Archive | November, 2010

Ghosts, Aliens and Monsters! Oh my!

21 Nov

I had the dubious honor of attending and graduating from two religious institutions.  I completed my undergraduate education at a small, protestant liberal arts school in Texas and then did my graduate studies at a Catholic (Jesuit) school in Wisconsin.  All snark aside, I had excellent, life-shaping experiences at both schools and wouldn’t trade my education for anything.  Okay, I studied history so maybe I would trade my formal education for a time machine but beyond that I value my education and credit it with shaping who I am today.

What with me spending six consecutive years in private, religious institutions and all, you would think I would have become more religious.  For awhile that was the case.  However, after my deconversion I looked back on my education and identified a few highly enlightened people who helped put me on the path to critical thinking.  I think this is a fairly common phenomenon for atheists who grew up religious.  We look back and go “How did I get this way?”

One moment that stands out for me now is a course I took my senior year of undergrad.  It was enticingly titled Ghosts, Aliens and Monsters.  It was a communications course and I was looking for a few extra credits and basically an easy A on my way out the door.  My academic advisor, knowing my devotion to The X-Files, recommended I take this course.

I am so glad I did.  It wasn’t about The X-Files at all (surprise, surprise).  It was a course in skepticism lovingly cloaked in creative writing exercises and reading assignments that kept me awake at night with their dark creepiness.  Alien abductions, account after account after account, until I began to doubt my doubt.  For months, Nessie and Bigfoot and all their cryptid friends haunted my dreams.  I was obsessed with ghost photography and spent hours combing the interwebs for convincing evidence of an afterlife.  Underneath the creep-fest, however, was a running theme of skepticism.  What of these ghost, aliens, and monster stories do we believe?  And if we say we believe them, WHY?  What reason do we give for accepting some and rejecting others?  And above all, how do people communicate truth?

It was challenging and more fun than I deserved my senior year.  The crown jewel of the course was a writing assignment at the end of the semester where we had to outline our unified theory of belief.  If we believed in god, but not ghosts, aliens or monsters then we had to specify what criteria our belief or rejection was based on. I remember this being an uncomfortable exercise for me.  Because I was a god believer, I wanted my belief criteria to be inclusive enough for god but exclusive of the crazy stuff like ghosts and aliens.  I can’t find the paper I wrote (I think it was saved on one of those old 3 1/2 inch disks that no one uses anymore), but I don’t recall feeling good about that paper.  I remained religious for years and years after this course, but it was an important stepping stone.  What the course did for me was expose a weakness in my faith.  It put my invisible friend squarely in the category with the other supernatural stuff that I simply could not justify belief in.

So, what criteria do I use now to determine what is believable and what isn’t?  Well, for one, I don’t really like the word belief anymore.  I would much rather accept ideas based on evidence than believe.  The world looks different to me now (and better, I think).  Like when you realized your Mom and Dad really were Santa Claus and the world suddenly made a little more sense.  Years after taking Ghosts, Aliens and Monsters, I would pick up Richard Dawkins for the first time and read the following words: “Have you ever wondered how we know the things that we know?  How do we know, for instance, that the stars, which look like tiny pinpricks in the sky, are really huge balls of fire like the sun and are very far away?  And how do we know that Earth is a smaller ball whirling round one of those stars, the sun?   The answer to these questions is evidence.” (Good and Bad Reasons for Believing, Richard Dawkins).

What criteria for belief have you established for yourself?  Feel free to discuss in the comments….

It’s a food blog! Huh? No! It’s an atheism blog. Wait, what is this?

14 Nov

Welcome, everyone to the world of cupcake atheism.  I’m Amy the atheist.  Everyone else gets a blog, so why shouldn’t I?

What is cupcake atheism?  Firstly, I love me some baked goods.  If I had enough start-up capital, I would run my own bakery.  And what better baked goodness than the humble cupcake?  Secondly, as you have probably discerned, I am also an atheist.  Right now, in the atheist and skeptic community, there is a brewing debate over how atheists should engage religious people.  From the many podcasts/articles/blog posts that I’ve encountered on the subject, I gather that atheists are more-or-less divided into two camps on this subject.  New Atheists (not sure why I feel compelled to capitalize that, it just looks right) refuse to give religion any slack at all, refuse to grant religion its long-held place of “respect” in our society and who instead wish to out religion for the irrational nonsense it really is. The other camp is what I’ve heard termed “accommodationists,”  those who think that nonreligious people should try to engage religious people with, well, accommodation and understanding and other general namby-pambiness.

This debate has caused me to evaluate where I stand as an atheist in an overwhelmingly religious world. What kind of atheist do I want to be?  I see the options along a sort of continuum from namby-pamby all the way to vitriol-spewing, name-calling militant.  I have met atheists of both sorts, but commonly the term “militant” is misused to describe any atheist who won’t sit quietly down at a family meal and bow head in prayer or who dares to otherwise rock the metaphorical boat.  After much reading, a little tiresome online debating, and some pensive observation of how other atheists conduct themselves publicly, I’ve decided to come up with my own version, my own little spot somewhere along the continuum closer to New Atheism than accommodation but my own none-the-less.  That is cupcake atheism.  Why?  Because 1) I’m not a well-known scientist or writer or anything all that special, really.  Just someone who wants to understand the world she is living in and be right about as much as she can as often as she can.  2) I’m cute and sweet, like a cupcake.  This tends to disarm people who would otherwise bristle when they hear the term atheist.  I think I want to represent what I would want to be WITHOUT the label of atheist applied and all of the preconceptions that it brings with it.  I want to be sweet, lovable, smart, good, smart, trustworthy, and smart.  All that AND I never want to give religion and the nonsense ideas peddled by religious people any undo respect.  I won’t budge one millimeter to accommodate someones irrationality. What, then, shall I do?

Briefly, here are the general concepts I’m going to attempt to put into practice when engaging believers or when put in religiousy situations:

  1. Keep the conversation focused on the nature of belief, not necessarily religion.  I truly think that if more people understood why they choose to believe some things and then discard other ideas as lunacy, they would make better decisions.  How do people decide what to believe about politics, about alternative medicine, about aliens from other galaxies?  What do they believe and why?  Do they understand the difference between belief and knowledge?
  2. Play the role of curious outsider.  Instead of telling someone why their religious belief is complete and utter bullshit, I’m going to try to ask them questions that lead them in that direction and let their answers speak for themselves.  Why?  Because people like to talk about themselves more than they like being told off.
  3. Don’t shy away from the tough conversations or uncomfortable situations.  Atheism has been silent for far too long.  Don’t participate in religious activities like prayer, or church Christmas carolling to keep people from getting all judgy with you.  Instead, use those times when confronted with religious intrusion to show people who you really are.

In summary, this blog is about my interactions with the religious world and me defining and refining who I am as an atheist.  I’m going to try my cupcake approach (on unsuspecting friend and family guinea pigs) and let you know how it goes!

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