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.