summarizing that which many of us often struggle to communicate, and for explaining to the faithful why we feel compelled to discuss religion in spite of not believing in it.

What books would you add to this list?

Posted in Anti-Theism, Humanism, Morality and Ethics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 12 Comments

Actually, Abortion Rights IS a “Real” Issue

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(Image: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

I will never, ever vote for any candidate who is not pro-choice.  No matter what else a candidate may have going, if he or she opposes a woman’s right to choose a safe, legal abortion, I’m outta there.

This came up recently in a discussion with a “Bernie or Bust” guy who was saying he sees no difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.  Setting aside the fact that such a remark is either absurdly disingenuous or appallingly ignorant, I pointed out that even if on every other issue Clinton and Trump were identical (which of course they aren’t), Clinton is pro-choice, and that should be sufficient to tip the scales in Clinton’s favor.

This man then proceeded to lecture me – one might even say to mansplain – how abortion rights is an important issue, but income inequality is really the greatest challenge faced by Americans today and why it is narrow-minded and “selfish” (his word) for me to assign a higher priority to reproductive freedom.  Eventually and perhaps inevitably he played the “you’re just voting with your vagina” card, at which point the conversation was over.

I quietly seethed over this exchange for a while and had almost forgotten about it until yesterday, when Donald Trump declared that as president he would seek to ban abortion and punish the women who had them.  This seemed par for the course for Trump and for the GOP candidates in general, all of whom are rabidly anti-choice and who unquestionably delight in the idea of retribution against women who have abortions, but are politically savvy enough to express those intentions in code.  What truly sparked my outrage was not the comment from Trump but the response from the messiah himself, Senator Bernie Sanders.

In an interview with Rachel Maddow, Sanders agreed that what Trump said was “shameful” and reiterated his position that “women have the right to control their own bodies.”  But he then launched into a diatribe explaining why we shouldn’t be distracted by the proposals of a major presidential candidate about the limits of women’s authority over their bodies so that we can focus on the real issues.

“But what is Donald Trump’s position on raising the minimum wage?  Well, he doesn’t think so.  What is Donald Trump’s position on wages in America?  Well, he said at a Republican debate he thinks wages are too high. What’s Donald Trump’s position on taxes?  Well, he wants to give billionaire families like himself billions of dollars in tax breaks . . . Any stupid, absurd remark made by Donald Trump becomes the story of the week.  Maybe, just maybe we might want to have a serious discussion about the serious issues facing America.”

Um, say what now?

Let’s get something straight here.  I am a woman who has past her reproductive usefulness.  The likelihood of my getting pregnant, even if I wanted to, without extensive and very costly medical intervention is effectively zero, and even with such intervention would still be remote.  Abortion services are just not something I am ever going to need for the remainder of my days.  But whether I personally would be inconvenienced by the inaccessibility of abortion is not the issue.

The proposition to restrict or deny women access to abortion is only partly about the actual act of abortion.  The more insidious and more relevant implication of anti-abortion policies is this: They declare women to be less than fully human.  A policy that says decisions regarding whether to proceed with a pregnancy are better made by distant bureaucrats with ideological axes to grind and political agendas to advance, rather than by the woman whose body, health, and future are at stake is a policy that relegates all women, no matter their reproductive status, to a lower class standing.  It is a philosophy founded on and inextricable from the idea that women are inherently incapable of making sound moral decisions and are not entitled to the fundamental human right of bodily autonomy.  It is an unambiguous declaration that women are neither capable nor deserving of self-agency.  In other words, it’s not really about abortion so much as it is about what value our society assigns to the life of a woman.

I agree with Sanders that we do indeed need to have “a serious discussion about the serious issues facing America.”  I for one can think of no more serious issue than whether my government will continue to view my person – and that of my daughter – as entitled to equal treatment under the law as a full citizen of the United States and as a human being.  Because a discussion about income inequality is moot if women are forced out of the workplace to have babies and raise children they can’t afford, or into prison or an early grave for opting for an illegal abortion.

Posted in Feminsm, Humanism, Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Your Theology Isn’t Sophisticated So Just Stop It

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Image: Royalty-Free/Corbis

According to my own experience and an informal survey of every single other atheist that I know, the number one most frequent response to criticism of religion (especially Christianity) by believers is, “You just don’t know what you’re talking about.”  To wit:

  • “You cannot legitimately attack The Bible without a solid understanding of it. What I mean is that when you make claims ABOUT The Bible that are contrary to what it actually says it aptly demonstrates your own ignorance and illiteracy of it.”
  • “The problem with you atheists is that you don’t understand the will of The Most High.”
  • “My objection is not with what you do or do not believe, but rather that your post . . . appears to be written by a sophomoric liberal arts student with a chip on their shoulder.”
  • “This . . . illuminates the problem with majority of the article: a lack of understanding of what classical theists actually believe.”

And so on.  There’s no chance that maybe your religion is writing checks it can’t cash – if it stings or makes religion look bad, the only possible explanation is ignorance and a view of theology that is not sufficiently sophisticated.

This is complete and utter bullshit.

For one thing, this accusation is leveled even when the critique comes from a former pastor or priest, a lifelong believer who recently came to atheism, a seminary graduate, or someone with an advanced degree in comparative religion. Disagreement with any given theist’s understanding of scripture is tantamount to ignorance of scripture, no matter how much better the opponent actually knows it.  It is interesting to note that many theists take this tack not just with atheists, but with their fellow religionists as well, such as those “liberal” Christians who decry the behavior of the Westboro Baptist Church or Muslims who disavow child marriage.  Rarely if ever do we see an admission that those less palatable interpretations are legitimate, if unfortunate. Oh no, we are told – they’re just wrong.

For another thing, the vast majority of believers possess nothing resembling a “sophisticated” theology.  Let’s take Christianity in the United States as an example.

  • Three in four Americans believe that the bible is either the literal or inspired word of god. For Christians these numbers rise to a staggering 9 out of 10, with more than half (58%) believing that the bible is the literal word of god.
  • More than 40% of Americans believe that god created humans in their present form in the last 10,000 years. Another 31% believe that humans evolved but that their evolution was directed by god.  (Not surprisingly, these percentages correlate strongly with education.)
  • Among white evangelicals in the US, nearly 6 in 10 believe that natural disasters are a sign from god; more than half (53%) believe that god punishes whole nations for their citizens’ sins; and two-thirds believe natural disasters are signs we are living in the end times.
  • Nearly 3 in 10 Americans think god determines the outcomes of sporting events; among evangelicals this number rises to 4 in 10 who believe that god determines the winner outright, while about two-thirds say god influences the outcome by rewarding players of faith.
  • More than half of Americans say god is in control of everything that happens in the world.
  • The internet is replete with laments from Christian leaders (such as this article, or this one, or this one) that American Christians are increasingly biblically illiterate.

I don’t know about you, but belief in a god who sends earthquakes to punish people for having butt sex, chooses the winner of this weekend’s NASCAR race, and personally dictated the bible that you’ve never bothered to read does not strike me as especially sophisticated.

Here’s the real issue, though.  Ultimately, the claims of religion – the very story it’s selling – are wholly, unambiguously, ludicrously unsophisticated.  Christianity teaches that an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent supernatural being created the entire universe for the express purpose of being worshipped by humans; but he wanted their worship to be voluntary, so he gave them the gift of free will; but he subsequently and for generations punished them severely for not using their free will the way he wanted them to (but already knew they would); so in order to forgive humans for using their free will freely he created himself in human form, executed himself in a bloody spectacle, then came back from the dead and ascended bodily into the sky where he now presides over all human affairs and passes judgment; and that those whom he deems worthy will spend eternity in heaven with him upon their deaths, and those he deems unworthy are condemned to hell to be tortured for all eternity.  The rest of the details are window dressing – regardless of whether you take communion, speak in tongues, handle snakes, work on the sabbatth, forbid dancing, or allow women to be clergy, if you are a Christian in any meaningful sense of the word you believe in the divinity and resurrection of Christ and in the crucifixion as atonement for sin.  In other words, you believe nonsense.

The amateur apologists who wag their fingers at us unsophisticated atheists have to compensate for the fact that the proposition of religion is absurd on its face.  The resulting theology, alas, all boils down to a single argument: We don’t have to understand because god.  Of course this does not prevent them from claiming to understand a great many things – indeed, claiming to know them – as they are forever making unequivocal proclamations about god’s desires, intentions, and emotional state.  But when push comes to shove, the argument invariably comes down to nothing more than good, old fashioned rationalization:

  • “That doesn’t apply because it’s the Old Testament.”
  • “God cannot be judged by human standards.”
  • “That has to be read in the context of history.”
  • “That’s meant to be metaphorical.”
  • “That’s caused by humans.”
  • “You are thinking in terms of the material world instead of in terms of eternity.”
  • “You must feel the holy spirit to truly understand.”

William Lane Craig himself trumpets the need for apologetics in a post-enlightenment world where “emotion will only get you so far,” declaring his dark arts necessary to counter the corrosive impacts of science and secularism on religious belief.  Said another way, the truth claims of religion are so manifestly preposterous in light of what humanity now knows about the universe that linguistic sleight of hand is required to ensnare the innocent and hold onto the indoctrinated.

No doubt this column will be met with a chorus of smug accusations of, “She doesn’t get it!  See how unsophisticated she is?!”  And those folks will simply be proving my point: If people won’t buy what you’re selling unless it’s wrapped in layers of double-talk and obfuscation, you’re selling a lemon.  That’s intellectual dishonesty, and there’s nothing sophisticated about that.

Posted in Anti-Theism, Bible, Christianity, Scripture, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

Let Them Eat Cake – Just Kidding! Let Them Starve

starving child

Image credit AP/Rebecca Blackwell

I recently had the misfortune of encountering an article by one Peter Guirguis titled “3 Strange But True Reasons Why God Doesn’t Feed All the Starving Children in The World.” (I will not link to the article because I cannot in good conscience send traffic there, but intrepid readers will be able to find it easily enough.) The author explains in great detail why his god – who, you may recall, is supposedly omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and omnipresent – prefers to let children suffer and die in agony through malnutrition rather than put his considerable talent to use to, you know, make some food. Alas that the title is rather misleading, given that the reasons he cites are not strange – at least not to those of us who are used to hearing theists make excuses for the failure of their god to alleviate starvation – and whether or not they are true is a matter of some dispute.

Reason #1: It Isn’t God’s Responsibility to Feed the Starving Children of the World

“Of all the times that I have read the Bible from cover to cover, I can’t think of a single Bible verse in which God makes a promise to feed all the starving children in the world.”

Well then, since there is no bible verse in which god is quoted as saying, “I promise to feed all the starving children in the world,” that totes lets god off the hook! Of course there are verses in which he promises to sustain us (Isaiah 46:4), prosper us (Jeremiah 29:11), meet all our needs (Philippians 4:13), give us plenty to eat (Joel 2:26), help us (Isaiah 41:13), satisfy the appetites of the righteous (Proverbs 13:25), and give us whatever it is we pray for (Mark 11:24); but apparently those should in no way be misconstrued to infer that god will actually sustain us, meet all our needs, give us plenty to eat, help us, satisfy the appetites of the righteous, or give us whatever it is we pray for. On the issues of what god was in fact promising in these passages and why he is seemingly constrained to doing only that which he explicitly promised, Guirguis remains silent.

He then goes on to spout the usual nonsense about how it is our job, not god’s, to feed starving children. Never mind that the majority of humans on earth live under circumstances that preclude their ability to influence whether, how, or where food is grown and distributed: They themselves live in or near poverty; or suffer food insecurity of their own; or lack access to information or freedom of movement or other resources; or haven’t the skills or power to implement political and scientific programs to improve food production and distribution; and so on. For most of us with the ability to take some action, the extent of what we can reasonably do is donate to the local food pantry or give money to NGOs, neither of which is going to eradicate hunger. Oh, and how humans were supposed to harvest, preserve, transport, and distribute adequate food across the globe to famine-stricken areas before the advent of modern technology (i.e., for the nearly the whole of human history) is anyone’s guess.

Reason #2 – God Isn’t Like Humans

Atheists make a mistake when they say things like, “If I saw a starving child and had the power to feed him and I don’t, then I am evil. That’s the same thing with God, He is evil because He has the power to feed starving children and He doesn’t.” The mistake that atheists make here is that they compare themselves to God, or they compare God to themselves. They put themselves in God’s shoes. God’s goals are different than our goals. His purposes are different than our purposes. His way of justice is different than the human way of justice.”

This is the claim that theists always make when confronted with the problem of evil: That we can’t apply our own standards of morality to god, which of course begs the question: Why not? And why, if nearly all reasonable and morally normal people would feed starving children if they had the power to do so, and many (if not most) theists at some point struggle with why their god does not do so, is the ethical instinct of all humankind chucked out the window and deemed inferior to a god whose actions are manifestly unethical?  Furthermore, this is not so much a reason why god doesn’t feed starving children as it is an admonishment that we should not ask for one.

Reason #3 – God’s Justice is Coming Soon For All

“While God does see hate crimes, rapes, and murders as sins, He also sees lying, cheating, and hating people as sins too. So since God is a just God, then He’s going to have to give justice to all if He were to judge the world today. That means that there would be a lot of people who would receive punishment for eternity for breaking God’s standards. So instead, God is saving His judgment for Judgment Day . . . So when you don’t see justice taking place immediately, it’s because God is giving everyone a chance to repent, and put their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.”

There is a great deal with that statement that is problematic, the most obvious being that it is entirely irrelevant to the question of why god does not feed starving children – unless Guirguis is saying that since Judgment Day will happen someday, there’s no point in feeding starving kids in the meantime. Regardless, it is yet more transparent rationalization of god’s inaction: “It may seem like he isn’t doing anything, but that’s just because he isn’t doing anything right now.  He has to wait and see how many more people will come groveling to him before he decides he’s ready to get his Armageddon on.” In other words, we can’t see god’s ethics, and we can’t see his mercy, and we can’t see his love, and we can’t see his justice, but we still somehow know he is ethical, merciful, loving, and just, so let’s all just accept suffering as inevitable in the meantime and STFU.

Let me be clear that I am not refuting the good Mr. Guirguis because I am seeking to refute the existence of god. Indeed, the god hypothesis has been resoundingly refuted (or at least sufficiently challenged) by many others before me so I have no need or desire to re-invent that wheel. My point is rather that religion – especially the Abrahamic ones – require people to question and suppress their own innate senses of right and wrong, empathy, and compassion in order to reconcile the action (or more accurately the inaction) of their deity. It desensitizes people to suffering and injustice – after all, if god is allowing it, he must have a reason, so who are we to argue? I can only hope that one day people will decide that if god is allowing suffering, maybe it’s his ethics that are questionable, and proceed to embrace and heed their own conscience.

Posted in Anti-Theism, Bible, Christianity, Morality and Ethics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Setting the Record Straight

tin foil hat

Image credit Getty Images

Those who follow my facebook page may have seen my recent post in which I rattled off a list of things that are true – as in, are fully established facts or are overwhelmingly supported by all available evidence. Being that I was in a state of irritation from hours of dealing with Regressive Skeptics I left out a great many items that I wish I had included. This is the list I wish I had posted. For those who have seen the original, please accept my apologies for the repetition, and my thanks to the folks who pointed out conspicuous omissions. For everyone reading, if you want to challenge any of this, please note: The burden of proof is on you.

Let’s clear a few things up, shall we?

  • 9/11 was not an inside job.
  • Sandy Hook was not a “false flag.”
  • Neither was the Boston Marathon bombing, the San Bernardino shooting, the Paris attacks, or any other bombing or shooting.
  • In fact, there is no such thing as a “false flag” (as the term is used in conspiracy circles).
  • We really did land on the moon.
  • The Holocaust really happened.
  • Fluoride in the water supply isn’t a mind control experiment – it really is just good for your teeth.
  • There are no chemtrails, just contrails.
  • GMOs are just as safe as conventional foods.
  • Organic isn’t healthier.
  • It’s not better for the environment either.
  • Vaccines work and they don’t cause autism.
  • Homeopathy doesn’t work.
  • Alternative medicine is not medicine.
  • For people who have type I diabetes, insulin is not optional.
  • Pot doesn’t cure everything.
  • Big Pharma is not suppressing a known cure for cancer.
  • Everything is made of chemicals.
  • The relative positions of the planets do not determine your personality or your future.
  • The past was not romantic. Life was not idyllic, easy, healthy, or long 50,000 years ago.
  • Not 5,000 years ago or 500 years ago either.
  • Guns don’t make you safer.
  • And jack-booted thugs are not going to kick your door in any minute now to take them away from you.
  • Gay sex does not cause earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts, tsunamis, fires, volcano eruptions, landslides, stock market crashes, train derailments, bridge collapses, oil spills, or anything else.
  • Big Government is not secretly controlling every aspect of human life.
  • Speed limits are not tyranny.
  • Making health insurance affordable is not actually just as bad as slavery.
  • Taxes are not theft.
  • Nuclear power is safe.
  • The zombie apocalypse is not coming.
  • The universe started with the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago.
  • The earth is a sphere that orbits the sun.
  • And it is 4.54 billion years old.
  • Anthropogenic climate change is real.
  • Evolution by natural selection really happened. In fact, it is still happening.
  • There is no evidence for ghosts, an afterlife, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, ancient aliens, alien abductions, reincarnation, telepathy, telekinesis, clairvoyance, precognition, the soul, demons, spirits, angels, witchcraft, or magic.
  • There almost certainly is no god.

Evidence matters. Even when you don’t like it. Even when it contradicts your deeply held beliefs. Even when it makes you really uncomfortable.

Evidence. Fucking. Matters.

Posted in Skepticism, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Ten Contradictions Theists Just Can’t Stop Making

Image via parade.com

Image via parade.com

Talking with theists about religion sometimes – and by sometimes I mean almost always – feels like Groundhog Day,  a painful and monotonous slog that simply travels the same territory over and over and over.  I get weary of both hearing and repeating the same arguments so frequently, so I decided to compile the most tired (not to mention the most tiresome) themes that I encounter, so that going forward I can simply point people here when they trot out these inevitable gems.

1. Explaining what god is or wants, then saying humans cannot understand god.

The conversation goes like this:

Theist: “God loves us and wants us to be saved. God is just and merciful. God will provide. God always gives us what we need, not just what we want.”

Atheist: “If god loves us, is merciful, provides, and always gives us what we need, why do children starve to death?”

Theist: “We are mere mortals and can’t expect to understand His ways. You can’t apply human standards to god.”

Uh . . . If we can’t apply human standards to god when it comes to figuring out why he lets children starve, why can we apply human standards to establish that he loves us, is just and merciful, and will provide?  By what means do you ascertain these attributes in the first place if not by human standards?  God is either knowable or he isn’t; you either understand him or you don’t. If his reasons for allowing innocent children to suffer and die are inscrutable, so too must be his reasons for everything else, and to claim otherwise is to admit that you in fact know nothing of god, but have opted to believe what is most comforting to you – something that is manifestly apparent to atheists already, but which most theists would not confess in so many words.

2. Claiming that god loves us all, then rationalizing human suffering.

Theists most often dismiss human suffering by victim-blaming – declaring that our own free will causes us to make bad choices, which cause us to suffer as a result. Once we get past the inherent privilege of a claim that assumes everyone has an array of both good and bad options from which to choose (or has a choice at all), we are still left with the problem of suffering that is not the direct result of our own actions. “Free will,” they repeat. “Some people use theirs to hurt others.” Ah, okay – so god is willing to stand idly by and watch innocents be tortured and murdered because he prioritizes the free will of evil people to do harm over that of their victims? That’s not much of a resume-builder for god, but for the sake of argument I’ll give you that one too. What about illness and natural disasters then? Even the most nefarious of minds cannot will a tumor or an earthquake or a tsunami into being. That’s when, if we don’t hear “Oh, free will causes climate change which causes those disasters,” we hear (again), “We are mere mortals and can’t expect to understand god’s ways.”

In this world, deliberately inflicting pain and hardship on someone we claim to love is called abuse. In religion, it’s called grace. When we regard human suffering as not only inevitable but as an expression of love by an omnipotent being, we trivialize the experience of those who must endure it and stifle the otherwise natural human impulse to alleviate it.

3. Pretending that free will and a divine plan are not mutually exclusive.

When asked once if he believed we all have free will, Christopher Hitchens ironically replied, “Of course I have free will; I don’t have a choice.” In other words, an omnipotent god endowing humans with free will and commanding that they use it negates the very notion of free will in the first place – with or without it, we are still exactly as god made us, choosing exactly as he already knows we will. Conveniently, free will seems to only ever cause humans to behave badly; when they are charitable, kind, generous, selfless, humble, honest, and virtuous, it is always because they were following the example set by god, but when they are selfish, cruel, and violent their actions are the result of their own frailty, thus ensuring that god continues to reap the credit when we choose well and remain blameless when we don’t.

As if this weren’t bad enough, many of the same folks who talk about free will also claim that god has a plan. Take a common trope on prayer, for example, that says when you pray, “God answers in one of three ways: 1. Yes; 2. No; 3. I have something even better in store.” All three of those responses entail a god who is actively shaping your life, and who is giving or withholding things based on what he either intends or knows will happen. So which is it? Because it can’t be both.

4. Behaving hatefully, then saying “god bless.”

I recently had the pleasure of conversing with a theist on my Facebook page who called me “ignorant;” a “liar;” a “child;” “dense;” “trash;” laughed that I was “probably not” in a stable relationship and therefore infected with “the latest STD;” that my jokes aren’t funny (O, the humanity!); and, predictably, that she wished she could be there when I stand before god after death to see me receive my eternal sentence for disbelief. She topped off this love-fest by saying, “May God bless you and keep you in the New Year and many more to come.” Wait, I thought you were being an arrogant ass, but you want god to bless me? Well, in that case, right back atcha! Hugs and kisses!

These people seem to think that no matter how nasty they act or how mean-spirited their words,  it is all permissible and forgiven as long as they conclude with an insincere blessing.  Some of them will further justify their unpleasantness by claiming they were only fulfilling their godly responsibility to love their enemies by pointing out the error of their ways.  Hence we end up with comments like, “Your ignorance and your unfunny jokes make baby Jesus cry, you slutty, disease-infested piece of trash! I’ll be laughing while you burn in hell! God bless!”

5. Declaring god as the source of objective morality, then interpreting scripture.

It is frustrating and disheartening that the myth that one needs to believe in the supernatural to live ethically persists in the face of thousands of years of evidence to the contrary. Beyond this obvious fallacy, however, lies the transparent manner in which theists lay claim to the objective correctness of their morals while simultaneously applying their own contemporary cultural morality to the world. “Look here,” you say, pointing at the words on the page, “it says to murder your loved ones if they worship any other god.” “You’re taking that out of context,” comes the reply. Or maybe it’s, “You have to consider the culture at the time this was written.” Or perhaps, “That isn’t meant to be taken literally.”

If objective morality comes from god, then the only way to determine that morality is through scripture.  If you are not going to take scripture at face value, then you are admitting that your morals are inherent within you and influenced by the society around you, not handed down from the outside.

6. Labeling god as omnipotent, then blaming evil on the devil.

Is it that god cannot defeat the devil, or is it that he chooses not to? Not that anyone could blame him if it was the latter, seeing as how the devil makes such an outstanding scapegoat. But seriously – if you believe god is omnipotent and you also believe in the devil, then you have to believe that god has made a decision to let the devil do his thing. If god cannot in fact defeat the devil then he is not omnipotent, in which case it makes little sense to worship and pray to him at all. In either case, though, god sure as shit has both the power and inclination to get involved once you’re dead – by sending you straight to hell for doing whatever it was the devil talked you into while god stood by and watched.

7. Seizing upon minuscule inconsistencies in highly specialized scientific disciplines as a failure of science to explain the universe while accepting supernatural explanations for which there is no evidence.

There are mountains of evidence in support of evolution by natural selection and the Big Bang. Virtually all of modern biology and cosmology are predicated upon these theories; the elegance of their explanations and success of their predictions continually reaffirm their validity. Furthermore, there is no small amount of evidence to suggest that under the right conditions, complex molecules can become self-replicating – the first step towards the creation of life. Meanwhile, there is no evidence for god. As in, zero. Zilch. None.

It has always struck me as odd that an institution that not only extols the virtue of faith but requires it as a matter of course and as a prerequisite of salvation would turn to science at all to justify its claims; after all, if the religious are so certain they are correct, shouldn’t faith be sufficient to maintain belief?  The answer is, of course it isn’t, and their desire to claim the legitimacy of science betrays their understanding (and fear) of this fact.  Furthermore, you cannot pretend to be concerned about the quality or weight of the evidence for a natural explanation of the universe while simultaneously advancing a hypothesis for which thousands of years of inquiry have failed to produce a single shred of evidence.

8. Subscribing to religion, then labeling the religious beliefs of others as “crazy.”

Protestants say Catholics aren’t really Christians. Baptists say Pentecostalism is a cult. Mormons say creationists are nutty. And yet all of these people believe more or less the same thing: That an invisible, omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving deity created the entire universe and was subsequently so displeased with his own creation that he made a virgin pregnant with himself in human form; condemned himself to be tortured and sacrificed to atone for the sins of his creation; rose from the dead and ascended bodily into the sky; and now presides over the affairs of all humans and keeps track of where they put their car keys and whether they masturbate so that he knows who to help while they are alive and who to torture for all eternity after they die.

Anyone who thinks this is plausible forfeits the right to comment on the sanity of anyone else’s ideas.

9. Accusing atheists of cherry-picking scripture to make it look bad.

This one always makes me laugh.  For one thing, no one needs to try to make scripture look bad; it does that all by itself with its genocide and rape and slavery and conquest and general bloodthirsty, vengeful douchebaggery.  For another thing, scripture is packed with so many mutually exclusive commands and prohibitions that cherry-picking is required if one is to follow or even just discuss it.  The only question is which cherries one will pick.  Some will pick the ones about love and kindness and charity and claim these are the “real” version of their religion, leaving the others – the ones about torture and violence and cruelty – on the branch, hoping no one will notice them.  Perhaps cherry-picking isn’t even the right metaphor.  I think a better one is the Tree of 40 Fruit:  Some of what it has to offer is sweet, some is bitter, and some may even be poisonous, but it all grows from the same plant.

10.  Claiming membership in one of thousands of sects of religion as authority for telling non-believers why our interpretation of religion is wrong.

How often do we hear from theists that we misunderstand, misrepresent, misinterpret, or are ignorant of their scriptures? “What the bible (Qur’an / Torah / etc.) really says is X,” they say, or “When god said that he meant Y.” Setting aside for the moment the fact that many atheists are former believers who are intimately familiar with scripture, what do we make of the fact that other people who also identify as belonging to that religion claim that actually, god didn’t mean Y either, but Z? And what of the ones who say not Z, but A? Theists themselves cannot agree with one another on what god really meant or wants and none of them can produce a single valid reason why their interpretation is more likely to be right than anyone else’s. Why then is the interpretation of a non-believer any less credible – or to be more precise, any more incredible?

What most believers refuse to see, or at least to admit, is that there is no wrong interpretation of scripture. What is “known” about god resides inside people’s heads; there is no objective, external yardstick by which it can be measured, nothing that can be observed, and no source to clarify what was truly intended by any given chapter or verse. Furthermore, even if we could eliminate the ambiguity of scripture we would still be left with the contradictions: For virtually every instruction, elsewhere in the text is its prohibition or the command to do the opposite, and since no one can ring up Yahweh or Allah to ask which one is the right one it is left to the individual to decide. Said another way, scripture is sufficiently ambiguous and contradictory that all interpretations are justifiable – in which case we are left with nothing more than a free-for-all in which religion is whatever any given believer says it is.

 

In defense of theists, contradictions are the inevitable consequence of belief in monotheistic religion, given its outlandish claims and its incoherence. It is hard not to wonder, though, to what degree these contradictions are the result of intellectual dishonesty and what can be attributed to a mere extreme absence of self-awareness.  Whatever the case, now that I have (hopefully) saved myself some time in future discussions, maybe I can at least spend less of the next Groundhog Day trapped in tedious debates and more of it sipping Mai-tais with Punxutawney Phil.

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Islam, Morality and Ethics, Quran, Scripture, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 87 Comments

Ten Signs You Might Be a Regressive Skeptic

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Image credit: Internet Reaction Face Archive

At this point there is little I could say about the tragic comedy that is the Regressive Left in the wake of the terrible attacks in Paris of November 13 that hasn’t already been said, probably better than I could have said it (most especially here and here). As people discussed the attacks and the ideologies and policies implicated therein in the many atheism- and skepticism-centered groups that I frequent, a similarly alarming realization has dawned on me: That just as there are Regressive Leftists who are actively betraying liberal ideals, so too are there what I will henceforth call Regressive Skeptics who are undermining the credibility and effectiveness of the skeptical community. Here are a few behaviors that should raise your antenna when observed in a fellow “skeptic.”

1. They treat constructive feedback as a personal attack.

Let’s face it: No one really likes getting constructive feedback. Hearing about the things that other people think you did wrong or could have done better is not usually a lot of fun, but when offered from a place of authenticity and backed up with sound reasoning, it can be incredibly enlightening. Back in my corporate days, my mentor was someone whose brain could not have been wired more differently from my own, and that dichotomy proved to be of great value because he saw things in a way that would never in a million years have occurred to me. Sometimes his observations hurt, and sometimes I disagreed with him, but they were always worth considering.

The Regressive Skeptic, on the other hand, will give lip service to the benefits of healthy debate, but the unspoken caveat is that he’s always going to be right, and that his opponent will sooner or later concede this. When his arguments are poor, his premise weak, or his opponent tenacious, he becomes indignant and rude, increasingly fallacious, and eventually ends the debate with a flounce (“Whatever,” “I don’t even care at this point,” “Let’s agree to disagree,” “Just let it go already”).

It’s OK to run out of time or patience for a discussion. It’s OK to be annoyed or hurt by criticism you think is unfair. It’s not OK go on the offense at the first hint of criticism without even considering whether there’s something to it.

2. There are areas of inquiry they consider off-limits.

This is another way of calling out the hypocrisy of Regressive Skeptics who will mercilessly go after homeopathy, chiropractic, GMO-denial, the paleo diet, and other forms of woo, but refuse to touch religion, the Grande Dame of all woo. It is the single-most pervasive and common mechanism by which people learn to accept that for which there is no evidence and to rationalize contradictory evidence. Some skeptics even hold religious beliefs, which is a curiosity that is difficult for me to understand, but which in and of itself is less problematic than those who simply dodge the issue altogether – or worse, pander to their religious followers with assertions that science and religion are entirely compatible, or admonish their openly atheist counterparts to keep quiet so as not to alienate potential allies.

If you are more interested in promoting science literacy than anti-theism, that’s great. Science literacy is tremendously important and a laudable pursuit. But don’t be disingenuous for the sake of popularity, and don’t make efforts to undermine those of us who place anti-theism at the top of our own list.

3. They ignore questions asking for clarification or treat them like fallacious arguments.

Especially on the internet it is easy to inject emotion, intentionally or not, into a discussion. Without the benefit of seeing someone’s facial expressions and body language and hearing their vocal inflections, translating what they’re trying to express is made that much harder, and if your opponent doesn’t write well to begin with, you have a real challenge on your hands. It’s important to know what your opponent is actually saying if you hope to provide any kind of meaningful response, and sometimes the only way to do that is to repeat back what you think you heard (“I read your comment as saying X” or “So are you claiming that Y?”). Whereas someone with a degree of maturity and fair-mindedness should be able to distinguish between a clarifying question that got it wrong and a deliberate mis-characterization, the Regressive Skeptic will immediately respond as though the question was a straw man. This of course erodes understanding even further, because the opponent still doesn’t know what she is responding to and now she has to defend herself against the straw man accusation too. It’s a strategy that relies on misunderstanding to win, rather than on having a defensible premise and a sound argument.

4. They reject any argument coming from “the other side” regardless of whether it has merit.

The most obvious example of this is the Regressive Left’s refusal to acknowledge that the “Islamic” in “Islamic State” has anything whatsoever to do with, you know, Islam. They are so fearful of being mistakenly associated with the likes of Donald Trump, so afraid of being labeled a racist, that they cover their eyes and ears and make excuses for mass murderers and theocratic fascists. It’s an unconscionable form of denialism because it trivializes the suffering caused by ISIS and similar organizations, and sacrifices those who are most vulnerable in those societies on the altar of white guilt and a warped vision of multiculturalism.

It’s bad enough for an anti-vax, organic-kale-eating, Spirit Science-reading loon to go down that rabbit hole. When people who claim to be skeptical thinkers place ideology over reality in this way, it’s unforgivable. They are ceding the discussion to the Far Right and the jihadists by refusing to acknowledge the nuances – not because the nuances aren’t true, but because they cannot abide that the Far Right might have a point. And the only thing I can think to say to those Regressive Skeptics is, shame on you.

5. They give advice that they don’t take.

“You should read authors who disagree with you. To help you with that, here is a list of authors who agree with me.”

“You only selected that source because it confirms what you already believe! To prove you are wrong, I am posting this thing that confirms what I already believe!”

Yes, we are all vulnerable to confirmation bias, and yes, there is a tendency when debating a topic to seek out evidence that supports one’s own premise. But it’s also entirely possible that your opponent has actually read all of those authors and found their arguments to be unpersuasive, and it’s entirely possible that your confirmation bias is at much in play as your opponent’s. Whether it is or not, if you are dismissing a credible source just because it is in agreement with your opponent you’ve just forfeited any claim to that pedestal from which you’re preaching.

6. They refuse to acknowledge their own errors.

We all make them. It’s embarrassing – humiliating, even – and it can be a blow to self-confidence, but it is likely also instructive and can lead to personal growth and better methodology in the future. But an error is guaranteed to damage your credibility only when you refuse to admit to it. This is not to say that we must agree every time we are accused of making a mistake that we have actually made one; sometimes we are misunderstood, or were right but perhaps not clear, or were both right and clear and it is our opponent who is mistaken. On those occasions when we have in fact erred, though, we usually know it. The mature, responsible, honest thing to do at that point is fess up and fix it. Unless it’s something that simply can’t be denied, the Regressive Skeptic can be counted on to circle the wagons at the mere suggestion that she made a mistake, often resorting to personal attacks and other deflections. She will profess her fallibility in general terms, but fight like hell when confronted with it.

7. They measure others by a different yardstick than they measure themselves or their associates.

This may be another manifestation of confirmation bias, but it happens often enough to warrant its own discussion. If someone is truly a skeptic, then that person should have a relatively consistent standard for what sources or types of arguments pass the sniff test, and should endeavor to at least meet if not exceed those standards – if for no other reason than to ensure sound arguments that are difficult to refute, but hopefully also for the sake of integrity and respect for the search for what is true. The Regressive Skeptic, on the other hand, accepts or rejects sources on a sliding scale based on their utility and expediency rather than their merits, and will often happily commit logical fallacies in the process of accusing opponents of committing logical fallacies. Another manifestation of this phenomenon is the glee with which Regressive Skeptics will mock woo-followers, but when the subject turns to religion they wag their fingers and say, “You should only criticize the beliefs, not the believers.” It’s a willingness not only to resort to, but indeed to exploit a double standard.

8. They mine others’ arguments for fallacies rather than seeking to understand what they’re saying.

A friend of mine refers to this as “fallacy barking:” Simply pointing out real or perceived logical fallacies in their opponents’ arguments rather than speaking to their premise or making a solid argument of their own. Often they will not even put their fallacy accusation into context, making it difficult to respond at all if it isn’t obvious how (or even if) that fallacy was committed.

This isn’t to say that it isn’t important to understand logical fallacies; indeed, this is a necessary skill for constructing sound arguments and inoculating ourselves against bad ones, and overall is a useful addition to the critical thinking toolkit. Fallacy barking, on the other hand, is a tactic of obfuscation, not befitting anyone who values the actual pursuit of knowledge and understanding.

9. They place identity politics or ideology ahead of scientific findings or other verifiable realities.

It’s hip to claim that the science is settled on matters of sexual orientation, gender identity, and other issues of diversity. New findings that challenge the social justice narrative in these arenas are often vilified and their authors viciously attacked, something that Alice Dreger examines in fascinating detail in her book Galileo’s Middle Finger. Just as with denying the role of Islam in Islamism, rejecting credible, peer-reviewed data simply because it doesn’t conform to the current PR message of a given cause is the antithesis of skepticism: It’s science denial. Might those findings eventually be shown to be untrue? Of course. But that is a decision best left to science, not to its suppression.

10. They equate an opponent who is persistent or correct with an opponent who is just an asshole.

Your being wrong doesn’t make me an asshole. Your making fallacious arguments doesn’t make me an asshole. My calling you out on both of those doesn’t make me an asshole. My providing evidence that backs up my claim and refutes yours doesn’t make me an asshole. My not conceding the argument when you have failed to make your case doesn’t make me an asshole. And to paraphrase the late, great Christopher Hitchens, when you say I’m an asshole I’m still waiting to hear what your point is.

But when you throw up your hands, call me names, and stomp off to the corner to go eat worms?  That pretty much does makes you an asshole.

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Ten Things I Really Wish Atheists Would Stop Doing

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I confess: Usually when I read articles by atheists criticizing other atheists, I feel annoyed and maybe a little betrayed. “Why,” I ask myself, “are we picking on each other for atheism-ing wrong when we should be calling out public officials for governing wrong, and religious leaders for morality-ing wrong?”

Why indeed. Secularism may be the single most effective means of improving human rights around the globe, considering that oppression of women, discrimination against LGBT people, racism, limitations on women’s reproductive freedom, and many other injustices result from the injection of religious doctrine into public policy. That is why it pains me so to see those who should be comrades in arms obstructing this noble and important endeavor, and what leads me to become what I once disdained: An atheist calling for her fellows to just cut this shit out.

1. Saying faith is harmless. 

This is what evolutionary biologist and author Jerry Coyne refers to as “the little people argument:” That you are too sophisticated to have need of comforting lies, but the unwashed masses need something to hold onto. If we put aside the condescension inherent in such a pronouncement, we are still left with a statement that is demonstrably false. Religion has for centuries served as justification for oppression and atrocities and continues to do so today. “No no,” you say, “the real cause is greed / imperialism / desire for power / psychological phenomena / something-else-totally-not-related-to-religion.” This excuse fails in two ways: First, because it ignores the convenient cover (not to mention the vast resources) that religion, as an institution, provides for those who would exploit it for their own worldly ends; and second, because it discounts the sincerity of those who hurt others, intentionally or not, as a result of doing what they truly believe is ordained by god. In a world where children die because their parents pray over them instead of taking them to the doctor, the claim that faith is harmless is both empirically untrue and callously indifferent to those who have, in fact, been harmed by faith.

2. Conflating criticism of religion with hatred of religious people.

I have been told more than once by other atheists something along the lines of, “You can’t separate criticism of Religion X from criticism of followers of Religion X. Their beliefs are who they are, so if you say Religion X is bad, you are saying THEY are bad.” And woe unto him who dares speak ill of Islam, which will precipitate anguished cries of Islamophobia, racism, and accusations that you are indicting every Muslim on the face of the earth because of the actions of a radical few.

Sigh. How many times must we explain this? A religion is a set of ideas. It is an ideology. It is NOT a person. Ideas don’t have rights or feelings. Ideas cannot and should not be immune from criticism, and certainly not ideas that form the basis of governments, shape cultural norms, and otherwise directly affect the lives of billions of humans – including humans who do not share those ideas. No one gets upset when I say that I think licorice is disgusting, because they know I am not passing judgment on people who like licorice as also disgusting. Why is it, then, that when I say that I think the Bible, or the Qur’an, or the Torah are nonsense, all of a sudden it means I must thereby despise all people who follow them?

3. Hating on Richard Dawkins.

We get it. He isn’t good at Twitter. He can be condescending. He occasionally loses his patience. Maybe his writing style doesn’t set you on fire. That all leads me to the question: So the fuck what? Dawkins is an accomplished scientist and, like it or not, the path we secularists now tread has been cleared in no small part by Dawkins and others like him who have refused to remain silent: Silent about the existence and rights of non-believers, about the falsity of religious claims about the universe, about the irrationality and injustice of religious privilege. I have to wonder to what degree some criticisms are sour grapes over the success he has had as a public skeptic, and how much of it is simple accommodationism – a means for some critics to ingratiate themselves with the religious majority so as not to end up on the wrong side of their considerable power and influence (not to mention wrath). Does Dawkins occasionally step in it? Sure. Is it fair that he just rubs some people the wrong way? That’s bound to be the case with any public figure. But Dawkins-bashing has become something of a status symbol, a way for wannabe skeptical superstars to flout their intellectual bona fides like Hollywood ingénues who just happen to show up at all the right clubs. (A recent example of this phenomenon can be found here.) At any rate, Dawkins is not going anywhere and his contributions to science and the process of questioning That Which We Dare Not Question are irrefutable. Don’t like him? Great. But for the love of all that is chocolatey, STFU about it already.

4. Claiming that atheism is “dogmatic.”

A commenter on a science page said to me recently, “While I share your criticisms of Judeo-Christian explanations, [atheists hold] that any belief in the existence of a non-corporeal world undetectable in the corporeal world is an indication of intellectual shortcomings and a deflection of responsibility. This is an equally dogmatic concept.” Uh, wrong.

First, this is a generalization which simply doesn’t hold up, as is so often the case with generalizations. It’s probably true that some atheists think this, but since atheists are as diverse a group as anyone else, there is very little one can claim that “atheists” hold other than a non-belief in a god or gods. Second, even for those atheists who do think this way, this is still not dogma. Dogma is “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true” that “serves as part of the primary basis of an ideology or belief system,” according to Wikipedia. Further, I most often see claims of dogmatic atheism when atheists refuse to yield to arguments that offer either no compelling evidence or no evidence at all – but dismissing an unfalsifiable proposition for which there is precisely zero evidence is not remotely the same as dismissing a proposition because it contradicts a closely held belief. In other words, don’t cry about dogma when your opponent is simply siding with the evidence.

5. Pretending that trust in science is identical to faith in the supernatural.

This is an offense similar to item 4 in which those who hold that science is the best method for understanding the universe are accused of “worshipping science” (or even worse, of the dreaded “scientism”) as though it were an infallible deity (such as we see here). It is a silly enough accusation when it comes from theists, but truly perplexing when made by fellow atheists. To begin with, it assumes that people are hard-wired to have irrational faith in something, so if it isn’t in the supernatural, it must be an unfounded trust in the conclusions of science. Of course, anyone with even a cursory understanding of the scientific process knows that there are few, if any, absolutes in science, and that what scientists claim to know always comes with the caveat that it is based on the best available evidence. This is why people often say that science has been wrong. Well, yes and no – it drew a conclusion that turned out not to be correct, but it was still the best conclusion based on the evidence on hand at the time.

Further, as others have said, trusting something based on evidence and prior experience is not remotely comparable to believing in that for which there is no evidence. Belief in god requires faith. Belief that the sun will rise tomorrow, or that if I strike a match it will burn, or that taking penicillin will cure an infection do not.

6. Comparing secular activism to proselytizing.

How often do we hear the charge that atheists who are vocal in their animus towards religion are “no better than religious fundamentalists,” guilty of “shoving their beliefs down others’ throats?” Too often, as far as I am concerned. To clarify why this accusation is – well, stupid – let’s review a few things. First, atheism is not a belief system; there are no “fundamentals” other than not believing in a god or gods. Second, atheists rarely go on faraway missions to convert people to atheism, knock on doors to spread the good news of the Big Bang, put fliers under windshield wipers explaining why everyone should accept evolution, or shout at strangers on street corners that they are doomed for eternity if they do not become atheists. Third, atheists get no special get-out-of-jail-free passes allowing them to disregard laws and rules they dislike, unlike their believing counterparts who can opt out of countless responsibilities if they claim that their religion demands it.

Speaking out about the absurdity of religious faith – even if you’re really, really obnoxious about it – does not a “fundamentalist” make. Unless you are trying to convince the faithful to abandon their beliefs and come over to The Dark Side, whatever you’re doing is not, in fact, proselytizing.

7. Using “freethinker” and “humanist” as synonyms for “atheist.”

In an atheist forum I used to frequent, one member confided that he had been repeatedly sexually abused as a child. During a disagreement with this person another member commented, “Is the reason you’re such a dick because you had to suck so much of it as a kid?” I don’t think I have to explain how repugnant that remark is or why it is inconsistent with the concept of humanism. In another group – one that even had the word “humanist” in the name – a member referred to children as “crotch goblins” and “disgusting little monsters.” Then there are the folks who will laugh at theists in one breath and endorse homeopathy in the next.

As has so often been observed, everyone’s a “freethinker” until you get too close to their own pet bullshit. I’d wager that most humans, regardless of whether they do or do not believe in any gods, are probably not freethinkers. That territory is reserved for professional scientists and philosophers, and even then, as humans they are subject to the same biases and frailties as the rest of us, if perhaps to a significantly lesser degree. If you don’t believe in god, you’re just an atheist. These other labels may be more palatable, but they aren’t interchangeable.

8. Infighting.

We’ve all heard the analogy comparing organizing atheists to herding cats. I desperately want this not to be true, and I just as fervently believe it doesn’t have to be, but for the time being it remains, alas, an accurate metaphor. It is true that, as Sam Harris said, knowing someone is an atheist is to know almost nothing about that person. And yet, almost nothing isn’t nothing. Can we not find some way to leverage that commonality among us to some greater good? Yes, it is important to recognize the diversity of our demographic. Yes, it is important to police ourselves, to ensure that as we seek better protections for non-believers in the wider world we are not guilty of the offenses we condemn. But too often this crosses into accusations and counter-accusations: “Stop being so angry!” “You’re not angry enough!” “Stop trying to disprove god!” “Atheists need to stand up for causes unrelated to atheism!” “Stop worshipping Dawkins!” And on it goes.

The secular movement will likely remain fragmented and diverse into perpetuity. Differences of style, opinion, priority, and approach are inevitable and, as I point out below, necessary. But we must take care not to devour each other and ourselves in the process. We have a common opponent. Let’s not forget that.

9. Having tunnel vision.

In fairness, this is something that applies to people in general and is not specific to atheists, but to the degree that it holds back the secular movement it deserves some attention. Humans have a tendency not to see much farther than the end of their own nose, shrugging off or even denying problems that don’t affect them directly and assuming that what has worked for them will work for everyone. This is fair to an extent, as we can take on only so much concern and responsibility and still maintain our mental health.

That being said, cultural change does not occur by being complacent. It cannot be effected using a single, limited strategy. There is a place for calling out micro aggressions, just as there is a place for conciliation, just as there is a place for satire, just as there is a place for negotiation, just as there is a place for fighting against blatant abuses of power. If a particular strategy is not in your wheelhouse, that’s OK. If you have no strategy at all and just want to sit it out, that’s OK too. No one expects everyone to have the same skills or priorities. But it harms us all when we try to stop others from being effective in the best way they can.

10. Believing in bullshit.

I know atheists who are anti-vaxxers, 9/11 truthers, GMO-opposers, climate change deniers, chiropractor patrons, anti-choicers, second amendment fanatics, and paranormal-believers. They cling to these opinions sometimes in the absence of evidence, and in sometimes in spite of overwhelming and unimpeachable contravening evidence – and then they will laugh at the silly theists who believe an invisible sky daddy created the whole universe in six days and CAN YOU BELIEVE HOW SILLY THOSE PEOPLE ARE, HAHA!

It has been disillusioning, to say the least, to discover that while most evidence-based thinkers are atheists, too many atheists are not evidence-based thinkers. More atheists need to take the critical thinking and objectivity they apply to the god question and turn it inward, examining the foundations of their own worldview. It can be discomfiting – threatening, even – to shine a spotlight on those things that define who we are, and the more strongly we identify with those things, the riskier the exercise becomes. What if we discover those ideas really aren’t based on reality? What if we have been wrong all this time? How will we live with that humiliation? Who will we be then? And yet, this is the very essence of rational thought – the willingness not just to tip other people’s sacred cows, but to take a good, long, hard look at our own and decide whether it’s time to put them out to pasture.

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