Monthly Archives: December 2012

Distinguishing Sincere from Opportunstic

Brother Jed

An old man putting his insanity on display.
Photo credit: Wikipedia

Brother Jed is batshit crazy. There’s no doubt about it. A man who has spent 38 years of his life traveling the country in order to tell college students that they are doomed to an eternity in Hell lest they accept Jesus as their lord and savior is certifiably bonkers. I have my suspicions that as he fades into old age his condition has grown worse, but I can’t confirm that.

When Brother Jed made an appearance at a local university, the resident skeptic organization politely invited him to speak to their group. I attended the meeting and listened to what Jed had to say. There was plenty of the anticipated petulant condemnations, but Brother Jed did have some personal insight that I did not expect. Describing his experiences on various campuses, he recalled a time when a nonbeliever had come to his defense amid the onslaught of chastisement from Christian college students. The secular student argued that despite his disagreements with Brother Jed, he did not doubt that Jed was sincere in his lunacy. The student continued that he was skeptical of the sincerity of the “Christian” students berating Brother Jed – for if they truly believed what they claimed, they would be doing the exact same as Jed.

I have come to the same conclusion. During my extensive interaction with the religious, it is quite clear that the ones who dedicate their lives to their faith are the ones who are most convicted in their belief. It is a point that has also been made by Sam Harris: he has said often that indeed the most fervent believers on September 11, 2001 were the hijackers. It is then here that a clear line must be drawn – between the fervent believers and the ruthless opportunists.

Fundamentalists – henceforth deemed “sincere believers” – range in the amount of threat they pose to civil, peaceful living. On one end of the spectrum you have Brother Jed, whose lunatic rantings are essentially harmless. In fact, people like Brother Jed and others of the mentally-ill evangelical variety probably do a great deal of good for the secular community. (When a psychotic slimeball vomits putrid messages of intolerance and hostility upon passerby on college campuses, the group that stands up and tells students to be themselves seems quite welcoming.) On the other end, there are the violent faithful – the jihadists and abortion clinic bombers – who have no reservations about harming others to advance their beliefs.

Opportunists, on the other hand, are almost universally harmful, some more than others. The level of conviction among this vile segment of the religious community is often unclear. In this category I place such groups as the Westboro Baptist Church, the Family Research Council, and the Catholic Church. The goal of these groups is completely self-serving (whereas the sincere believers are genuinely concerned with continuing what they believe to be a God-ordained mission). The opportunists seek money, power, recognition. Those desires are not in and of themselves harmful, but opportunistic religious groups rarely seek means to their ends that don’t lay to waste certain segments of the population on the way. In the case of Westboro, it’s American soldiers. For the Family Research Council, it’s homosexuals. The Catholic Church’s primary victims may be its very adherents!

The point I am trying to make is not that the attention of the nonreligious community should be focused more on one group or the other – sincere believers and opportunists both present the potential for tangible harm to others. Rather, I think that it is important to make the distinction because the approach to be made in defeating these groups is necessarily different.

In the case of the believers, one must argue with the intention of dismantling the belief. Because this group is so committed to what they believe, the only thing that can shake them from continuing their wretched crusades is to crumble the foundation upon which they stand. By no means is this an easy task. Such deeply held beliefs are difficult to shake; and in cases such as Brother Jed, it may indeed be too late to teach an old dog new tricks. There are, however, some who are not beyond hope – and I don’t believe our efforts are wasted in discussion with them.

Tactics to dismantle the opportunists may not be based in arguments against their belief. After all, it is difficult sometimes to understand specifically what their beliefs are, and they are unlikely to be affected by reasonable arguments against such beliefs. There’s a reason that the Family Research Council doesn’t care about current scientific understanding of homosexuality and that the Catholic Church maintains antiquated beliefs about contraceptives and abortion. To abandon such premises would be to forfeit their positions of power, so they are not interested in updating their principles. Instead, the plan of attack against these groups must be legal. Keep the sickness of Catholicism from influencing health care law. Thrash and shred attempts by anti-gay groups to legalize “gay therapy.” By all means continue to expose their nonsense for what it is for the benefit of onlookers, but understand that truly defeating these forces of evil cannot be accomplished by debate alone.

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“Heaven Just Gained Another Angel”

Posting from my phone here, so I’ll make this one brief.

We see this saying a lot when people die (which has been painfully frequently as of late). To me it’s a curious statement…one I find desperately hypocritical.

Here’s the thing: in life, we are quick to pass judgement on our fellow humans. Nobody is ever good enough. This behavior is hyperactive in religion; especially in religions for which faith is the utmost of human virtues.

These religious people are constantly told (and telling each other) that nothing that they do is good enough. No amount of charity or goodwill can save them from the wrath of their god unless they truly believe.

Often, their criteria for belief is abnormally strict. You have to believe the right way. People of different faiths are eager to condemn those who don’t share their viewpoints, even when these people are their friends.

I’ve asked a few of my religious friends what they think will happen to me when I die. Many of them don’t shy away from responding that I’ll likely end up in Hell unless I redeem myself through faith. They also don’t balk at the idea of their friends of separate faiths spending eternity in the grips of Satan.

So why are they so sure that the recently deceased are in Heaven? After so much doubt and condemnation during the living hours, why are the religious so quick to confidently predict the whereabouts of the departed?

To me, this demonstrates the real purpose religion serves for most people. It’s a matter of comfort and convenience rather than a conviction of knowledge. Religious belief, like many beliefs concocted by our complex brains, serves to make sense of what is around us in a way our brains can manage.

Religion is not the result of divine inspiration or divine revelation; it is the trickery of our brains as they try to appease their foolish possessors.

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TIL Tuesday: The Mysterious Cue Ball

Pool TableA couple of nights ago, I frequented my town’s one and only pub, and I played a couple games of pool. The pub in question uses a coin-operated pool table, and I’ve always been a bit curious as to how pub pool tables know to return the cue ball when you scratch. After all, the other balls, when hit into the pockets, return to a holding area where they rest until the next 50 cents is inserted into the table. My hypothesis was that the cue ball was in some manner heavier or larger (or both) than the other balls in play. However, once the question formed in the ol’ brain, I refused to let it sit dormant. Therefore, I present you with today’s TIL: The Mysterious Cue Ball

It turns out that I may have been correct about the pool table at my local pub. Coin operated pool tables return the cue ball in one of two ways: with either a slightly larger cue ball, or with a magnetic cue ball. In the case of a larger cue ball, the difference is only about 1/8 inch. Presumably, that’s large enough to notice if a player was to actually take the time to observe the cue ball next to another ball.

When the table uses a magnetic cue ball, the table is designed with a magnetic sensor that moves a track inside the table when the magnetic cue ball falls through a pocket. In this case, the cue ball would appear identical in size to the other balls on the table. Learning of this method also led me to check out this site in order to brush up on my knowledge of magnets.

This post isn’t overly exciting, but I’m glad that I finally answered this question that has been nagging at the back of my head for some while. I may be the annoying patron who asks the bartender what type of pool table is used next time I visit the pub. Any updates will be posted here. Happy learning!

Most of the credit of this post goes to The Straight Dope for being an endless stream of knowledge. 

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Why Do We Keep Offering Unanswered Prayers?

The following essay is a guest post from an atheist mother in response to the massacre in Connecticut on December 14, 2012.

“Some of God’s greatest gifts…are unanswered prayers…” sang country singer, Garth Brooks. It sounds so wonderful, doesn’t it?

Why do we keep praying to a god that obviously has no interest in us-or more accurately, probably does not exist at all? My theory is that we do it because we feel we have nothing else to offer. The danger being that we start to believe it and prayer is all we do. Prayer will not change the incidents of December 14 or the days before or the days to come. Action might. At least action has a fighting chance. Continue to pray if it helps you in some small way, but do not stop there. Unless you are so egotistical to believe that your desires are more important than others’ desires, that your prayers somehow deserve the attention of some deity that the other prayers obviously did not, DO SOMETHING MORE THAN PRAY.

Why do we offer prayers for the families whose children were murdered? Do we not, as parents, know that every god believer in the group had spent every day – no every moment – since the birth of their children praying for their well-being, just as each of us who are parents would have done? I know I did. I spent hours in conversation with a “god” in desperate plea that my children would be safe, happy, healthy, not to mention joyous and compassionate.

Why should your prayer for these parents be any more effective than all the prayers those parents made for all those years? Were they praying to the wrong god? Do you pray to the right one? Please do not even attempt to tell me that God loves each of us more than our own parents. BULL SHIT! Don’t even try to compare your god’s love with my parents’ love or the love I have for my children. I guarantee you that either of my parents, being in the building as God was supposedly, would have stopped that idiot shooter or died trying to save me or any other child. No force on earth could have stopped me from getting in between a shooter and one of my children…where was your god?

Do not tell me that we cannot know God’s will. God gets let off the hook time and time again using this ridiculous claim. If it was “God’s will” that those children were gunned down, then what the fuck are we doing worshipping such a god?

Then comes, “…but god gave man free-will…” You might be right- we might have free-will, but that makes any god ineffective, no longer omnipotent. What then is “god”? If you claim God is omnipresent, then I repeat, where was your god? Omniscient? Then God should have known not to give us freewill.

If you live in fear of eternal damnation, then when the time comes to decide to obey God on your appointment to hell, just use your all-powerful free will and choose not to accept.  In the meantime, continue to pray if you must, but do not stop there. It is dangerous to believe prayer is all we can do. Prayer will not change the incidents of yesterday or the days before or the days to come. Action might.

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A very sad day…

In light of the horrific events in Newtown, Conn., I’d like to take a brief moment to simply offer up my sorrow, my sympathy and my inadequate condolences to the families, friends, teachers and parents of those who died in today’s school shooting.

Events like this are beyond comprehension, and they demand a response. I hope that the American people respond the way they need to, but I’m not going to talk about that in this post.

I’m not going to talk about the implications of this tragedy on gun control in the United States – though that discussion must be had. I’m not going to talk about the twisted ethical standards of the media when they exploited children and identified the wrong person as the shooter – though those issues must be addressed. I’m not going to comment on access to mental health services in the United States – though changes must obviously be made.

No, tonight all I want to say is that I am utterly and deeply sorry to every single person affected by the events of today. My words will have little to no effect; and no matter how much I would like to, nothing will ever bring those children back to their moms, dads, brothers, sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles or friends. But I just want to say that I grieve for you, though you may never feel it.

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How Interfaith Should Look

In my town, there is a small group of evangelists who spend the majority of their week walking around and talking to people about God. This group has come to know and avoid me, as I have come to know and avoid them. On the rare occasion that I am stopped nowadays (mostly by newbies), the conversation usually ends rather quickly when I explain that I am an atheist and in no way interested in attending their services. I used to give them the time to talk – sometimes for quite some time – but the conversations have become so repetitive and monotonous that I lost interest.

Last night I went to the gym to play basketball, and one of those guys was there playing as well. He recognized me, and I recognized him, but we played on the same team and everything went well. He’s a good player, and I daresay he’s actually an enjoyable person to be around. We worked together and won a couple of games. We understood where the other stood theologically, but it never came up. Nor should it. In that situation, the goal at hand was to win basketball games. We didn’t have to come to any mutual respect for the other’s position in order to do that. We just focused on the game and played the way we needed to.

This is the way I would like to see interfaith work go. Furthermore, I wish for “interfaith” to become a superfluous term, because I would just like to see people work together towards common, secular goals. If the scene from last night was altered and this evangelist and I were both planting trees or providing food to children in need, I would gladly work beside him still.

It’s when this notion of mutual respect for ideas comes into play that I have a problem.

One of my greatest grievances with some atheists involved in the interfaith movement is their insistence that atheists need to be nice to and respectful of the beliefs of the religious rather than to decry those beliefs for what they are. In my opinion, beliefs should not garner respect until they have earned it, and most religious beliefs have not earned that respect. I see nothing noble in faith, so I’m not going to spare it reverence that it doesn’t deserve.

I will, however, respect the people who hold those beliefs. I will defend their right to believe whatever they want, no matter how crazy, because I believe in freedom and autonomy. I will protect friends and strangers who are being persecuted for their beliefs (actually persecuted – not persecuted in the whiny, Fox News ‘War on Christmas’ sense), even if I don’t hold those same convictions.

But I don’t have to respect or even know these beliefs in order to accomplish these goals. I am a secular person; I live in a secular country; and I will not forfeit my own thoughts and beliefs (especially in regards to religion) for the sake of being nice. Work together, love your fellow human being, but stop telling anti-theist atheists that they’re doing it wrong just because they elect not to pamper beliefs in the absurd.

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Why wasn’t this movie up for Best Picture?

A friend alerted me to this gem of a motion picture today. It’s called “Last Ounce of Courage,” and it’s a good ol’ fashioned ‘Merican movie. My hopes aren’t high – it’s got the production value of a porno and it features Bill O’Reilly as himself at some point. Still, I’m going to try to find it and watch it, but I doubt I can find it at any popular retail outlets. Maybe I should check my local Bible Superstore?

And, because I know you were wondering – yes, it is endorsed by Chuck Norris.

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TIL Tuesday: Saturn is One Coollike Planet

Instead of explaining what I learned today myself, I’m going to let Charlie McDonnell – creator of the Fun Science series on his YouTube channel, charlieissocoollike – do the talking.

This video alone taught me more about Saturn than I ever learned in high school. Plus, Charlie’s got a ton of other engaging videos about science.

P.S. The content of the above video was approved by Phil Plait (the Bad Astronomer), so I highly trust its accuracy.

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Sometimes opinion columns feature really bad opinions

The USA Today published an article yesterday by Charlotte Allen (the goon who wrote this article in 2009 and was subsequently ridiculed by none other than Mr. PZ Myers here and here), who argues that “same-sex marriage isn’t a question for courts” and that we should “leave gay marriage to voters and state legislatures.”

I’m not going to dedicate much time to a long-winded response (most of her points have already taken a thorough beating in the comments), but I did want to point out a couple of flaws in her argument.

I’ve had this debate before with friends: Should the issue of marriage equality be relegated to the states, or do we need a national decision? The answer seems pretty obvious to me. If you leave the decision up to the states, you’re going to end up with some states that vote to legalize gay marriage, and some that choose to outlaw it. The problem there? Gay people live in all states. Yes, even the deepest red states are home to gay people. Gasp.

As much as some people would like to pretend that gay people will just get up and move to places that allow same-sex marriage, we all know that this is not possible for many. Gay people have jobs, families and other commitments that keep them stationary just like heterosexual people.

Allen argues that federal legislation on the issue is “[forcing] gay marriage down people’s throats.” If the absurdity of her stance wasn’t already apparent, this little statement should solidify her position on the side of idiocy. In what way is allowing all people the right to marry whomever they want shoving an issue down anyone’s throat? I don’t hear gay people complaining that federal recognition of straight marriage is somehow forcing it down their throats.

If the argument is that allowing gay marriage somehow destroys the sanctity of marriage – too bad. Sanctity is defined as “the state or quality of being holy, sacred, or saintly,” which means that defending something on the grounds of its sanctity won’t stand up to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Marriage is something that affords certain benefits to those able to obtain it, and it must be recognized for all people in consenting, adult relationships. Your support for “traditional marriage” is antiquated and bigoted, Mrs. Allen. We must fight to gain equality for all Americans, so that they may pursue happiness in their own ways.


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Card tricks, soldiers, and Jeebus

Yesterday I saw this video:

The video is of this guy named Justin Flom, and he really does seem to be a decent illusionist. I checked out some of his other videos and his website, and I enjoyed watching his work.

Most of his content is completely nonreligious and quite entertaining. But those videos are only garnering a couple thousand views each. The video above has more than 4 million views, and it’s the one I find least impressive. It’s the old “God and country” routine, and I’m just not buying it.

Flom obviously knows that his magic tricks are just illusions masking reality; does he realize what a perfect metaphor he has made for his religion?


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