I Once Was Lost (About 30 Minutes Ago)

13 Aug

Should have brought the sat nav.

My family and I moved into a new house about two weeks ago.  We bought a small home in a quiet, established area with tall trees, lawn-obsessed neighbors, and their hilarious Yorkshire terrier that cowers in fright every time he sees you ambling down the sidewalk. One of my son’s favorite new things to do is to take an evening “walk” around our neighborhood.  This typically includes him zooming down the sidewalks on his Buzz Lightyear bicycle, stopping at corners and looking behind as he waits for my husband and I to catch up.  We play at this for about half an hour and then head home.

Tonight, however, my husband said he wanted to get some unpacking done and some pictures on hung on the walls so I volunteered to go on the walk with my son.  Alone.  Everything was going along pleasantly for the first part of the trip.  He was doing a great job of following directions… not getting too far ahead, stopping at every corner to wait.  There was a pleasant breeze and the smell of someone’s dinner just off the backyard grill. I was enjoying myself so much that I zoned out for a few moments and stopped paying attention to what street we were on or how many turns we had made.

You can guess what happened next.  I stopped at a stop sign, looked around to try and get my bearings and realized… I was lost.  Okay, well maybe not exactly lost but definitely turned around.

I have a rather keen since of direction.  I’ve traveled, seen a bit of the world, and have gotten turned around in some unfamiliar cities (Yes, I’m talking about you, Dublin). Usually it is no big deal, because usually I’m not alone.

The sun was setting, and as I wandered I noticed it growing darker.  Soon, the cars that passed us by all had their headlights on. Lawn sprinklers on automatic timers suddenly burst to life. My son, though thrilled to still be outside at such a time (and even more thrilled with the lawn sprinklers) soon began to repeat the same expectant question.  Mommy, are we lost?

The first thing that came to my mind when I realized that I actually might not be able to get us home on my own was that surely my husband would notice it getting dark and wonder what happened.  He’d get in his car and drive around the neighborhood until he found us.  He’d definitely do that.  Right?

I needed someone to come bail me out of my mess.  I needed a savior.

And when you stop and think about it, isn’t that life in microcosm?  It is a big, scary world that doesn’t seem to make much sense.  It is terrifying to think about making the wrong turn, taking the wrong job, marrying the wrong spouse, selecting the wrong financial investment. This holds especially true if you, like me, were raised to have little confidence in your own decision-making abilities.  Add to that the fact that so much of life is out of our control anyway.  Sometimes, it doesn’t matter what decisions or choices you make.  Things inexplicably happen and you have to find a way to deal.

With so many ways to go wrong, get lost, or just plain fuck up… it is easy to see at least part of theism’s appeal.  We all want to think that there is a guiding force that is acting on our behalf.  I was speaking with a coworker last week.  She was having some electrical work done on her home.  The wiring was in such need of repair that after looking at the home the electrician told her he couldn’t believe the place had not yet burned down. “I must have angels watching over me,” she said.  I thought that she should try telling that to all of the people who have lost everything (including love ones) in home fires and see what they have to say about angels.

But even I wanted to believe that someone was out there looking for me as I wandered in the half-dark.  Turns out I wasn’t lost.  Not really.  I started trying to make turns only going East toward the main road through our neighborhood and even though I didn’t initially recognize any of the street names, I soon found myself back on the same street I’d started from about three or four blocks down from my house.

So, what say you, reader?  Do you think it is ingrained in our very nature to call upon divine help even when there is no evidence that it ever works? Is the human need to make sense of an impersonal, random and senseless universe so overwhelming that we will literally make up a Sky Helper to whom we appeal? Let me know your thoughts.

And next time I take a walk, I’m just going to bring my iPhone.  Seriously.  Who gets lost in suburbia these days?

Amaz!ng: My Adventures at TAM 9

22 Jul

I recently returned from The Amaz!ng Meeting 9 in Las Vegas, Nevada. This aptly named event is an annual gathering of the greatest minds and personalities in the skeptical and atheist movements. I felt privileged to be among the 1650 people in attendance and one of many there as the result of a grant. As a matter of fact, I attended the largest TAM ever, with more women in attendance than ever, with approximately (if my memory is correct) over forty of us with the assistance of various grants.

In reflecting on my adventures and trying to decide how to communicate them to friends and readers, I decided that the way to do it would to be to provide a “best of.” So, here it is.

Best Picture

The Amazing James Randi, Founder of the JREF and Host of TAM

James Randi is an incredible presence.  He was kind and accessible.  Shortly after stopping for this photo, he looked me in the eye (yes, at eye level) and said  “Now go learn something.”  So I did.

Most Inspirational

Neil deGrasse Tyson, Keynote Speaker

When I saw that deGrasse Tyson was going to be the keynote speaker at TAM this year, I knew I wouldn’t want to miss it.  He is such an amazing spokesperson and advocate for science.  His keynote speech was about the consequences of living in a society where science literacy is not given priority and let me tell you… it fired me up.  He spoke eloquently about how the United States is falling behind.  He gave examples from his own personal experiences as well as from recent events where people were harmed or progress unachieved due to a lack of science and critical thinking.  The wonderful thing is that he did it all hilariously.  He was so knowledgeable, funny, and down to earth.  In my opinion, deGrasse Tyson is exactly the kind of spokesperson science and skepticism needs and it was an honor to hear him speak.

Best Surprise

Richard Wiseman, Social Psychologist and author of Paranormality

I wasn’t going to hear Wiseman’s 30 minute talk.  I didn’t even put it on the TAM9 app I used as my schedule.  His talk was sandwiched between a talk by Elizabeth Loftus on the fallibility of memory (which I really wanted to attend) and the buffet lunch (which I also really wanted to attend).  I figured half an hour was too little time to do much else, so I decided to sit through his talk. I am so glad I didn’t miss it.  He talked about perception errors, deception, and of course his book.  He played video of people who believed they could walk over hot coals simply by meditating.  He played songs while priming our brains to hear silly lyrics. I was laughing so hard the entire time that I frankly don’t remember much else.  No exaggeration. For half an hour, Richard Wiseman owned that room. So smitten was I that when his presentation concluded, I rushed out of the conference center to get his book in hopes of having it signed.  Apparently, I wasn’t the only one impressed because his book sold out in minutes and all I was left with was the stupid buffet lunch.  Not to worry.  There is his blog, his YouTube channel, and future TAMs (click the link above).  I know who you are now, Professor Wiseman.  Having learned my lesson, you will be on my schedule for next year.

Best Fan Girl Moments

It took me all of Thursday and Friday to get up my confidence to actually start approaching some of the people I had come there to hear.

Bob Novella and the rest of the team from The Skeptics Guide to the Universe opened up the conference on Friday morning with a live recording of the SGU.  There, Bob recounted his trip to see the final launch of the space shuttle.  This episode of SGU hasn’t yet aired, so I won’t go into any more detail.  Later on, I spotted him at the SGU table and asked for a picture. He graciously obliged.  And as an added bonus, check out the background over my left shoulder.  TA DA!  There is Dr. Steve Novella!  Two Novellas for the price of one.  And then Jay Novella tried to sell me a t-shirt.  Count the Novellas.  That makes three. It was pretty awesome.

BONUS: Richard Dawkins.  After enjoying his appearance as “special guest” at TAM, I queued for the book signing.  No surprise, Richard Dawkins and his staff comprise a book-signing machine.  With my personal copy of The Greatest Show on Earth in hand, I quickly made my way through the queue and stood there just long enough to get this picture.  Yeah!

Next Year: Dreams for TAM X

My dream for next year is to return and to bring my husband and my little skepling.  During Richard Dawkins’ talk, he said that his foundation would be assisting with childcare during future conferences.  In addition to cost, childcare was a major factor in my initial decision to not attend.  I just didn’t think I could manage it.  If my husband would have come along, then we would have had to take turns watching our son, never getting to attend any of the events together. Let’s make it as easy as possible for skeptical moms and dads to attend.

Overall, it was a fantastic four days.  I can’t wait to attend future TAMs.  Thanks again to the incredible ladies at Surly Ramics and Women Thinking Free for helping me get there.

I’ll leave you all, dear readers, with words of advice from the Amazing Randi.

Now.  Go learn something.

Fancy a Yarn?

9 Jun

Boo! And when you wake up, can you ask the nurse for extra jello?

 

Being a vocal skeptic can be challenging, but it can also be a lot of fun.  Believers will sometimes present me with stories of the strange and the supernatural either to gauge my reaction or to try and get me to concede that their story is evidence for whatever belief they are trying to sell. Truly, I don’t mind.  I like these stories.  They are sometimes spooky or thought provoking.  More importantly, they help me to flex my critical thinking muscles. I like to crank up my bullshit detector and ask plenty of questions.  I am confounded by the complete lack of skepticism with which these stories are accepted as true or as evidence in the supernatural.  In every experience I’ve had, the believer telling the story has overlooked or rejected natural explanations of the occurrence in favor of a supernatural explanation.  One, by the way, which always confirms the storyteller’s already deeply-rooted belief system.

Take for example a story that was told to me a few weeks ago by a believer.  The person relating the story to me is a professed christian and someone who believes in a life after death.  The concept of life after death is something most skeptics and atheists reject based on (among other things) lack of sufficient evidence and lack of a plausible mechanism (how can your consciousness carry on after your physical brain is no longer functioning?).

A girl who lost her father at a young age has grown into a young woman.  One day she accidentally falls, suffering a traumatic brain injury.  She is unconscious for a time and wakes up in the hospital surrounded by family members.  She claims that her father was there and that he was speaking to her.  He was saying that he would not leave her side and that he would take care of her.  Her astonished family then reveals to her that she has been staying in the exact hospital room where her father died many years before.

Now, please keep in mind that this story was told to me in the context of “Ah HA! Silly atheist! There is life after death!  How can you deny it now when clearly there is such compelling evidence!” Also keep in mind that responding critically to such a story put me in an unfortunate position.  If I ask questions and point out that the story probably does not mean that there is life or consciousness after death, I risk coming off as quite insensitive.  After all, this poor girl has not had an easy time of it.  She is dealing with some sort of brain trauma as well as feelings about losing her father.

So, in keeping with cupcakiness I asked some questions. When did her father die?  What sort of brain injury did she suffer? What parts of the brain were affected? How long was she unconscious? Then I began to think things through.

Early Childhood Loss: I’m not sure what losing a parent will do to someone.  I’ve never experienced it myself, but it seems reasonable that such an experience at a young age would have life-long impact.

Brain Injury: She suffered a head injury, which means that her brain function was likely impaired.  This means that she might have experienced or imagined things while unconscious that didn’t really occur. Neuroscience has repeatedly shown that our perceptions of what we experience can be dramatically altered by things like magnetic pulses, pharmaceuticals, sleep deprivation, and of course brain injury.  It is far more likely that her experiencing the presence of her father is the result of brain function and not that she was actually hearing the voice of a dead person.

Social Conditioning: I’m not sure what religion the young girl was brought up with, but what is clear is that she was raised in a culture where the duality of the body and the soul is widely accepted.  She was raised around people who believe that a soul succeeds you after your body dies and goes… well… somewhere.

Verdict: Her experience was most likely the combined result of her early childhood loss, her brain injury, and her social conditioning.  One thing that does seem odd is that she was in the same hospital room as her father.  I’m doubtful of this because it seems far too coincidental and plays too nicely into the punchline (Ah HA!  Silly Atheist!) of the story.  However, let’s concede that it was the exact same hospital room that her father was in.  What would that mean?  Surely the hospital has undergone some changes in the past 15 or 20 years?  The room isn’t in the exact condition as when her father stayed there.  Is the implication then that her father’s spirit or soul resides there permanently?  Have any of the other patients in the hospital experienced contact from her father?  I think the option that requires the least number of crazy assumptions is that hospitals have a limited number of beds.  Either that part of the story is a fabrication or simply coincidental.

I would categorize this story with many of the other “near death” experience stories I’ve read or heard.  The operative term here is “near.”  The brain is still functioning, but in an impaired state.   I don’t feel like the story goes very far in arguing a case for life after death or the existence of the soul. Like most ghost stories, if you are looking for a supernatural explanation you are absolutely going to find one.

However, if you turn on your bullshit detector and you try to rule out all possibility of a natural explanation usually you find that a supernatural explanation is unnecessary, implausible, and requires far too many assumptions to be reasonable.

Do you have any great stories of the paranormal or supernatural that you’d like to share? Comment here or you can always email me at cupcakeatheist@yahoo.com

 

Lazy Atheist

1 Jun

Somebody should really spank me.  Kidding.  Maybe.

Seriously, though.  I have been very lazy and neglectful with this blog.  I was rolling along just fine for a while and goodness knows the religious whackaloons don’t give me any shortage of material.  Maybe it was boredom. Or laziness. Or the feeling that I’m such a small voice in a big, crazy world.  I think maybe everyone trying to establish or maintain an online presence has at some point in time battled feelings of irrelevance.

I needed inspiration.  I needed Damon Fowler and Jessica Ahlquist.

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts this week The Non-Prophets supported by the fine folks over at the Atheist Community of Austin.  They interviewed two teenagers who against all odds are standing up for the separation of church and state provided for us in the Constitution.  I had been keeping up with their stories, but hearing their own voices speak out on that podcast was a revelation.

In case you aren’t aware of their stories, I’ll briefly try to summarize.  Damon just graduated from high school in Bastrop, Louisiana.  He sent an email to school administrators stating that if a Christian prayer was recited at graduation, he would file a complaint with the ACLU.  My understanding of the situation is that the school was further informed of the illegality of the Christian graduation prayer.  Word got out that Damon, an atheist, set the wheels in motion for the prayer to be removed.  The slackjawed mouthbreathers of Bastrop, LA bullied and threatened Damon.  His own parents kicked him out of his house.  In the end, the graduation prayer went through and now there might be legal action against the school for this violation of the Constitution.  Damon, for his part, now has the full attention of the atheist movement as well as a respectable college fund.  His Facebook page is Support Damon.

Jessica is in a similar situation.  She is an atheist attending high school in Cranston, Rhode Island.  This Rhode Island community is predominantly Catholic.  When Jessica requested that a prayer be removed from the wall of the public school she attends, she was met with the bullying and animosity of her schoolmates.  She is currently involved in legal action to have the prayer removed.  While she has the support of her family, she is only a sophomore at this school and will continue to attend during the course of the legal proceedings.  Her Facebook page is Support the Removal of the Cranston High School West Prayer.

I cannot thank these brave students enough.  Listening to their interviews woke me out of my laziness and reminded me just how critical atheist activism is.  I admire them for coming to their atheism at such a young age.  I was not that clear-thinking in high school.  Even if I had been, I don’t think I would have had the nerve to stand up for what is right.  I would have been afraid of what my parents and community would say.  I would have been worried about losing friends.  But too long have atheists been closeted in intimidated silence.  People like Damon and Jessica are paving the way for more and more atheists to come out of hiding and to make their stand.

Also, I should note that religious people should be thanking Damon and Jessica as well.  They are not only acting for “atheist rights.”  They are not taking a stand only because the school-sanctioned prayers offended them personally.  They are speaking out because these prayers are in violation of the Constitution. That same Constitution protects Christians from being forced to say Muslim prayers.  Or Muslims being forced to say Hindu prayers.  Or Hindus…  You get the point.  The separation of church and state was not intended by our founding fathers to cripple religion.  It was designed to protect religious freedom.

Please stop by their Facebook pages and tell them thank you.  Damon and Jessica, we need more people out there like you.

Thanks to them, I am all fired up again. I am committing right now to posting a new blog article once per week.  Please do your part and share, share, share.

Cupcake Goes to TAM 9

12 May

Oh noes!  It has been a long time since I’ve posted anything and I am overcome with what is left of that good old Catholic guilt.  I hope you all didn’t feel like I’d abandoned the game.  I was simply taking a hiatus of sorts whilst I dealt with some personal matters.  I promise to be more attentive to the blog, because reason never rests!

Meanwhile, I have big news to share.  I, along with a couple of other awesome ladies, have been selected as a grant recipient to attend TAM 9 in Las Vegas this summer.  Thanks to Surly Amy, Elyse Anders and Women Thinking Free!  I can’t wait to meet all the ladies and tell them thank you in person.

If you would like to support more women going to TAM, please click here to purchase TAM 9 surly. Wear it proudly knowing that you did some good.

Reader Question: Encouraging Critical Thinking

17 Mar

The following question comes from Cupcake reader Tony.  Thanks, Tony, for contributing this question.

If you have a question you would like answered on The Cupcake Atheist, please feel free to email me at cupcakeatheist@yahoo.com.

Note:  I’ve received a few questions over the past week and will be addressing them in upcoming blog posts.  I’m not ignoring you, I promise.

Could I ask a quick question? How do you encourage critical thinking in your child? I’m trying my best, but it wasn’t something that was encouraged when I was a child – it sort of got ‘switched on’ when I was a teenager. I have 2 young kids (2 & 5) and I can already see religious indoctrination starting to occur from some of my daughters ‘after-school’ clubs – I can’t stop her going to these as all her little friends go.

- Tony

Hi Tony,

Thanks for your question.  Raising free-thinking children is definitely a challenge.  I probably shouldn’t make assumptions, but I assume that you live in a developed, predominantly Christian area.  Therefore, your children aren’t in any danger of physical repercussions from not being part of the church-going crowd.  Also, at ages 2 and 5, they seem quite young and it is natural for them to be curious about the things their friends are doing.

I don’t believe there is any one right answer to your question, but I can share with you what I’ve learned in my own parenting as well as some resources I’ve found along the way.

1. Ask Questions – I make a conscious effort to not feed my son answers when he asks questions about religion or anything otherwise supernatural or unsupported.  Instead, I try to answer his questions with questions.  Take, for example, Santa Claus.  For a variety of reasons, my husband and I agreed that we wouldn’t play the Santa game with our child.  However, he hears about Santa from his friends in preschool and from other family members.  Last winter when he was three, he loved talking about Santa.  He would make comments like “Mommy, Santa is going to bring me presents” or “Mommy, Santa flies with reindeer.”  Instead of correcting him, I played the part of the interested skeptic.  I would ask him, “How does Santa make it all around the world to each boy and girl?” or “How are the reindeer able to fly?”  My hope is that by modeling critical thinking, he will learn to question things on his own.  At his age, the important thing isn’t whether he believes in Santa Claus or flying reindeer or a magic Space Daddy.  The important thing is that he learns to ask questions.

2. Allow Religious Exposure: The goal shouldn’t be to keep our children from being exposed to religion.  Rather, the goal should be to present religion in a comparative context and let the glaring incompatibilities speak for themselves.  My son has a book about Noah and the Ark that we like to read from time to time.  As we read it, we talk about the animals and how silly it is for all the animals to be on one boat.  He thinks it is just another fun story.  As he gets older, it is our intention to teach him about all different religions through books, discussions or maybe even attending a service from time to time.  We have Bibles, Korans, books about mysticism and Buddhism, as well as history and mythology books my husband and I amassed throughout our educations.  By some day sharing these with our son, we hope he learns to see the God of Abraham as just the latest in a long line of gods that people have made up throughout human history.  I will caveat this, however, by saying that at his age we do not allow him to attend church or any other place of worship.  In these places, questioning is typically not welcomed and that is not the way our family operates.  If he wants to go when he gets older, we’ll of course consider the circumstances at that time.

3. Don’t Label:  I try not to think of my son as an atheist child.  I also try to remind myself that his friends in preschool are not “Christian children” or “Muslim children.”  Regardless of the labels adults apply to their children, young kids simply cannot make those decisions about their own beliefs.  They shouldn’t be labeled with the beliefs of their families.  I need to remind myself of this every time he asks us why we don’t attend church like his grandparents or his friends.  My instinctual response is to tell him we don’t go to church because we are an atheist family.  However, that isn’t fair to him. He is only four and didn’t make the choice to be an atheist.  Instead, I try to explain that we don’t go to church because in church people learn things that likely aren’t true and people aren’t welcomed to ask questions.  Questions are important, especially when we are being told things that don’t make sense.

Furthermore, here are some resources that have been invaluable to me in trying to raise my son in an environment where critical thinking is encouraged.

Raising Freethinkers, A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief, edited by Dale McGowan.

Parenting Beyond Belief, On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion edited by Dale McGowan with foreword by Michael Shermer.

Maybe Yes, Maybe No; A Guide for Young Skeptics by Dan Barker

Lastly, I would just say that one of the best ways to combat supernatural explanations for things is with natural explanations.  Encourage your children to explore science.  Offer them enriching activities that might cultivate an interest in learning while also teaching them the importance of evidence.  Who knows? Maybe some of their little religious friends can come along?  Knowledge is a powerful tool.

Good luck to you and let me know how things go!

Cupcake


Atheist Blogroll

15 Mar

The Cupcake Atheist has been added to the Atheist Blogroll.  You can see the blogroll badge in my sidebar. The Atheist Blogroll is a community building service provided free of charge to atheists around the world.  If you would like to join, please visit Mojoey at Deep Thoughts for more information.

My Response to Georgia Purdom, Answers in Genesis

10 Mar

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post called Anthropocentrism: All of God’s Special Little SnowflakesI was fortunate enough to have this republished on PZ Myers’ blog Pharyngula as a guest post. (Many thanks to PZ, by the way).  The comments from Pharyngula readers were overwhelmingly positive and for a few moments I felt like my humble little blog was actually relevant and that I was contributing to a larger conversation.

Guess who else wants in on the conversation?  Why, none other than the young earth creationists over at Answers in Genesis.  Apparently, Georgia Purdom read my guest post and had a few things to say about it.  You can read her response here if you like.  I’m not so green at this blogging stuff that I don’t know when you have something to say about someone else’s blog post, you link back to it for your readers.  Naturally, Purdom didn’t link back to Pharyngula or to The Cupcake Atheist.  Wouldn’t want her readers to go clicking around and stumble upon something contradictory, now would we?

Now, when I say my blog is humble, I mean tiny and (with the exception of a few devout readers) mostly irrelevant. I’m still pretty new at this.  Going up against AiG would be (dare I use the analogy) a David and Goliath scenario.  Likewise, trying to persuade Purdom and the young-earthers is a poor use of my time.  If hundreds of years of scientific study, multiple converging lines of evidence and the entire scientific consensus can’t convince them their beliefs are foolish, then Cupcake here doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance.

However, since Purdom expressed such a personal concern about my son’s upbringing and about my ability as a mother I’ll happily take the time to respond.

She writes: “her son asked, ‘Mommy, are we animals?’ To which the mother replied, ‘Yes.’ Then the young boy said, ‘But, Mommy, we seem . . . different.’ Out of the mouths of babes!” As though my son’s observation about humans favors her point.  My son is bright.  Of course humans are different from other animals and, naturally, he noticed.  We have large brains, a capacity for language, art, music, etc.  We are fascinating and complex animals, but animals none-the-less.  From a biological perspective, to insist that humans are anything but animals is lunacy.

Furthermore, why is it dehumanizing to accept that humans are animals but somehow less dehumanizing to believe we are the product of something supernatural? In a previous response to Purdom, blogger Tantalus Prime had this to say: Here is what the The KJV has to say about what humans are: ‘And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.’ So, if claiming man is an animal dehumanizes man, then just what the bloody hell does claiming he is a bag of dirt do? I’ll take being an animal any day of the week.

Well said, Tantalus.  I couldn’t have said it any better myself, so I didn’t.

Purdom continues: “How does knowing that I am a living thing, here and alive, and have a temporary place in the natural world (which is not in any way supreme to animals) give meaning, purpose, and hope in life? It doesn’t! If she really believes that God does not exist and when we die, that’s it, then why bother trying to convince people she’s right?” Knowing that I am a part of the natural world and that I am the product of millions of years of gradual evolution leaves me awestruck.  It is meaningful to be able to trace my origins back through the fossil record and to think I’m here because of time and selection.  Out of the endless set of possible people allowed by our DNA, I’m here.  Ordinary me.  And what makes it even more beautiful is the fact that it is only temporary.  I am transient matter.  How precious my time here on Earth is!  I don’t need supernatural explanations to feel like a part of something bigger than myself.  Every atom in my fragile, temporary body is tied to a 13.7 billion-year-old universe.

And that is flipping awesome.

And, lastly, why do I try to convince people that I’m right?  Are you kidding me?  This question from the representative of an organization whose reason for existing is to try and convince people that a 2,000 year-old book is literally true from beginning to end?  I don’t need to be ‘right.’  I do my best to not be dogmatically bound to any set of ideas.  I am willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads.  Unfortunately for AiG, the evidence doesn’t favor their version of reality. If my blog post about anthropocentrism ‘convinces’ someone by turning them on to science and skepticism then yay for me.

In an odd turn, Purdom goes on to ask what I would do if my son were to grow up to be a murderer. ‘But if the Bible isn’t true and humans are animals, then she wouldn’t have a basis for saying what her son did was wrong, because after all, he’s just an animal, and morality doesn’t apply to animals.’ That statement is, of course, wrong and I’m not going to rehash the whole secular morality thing here.  If you like, you can read my recent post about atheism and morality. But the bottom line is that if Purdom needs ancient texts and an invisible space daddy to help her distinguish right from wrong, then that is not morality.

She concludes her post by quoting some Bible passages and with an expression of concern for my son. Her concern is patronizing and unwarranted.

My son is healthy and happy.  He is bright, inquisitive, and affectionate.  He is being raised in a home where he is valued and loved, where his questions and ideas are welcome and critical thinking is encouraged.  He has a mother and a father who spend time reading with him, playing games and doing puzzles.  And yes, we take him to the zoo.

Trust me, Georgia.  The kid is alright.

Reader Question: Atheism and Morality

9 Mar

The following is a question submitted to me by Jeremy, a Cupcake reader who is a theist. Jeremy was kind enough to permit me to post this.

If you know anyone who would like to submit a question or if you  have a question yourself, you are welcome to email me at            cupcakeatheist@yahoo.com.

Amy,

Just wanted to let you know from someone who still considers himself to be a Christian that I’ve been reading your posts lately and they give some excellent insight. I am still wrestling right now with what I’ve been taught to believe but I am not at the point where I want to just give it up. I’ve been in too many situations where “the easy answer” or the “obvious answer” just wasn’t the answer at all. However I do take issue with certain things I’ve been taught. For example, the idea of heaven and hell. Heaven is supposed to be this glorious place where pain and suffering ends. But, not everyone is apparently going to make the cut. So, if a person makes it inside and finds that close family members and/or friends have not made it would that not invoke some feeling of pain or sadness? I also take issue with the idea of a “loving father” who damns you from the time you arrive on the earth with the hopes that you will eventually find “the way”. God apparently gives us free will, which is fine and dandy but in my mind if you love what you have created you don’t put a mousetrap in a room full of toys. So why still do I even hang on at all? Because if there is nothing greater in the universe, there really isn’t anything to stop me from doing whatever I desire. Sure, there are laws in place to protect moral decency but what makes them the “right” or “wrong” things to do? One of the burning questions I have on atheism (and no, this is honestly not an attack on it) is what moral foundation does the atheist community base itself on and how do they decide which human to listen to?

Anyways, I’ve made this way longer than it should have been but perhaps one day we can talk about all this stuff in person. Don’t worry- as long as I am stuck to the Christian faith I will never get to the point where I feel it is my job to convert anyone or force my beliefs onto others. However, I feel that if I just nod my head to everything I hear I truly don’t learn a thing so I hope you don’t mind if I simply toss ideas your way. I hope to talk to you soon. Take care!

Jeremy

Hi Jeremy,

Thanks for the message.  I definitely don’t mind if you toss ideas or questions my way.  I am also thrilled that you are keeping up with my blog, because I often feel like I’m only getting to people who already agree with me anyway.  So, hooray!

It sounds like you have been asking yourself some important question and I must say I think you are on the right track

You had a good question for me about the difference between religious morality and secular morality.  I hope I can offer a decent response for you.  You asked what moral foundation the atheist community bases itself on and how do we decide which human to listen to?

Well, for starters it is important to recognize that atheists are simply people who do not believe in a god or gods. That is it.  There is no unifying creed, dogma, or doctrine.  So you have a broad group of very different people who might have different opinions.  I’m only stating this because we have to be careful when we refer to the “atheist community” and acknowledge that there are plenty of atheists out there who may disagree with my approach.  What you are really asking, I think, is about secular morality.

Point 1. So what is morality? Morality has nothing to do with one’s relationship with a god or gods.  It has to do with the way we treat our fellow human beings.  We are social animals, so we live in close proximity with one another and rely on one another.  If we were not a social species, there would be no need for morality. Anatomically modern humans emerged in Africa approximately 200,000 years ago.  We were here long before god or monotheism. So morality (our way of interacting with each other) predates religion although undoubtedly morality has changed a great deal over time.

In my mind, immorality is anything that causes needless suffering to another human. Something that would contribute to human progress and alleviate or avoid suffering in others is something I would call moral.

Point 2. The problem with religious morality is that it is based on ancient texts that are often unclear.  They contradict one another and even, at times, themselves.  Someone looking at the Koran could read the passages about love and peace and come away with the interpretation that the Koran mandates we interact with one another in a kind and peaceful way.  Someone else could read the same book and come away with the interpretation that jihad and war are moral and necessary because Allah commands them.   It works with the Bible also. According to the Bible, plenty of things are moral, including treating women like property:

When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she will not go out as the male slaves do.  If she does not please her master, who designated her for himself, she shall be redeemed. – Exodus 21 7-8

Rape is also moral:

If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives – Deuteronomy 22 28-29

Stoning your children to death?  Also moral:

If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious.  He will not obey us.  He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death.  So you will purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid. – – Deuteronomy 21 18-20

A brief list of things that are forbidden according to the Bible?: eating shrimp (Deuteronomy 14 9-10), women wearing pants (Deuteronomy 22 5), wearing blended fabrics (Deuteronomy 22 11) and for some reason plowing with a ox and a donkey yoked together (Deuteronomy 22 10).

So you see, religion is based on ancient texts which make no sense in a modern context. History is filled with people who went to war and killed others because they thought they were doing something good and moral (i.e. defending the holy land, etc.).  Indeed, religious wars continue today because people believe the will of their god is the correct one.  The parts of the Bible that good people like you probably consider moral such as the sermon on the mount or the beatitudes for example are just parts that have been cherrypicked because they jive with our secular notions of morality.  We read them and say they sound nice and they’ll do as moral guideposts while ignoring the parts of the text that don’t fit in with our desired ways of interacting with other humans.

Point 3. If you are avoiding doing things that cause harm to others simply because it was mandated by an ancient text or because you think you are being watched over, I would venture to say that is not morality.  You said if there is nothing greater in the universe (I assume this to mean god) there really isn’t anything to stop you from doing whatever you desire.  I don’t believe that you really think that.  You are a better person than that, and I think you know what suffering feels like and wouldn’t want to cause suffering to a fellow human being.  If you need the watchful eyes of a space daddy on you at all times to keep you in check, then you are not moral.

Point 4. Finally, you asked how do atheists decide who to listen to?  Who is the authority when two sides disagree?  Well, most atheists I know of are freethinkers, meaning they prefer to think things through for themselves rather than appeal to an authority. Also, most atheists will demand some sort of evidence to back up any claim.  For example, if the Pope (someone who many people would call a moral authority) says condoms are immoral and they are bad for Africa, most atheists would ask for some data to back up the claim that condoms are bad for Africa.

Personally, I don’t believe in moral authority because I don’t believe in an absolute morality.  I believe that morality is preventing or minimizing human suffering, whatever that means in any given case.

Jeremy  – I appreciate your question. If you are serious about thinking through these issues, I highly recommend you start with reading 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God by Guy P. Harrison.  It is the most respectful, eloquent book in the atheist genre that I have read yet and I would literally recommend it to anyone.  Harrison is an atheist, but he wrote this book with believers in mind.

Thanks and Keep THINKING!

Cupcake


The Pot Calling the Kettle Indoctrinated

5 Mar

“The obsession with children, and with rigid control over their upbringing, has been part of every system of absolute authority… Indoctrination of the young often has the reverse effect, as we also know from the fate of many secular ideologies, but it seems that the religious will run this risk in order to imprint the average boy or girl with enough propaganda.  What else can they hope to do?”

-       Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great

“Let children learn about different faiths, let them notice their incompatibility and let them draw their own conclusions about the consequences of that incompatibility….Let them make up their own minds when they are old enough to do so.”

–      Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

This picture represents my friend Bob. Bob can't hear you because Bob is too entrenched in her own ideologies.

 

The other day someone called me indoctrinated.  Usually, such a claim would bounce right off me but this time I was called indoctrinated by the one person in the world I would label most responsible for attempting to indoctrinate me.  So as not to reveal her identity all over the interwebs, we’ll just call her “Bob.” Let me give you some context:

Bob and I are at opposite ends of the spectrum on almost every subject.  We got into an argument that started off on the topic of politics but which inevitably turned to religion.  She basically made the assertion that my higher education indoctrinated me into godless liberalism.  It is a claim she has made before, but for some reason the use of the term indoctrination was like a slap across the face.  For a moment, I didn’t realize what had actually transpired.  Then, slowly, my brain registered that someone I viewed as so utterly blinded by cultural and religious indoctrination had turned the term around and applied it to me.  What in the world was going on?  Was it opposite day?

To be indoctrinated means to be imbued with specific biased beliefs or a specific point of view.  So, this is what Bob believes happened to me as a result of higher education.  Our colleges and universities are just big indoctrination machines, taking in sweet children raised in good Christian homes and cranking out liberal heathens.

There are some serious problems with Bob’s claim.  First and foremost, I was indoctrinated long before I ever set foot in a university.  I was raised in a Christian home, called a “Christian child” (even though I hadn’t the wherewithal to choose that label for myself at that point in my development), and made to memorize prayers and catechisms. I was taught that my parents’ belief system was superior to all other belief systems, but I wasn’t told how that could possibly be.  I was taught about heaven and hell and who gets sent where.

As a young adult, I was a choir girl, a Sunday school teacher and eventually a Bible camp counselor.  I made life decisions based on the myths my parents filled my head with as a child, including which schools to go to.  I chose to attend private, religious universities for both undergraduate and graduate studies. The result of all this?  At some point I became a full-on, brainwashed, atheist zombie.

In truth, education helped me unravel the years of religious indoctrination I endured as a child.  This is not to say that everyone needs a college degree to be an atheist, or that all atheists are college graduates.  Perhaps some people are smart enough to figure it out on their own, but not me.  I needed distance from my family and my upbringing.  I needed access to a ton of books and enlightened professors who welcomed me to study, think and decide for myself. I found all this while in school and yet years passed before I finally called myself an atheist.

Bob is the product of indoctrination.  She was raised in the religion of her parents who were raised in the religion of their parents.  As a child, she was brought up in a primarily Christian nation and so she believes there is profound truth to that particular worldview. I’ve never asked but in all likelihood it has never occurred to her what beliefs she would so vehemently defend if she had been born and raised in ancient Egypt.  Or modern India, Saudi Arabia or anywhere Christianity is not the dominant religion.

Perhaps saddest of all, she is the product of a failed education system. She was taught that the United States is a Christian nation founded on Christian principles, even though in reality the founding fathers were men of reason who knew the difference between what it means to be Christian and what it means to be an American. She wasn’t taught about evolution in school because it is controversial, although the controversy is entirely cultural and not scientific.  Publicly in school and privately at home, she heard the same consistent message and learned that to question that message too deeply would be denying who she is as a human being.

I heard the message too, but I was fortunate enough to get away from it long enough to have some exposure to different ideas. My family taught me what to think.  As I matured, I learned how to think.  That doesn’t sound like indoctrination to me.

It should come as no surprise to you readers that Bob also takes issue with the way I’m raising my own child.  I have a strong desire to break the cycle of religious indoctrination. This is mistakenly taken for indoctrinating my child into atheism.  I wouldn’t call my child an atheist child or a Christian child, or any sort of child.  Those labels have no meaning to children too young to sort through these complexities for themselves.  Nor is my child denied access to religious education.  We have 3 versions of the Bible, an English version Koran, writings by different Buddhist thinkers, in addition to all of the books on theology and world religions my husband and I amassed in college.  My goal is not to protect him from being exposed to religion, but rather to present religion in a comparative context and to let the glaring incompatibilities speak for themselves.

In the end, my altercation with Bob was a learning experience for me.  I don’t think Bob got much out it of it, however.  As is sometimes the case with heated debates, each side just ends up getting further entrenched in their original position. You can’t reason someone out of a belief that was never based in reason to begin with.  Poor Bob.


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