I've read several books about atheism, but my most enthusiastic recommendation to date goes to Guy Harrison's 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God. This book doesn't narrate the author's loss of faith like Dan Barker's books, nor is it a provocative and artful attack against Christian belief like The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, nor yet is it a scientific examination of religion as a natural phenomenon like Dan Dennett's Breaking the Spell. I recommend this book to believers and nonbelievers alike because it is a straightforward and respectful evaluation of the reasons that normal people (not theologians) give for believing in a god.
The book is organized into 50 stand-alone chapters that average about 7 pages each. I read the book cover to cover, but you could skip around to the chapters that interest you the most. If you believe in your god because he answers prayers, then jump right to chapter 14 and read the author's response to that reason. This organization makes the book very approachable.
One of the things that sets this book apart is that it does not focus on Christian belief exclusively. Very often, the debate is between belief in Yahweh and belief in no god at all. That makes the Christian's task seem easier than it really is. Harrison points out that the Christian God is only one of thousands of gods and goddesses. Throughout the book he spells "god" with a lowercase g and gives examples from several world religions. He doesn't attack any one religion, but shows that they make similar claims for many of the same reasons and all share a lack of evidence. The assertion that Yahweh has impacted a person's life loses most of its force when we're reminded that people say that their lives are impacted in the same ways by Allah, Ganesha, Isis and ancestral spirits.
The best thing about this book is its tone. Harrison is uncompromising in his skepticism, but he never stoops to mockery. He acknowledges the benefits of faith and religious community. He shares experiences of being moved by music and rituals from various traditions. He pays respect to the important role that religion has played in the history, culture and personal lives of believers. He simply points out that there's no evidence that any of these gods exist and there are often simpler explanations. Believers can read this book without being belittled or offended.
But why would a believer want to read what an atheist has to say about faith? I think it's good to understand both sides of important issues. That's why I've read several books by Christians since I've become an atheist. Perhaps I'll learn something I didn't know and reconvert. Or perhaps I'll better understand why people believe and that will help me to appreciate them (and debate with them). Believers should understand nonbelievers for the same reasons. It will help you understand that we have reasons for not believing. It will help you examine the roots of your own belief, which may strengthen your faith. You'll be more equipped for debating with atheists, too.
There have been over 600 comments on Sara's 4.5 year old Worst Worship Songs post. For the first time in a while, she responded to the commenters.
Discrimination against atheists is one of the last types of socially acceptable discrimination. It comes in many forms, the most shocking of which is legal: Some state constitutions attempt to strip atheists of their legal rights. Before I go any further, I would like to make a disclaimer. Though I think discrimination against atheists is real and runs counter to the spirit of our nation, it is nothing compared to what is been faced by black Americans, gay Americans or female Americans at various times in our country's history. It's also different because we choose it (unlike race, gender and sexual orientation) and we choose how public to make it. If I wanted to, I could present myself as a nominal Christian or I could choose to not discuss religion at all. But if a person decides that they don't believe in any invisible, undetectable deities and they make this unbelief known, they will find that they are often the odd man out.
Although the U.S. Constitution forbids religious tests for any federal office in Article VI, section 3, several state constitutions create just such a test. The following states require belief in God to serve in public office: Arkansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Two states (Arkansas and Maryland) require belief in God in order to testify as a witness in court. Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1961 (Torcasa v. Watkins) that all of those tests are unconstitutional, but the laws mentioned above are still on the books.
In the minds of many voters, there remains a de facto religious test for public office. Several studies have found that, all other things being equal, voters are less likely to vote for an atheist candidate than (in order) a homosexual, 72-year-old, thrice married, Mormon, Hispanic, female, Jewish, black or Catholic (Gallup). In that study, atheists were the only group that more than 50% of the respondents wouldn't vote for. This study was one of the reasons that I ended up not running for state representative when I was asked this spring.
Where are people getting the idea that a person is unfit for public office just because they don't believe in an ancient tribal god? How about their pastors, a President and the Bible. Pastor Rick Warren, days after hosting both presidential candidates at his church, said he would never vote for an atheist. George H.W. Bush (41) said that he didn't think atheists should be considered citizens. The Bible says that people who deny that Jesus is Christ are antichrists. I doubt that many Christians who believe in the Bible would vote for a person who they consider to be an antichrist.
It's not just in the political arena where atheists are at a disadvantage. When I started a new job this spring with a web development company my boss found my website and asked me to never link to the company site or any client sites because they might find out that an atheist is working for him. While I think it's sad that I can't link to projects that I'm proud of, I don't hold it against my boss. It's not his fault that he could lose business because of my beliefs. I might do the same thing if I was in his position. I only wish that non-belief didn't turn a person into a pariah.
I've also found that some from my old church are no longer interested in being my friend and they don't return my emails. I'm sure I share part of the blame for that because I've been so vocal about my loss of faith and the problems I see in religion. Perhaps if I kept quiet about it they wouldn't shun me. But I've heard many of these people say that atheists are going to be tortured for eternity in Hell, so I'm not the only one criticizing. I do regret some of the things I've said about religious people and I intend to be more considerate in the future. I will continue to discuss religion, but I'll try focus my attacks on ideas, not people.
There are signs that things are getting better. While the world celebrated the election of Barack Obama as the nation's first African-American President, another milestone was quietly reached out west. Pete Stark of California became the first openly atheist person to be elected to the U.S. Congress. There have already been female, black, gay, Jewish and Muslim people elected to Congress. Another bright spot was in North Carolina where incumbent Republican Elizabeth Dole attacked challenger Kay Hagan for associating with atheists. Dole's attack fell flat and she lost, in part because Hagan returned fire, calling Dole a liar and affirming the fact that she is a Christian. I'd like to think that Hagan also won because voters rejected the idea that atheism is evil, but I'm not too sure.
If you are a non-religious person, what has your experience been? Do you keep it quiet? Has it affected your relationships or career? Do you think things are getting better? What can we do to improve our status in this country?
This week my six year old daughter came home from school and said that a boy in her class told her that Barack Obama wants to kill babies. We explained to Emma that this was not true. No one wants to see more abortions being performed.
For too long, the Republican Party has used this issue to divide America and convince millions of people that they can never vote for a candidate who disagrees with them on this one issue. Many people have already made the case that it is possible to be pro-life and pro-Obama. Here are a few:
Frank Schaeffer - His father, Francis Schaeffer, played a big role in turning this into one of the central political and religious issues of the last three decades. Frank is still pro-life, but he supports Obama.
Douglas W. Kmiec - Kmiec worked in the Ronald Reagan White House, is a prominent Catholic and supports Barack Obama. His site lists some very important facts about abortion and the best ways to prevent it.
Nicholas P. Cafardi - A pro-life Catholic scholar who supports Obama.
Kyle Sterup - Kyle is a friend of mine from college and he is one of the most insightful Christians I know. He is pro-life and supports Obama.
So, if you like Obama but are not sure if you can vote for a candidate who wants to preserve the legality of abortion, the people I listed above (and many more) think you can. Read their words and see if you agree with them.
Here are a few observations that are shaping the way I think about this issue:
Abortion is just one issue. Even if it is a very important issue, should it override your agreement with Obama on several other issues?
I voted for George Bush in 2000 based mostly on my desire to see abortion outlawed. After eight years, two wars, a crippled economy, the erosion of our civil liberties and a drastic reduction in the public's trust of their government, abortion is still legal. How long will the Republican Party be given carte blanche by single issue voters?
The goal of the pro-life movement is to have Roe v. Wade overturned. Would that the end abortions in the United States? It would not. The issue would be left up to the states. By one estimate, only 16 states would outlaw abortion. Legal abortions would still be available to people who live in the other 34 states or who are able to travel. Let me say that again: Overturning Roe v. Wade will not end abortion in America.
Even when abortion was illegal, women still had them. These illegal back alley abortions were often unsafe and led to fatal infections.
If you really want to prevent abortions, outlawing them is not the best method. The best way to prevent abortions is to prevent unintended pregnancies. Accurate sex education and available contraceptives do more to prevent abortions than the Supreme Court ever could.
Another way to prevent abortions is to reduce poverty. Study after study has shown that economic support significantly reduces the abortion rate. Obama's plan to help our nation's uninsured get health care will do more to prevent abortions than any of George Bush's policies have.
Much is made of the late-term procedure known as the partial birth abortion. This is a very rare procedure which accounts for 0.17% of the abortions performed in the United States. As he said in the last debate, Obama is in favor of banning the procedure as long as the law includes an exception for the life and health of the mother. A ban that did not include that exception would in some cases amount to a death sentence for both mother and child.
I understand that many people on both sides of the abortion issue feel very strongly about their opinion. Both sides should bear in mind that this is a very difficult issue. There is no clear answer to the question of when life begins. Science has not provided the answer. The Bible gives no clear teaching on the question. Religious leaders are divided. Ethicists are divided. The public is divided. We should all be careful of becoming so convinced that our position is right that we are willing to demonize those who disagree with us and ignore all other issues.
I do not agree with Barack Obama on every issue, but I do believe that he is the best person to lead our nation in these difficult times. Even if you disagree with his stance on the legality of abortion, I hope you will think about the best way to reduce abortions and about all the other issues that are facing our nation.
Japan + Segway + chimp = awesome
I like running polls on my blog, but sometimes I want to ask several questions and see how the answers relate to each other. So, I'm trying out a service that allows me to do that. I started with a short survey about health care and education. It's only 3 questions. I hope you can take a moment to complete it: http://www.polldaddy.com/s/09617AAD67FCD274/
Two of these videos are beauty pageant contestants trying their best to form coherent sentences. The other is a parody. I'm not sure which is which.
A friend asked me what I thought of the message of Jesus. Here's my response:
If Jesus had a single coherent message, it was "Repent, for the Kingdom of God/Heaven is at hand." Jesus (assuming he really said it) probably meant it just like all the other apocalyptic preachers of the time. He meant that God was going to restore the glorious kingdom in Jerusalem and right all the wrongs Israel had endured. He was dead wrong, of course, and things got worse for the Jews rather than better. Later Christians read different ideas into his words and we can probably assume they selectively passed on his sayings to support their revisionist interpretations. Now the Kingdom means the church or the second coming or heaven or something else. There's not even a consensus of what it means.
He spoke in riddles and parables and again there's still disagreement about what some of them mean. Seems like he could have taught more clearly if he really had something important to convey. That was his one chance at direct contact with humans. Pretty unimpressive.
Once you look past the kingdom talk and the unclear stuff, there are some good ideas. Pride and hypocrisy are bad, especially in religion. Forgiveness and peace. Sharing of wealth. Love. Reciprocity. Nothing groundbreaking or original, but certainly some ideas that any humanist (secular or otherwise) can appreciate.
But the core of his message was just wrong. There is no Kingdom.