Category: Morality and Ethics

Signs You Might Be A Hypocrite

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I can think of little else that I despise more than hypocrisy: The application of different standards (of evidence, morality, or anything else) to those things of which we approve or which benefit us vs. those things we dislike or which benefit others.  Of course we are all human and subject to cognitive biases in varying degrees, an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of our hard wiring.  Excessive hypocrisy, however, is a mark of both intellectual laziness and intellectual dishonesty, and especially for those of us who claim the mantle of skeptic / critical thinker / champion of evidence, we should be perpetually vigilant for signs of it in ourselves and take decisive corrective action when we find it.  Here are a few clues that may help you determine whether your hypocrisy self-awareness meter requires calibration.

  • You spend a lot of time defending Milo Yiannopolous and Richard Spencer under the banner of “we have to protect even the most offensive speech,” but did not defend Kathy Griffin’s mock ISIS photo under the banner of “we have to protect even the most offensive speech.”
  • You chastise others for their echo chambers and admonish them to engage with to their opponents, but block people who disagree with you on Facebook and Twitter.
  • You have ever said “fuck your feelings” with regard to perceived political correctness, but lamented the lack of respect shown to Mike Pence when he was booed at a Broadway show.
  • You were horrified by the evangelical Christian trend of “purity balls” but laud hijab as a feminist symbol.
  • You supported the Benghazi investigations but oppose the Trump-Russia investigation.
  • It bothered you that Richard Spencer lost his gym membership, but you think LGBT couples should just find another bakery.
  • You criticize western feminists who talk about sexist imagery in comics for overly frivolous concerns, but complain about women-only screenings of the film Wonder Woman.
  • You called the people who were outraged when Trump bragged about grabbing women’s genitals without their permission “snowflakes,” but not the people who were outraged when Colin Kaepernick didn’t stand for the national anthem.
  • You were more bothered by Michelle Obama’s bare arms than by Melania Trump’s nudity.
  • You characterize Milo Yiannopolous as “just a troll” but an anti-Trump D-list comedian as “a Leftist celebrated public figure.”
  • You dismiss non-binary concepts of gender as not based in science, but defended the “Penis as Social Construct” hoax by saying even if this hoax didn’t debunk the field of gender studies, it doesn’t matter because everyone knows a better hoax would have.
  • You oppose legal abortion but support the death penalty.
  • You said jokes about the death of Roger Ailes were disrespectful of Ailes’s family, but you promote Sandy Hook truther Alex Jones or call criticism of Sean Hannity’s treatment of the Rich family “regressive.”
  • You claim to oppose Islam on behalf of the women it oppresses, but promote personalities who deny the existence of date rape or who call for white women to be publicly flogged for sexual impropriety.
  • You deny that Western colonialism turns Muslims into Islamists, but claim that too much political correctness turns white people into racists.
  • You spent weeks or months condemning the Richard Spencer punch and holding it up as evidence of pervasive violence on the Left, but justified, laughed at, or remained silent when a conservative politician assaulted a journalist and deny it is indicative of a violence problem on the Right.
  • You spend more time worrying about the threat to free speech posed by Ann Coulter being dis-invited from speaking at a college campus than you do about a citizen being convicted and imprisoned for laughing at a government official (or a bill that would send teenagers to federal prison for sexting, or a journalist being arrested for asking a government official a question, or state legislatures passing laws criminalizing peaceful protests).
  • You declare the importance of seeing people as individuals rather than as collectives while making hasty generalizations about feminists, Muslims, Democrats, Leftists, etc.
  • You speak out against anti-LGBT attitudes embraced by conservative Christians, but file anti-LGBT attitudes among Muslims under “cultural differences.”
  • You denigrate the boycott of Sean Hannity’s advertisers in response to his treatment of the Rich family as a regressive leftist attack for “wrong think,” but were supportive or silent when conservatives boycotted Beauty and the Beast for having a gay character (or Hamilton because the cast addressed Mike Pence; or Budweiser, 84 Lumber, CocaCola, Airbnb, Kia, and Tiffany for airing SuperBowl ads with pro-diversity messages; or Nordstrom for dropping Ivanka Trump’s clothing line; or Netflix for having a show called Dear White People; or Starbucks for having insufficiently Christian holiday coffee cups; or Hawaii because a federal judge there ruled against Trump’s travel ban; or Target for encouraging trans people to use their restroom of choice; or Target again for banning loaded guns in its stores; or ABC for cancelling Last Man Standing; or . . .  )

Fighting Feminism with Fallacies

I have watched with alarm over the past several months as a growing number of atheists who fancy themselves Rational Critics of Islam™ have taken to coupling criticism of that religion with attacks on western feminists.  Take, for example, the recent hashtag #SaveDinaAli, a worthy cause in its own right.  Dina Ali is a young Saudi woman who attempted to flee her country’s system of male guardianship, but was intercepted in the Philippines by male relatives who beat her and forced her to return to Saudi Arabia where her fate remains uncertain.  A number of prominent atheists decided to use the hashtag not only to raise awareness about Dina’s plight, but to exploit it in an attempt to shut down western feminist voices.

Yep, ain’t no feminists west of Saudi who care about anything but video games. #SeemsLegit
Sorry, unless it involves death and Islam, file under #FakeNews.
Always, as in 100% of the time, without exception, ever, no citation required because I’m a Certified Rationalist Skeptic(TM).
 

To start with, it should matter to these so-called rational thinkers that such statements are flagrant logical fallacies (strawmanrelative privation, and hasty generalization, to be exact).  This should send up red flags about their rationalism bona fides at the very least, given that sound argumentation was once considered a necessary skill in the atheism toolkit and a person would have to be either appallingly bad at or simply not care about logic to be packing the same three fallacies into tweet after tweet.

It also calls into serious question the authenticity of one’s advocacy for Dina Ali if out of 140 characters ostensibly intended to raise awareness of her situation, a person can spare only 12 for Dina and is compelled to use the other 128 to express contempt for an entire subset of women. Honestly, it takes some spunk to declare yourself a savior of Saudi women when you can’t even write a single tweet that expresses only support for them and nothing else—not to mention gross ignorance about how advocacy works to think that shitting on one cause is necessary to advance another.  Remember that ad campaign by the American Cancer Society where they declared that the parents of premature babies who give money to the March of Dimes are selfish, privileged assholes who want people to die of cancer? Me neither.

What troubles me the most about this trend is how it seeks to set western women as adversaries against their sisters in the Muslim world, exploiting the troubles of the latter simply as a vehicle for tearing down the former.  “Western women have it so easy,” they say. “Western women have no problems.  They’re too self-involved and too obsessed with petty grievances to care about the oppression of women in the Middle East.”  Of course plenty of western women actually do have problems, and not all of them are trivial; so when we hear those accusations and understandably put a hand up to say, “Hold on there, hoss, that’s not quite true,” they seize that objection as proof positive that we in the west think we have it just as bad as women who live under sharia—even though no one has actually said this, or even thinks it.

Silly me, thinking it wasn’t even necessary to compare getting raped to living under male guardianship.

Attacking western feminists who are concerned about, say, the evisceration of women’s healthcare in the US because women in Saudi Arabia live under sharia is exactly the same thing as attacking someone for raising awareness about birth defects because cancer kills more people. By this “reasoning” only the absolute worst atrocities in the world should ever be addressed, in which case curing diseases or fighting Islam would likely not even make the short list.  Moreover, as low as my opinion tends to be about humans in general, even I will admit that most of them are capable of thinking more than one thought at a time. I can be outraged by legislative assaults on women’s bodily autonomy here in the US while at the very same time being outraged by what happened to Dina Ali, and no matter what the anti-feminists claim, I can do something about both of them; I do not have to choose one or the other (and to suggest that I do is yet another logical fallacy). On the other hand, constant attacks that misrepresent and undermine feminism not only do nothing to help women like Dina Ali—they compromise our ability to effect change on important issues closer to home, such as reproductive freedom and pay equity. (I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether that consequence is a feature or a bug.)

Here, though, is what strikes me as the real crux of the issue: Conflating the legal status of women with the lived experiences of individual women.  Literally no one—at least, no one with a shred of intellectual honesty—would argue that in general, women in the West have better legal standing than women in the Muslim world.  That is a given, and the constant accusations by anti-feminists that western women don’t understand this basic truth are simply lies meant to discredit western feminism.  That being said, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the life of every individual western woman is objectively better than the life of every individual Saudi woman, or that the only women who know hardship are those who live under sharia. Crimes like child sexual abuse, rape, and domestic violence are not constrained by national or religious borders; they may be treated differently by the legal system and economic status may influence access to treatment resources, but the trauma they inflict on their victims is not so easily predicted, categorized, or dismissed. Said another way, telling a Canadian woman “At least you were just raped and not raped AND stoned for adultery” should strike every reasonable and ethical person as not just lacking in empathy, but as downright cruel in how it both minimizes the violence of her assault and scolds her if she has the audacity to not feel all that lucky.  Moreover, there is absolutely nothing to be gained—least of all for the women that these anti-Islam crusaders purport to fight for—by such attempts to measure and quantify degrees of suffering and assign it more or less validity based on whether it was caused by Islam.

Ungrateful western rape victims just have no idea how EASY they have it! Also, eat your goddamn vegetables – don’t you know there are starving kids in Africa?!
 

It is worth noting that the “yeah, but sharia” brigade that is so eager to silence western women over issues of misogyny that still exist in the West because women in Saudi have it worse seem to have an odd blind spot when the subject is no longer the status of women.  I, for one, struggle to recall any of these same characters shrugging off Milo Yiannopolous being disinvited from speaking engagements on college campuses because Raif Badawi had it a lot worse.

Ladies, do you really have legit problems, or are you just dabbling in oppression? Find out with this one weird trick! Has your clit been lopped off? If so, congratulations! You may be sufficiently oppressed to express an opinion. If not, you’re drowning in privilege. STFU.
Are there things that western feminists get wrong? Absolutely. Are there examples of excessive pearl-clutching over grievances that really are petty?  Of course. Are these challenges unique to western feminism? Not by a longshot.  Do I have to choose between fighting for my sisters at home and my sisters abroad?  Hell no.  I don’t have to choose; I won’t choose; and I will continue to speak out against anyone who says I must.

Let Change Begin With Me

I believe that the only hope for humanity lies in the embrace of evidence-based thinking. Whether the subject is religion or science or politics or anything in between, an earnest desire to ascertain reality demands that we seek the best available evidence, acknowledge our biases, do our best to compensate for them, and be willing to adjust our worldview accordingly. This is necessary even (perhaps especially) when doing so is difficult – in other words, all the time.

Intellectual honesty is uncomfortable. Personal growth usually is too. It is easy to talk ourselves into believing that only others suffer the impairment of cognitive bias, or that we are otherwise exceptional and therefore exempt from the rules we expect others to follow. It feels good to be right and even better to be righteous, whereas admitting fallibility can be awkward, humiliating, or painful. But we must resist the siren song of comforting self-delusion and struggle, however clumsily, to reserve the highest standards for ourselves.

Moving beyond superstition and tribalism isn’t just about the satisfaction of being right: It’s about making the world a better place. It’s about clearing away the excuses and the ignorance that too often get in the way of seeing our common humanity, and finding our way to a more ethical, more moral, more productive society.

This is what I want for my child.

It is what all children deserve.

And so it starts with me.

Eight Reasons Free Will Is Total Bullshit

 

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If we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it a million times: God is not responsible for the evil and suffering in the world; that is caused by humans’ misuse of their god-given free will!  Sentiments such as “Don’t blame god, blame your own bad choices!” and “God isn’t responsible for the bad things others do to you!” abound in Christian literature and online enclaves, and they seems to make so much sense to the people who claim it – but what makes sense to the theist mind is often nonsensical in any other context, and this is no exception.  Under even mild scrutiny, free will is shown to be nothing more than an apologetic sleight of hand, glorifying an ostensibly loving and powerful god while simultaneously placing dramatic limits on his benevolence and ability.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say it is total bullshit.

1. Free will is not a universally held belief among Christians. As is the case with virtually every other claim made by Christians (and, to be fair, followers of every other religion), free will is not only not accepted across all denominations and adherents of Christianity, it is rejected outright by many as false teaching. Some Christians believe that humans are slaves to sin and are not free to choose not to sin, and that since god is the author of evil, it must simply be accepted. As explained by the kind folks at christianfallacies.com, “evil is a part of God’s eternal plan as so many scriptures illustrate . . . Free will is not needed as an answer to deliver God from the charge of evil because evil is not a problem for God, but for man, and man is in no position to question God about its existence.”  The non-believer is then left to ask, as with all other contradictory statements about the intentions and nature of god, what makes one of these claims true and the other one false – a question that I have yet to see any theist answer.

2. Free will and predestination are mutually exclusive. The internet is laden with dime-store theology that declares loudly and unambiguously that whatever is happening at any given moment is exactly what god intends. Try as one might, it’s nigh impossible to find pithy memes and articles that say, “God had a plan for you to be happy, but Monsignor totally blindsided god by using his free will to sodomize you when you were a child, and that threw a wrench into the whole thing. Sucks being you!”  On the contrary, we are told that god would not have allowed Monsignor to rape you unless he had a purpose for it.  Furthermore, given that “god is directing each one of your steps,” and since that claim does not come with an asterisk clarifying that ‘your’ refers to ‘non-pedophiles only,’ then he had to be directing Monsignor’s steps too.  There’s no room in any of this for anyone’s free will.

3. Semantic hoops of fire to make a divine plan compatible with free will are disingenuous. To hear some tell it, god’s plan is really just an idea, a hope, like the plans people have for the weekend, which can be fouled by the free will of other humans who are either ignorant of or averse to our own desires. In this version of “god’s plan,” god has no way to either communicate the plan to humans or to make it happen – it’s all just sitting there in his head while he crosses his holy fingers that our guesswork will cause us to stumble more or less blindly into doing what he wants us to do. This, of course, is entirely intellectually dishonest, because we all know that when theists speak of God’s Plan™ they are ascribing a much greater degree of control and intentionality than this weak excuse allows.  One must also wonder what kind of mean-spirited fool this god would have to be to make a plan that he knows in advance isn’t going to pan out, or to not at least tell humanity what the plan is so that we have a better chance of using our free will in a way that comports with that plan.  This is not the behavior one would expect of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent god – indeed, it is not even the behavior one would expect of a marginally competent middle manager.

4. Free will is never used as an explanation for positive outcomes. We only ever hear about the importance of free will in discussions of why god allows evil or suffering. You can read elaborate explanations here or here or here or here or in many other places that god just had to give us free will because golly, he didn’t want to make an army of robots!  He wanted humans to choose to love (read: enslaves themselves to) him!  Let’s set aside for the moment that an omnipotent god wouldn’t have to do anything (and an omniscient one surely could have come up with a way to make non-automatons who were nice to each other).  If humans are free to choose, doesn’t that mean that sometimes they choose to do good things?  Why do we exonerate god in this child’s suffering by blaming her parents’ use of their free will to abuse her, but credit god for blessing that child who is thriving, rather than ascribe his success to his parents’ use of their free will to lavish him with love and opportunity?  To hold any water at all, free will has to account for both the good and the bad choices that people make.

5. The concept of free will leads to acceptance of suffering as inevitable. “Humans are sinful, flawed, fallible. Of course some of them will use their free will in sinful, flawed, fallible ways. I know, it’s truly awful when children get raped, beaten, neglected, tortured, or murdered.  But oh well, what are you going to do?  That’s just the cost of god making us free beings.”  Which leads us to . . .

6. A god that allows misuse of free will to cause human suffering has the wrong priorities. Most crimes have not just a perpetrator, but a victim – perhaps many victims. Do the victims not have free will?  Surely they did not choose the circumstances that led to their suffering.  Surely they did not choose to suffer.  When the parish priest is sodomizing the altar boy, why does the priest’s free will choice to rape matter to god, but the child’s desire not to be raped does not?  A god who always favors the evil over the innocent can be nothing but evil.

7. Free will does not cause natural disasters. Even if free will was an acceptable explanation for human-caused suffering (which it isn’t), it doesn’t work for the suffering caused by wildfires, tsunamis, floods, landslides, earthquakes, drought, famine, or disease outbreaks. In fact, a great many evangelicals will confidently declare that god does, in fact, send natural disasters as punishment for human sinfulness, such as some claimed with regard to Hurricane Katrina.  Ironically, they do not seem to recognize that killing, maiming, and impoverishing tens of thousands of innocent people (not to mention the devastating cost to non-human animals and the overall ecosystem) as a means of punishing a handful of guilty people is as far away from just and loving as their god could get.  More to the point, it admits outright that a significant percentage of suffering has nothing whatsoever to do with free will, but is caused directly and on purpose by god.

8. Science indicates that the notion of free will in the biblical sense – individual agency to make choices entirely free of unconscious influences – does not exist. Advances in neuroscience have severely eroded the notion that humans can freely choose their behaviors. Our genes, brain chemistry, parents, geography, and life experiences shape everything from our sense of right and wrong to our intelligence to our emotions and everything in between.  This is not to say that we are automatons who cannot behave morally and ethically, but it does allow us to see human behavior in a different, perhaps more dispassionate light and over time may lead us to more effective strategies for dealing with things like mental illness, violent crime, and other complex and nuanced problems.  Once again, the space of ignorance so long occupied by god has been replaced by scientific knowledge, achieved through observation, empiricism, and evidence.

It’s remarkable to consider the armies of people throughout history who have devoted years, perhaps their entire lives, to figuring out how to reconcile the existence of evil and suffering with the notion of a loving, perfect, and just god.  The intellectual capacity wasted on such a fruitless and absurd endeavor is as mind-boggling as it is tragic – one can only hope that humanity will one day realize that those things are in fact irreconcilable, and rather than devote their lives to understanding why god allows suffering, put that energy into alleviating it.

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.

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?

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.