Thursday, December 20, 2007

Beyond Humanism?

I say again and again that atheism is not a world view or philosophy. It's just "not theism"; a disagreement with god talk that is only useful in our current overly religious social context. So what is my world view? How do I classify my system of ethics? I like the ideals of Secular Humanism, and Humanism in general, but the central focus on "human" has always bothered me.

I like Peter Singer’s ideas of extending our compassion to creatures beyond our own species. If you are an atheistic naturalist then you should understand there is no clear border between humans and other animals, so why shouldn’t the golden rule and other common sense ethical principles extend to them as well?

The Secular Humanist list of affirmations does say: "We want to protect and enhance the earth, to preserve it for future generations, and to avoid inflicting needless suffering on other species." However that idea is not directly implied in the term "Humanism".

Yes I am a hypocritical meat eater, but I might not always be. I’m still mulling things over. Can anyone think of a name for a positive ethical philosophy along the lines of Humanism, but with a broader scope to include all sentient creatures with the capacity to suffer?

Monday, November 26, 2007

So Curious

I really would have liked to hear the conversation going on at this table.

That's three of the "4 horsemen" chatting over beers.

I wonder what they talked about?

UPDATE: My wish has come true.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

A New Subtitle

Don't you like my new oxymoronic subtitle? If you want an explanation, read this previous post. I made the "g-o-d" all caps so you know it's the true god that my ignostic self can't conceive, and my atheist self doesn't believe in. Ho ho! No, I haven't been "Flewed" yet.

On a side note, I just watched the Q&A section of Sam Harris' talk at the AAI convention. I don't know what all the other atheists are so worked up about. His answers were perfectly reasonable.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A Semantic Taxonomy of Non-theism

You might have seen some posts here discussing the various meanings of "atheism" and "agnosticism". (Also, my personal favorite, "ignosticism".) If you visit online forums like Internet Infidels, you probably see the same debates over meanings come up again and again. In this post instead of making a case for what I think is the correct or best definition (except for one definition below, which really is bad), I made a list of the main definitions people use. There are many other variants though, which you can find in the Wikipedia pages on atheism, agnosticism, and also agnostic atheism. (You can also find plenty of arguments over meanings in the discussion pages). The reason I am doing this is to get the various positions straight in my mind so I can discuss them clearly.



1. Obsolete Definition = Hatred of, or rebellion against a particular god.

2. Street Definition = The belief that a god or gods do not exist.

3. Philosophical Definition = The lack of belief in a god or gods; equivalent to non-theism.

The philosophical definition is usually broken down into two sub-groups:

3a. Strong Atheism = Equivalent to the street definition, #2 above.

3b. Weak Atheism = Emphasized the lack of a positive belief. Equivalent to "agnostic atheism".


1. Bad Definition = Undecided about the existence of a particular god or gods. Someone who is 50-50.

2. Street Definition = Equivalent to weak atheism.

3. Philosophical Definition = Says that we don't know anything about a god or gods.

Likewise this last definition can be broken into two sub-groups.

3a. Strong Agnosticism = The position that it is impossible to know about a god or gods.

3b. Weak Agnosticism = The position that one doesn't know about a god or gods, but such knowledge might be possible.


I think most arguments are between people supporting either the street definitions or philosophical definitions. These arguments are similar to the old descriptivist/prescriptivist debate, and also remind me of the hacker/cracker arguments as well.

The second layer of confusion added on top of these disputes is the definition of "god". Depending on what definition of god we are talking about, my own label can change drastically. For example, if your god is literally the universe, then I am a theist, since obviously the universe exists. If your god is some vague deistic first cause, I am either an agnostic or ignostic. If your god is Yahweh, Allah, or Quetzalcoatl then I am an atheist.

In any discussion it is important to get your meanings straight so everyone knows exactly what everyone is talking about. This advice is even more important when it comes to talking about religious beliefs, or lack thereof.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Hitchens vs. D'Souza Debate

Last night I went to the debate between Christopher Hitchens and Dinseh S'Souza. Hitchens wasn't in top form, and D'Souza probably won the debate in terms of audience support. But the audience was stacked against Hitchens with 80 to 90% being Christian in my estimate.

D'Souza threw out numerous mischaracterizations of atheists, and statements such as atheism and belief in scientific laws requiring a leap of faith just like Christianity, which Hitchens never properly attacked.The final audience question period favored D'Souza as well, since most questions went to Hitchens, D'Souza got the last word in almost every time. Hitchens often made arguments that seemed to go over the heads of the audience. Once he made the point that the so-called designer didn't do a very good job since most of the solar system and universe is uninhabitable. However he made this argument with too much literary flair since I saw the young Christians sitting in front of me shaking their heads in confusion, not because they disagreed, but because they plainly did not understand what Hitchens was saying.

When Dinesh mentioned Hitchens book on Mother Theresa "The Missionary Position" the young Christians in front of me freaked out. Their eyes were bugging out and their jaws were hitting the floor! After all the things Hitchens had said so far, I couldn't believe that book title getting the biggest reaction.

Here are my crappy notes:


The format was 10 minutes each, then 5 minutes each, then cross examination from either side, and finally audience questions. D'Souza went first. (I'll use "D" and "H" from now on.)I'll put my biased remarks in square brackets.

D (10 min.):

- Militant atheism is on the rise.
- Why do atheists care? You don't see me writing books on how I don't believe in unicorns. [There haven't been any unicorn suicide bombers yet, or people pushing for unicorn lessons in public schools.]
- I will focus on reason and evidence during the debate.
- The values atheists promote are the result of Christianity.
- It is the Western Christian nations that help others in time of need. (tsunamis, etc.)
- Atheists say there democratic values are based on ancient Greek civilization. No, ancient civilizations were based on slavery.
- Christianity provided the moral engine to eventually end slavery, and the foundation for democracy. (all men created equal under God...)
- Many scientists in history have been Christian. (Galileo, Newton, Mendel...) [Galileo?!?]
- There is no conflict btwn. science and religion because modern science is based on three assumptions. (1) Universe as a whole is rational. (2) Universe obeys laws which can be described with mathematics. (3) Laws of nature mirrored in our brain. These assumptions are rooted in Christianity.
- Christianity hasn't killed so many people. Only 18 at Salem, and 2000 from Inquisition. Compare to the millions of atheists Stalin and Mao. [The inquisition didn't have modern death technology, nor the dense populations to work on...]

H (10 min):
- The problem is faith, and the belief that faith is a virtue.
- People didn't know right and wrong before Mt. Sinai? Silly idea.
- Vicarious redemption by applauding a human sacrifice is nasty.
- Compulsory love is immoral.
- Despite many atrocities in the Old Testament, there was no everlasting punishment of the dead until Jesus meek and mild came in the New Testament.
- What moral act can be done by a believer that can't be done by a non-believer? (And vice versa, what immoral acts can only be done by believers?)
- Humans have been around for at least 100,000 years. So God waited through 98,000 years of suffering and death before we got a filthy human sacrifice in one part of the middle east.

D (5 min):

- "I feel like a mosquito in a nudist colony, that is I don't know where to begin." (Big laughs!)
- Hitchens has presumed many things. He presumes there is no God, so the crucifixion is a dirty human sacrifice. But the Christian presumes there is a God, and Christianity is not about the crucifixion, but the resurrection? [Why use a cross symbol then? Why not a rising Christ symbol?]
- Science can't prove anything. Millions of tests won't tell us for sure the speed of light won't change tomorrow.
- Hitchens is taking a leap of faith believing in the laws of science.- Loving God is not a compulsion, it's a free offering to us. People aren't sent to Hell, they choose to go there by rejecting God.
- Hitchens hates Jesus.

H (5 min):
- You still haven't proven God exists.
- Religions want the end of the world to happen soon.
- Islam is bad. [Sorry my notes aren't so good here.]

Cross examination... [rough notes]

D: Name a law of science that can't change. [i.e.. implying that is Hitchen's faith.]

H: Einstein was a deist. [They argue about that for a bit.]

D: Why does the universe have perfect life inducing parameters?

H: Most of the solar system and universe is uninhabitable. Some designer!

H: Fascism grew out of the Catholic church. (Celebrating Hitler's birthday, etc.)

D: Stalin and Marx were atheists. Hitler actually hated Christianity and just used it for his own ends. Hitler surrounded himself with atheists.

H: Stalin was making use of population of believers. You can't give example of atheist society falling into chaos and decay.

D: Hitchens blames Christians for all their crimes, but also blames the crimes of the atheists on religion too.

Audience question time...

Q: To D, elaborate on laws of nature mirrored in our minds please.

D: blah blah blah.

H: No miracles.

Q: To H, Why do you say morality has =merely= evolved?

H: Evolution, blah blah.

D: Evolution can't explain origin of life, consciousness or morality.

H: I gave blood!

D: That's because you were raised in a Christian society.

Q: [Schizophrenic ramblings about existence]

H: Lets take that as a statement.

D: OK.

H: Next!

Q: To H, Before Xianity came to Fiji, we were eating each other. What do you have to offer us?

H: Well, why did Xianity take so long to get there?

D: Indian untouchables embracing Xianity because of teaching of equality. I'm thankful for the inquisitors who brought Xianity to my ancestors, even though my ancestors might not have liked it at the time. [!]

Q: To H, if people are evolving and religion is bad, why haven't' we gotten rid of it after all this time?

H: Religion says your a worm, nothing, dirty, but God loves you! [George Carlin?]

D: Hitches is crazy with his exaggeration that religion poisons everything.

Q: [Something about faith]

H. [don't remember]

D: We are both agnostics. I don't know, but I believe. Chris chooses to have faith that God doesn't exist. We are both making leaps of faith.

H: Saying I disagree with you is not a leap of faith. [I wish he made this point clearer...]

D: Kepler is awesome.


Sorry my note taking wasn't going so well there at the end. I was getting tired, and the cheering of the Christians around me whenever Dinesh made some stupid remark was giving me a headache. Hitchens needed some coffee, or maybe a shot of methamphetamine at the end. He let too much slide by.

It's possible that D'Souza has a point in that Christianity has had some positive influence on human society. But just because a religious social system is doing some good doesn't make its claims true. I'm interested in what is true, and how we can verify that to the best of our abilities.

UPDATE: It looks like the video will be available here.

UPDATE 2: There's a much better report of the debate here at Hitchens Watch.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Radioactive Rush

I posted this as a comment on a post at Hemant's blog. Does copying and pasting it here make me a lazy blogger? Yes... yes it does.


Rush said:

You just can’t. You might run around and say, “I don’t want
to destroy God’s creation.” God’s laughing at you.You can’t!
Stan is certainly right about the “God [verb]” warning flag. So Rush knows what God thinks is funny? Why don’t we put some of our nuclear waste in Rush’s backyard? Since he is so sure we can’t hurt the natural environment, he shouldn’t mind. God will just help him adapt to all plutonium in his lawn.

Maybe some people’s environmental activism is like a religion for them, but that is stretching the whole meaning of “religion” to it’s breaking point. People get passionate about all kinds of interests and hobbies. So what? However everyone should make their best effort to promote intellectual honesty on both sides of the political spectrum.

The point Rush clearly misunderstands is that blind faith is not a good thing, whether you have blind faith in some religion or even global warming. Someone needs to remind him that the 9/11 hijackers were also also faithful people who “believed in something larger than themselves.” Obviously that idiotic Chesterton quote failed in their case.

Friday, October 12, 2007

More Criticism

I'm feeling grumpy today so I think I will follow along with the theme from Sam's infamous speech to do some atheist "bashing" of my own. I saw Ellen Johnson, the president of American Atheists, wrote a response to his speech. From there I clicked on the American Atheists web site. I also found out that if you search for "atheist" on Google the American Atheist web site is the second link that comes up. Now I warned you I was grumpy, so here comes a lot of negativity. I feel the need to say it though:

1. What an ugly web site. The most annoying thing is the list of topics on the left in all caps. Yech.

2. I hate the fricken symbol. It looks like something you'd see stitched on Flash Gordon's chest. I guess the middle orbital is cut off to make an arch for some reason, but it looks funny to me. If I have to have an atom I want my orbitals whole! (The issue of a symbol for atheism has been endlessly debated. Check out this massive discussion thread or this image of some ideas.)

3. I don't like their definition of atheism. "Atheism is a doctrine that states that nothing exists but natural phenomena (matter), that thought is a property or function of matter, and that death irreversibly and totally terminates individual organic units." Atheism is a doctrine? A doctrine? Wikipedia says, "Doctrine (Latin: doctrina) is a code of beliefs or "a body of teachings" or "instructions", taught principles or positions, as the body of teachings in a branch of knowledge or belief system." I don't see how atheism is a doctrine. It doesn't even make sense to call "theism" a doctrine. Theism and atheism are about the belief or disbelief in a god or gods. I don't see any doctrines there.

I know they are trying to say the supernatural does not exist, but it seems like they are just saying "nothing exists except that which exists." They go on to write, "This definition means that there are no forces, phenomena, or entities which exist outside of or apart from physical nature, or which transcend nature, or are “super” natural, nor can there be. Humankind is on its own." That doesn't seem very scientific for a bunch of atheists. I can't say for sure that there is a higher dimensional alien being out there. Who knows? But if there is, it would be natural anyway so who cares. It sounds like they are claiming the universe as we observe it today is all there is and is the TRUTH.

Again saying there is nothing beyond physical nature is silly. If we could observe and measure something "beyond" our universe it would by definition have to be part of the universe. Some people talk about other "bubble" universes with different physical laws. Sure they could exist. I guess they are beyond our local universe in one sense, but they are still part of the larger cosmos.

Yeah, humankind is on it's own for now. But it might not always be that way. Watch out when Google wakes up or some aliens decide to visit. Things like that might never happen, but its absurd to rule them out based on some "Atheist™ Doctrine".

4. Finally stop capitalizing atheism! It's not a religion for crying out loud. Does anyone capitalize "theism"?

The rest of the page isn't so bad with some various humanistic principles. However by strict definition being an atheist doesn't mean you are a humanist. A serial killer could be an atheist. But if you are making a demographic bet I would say most atheists are humanists. From my anecdotal experience I would say the Venn diagram for both groups almost perfectly overlaps.

So can you tell I'm not a member of American Atheists? I am a member of The Freedom From Religion Foundation. The co-leaders Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor are kind and intelligent people. (Check out their delightful radio show/podcast.) They also do a lot of valuable legal work protecting church-state separation. I'm also a member of The Center For Inquiry.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Theophilic Atheist

The endless debate over labels rages on. I'm going to copy some comments I made regarding Sam's speech. First this one I posted on the Dawkins site:

I really don't know if Sam is right or not. Society is so complex and judging how a label will affect a group in that society is very hard. We have seen a lot about atheism in the media recently, but has it really diffused out into the general public? I'm not even sure the majority of Americans even know what atheism is or have ever heard of Harris, Dawkins, and the rest.

Personally I still like to use the label "atheist" just because it stimulates discussion. I like to use it in a seemingly contradictory way though. I usually say "I'm an atheist who loves god," which really flummoxes the listener! I mean I do love the idea of a god who punishes the bad guys who seem to get away with a lot in this world, sends dead children to a heavenly paradise and hopefully gives some answers to questions on life the universe and everything. Sounds good! (Note I certainly don't love the idea of a bizarre Yahweh-Jesus god model which celebrates human sacrifice and rewards blind faith.) I particularly like the god idea in John Shirley's secular "rapture" book, The Other End for example.

However, liking an idea doesn't make it true. My free and open mind can entertain all kinds of ideas, but the rational part filters those ideas based on real evidence. That is the education I want to give people when I say I'm an "atheist who loves god."

After writing this I did a Google search and found out that I wasn't the first person (no surprise there) who thought up the idea of "an atheist who loves god". I see this German philosopher, Paul Carus, said it a long time ago.

And here was my response to an e-mail from a member of our local atheist group ("she" is referring to another member who wrote a previous e-mail):

In general I liked Sam's article. He made many good points, but I don't agree with it 100%. I think the most problematic part is where he writes:

"We should not call ourselves “humanists,” or “secular humanists,” or “naturalists,” or “skeptics,” or “anti-theists,” or “rationalists,” or “freethinkers,” or “brights.” We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them."

In the current anti-science and pro-superstition culture we are in, we have to organize to "destroy bad ideas" and any organization has to have a name. Maybe a case could be made to avoid the term "atheism", but I don't see why Sam said we should avoid using relatively innocuous labels like "naturalist" or "freethinker". Anyway, there are already plenty of atheist organizations which use all kinds of labels such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation or Council for Secular Humanism.

This culture war is being fought on multiple fronts and it is natural for people to rally under various banners or no banners at all. Even the religious side is divided among various labels and leaders. I don't think that is going to change anytime soon.

It's a bit much to immediately crucify Sam for airing these thoughts. He didn't really say anything totally outrageous. (I do find it odd though that she chose to capitalize atheism. Lets leave the capitalization for actual religions.) I still think we should be thankful to Sam for opening the gates for the current atheist publishing boom. I certainly hope he continues to write and speak. Lets take his recent essay as some constructive criticism. We don't have to do what he says. There is no Pope among atheists. So lets get back to organizing as we please to promote reason and destroy those bad ideas.

I tried to come up with a clever title for this post, but I'm not even sure "theophilic" is a real word. There are a few google hits, but I don't really understand how people are using it in those contexts. I'm just guessing it means "love of god". Nothing like a good oxymoron! Which reminds me of another bumper sticker:

"God made me an atheist, who are you to question his wisdom?"

As a level 6 atheist on the Dawkins Scale of Belief I am open to the possibility of a personal god if some extraordinary evidence comes up, and if such an entity exists I would bet good money that He/She/It loves atheists best!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Science and Atheism

Here's a comment I made on Hemant's blog in reply to another. (The other guy's remarks are in the block quotes.)


Like some religious leaders, many scientists have forged evidence in support of a noble cause.

However unlike religion, science has a built in system that tries to minimize human error or outright corruption. A scientist has to make his methods clear and repeatable by others.

To me this behavior suggests to me that atheists are just as susceptible to self-deception as the rest of us.

I don’t think most atheists would disagree with you. But I bet most atheists have skeptical mind sets and at least try to keep their self-deception to a minimum. I’m not sure supernaturalists put in so much effort to question their own beliefs.

I know many atheists to whom evolution is a surrogate religion, because they too believe whatever their authority figures tell them, and like mainstream religious people, they easily turn emotional when their beliefs are being questioned.

How are you defining “religion” here? Geologists and astronomers also get upset when creationists say their research is garbage. Do we now say geology and astronomy are “religions”? Most, but actually not all, atheists accept evolution. This acceptance comes from a wealth of data, books, education, and also personal research. I think this is quite different from the religious model of a single authoritative source like the Bible.

Atheists are very prone to be as unscientific as creationists are, because atheism rules-out the existence of something which or someone who can not be
proved nor disproved.

If you talk to most atheists they are not saying they have proved God doesn’t exist. They just don’t believe a god exists because the positive evidence isn’t there. I’m not sure if you’re religious, but I constantly hear religious people and creationists overuse the word “prove”. I think the only people who are proving things are mathematicians. Scientists can disprove theories, everything else is provisional with varying degrees of acceptance based on the quality and quantity of evidence.

In addition I would like to suggest that even a renowned scientist like Richard Dawkins is in fact religious, his book “The God Delision” proves it.

How does his book prove that? And again how are you defining religion? I think the commonly accepted view of religion is that it has some supernatural element. If you broaden the definition to be just closely held beliefs and rituals, then baseball is a religion too.

Agnosticism appears to be about as close as you can get to being non-religious and objective…

I have a feeling you think atheism means 100% faith there is no God. Dawkins defined that as a 7 on his scale of belief. But even he said he was just a 6, which he called a defacto atheist. Some might want to insist that is really agnosticism, but then Dawkins and I would also be agnostics about fairies in our gardens which just sounds silly.


As a side comment to what I wrote above, I think many discussions about "science" go of course for the same reason discussions about "god" do since these words mean different things to different people. In a single discussion "science" shifts from meaning a body of knowledge, to a method of finding things out, to the actual community of working scientists. However unlike defining "god", defining "science" for a particular discussion shouldn't be that difficult.

People who criticize science often say things like "scientists don't know everything", "science isn't always right", "science has it's limits", etc. But who ever claimed the opposite? Scientists are people and the scientific community and the methods they use tries to minimize human error as much as possible. The bottom line here is, how are we going to find answers to the questions important to us? What methods will we use to find cures to diseases, learn about distant stars, uncover the past history of the Earth, or even why the sky is blue? Science is our best tool for answering questions like these.

For other more philosophical questions like "what is the right thing to do?" or "what is beauty?" maybe science can't find the answers currently, but I wouldn't rule it out completely. However, if we can't use science to find and verify the answers, what exactly will we use in its place? How will we know any answers we find are correct? I don't see any alternatives to the scientific method.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The Other End

Last year I listened to an interesting podcast interview with John Shirley where he talked about his new book that he was working on at the time. That book, The Other End, has finally come out and I read it over the weekend. It's a great antidote to all those nasty Christian rapture books. In the pattern of Ken McLeod calling The Singularity "the rapture for nerds" I think the "end" in The Other End is like the rapture for atheists.

If the end of the world were to come as described in this book, I don't think any atheists would complain much. Some of the elements in the story seemed to be plucked from my own day dreams about people really waking up to what is going on around them. Looking up a name in the book lead me to this interesting Wikipedia page about an imperfect creator god.

Another book I zipped through over the weekend was Steven C. (not J.) Gould's latest Jumper novel, Griffin's Story. The first, Jumper and it's sequel Reflex are definitely near the top of my all time favorite books. They are making a movie based on Jumper due to come out in 2008. As expected the movie's plot has diverged quite a bit from the original books. In Griffin's Story, Steven Gould took the interesting tactic of making it consistent with the movie, and not the original world of the first two books. I thought that would annoy me, but the inconsistencies were minor and didn't bother me much. I finished the book way too quickly and I certainly hope he plans to write more Jumper books in the future.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Definition Wars

My last post recommended an essay by Theodore Drange. Although the essay was interesting I was having some trouble agreeing with his definitions of atheism and agnosticism. I prefer the definition described in Matthew's essay here. I thought I would ask Matthew his opinion but there didn't seem to be any contact information. So I decided to e-mail the only other atheist Matthew active online that I know of, Matt Dillahunty, who is president of the Atheist Community of Austin. (Check out their podcasts and videos!)

It ends up they are not the same Matthew, but Matt D. was kind enough to write me a detailed critcism of Drange's essay. I will take the liberty of quoting a small section of his e-mail here with regard to the proposition "God Exists" (ignoring the first option of noncognitivism):

2. The individual accepts the proposition
3. The individual does not accept the proposition.

Note that this does not mean that the individual accepts the contradictory proposition. That proposition is separate. I do not believe that any other option exists. Someone can BE noncommittal, by refusing to state what their position is - but they either accept the proposition or they don't. There is no other option.

So I will continue to use "atheism" to mean "non-theism", because that term is more useful. I also think it is more politically expedient to make atheism an umbrella term including all non-believers.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Agnostic Confusion

If you aren't confused enough yet over the various definitions and flavors of atheism, check out the Wikipedia article on agnosticism. Good stuff! There are strong, weak, apathetic and other kinds of agnostics. I found a great quote there by Bertrand Russell:

As a philosopher, if I were speaking to a purely philosophic audience I should say that I ought to describe myself as an Agnostic, because I do not think that there is a conclusive argument by which one can prove that there is not a God.

On the other hand, if I am to convey the right impression to the ordinary man in the street I think I ought to say that I am an Atheist, because when I say that I cannot prove that there is not a God, I ought to add equally that I cannot prove that there are not the Homeric gods.

I'm glad to see I'm on the same wavelength as him.

The article also has a description of one my favorite labels in this area, "ignosticism." I see that some philosophers think it is impossible to be an ignostic and an atheist or agnostic at the same time. Hmm. The link to Theodore Drange led me to his essay here, which was probably the best discussion of the various challenges in defining these words that I have read yet. I highly recommend it.

Maybe I could rename this blog "that noncognitivist with regard to god-talk guy's blog"!

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Wading In

A few days ago I couldn't help posting part of a previous post as a comment to this post on Scott Adam's Dilbert blog. Other atheists like PZ and Austin have already jumped all over it. Since replying to anyone in the hundreds of comments there is a lost cause I will reply here to the person, "Mark", who wrote the following in response to me:
No, I'd say we're agnostic: we neither believe there is a god nor believe there isn't one. We are without belief. Agnostic. We can
a) remain without belief
b) gain a belief
If we gain a belief, it can be
a) for the "right" god.
b) for the "wrong" god.
c) for no god.
mind you, there are shadings there too.

This reply was referring to my story about people being born atheist, and then choosing to become theist, or remain atheist later in life. Once again people don't realize you can be both atheist and agnostic, and insist on defining the umbrella term of atheism as the specific kind of atheism, called strong atheism. Also Mark's definition of "agnostic" isn't correct, which actually refers to knowledge not belief.

However I wonder if we can be born agnostic, since to be agnostic means to claim you don't have knowledge about something. I don't think babies can do that. But babies can lack belief, and be implicit atheists. It isn't until the person replies "No, I don't think so." in response to a theistic claim that they become explicit atheists, though not necessarily strong atheists.

And before you comment or send e-mails, YES we atheists are changing the meaning of "atheism" as it is commonly used. So what? The whole point of the change is that it makes more sense philosophically and the word becomes more useful. Besides the word has changed in the past. The Romans were calling early Christians "atheists" for crying out loud.


Update: I should have said "correcting" not "changing". See Austin's comment below for clarification.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Quotes - #1

A while ago I got Jack Huberman's book The Quotable Atheist. In this series of blog posts I will give you my favorite quotes from the book (page numbers included). Here we go with the first one:

p. 13
Susan B. Anthony

"I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires."

Monday, August 6, 2007

Born Atheist

I actually did get to the NYC Atheists table on Saturday but I don't think I have enough material for a full report. Instead I will just write the little story I tell to define atheism. I'm often using it because I am arguing with these "militant" agnostics over semantics.

Everyone is born an atheist. How could we not be? We know nothing about any kind of gods or supernatural deities. These atheist babies grow up, learn to talk and start communicating with other people. At some point young people hear a story about a god. If these baby atheists believe the story, they are now theists. If they don't believe the story, they remain atheists. In other words, atheism is the default position.

So many people disagree with this definition. They think atheism is the "faith" that no gods exists. They claim I (and most other self described atheists) are changing the definition. I don't know if we are or not, but it doesn't matter. This basic definition of equating atheism to non-theism is more useful. Making atheism equal so called "strong atheism" makes the word useless.

Anyway, it all depends on the definition of "god" under discussion. First I'm an ignostic. For the purpose of argument over vague descriptions of gods I am an agnostic. For definite god models based on ancient myths I am an atheist.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Atheist FAQ

Hemant asked his readers to contribute answers to a FAQ on atheism. He has now compiled them into a handy list available for download from his site. I like most of the answers, but some of them I would have answered differently. I will put my personal answers to the FAQ here. If there is no change in my answer from Hemant's list, I will put [no change] after it. My personal answers are in bold.

-- Atheist FAQ --

Q1: Why do you not believe in God?

A1: First of all which "God" are you talking about? If you mean Yahweh/Jesus the answer is that I have seen no good evidence for his existence, which is probably the same reason you, if you're a Christian, don't believe in Allah, Brahman, or Zeus. If you mean some other kind of god, first define it, and then I will tell you what I think.

Q2: Where do your morals come from?

A2: A combination of life experience, family, human nature, and the good sense to treat others the way I would like to be treated. [no change]

Q3: What is the meaning of life?

A3: I make my own meanings of which there are many. If you are asking about some kind of ultimate meaning, I have no idea. I also don't really understand the question.

Q4: Is atheism a religion?

A4: How are you defining "religion" here? Usually religion involves worship or ritual centered around something supernatural, in which case atheism is obviously not a religion. Someone once said atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby.

Q5: If you don't pray, what do you do during troubling times?

A5: When it's possible, I try to take action to fix the situation. If that's not an option, I talk to people I trust and hope that things will get better. [no change]

Q6: Should atheists be trying to convince others to stop believing in God?

A6: Yes, but not because of spite or to "ruin the party." We should be encouraging critical thinking and intellectual honesty everywhere we see faith used as an explanation for believing something. [no change]

Q7: Weren't some of the worst atrocities in the 20th century committed by atheists?

A7: Some of them, yes (Stalin was one example). But these people did notcommit their crimes because they were atheists. Rather, the radical political/racist ideologies they held drove them to commit their crimes. [no change]

Q8: How could billions of people be wrong when it comes to belief in God?

A8: Truth is not subject to popular vote, just like the majority of people were once wrong about the Earth being flat or the center of the universe. Much of the reason people believe in some God has to do with their religious upbringing; our beliefs are generally passed down through the generations. [no change]

Q9: Why does the universe exist?

A9: As Peter Atkins said in a debate once, "why" questions assume there was some intention involved, and maybe all "why" questions can be broken down into "how" questions". So your question should be "How did the universe come to exist?" And my answer is: I have no idea!

Q10: How did life originate?

A10: We don't know for sure yet. But the best current theories involve a self replicating molecule (which occurred by chance) that eventually evolved to become more complex through the process of natural selection. [no change]

Q11: Is all religion harmful?

A11: Only in the sense that religious fervor has the potential to become disastrous. By avoiding logic and promoting faith when making our decisions, anything can be justified, good or bad. While there are people who can separate religious beliefs from scientific truths and respect for all people, there are many that cannot. [no change]

Q12: What's so bad about religious moderates?

A12: They teach that faith is a virtue. They use the same reasoning patterns as religious extremists when justifying their beliefs. If faith is all they need to believe, today's moderates could become tomorrow's extremists. [no change]

Q13: Is there anything redeeming about religion?

A13: Religion can be used as a motivator for good. It can be a source of comfort in times of need. It has the ability to bring people together and unite them. It has been the inspiration for much of our world's beautiful music and architecture. However, all of these redeeming qualities can be found outside of religion as well. [no change]

Q14: What if you're wrong about God (and He does exist)?

A14: Again, it depends on which god you are talking about. If Yahweh exists then I'm in trouble, but if Allah exists maybe we are both in trouble. Anyway, I can't force myself to believe something through Pascal's Wager.

Q15: Shouldn't all religious beliefs be respected?

A15: No. Beliefs, ideas, and principles should all be respected based on their own merit. [no change]

Q16: Are atheists smarter than theists?

A16: Not necessarily, and a lot depends on how we are measuring "smarts". However I think most surveys show a correlation between level of education and rates of atheism, not that there aren't very highly educated theists and very stupid atheists. I do have to say in most cases regarding these "big questions" about god(s) and existence, the average atheist is more rational than the average theist. The division in a normally rational and intelligent person's mind between theistic beliefs and rational thought is often referred to as "compartmentalization".

Q17: How do you deal with the historical Jesus if you don’t believe in his divinity?

A17: If he was an actual person (and not an amalgamation of many people), he had some good ideas mixed in with some bad ones. We should be questioning the documents that refer to him, studying how they came to be, and asking ourselves if we would believe the miracles he performed if they happened today. [no change]

Q18: Would the world be better off without any religion?

A18: Only if people stopped behaving the way they currently do because of religion. Other potentially harmful ideologies could take its place. In a nutshell, though, we will always be better off without blind faith and dogma no matter what form they take. [no change]

Q19: What happens when we die?

A19: I assume you are asking about our conscious mind (personality and memories) and not our body, but I don't know if we can even separate the two. I find the idea of eternal life almost as horrifying as oblivion. Is there a third option? I don't have any answers. Maybe you should give cryogenic freezing a shot! Yet we know for sure we are here alive now, so we should make the best of it and try to leave this world a better place before we die.

This list [at least the unchanged bits] was created by the readers at and edited by Hemant Mehta. A full list of responses can be found at:


Only 19 questions? I can't leave it at that. I must think of one more to make it an even 20:

Q20: What does an insomniac agnostic dyslexic do at night?

A20: Lie awake wondering about the existence of dog.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

A Blog Comment

A Google news alert came in today about a new book called A Letter to an Atheist Nation. I did a search for it, but instead found this post here criticizing the Sam Harris book A Letter to a Christian Nation. I couldn't resist responding to it so here is what I wrote:

Hello, Google led me to your blog and it seems like I am the only atheist to have read this post so I will chime in here.

I found a few points to disagree with you in your review of Sam's book. Here we go:

1. You say books like Deuteronomy and Leviticus are irrelevant to the modern Christian life. I think the question Sam is raising is how could a loving god ever promote such barbaric rules in the first place? If Yahweh is perfect, how could he change his mind? It also seems like you are choosing to interpret the word "fulfill" in a non-standard way. To me the plain reading is Jesus came to support those laws. Finally a large portion of Christians still view laws from the Old Testament as very important and use it in support of their anti-homosexual agenda, and idolatry of the ten commandments.

2. Please give a link to your Dawkins quote. I can't find it. From the following article:,473,Lets-Hope-Its-A-Lasting-Vogue,Richard-Dawkins

He did say, "Yet I believe I am correct that not a single one of the 535 members of Congress will admit to the fact. A good many have got to be lying, and who can blame them?"

I would hate to accuse you of fabricating a direct quote, so a link would be appreciated.

3. I'm not sure what to make of your criticism of science changing. That is the whole point of science's built-in self correcting system. And I think Christianity has changed a lot during the past 2000 years. For example modern Christians no longer have slaves, persecute Jews, or burn witches. But as Sam Harris has stated, is this thanks to the religion itself, or outside secular influences?

4. Your quote from 1 Timothy 1:9-11 seems to come from the NIV version of the Bible. The KJV says "menstealers", which are probably those slave traders that kidnap people to sell. Again this is Sam's point, you are cherry picking one dubious quote. You have to admit that the New Testament as a whole is not making any effort to stop slavery.

5. What do you think about your friend's quote about Gandhi?

6. I find it odd that you claim scientific theories like the Big Bang or evolution take faith. I don't have any faith in the Big Bang. There is evidence for it so it seems reasonable, but I am open to future correction. As a skeptic I have to judge each claim based on the evidence for it, and I choose not to believe anything based on faith.

7. Why do you want to believe in two impossible things? I'm not really sure what the point is of your last sentence.

Now to comment on the comments above:

To Joe: I am not going to disagree that some atheists are arrogant jerks. You can find bad apples in any bunch. As you are well aware there are plenty of bad apples among Christians as well. (See those Phelps people protesting at military funerals with posters saying "God Hates Fags". However, don't take criticism for "bashing". I think we should have the right to question all claims and religious ideas should not be exempt from questioning.

I'm not sure what you mean by God not being fair. Isn't fairness a part of justice? Shouldn't a perfect god be perfectly just? If you believe our legal systems have grown out of the moral law written in our hearts by Yahweh, then you should agree that the punishment should fit the crime. Purse snatchers don't get hanged and serial killers don't get fined $100.

To Max: As others have said, if atheism is a faith, then not collecting stamps is a hobby. Atheism is nothing more than the disbelief in god(s). No faith is involved. Does it take faith not to believe in unicorns or fairies? Atheism is the default position. The theist makes a positive claim and must provide evidence to support it. Either you agree and become a theist or you disagree and remain an atheist. Keep in mind I am talking about general atheism as a synonym for non-theism. There are strong atheist who do make positive claims saying no gods exist for which your argument might hold. However I am not one of those atheists and I have not met many so I think they are a minority in the atheist community. Even Dawkins rates himself a "6" on his scale of belief where "1" is a complete 100% sure theist, and a "7" is a complete 100% sure atheist. For most scientists belief is spread on a spectrum from highly likely to highly unlikely.

To Mark: I agree, many atheists are obsessed with god(s). I am one of them. I enjoy discussing theology and different possibilities of existence. These are big questions and it is natural to be curious about them. I certainly don't hate the idea of a god. I think it would be great if a god existed, but I just don't see the evidence for the kind of god described in the Christian religion. I am not sure why you need a god to be humble though. There are plenty of people out there smarter and more able than I so I can certainly be humble about that.

You also said atheists don't like being told what to believe, but isn't that true for anyone? Do you want to be told to believe in Allah or Buddha? Everyone wants to find truth their own way.

Most atheists just want to live in a free society where everyone can believe whatever they like as long as those beliefs don't hurt other people. We are not trying to take away your bibles or churches. However in a public forum such as the Internet expect your views to be challenged. These discussion are not persecution or hate filled attacks. At least, they are not supposed to be, but remember the Internet is full of fanatics of all flavors!

I edited one grammatical typo since copying my comment to my blog here, but there are probably more!

Monday, July 30, 2007

Those Muggle Atheists

I can't help writing another post about Harry Potter. B's comment in the last one started me wondering if there are any atheists in the Potterverse. I could understand being a muggle atheist, but could you be an atheist wizard? I imagine those old invisible pink unicorn arguments falling flat when you have a bunch of thestrals running around. And uh, real unicorns too. Plus a whole slew of other supernatural creatures.

Jesus Christ: Liar, Lunatic, or... Leprechaun?

Friday, July 27, 2007

To Catch An Atheist

Tonight on Dateline NBC we'll be investigating men and women who gather online to promote their atheist dogma. We rented this house in Lynchburg Virginia to see how many of these atheists we could catch in our web. Actors trained to pose as famous atheists go online to various chat rooms looking for blasphemers.

The first man to come that day was a 37 year old software developer Frank Smith who drove over 200 miles to meet our famous atheist alone here in this house. Online he was calling himself "Ultimate747" and claimed he was a 21 year old college philosophy major.

Chris Hansen: Hi there, what brings you here today?

Smith: What? Uh... who are you?

Hansen: We'll get to that later. I have copies of your chat transcript here. Why would a grown man like yourself be interested in driving over 200 miles to discuss the problem of evil?

Smith: Is Professor Dawkins here? I thought he was going to meet me.

Hansen: Oh, you were planning to meet Richard Dawkins? Have you met other atheists before?

Smith: No. Well, not really, I...

Hansen: Because it says here you often meet up with other atheists. By the way, what's in your bag?

Smith: Um, I just brought some books. (laughs nervously)

Hansen: (looking at the books) The God Delusion? The End of Faith? Do you have any idea how this looks?

Smith: I wasn't going to do anything crazy. I was hoping he could sign his book and maybe we could have a beer.

Hansen: So you brought alcohol too? Well, I should tell you I'm Chris Hansen with Dateline NBC and we are doing a show on atheists meeting online. Now you are free to go, but if you have anything you want to say, we'd like to hear it.

Smith didn't have much to say then but we had our crack team of evangelical preachers waiting outside ready to save his soul.

(Video of Smith being tackled outside by burly men carrying Bibles.)

I'm Chris Hansen, from all of us here at Dateline, goodnight and God bless.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

More Labels!

As you might know from reading this old post and this old post I love labels and semantics. I can't get enough of those atheist forum flame wars over definitions of the various labels out there. Google alerts sent me the link to this guy's blog post. I've never even heard of some of those. Good stuff!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Harry Potter and The Atheist Table

It was a beautiful Saturday perfect for a relaxing afternoon at the atheist table. However Harry Potter prevented that. Yes, I had to stay home and finish reading the final installment which, if you happen to be living under a rock, came out on Saturday at 12:01 AM. Because of my voracious blog and forum reading habits I had to get it done quick before the Internets ruined the ending for me. I was in Web blackout mode for most of the weekend.

I did happen to pass some bookstores on the way home Friday night. (Specifically Saturday morning around 12:30 AM.) I was returning from a gathering of fellow atheists who enjoy drinking alcohol and eating bacon apparently. Anyway, I figured things would have calmed down by 12:30 and I could just waltz in a pick up a copy but there was no chance of that. Lines stretched around the block for both the local Barnes and Noble and the little Mom & Pop bookshop. There were even potter-heads sitting on the sidewalk reading under the street lamps. Forget that!

The next morning I stopped by the bookstore again. No lines! It wasn't even sold out. Sheesh. I'm glad I didn't waste time reserving a copy online or waiting in line all night.

To make this post somewhat atheism and/or religion related I have to comment on all the bizarre Christian protests against these books. Hasn't anyone noticed the yearly Christmas celebrations at the Hogwarts school?! I think we should have an atheist War on Christmas at Hogwarts. Someone has to stand up for all those poor young atheist wizards and witches suffering under all the Christian propaganda that is plastered all over Hogwarts school every December. What about Kwanzaa and Festivus? So much for multiculturalism in the wizarding world. I even heard about a poll showing people would rather vote for a house elf to be the Minister of Magic over an atheist.

For more on Harry Potter from an atheist's view point, check out The Friendly Atheist.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

CFI Movie Night

CFI sponsored a screening of Jonathan Miller's excellent documentary A Brief History of Disbelief last Friday. It is finally being broadcast on the local PBS station channel 13 WNET. It was good to see it with fellow infidels, but the after viewing discussion kind of fell flat mostly due to the layout of the room. Most of the atheist cats quickly skedaddled.

One person passed me some odd documents for some kind of organization. I have no idea what the documents say because every time I try to read a paragraph my brain shuts down. Of course they have a web site, so you can see for yourself. (The animated GIFs tell you it's a real classy operation!) If I had known how bizarre the papers were upon receipt I would have quizzed the person in more detail.

The 2nd and 3rd parts of Miller's documentary will be shown the next two Sundays on Ch. 13.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Cosmic Taxonomy

A previous post of mine has been superseded by an excellent article in Skeptic Magazine (vol. 13 no. 2) by Robert Lawrence Kuhn. Not only does he outline a taxonomy of different kinds of gods, but he also describes different kinds of godless material universes including illusory ones. Lucky for us the article is currently available for download [PDF link]. If that link has died, send me an e-mail and I'll send you a copy.

I'm not sure where some of my ideas would fit into his taxonomy (especially 3, 4, and 5) but his list seems exhaustive. Can you think of any other possibilities?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

I'm melting!

I was away for the 4th of July holiday (holiday = holy day you know), and various events have been keeping me away from blogging. It is also very hot. We atheists don't like the heat. I am feeling very lethargic. I hope Hell really doesn't exist because I hear it is hot there!

I am also way behind on reading my blog roll. Stop posting so much people! I can't keep up. Oh Internet, why do you have to be so interesting and full of fun?

Actually I might have to change this blog's name since I have found evidence that some kind of god exists. Here it is:

Planet Unicorn!

My God, it's full of stars...

Friday, June 29, 2007

Don't Make Me Stop The Car!

The atheists are bickering again. I side with PZ, since he is always right. The mind controlling squid attached to my brain stem agrees with me.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Is Atheism a Religion?

The standard replies:

"If atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby."
"If atheism is a religion, then baldness is a hair color."

Those replies are good, but I like the following one better. I'm not sure where I came across it, but I think it was from something Austin Cline wrote. I can't find the exact source.

"If you think atheism is a religion, do you think 'theism' is a religion too?"

What are the religious doctrines of "theism"? It doesn't make sense to call theism or atheism religions. It's like saying "communism" is a country.

Monday, June 25, 2007

NYC Atheists Table Report #3

This past Saturday I was at the table again, but only for a couple of hours. It was another beautiful day, pleasantly warm and dry. However for purposes of writing an exciting report, it was another boring day.

The main characters are:

The Reasonable Catholic and The Dude to his Right
The Blessing Lady
Yet Another Atheist

So once again most of the people coming up to the table were supportive of our cause. What's our cause again? There are a few: total separation of church and state, removing negative stereotypes of atheists, and inviting other atheists to join the organization.

The first interesting character was The Reasonable Catholic. He was very interesting to talk with and seemed quite open minded. Actually I think we agreed on a lot, so I wasn't sure what part of Catholic doctrine he actually believed in. He had to leave so I didn't get to ask him if he really believed in transubstantiation, or the literal resurrection of Jesus, etc. We did talk about the possibility of a universal moral law.

My idea is that maybe life in general, when it evolves into social beings like us tends to converge onto certain set principles. So aliens somewhere else might also think murder is bad, and helping others is good. Of course I don't know this for sure, or necessarily believe it. It's just an idea. He saw that converging as evidence of a driving force, ie. a god. I saw it as a natural emergent phenomenon. (If it even exists.) However, he was even open to the idea that a god may exist that is completely unlike any of the gods various religions have proposed. In the end I couldn't really figure out why this guy was associating himself with the Catholic church. Maybe I'll get a chance to talk to him in the future.

The Dude to his Right was just that. I wasn't sure if he was a Christian too, but he seemed to have some crucifix around his neck. I didn't get a good look at it. He didn't say much, but also seemed like a reasonable guy.

How boring for my report!

The Blessing Lady is a common character type. She swoops in, says some random religious utterance, and zips away. I think this one said, "I just wanted to let you all know that God blesses you and I'm praying for you." I think she made some kind of cross sign to by chopping her hand in a karate like fashion. I was kind of busy talking to this other person, and everyone else pretty much ignored her. I'm not sure what these kinds of people get out of saying these things. Does she really think she accomplished something? If I had a chance to reply to her I would have asked:

"Are you saying you can tell Yahweh what to do? You can tell him to bless us?"
"How does this "blessing" work? Is it like a good luck charm? What effect does it have on an atheist like me?"
"What are you praying for? Are you saying you can persuade Yahweh to do something? Doesn't that seem odd?"

Dan Barker said his snappy comeback to the often heard "I'm praying for you", is to say, "Then I'll think for the both of us." I'm not sure if I like that one so much. I rather ask what people mean since I have a feeling they just chant these sayings without thinking about their meanings.

I finally had a nice chat with Yet Another Atheist. I will need to shorten that to YAA since there are so many of them here in NYC. We agreed a lot on many topics, which again, does not make for an interesting post, so I will end here.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Good Bumper Sticker #2

"Blasphemy is a Victimless Crime"

What's with the picture you ask? I had to upload something here to get a profile image, so there you go. Supposedly people only read posts with images so maybe I should do this every time. That sounds like too much work to me!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Calm and Cool Sam Harris

I love hearing Sam Harris debate. He's always very calm, slowly advancing on his opponents like the Terminator to surgically eviscerate them in a nice and friendly way. He never gets angry, unlike that Jesus chap who cursed a fig tree.

There is a great debate with Sam Harris available now at Truthdig. Although the moderator clearly takes the side of Sam's foe, Chris Hedges, in my entirely biased opinion I think Sam consistently beat Chris throughout the debate, while Chris went barking up trees Sam never climbed. Here's the text from one of my favorite bits, Sam's closing statement:

It seems to me we could have been having this conversation 500 years ago. Life was difficult 500 years ago, there was a lot of despair, crops failed, and disease spread, people suffered just instantaneous and catastrophic changes in their fortune. And the cause of all this was well understood 500 years ago. It was witchcraft. And happily the church had produced some very energetic men who had the gumption to deal with this problem. So every year, some hundreds and sometimes thousands of women were burned alive for casting spells on their neighbors.

Now imagine what it would be like to be among the five or ten percent of people at most, who recognized that the very belief in magic, the very belief in witchcraft, the very belief in good witches or bad witches was a malignant fantasy. The white witches who were helping people with medicinal herbs and practicing midwifery, they were on no firmer ground than the black witches who were casting the evil eye. The whole belief system was at fault. Imagine the kind of criticism you are going to get: "No no, your problem is just with fundamentalist witchcraft. The reality is that witchcraft is far more nuanced than that. There's no conflict between science and witchcraft. Science deals with physical law and physical causality, but witchcraft deals with potent spells and the internal connections between things."

This idea that somehow we shouldn't call into question these patently bad ideas for fear of offending people, for fear of glossing over their despair, for fear of not criticising other problems in the world. I would never argue that religion is the only problem in the world, or the only source of human conflict, but it is a source, and we are mightily attached to it, emotionally attached to it. And we are loath to criticize it even when it is declaring its ugliest intentions and its ugliest certainties. The problem with the Bible is however you pick and choose, whether you're a literalist or a selective literalist, the problem is there is just a mountain of divisive nonsense in there. And that's where people get ideas about homosexuality being an abomination, and why our country in the 21st century debates gay marriage as though it were the great moral issue of our time. This is coming from religion. And it seems to me that
it's time we had an honest conversation about it.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A Good Bumper Sticker

"Jesus loves you, but I'm his favorite."

If a benevolent god really does exist, I am sure he loves atheists the best, because she is actually one of us. Yep, God is an atheist! THE Atheist!

Monday, June 18, 2007


I love labels and categories. I'm not one of those people saying, "I don't like labeling myself, blah blah blah." I find that attitude to be pretentious. Of course you can label people. And there are always gray areas which provide fuel for discussion. (Like the "Jewish atheist", is he still Jewish? Yes, no, maybe?) Anyway, how many labels related to atheism can I apply to myself? If you include the different flavors of atheism, and other euphemistic terms, there are a lot!

  • agnostic atheist
  • weak atheist
  • explicit atheist
  • non-theist
  • anti-theist
  • ignostic
  • skeptic
  • free-thinker
  • secular humanist
  • bright
  • naturalist
  • pastafarian
  • occasional pantheist
  • post-christian
  • lapsed zen buddhist
  • confused monist
  • transhumanist

Yes, I was being silly on some of those, and some only apply in certain contexts. For example, I am only anti-theistic in certain cases. I might have missed some, but if I think of any later I'll update the list.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

NYC Atheists Table Report #2

I missed all the fun today because I got to the table late. Then it started to rain, so not many people were coming up to talk to us. We were nice and dry under our atheist canopy. I was there for almost two hours, and nobody interesting enough to write about came around during that time. There were just a lot of folks who liked what we were doing and offering words of support. How dull!

One of my atheist comrades mentioned some crazy dude earlier in the day making a ruckus. I heard he was yelling some nonsense at the group. I also heard that the loud father from last week was back handing out leaflets across the street. Nobody got a look at the leaflets, and I guess he didn't come to the table again.

This boring entry probably doesn't even deserve a numbered report title. I'll try to get there earlier next time.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Polytheism or Monotheism?

Hinduism is usually the poster-boy for polytheistic religions, but from a class I took in college we learned that actually all those gods with multiple arms and elephant heads really sprung from a single one god, called Brahman.

Now Christianity is usually considered to be Monotheistic. But then you learn it has a triune god, plus lots of angels and in the Catholic flavor, saints with super powers! (I heard St. Nicholas, aka. Santa Claus, was actually more powerful than Jesus in terms of raw miraculous razzle dazzle.) Well, that sure sounds polytheistic to me!

Then there is the standard assumption when you study world history that the progression from religions with many gods to one god was some kind of progress up the "evolutionary" ladder of civilizations. Obviously we should continue that progression from one to zero!

Saturday, June 9, 2007

NYC Atheists Table Report #1

I'm a member of the local NYC Atheists. In the summer we set up a table on the street to interact with the public. We give out our newsletter, sign up people to our mailing list, and answer questions. We take a passive approach, so we aren't getting in people's faces pushing pamphlets on them or yelling at anyone. Mostly you would find us relaxing on folding chairs behind the two tables under a canopy. Here's some older photographs of the setup to give you an idea of what it's like.

I was inspired to write a report about this event from Abe's Atheventures which used to be posted on the Internet Infidels web forum. Abe would stand near a church holding a sign saying something like "God is Fake" and then write amusing reports of the hilarity which ensued. Since our table is in the Sodom of America, New York City, and not in front of a church, and we aren't holding such provocative signs my "atheventure" is pretty dull compared to Abe's. Here's a link to Abe's first report. If you click on his name, this link should help you find the rest. (You may need to be a registered user.) He wrote 38 in total!

Despite the lack of fireworks in my report, (I haven't been punched yet!) I wanted to get into the habit of writing this report so I figured I'd start now. I hope Abe won't mind if I copy his format:

The main characters are:

The militant agnostic.
The mystic atheist.
The loud father.
The spooky Christian CIA agent.
The NBC crew.

I arrived at the table around 2 PM, on this blustery partly sunny day. It was hot at first, but under the shade of the skyscraper and with the wind it got uncomfortably cold later in the day. They usually set up the table around 11 AM or so and pack up around 6 PM. I greeted the usual gang of atheists there and settled in for another fun day of tabling.

This being NYC, 90% of the people coming up to the table supported us. These smiling infidels happily take our newsletter and sign up on the e-mail list. Others simply fly by in a rush giving a thumbs up, or yelling "yeah!". Although these positive interactions are gratifying, they don't make for an interesting report, so lets get to our first character.

The militant agnostic comes up and immediately takes issue with the slogan on our newsletter, "atheism is a conclusion not a belief." He insisted that atheism is the positive belief that no gods exist. I tried to explain the standard definition used by most atheists, but he wasn't buying it. Then he got touchy because some of our more enthusiastic members were talking over him. "Don't interrupt me!" he said. I think I got him to calm down and make his case in peace. In the end I basically agreed with him, and tried to say we only conflicted on the small semantic point. But then the mystic atheist pulled up on his bicycle.

This guy loved us. He quickly drove off the militant agnostic with his loud argumentative style. Sometimes we get in the situation where an atheist supporter from the crowd ends up causing us more trouble. Anyway, I call the guy on the bike a "mystic" because he started talking about some Indians somewhere taking mushrooms or something and blah blah blah. I couldn't really pay attention. I advised him to go read Sam Harris who I think likes some of the mystical stuff (grounded in neuroscience of course.)

Later the loud father shows up with his two kids. I think he was Puerto Rican since he and his family were all decked out with the Puerto Rican flag. (Tomorrow is the Puerto Rican Day parade here in NYC, so I guess they were getting prepared.) This guy was one of the hardest types to deal with. I call them dive bombers. They swoop by the table yelling something like "read the Bible!" and then zoom away never giving you the chance to respond. He seemed pretty excitable to, and his arms were covered in weird leprous bumps so I didn't want to engage with him very closely. Another member of our group did and I overheard them arguing about Young Earth Creationism.

During this craziness there was this spooky looking guy sitting a little ways away from the table staring at us. Sometimes he took pictures, but he never approached or said anything. After a while I couldn't resist and sauntered up to him:

Me: Hiya doing there.
Spooky Christian CIA Agent: Hi
Me: That camera looks nice, what brand is it?
Me: Uh..., are you OK, you seem a little standoffish.
Me: (Gesturing to our table) I guess you are on the other side of the fence from us, eh?
Me: Are you Christian?
Me: Well, why don't you come chat with us?
SCCIAA: Because you're against us.
Me: We're not against you! We are just promoting separation of church and state. Everyone should be free to believe whatever they want as long as they don't harm others.
Me: Er... OK, well have a good day. (I walk away.)

Looking back I screwed up the encounter pretty bad. I should have approached him with different questions, and at least get him to open up a bit. I could have asked him why he though we were against him instead of immediately contradicting him, or ask more about his beliefs etc. I'd make a horrible politician or diplomat. Well, it was a learning experience and maybe next time I could approach it differently. But the dude was pretty scary! He had this cold stony expression and really seemed to hate me. If he wasn't so clean cut and well dressed I would have really been freaked out. Why was he taking all those pictures too? I wonder if he's in some kind of fanatic Christian terrorist cell and now my house is going to be firebombed!

There were other negative reactions of course, but most of them don't engage with us directly. Some just scowl as they walk by, or spit out "God bless you" making it sound like a curse. Others stare at our sign as if they never heard of atheists before, and then walk away shaking their heads.

Finally there was the NBC crew, which really was a film crew from NBC. They were actually there for much of the afternoon filming and interviewing us, and also interviewing people who came up to the table. I don't think it was for a specific show, but just a generic report that might or might not be picked up by either a local NBC news show, or some other report on NBC. Nothing really interesting happened with them. I think they were disappointed that we weren't being more aggressive with our atheistic propaganda so they could get some real conflict going for their taping.

At around 6 PM we packed up and went home! So nothing really exciting happened this time. I should have wrote a report like this last year for the dozen or so times I did the tabling. Better late than never I guess.

Friday, June 8, 2007

The Church of All Possible Gods

I think it's fun to think of different kinds of gods. The standard omnimax monotheistic god is boring and illogical. Here are some examples of new interesting god types:

1. God doesn't exist... yet! Life in the multiverse is evolving to some final god form that is very powerful and very smart, but not necessarily omnimax. (See Tipler's Omega Point idea for a similar scenario.)

2. The universe itself is "god", aka. pantheism. Is this god intelligent? Who knows?

3. The Deists are right, but instead of a god setting the clockwork universe in motion and stepping back, the entire time-space continuum is created at once by this god. The pattern of energy and matter from the past to the future is just a cat's cradle between this entity's fingers.

4. You are a god! So am I. In fact we are all the same god who became us and decided to forget about it. When we die we will remember this nutty adventure and our true form.

5. A god exists who created our universe, but there is a super-god that created him. Who made the super-god? Why it's gods all the way up of course!

6. Some god (or god-like alien?) going about its business ends up creating the universe by accident. Oops! Unfortunately it doesn't know what's going on down here. I hope he doesn't re-boot or mop up the spill!

Hey, wait, you ask, where did all these gods come from? (Or in the case of #1 and #2, the universe itself.) I guess they could evolved from simpler forms, but where do those simpler forms come from? Maybe some kind of time-loop allowed the universe/god to cause it's own creation. (See Terminator 2, or Stephen Baxter's The Time Ships).

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Why do you hate God?

It seems like atheists are asked that question often. As if they believed in some god enough to actually hate it. First I always ask back, "which god are you talking about?" (It's usually Yahweh/Jesus.) I think that's a good question to ask in response to most questions about "God". Note the capital "G" implies a particular god that the target of the question is assumed to know.

Another common criticism of atheists is that we are always talking about gods! How ironic! I suppose a certain segment of atheists really do have some kind of hate or obsession to the idea they were brought up with. They feel traumatized and feel the need to get some kind of revenge. I was never raised religious so it's hard for me to relate to that. I do enjoy discussing ideas of god, cosmology, and philosophy, but not all my discussions with atheists are about those things. Sometimes we talk about mundane things like TV shows, or the lowest form of conversation: gossiping about other atheists. Very sinful indeed.

One final point I like to make to theists, is that I really do wish some kind of god did exist! I'm certainly not against the idea. I'd love for there to be some kind of cosmic justice to punish the wicked, or some kind of afterlife. Sounds good! I'm not sure I would go for the Christian god though. Yahweh is kind of a nasty character, and despite Jesus's good points he did introduce us to the idea of eternal torture. But my wish for a nice god isn't going to cause me to actually believe in it. My brain doesn't work that way. Heck, it would be great if Santa Claus existed too, or Superman for that matter. Humanity is in dire need of a true god to fix things up. Since we have no evidence of a cosmic helper coming anytime soon, we should get our act together ourselves. So stop killing each other and messing up the ecosystem!

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

What's an atheist?

I know many of you want to use the common definition of "atheist" being someone who has faith there is no God, but that isn't a very useful definition since hardly any of those people exist. An "atheist" is simply a non-theist. If you don't have an active belief in a god or gods, you are an atheist. So really "atheist" should be an umbrella term including agnostics, ignostics, and various other flavors of non-belief. Google Alerts sent me this little article which explains it well.

Heck, maybe there is something we would be justified calling "god", but if such an entity exists I would guess it's completely unlike anything our world's religions or philosophers have ever made up. So you can call me either a "weak atheist", or an "agnostic atheist", or an "ignostic". The first two because I haven't seen any good evidence for any entities deserving the label "god", and the last one because I really don't have a good idea what "god" is supposed to mean anyway. Can you define it clearly?

Friday, June 1, 2007

Nice Quote

Man, I tried this blogging thing once and I couldn't keep up with it. Here I go again! I'll try to keep posts short, so maybe I won't feel like it's too much work.

So the main topic is atheism and all the related topics that go along with that. Actually this blog has a more specific goal, but that hasn't happened yet. I'll let you know when it does. For now here is a nice quote by Dale McGowan, who edited the book Parenting Beyond Belief.

What do you believe in? This natural universe is all there is.
We are all made of the same material as the stars, but unlike most of the stuff in the universe, we have the astonishing good fortune to be conscious for a short while. We should never stop dancing and singing in the face of that magnificent luck. We are cosmically insignificant, inconceivably unimportant — except to each other, to whom we should therefore be unspeakably precious.