Tag Archives: religion

Atheist uncle writes to advice columnist

Here’s a feel-good story for you. The Town Talk, a newspaper in Alexandria, Louisiana connected to the Washington Post, features one of those “Dear So-and-So…” advice columns. Last Saturday, the following letter appeared in the column:

Dear Carolyn: My 13-year-old niece is interviewing family members about their religious beliefs for a school project. Niece wants to talk to me this weekend.

I am an atheist. Niece’s mom is uncomfortable with this fact. Is there anything in particular I should say to make clear that I respect the beliefs of others, while not shying away from openly and proudly proclaiming my own (lack of) beliefs? — Atheist Uncle

First, you have to feel for this guy. It’s an honor when young family members request to feature you in their school projects. The writer is obviously excited to share a bit of himself with his niece. Unfortunately, he lives in a country still not generally warm to nonbelievers.

Yet the response from Carolyn is a sign of a turning tide:

Carolyn Hax

Carolyn Hax: Awesome Advice-Giver Image credit: Washington Post

Carolyn: “I respect the beliefs of others, but I don’t shy away from openly and proudly proclaiming my own (lack of) beliefs.” That is, if she asks you how you regard beliefs that differ from yours. If she doesn’t ask that, then just stick to the point of the project, and answer truthfully whatever questions she asks about your beliefs.

Why do you need to spin your atheism to be palatable to the mother? It’s not like you’re sneaking your niece liquor or R-rated movies; you’re just telling your truth.

Plus, the project isn’t about orchestrating family harmony, it’s about your niece’s education. Plus, any discomfort her mom feels is the mom’s problem, and if the niece wants to talk to Mom about it or vice versa, then nothing’s stopping them. Plus, if her mother thinks atheism is so radioactive that her daughter’s faith can’t withstand mention of it, then she doesn’t have much faith in her faith.

Carolyn gets all the points for her answer. Atheism is not something Atheist Uncle needs to hide. Presumably, his niece’s project is about discovering religious diversity; and atheism is an increasing presence in that space. He owes it to his niece to be honest.

Carolyn is also correct in writing that a person who is threatened by the mere mention of atheism isn’t displaying a lot of conviction in her beliefs. If that’s the case, the believer needs to settle that within herself – the atheist shouldn’t be expected to hide who he is.

If you would like to thank Carolyn Hax for her affirming advice, you can email her at tellme@washpost.com.

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Je-h-to-the-izzo-v-to-the-izzay-h’s Witnesses

One of the best things about living in a big city is the sheer diversity of its inhabitants. In the two weeks since I moved to Washington, D.C., I’ve seen every type of person from every walk of life. Of course, that means I also have the pleasure of running into the religious crackpots pushing their propaganda on every corner.

JWbible

I love free books!

Being a person who has intentionally subjected himself to numerous church services as an atheist, I’m really quite likely to oblige when one of these fanatics offers me a pamphlet on my way to the metro. And that is how I came to possess a publication from the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania – the publishing and distributing organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The book I received is called, “What Does the Bible Really Teach?” – and while Jehovah’s Witnesses presumably successfully hand these books out to tens of people every year, I might be the only one to read the entire 223-page document from cover to cover. Because I love you all so much, I decided I’d write a post highlighting the best parts of the book so that you don’t have to read it yourself. Join me below for a good laugh, and maybe you’ll even learn a bit about what Jehovah’s Witnesses actually believe.

The book starts in a manner almost encouraging to a secularist. In its opening discussion about asking questions regarding gods and the supernatural, it says:

It is good to ask such questions,  and it is important that you do not give up until you find satisfying, reliable answers.

I like that – we should endorse inquiry and scrutiny of answers. So far, so good. And then:

Despite what other people may have told you, there are answers, and you can find them – in the Bible.

And it’s pretty much all downhill from there.

So God is never the source of the wickedness you see in the world around you…Granted, he does allow bad things to happen. But there is a big difference between allowing something to happen and causing it.

You’re right. But if you see somebody attempting murder, and you do nothing to stop it, you’re not exactly an upstanding citizen. That’s one reason I don’t revere the Biblical character of God: when he’s not causing misery, he’s standing by and watching it happen.

Would love move you to end the suffering and the injustice you see in the world? If you had the power to do that, would you do it? Of course you would! You can be just as sure that God will end suffering and injustice.

If I could, I’d end suffering and injustice immediately – and in fact I and many other people are working to expedite the end of unhappiness. The Christian’s loving god is twiddling his thumbs.

Imagine-you can become a friend of the Creator of the universe!

“Imagine” is precisely the correct wording.

The Bible is scientifically accurate. It even contains information that was far ahead of its time. For example, the book of Leviticus contained laws for ancient Israel on quarantine and hygiene when surrounding nations knew nothing about such matters…Of course, the Bible is not a science textbook. But when it touches on scientific matters, it is accurate.

First of all, shouldn’t a book inspired by the all-knowing creator of the universe be better than just ahead of its time? Shouldn’t it be really freaking accurate – and not just in vague terms such as the shape of the earth?

Moreover, have you read some of the shit in Leviticus? Leviticus 24:16 calls for the stoning of blasphemers. Leviticus 20:9 requires death for children who curse their parents. Leviticus 27:3-7 values women (in monetary terms) at 50-60 percent the value of a man.

Yeah…this is information “far ahead of its time.”

The Bible’s principles apply to all people, and its counsel is always beneficial.

Try telling that to people who have endured slavery because their oppressors knew the Bible justifies it.

[God] decided that time was needed to answer Satan’s challenge in a satisfying way and to prove that the Devil is a liar. So God determined that he would permit humans to rule themselves for some time under Satan’s influence.

What’s a few anguishing deaths to prove a point?

At one time, some of Jesus’ own relatives did not put faith in him, even saying that he was “out of his mind.”

These are the people who deserve to be remembered 2000 years later.

As you grow in knowledge of Jehovah, your love for him will deepen. In turn, that love will make you want to please him.

Emphasis mine – but the gay sexual imagery in this book is pretty heavy for a group so opposed to homosexuality.

What makes Jesus an outstanding King? For one thing, he will never die.

We actually put limits on terms leaders can serve for good reason. I’d hate to have a leader serve indefinitely. This is a terrible quality.

…we see that there will be war between God’s Kingdom and the kingdoms of this world. God’s Kingdom will be victorious…Then humans will enjoy the best rulership they have ever known.

It’s not much of a war if God has already predetermined the winner, is it?

Also, was Christopher Hitchens ever more right than when he said that wanting this inescapable rulership is the “wish to be a slave“?

If you obey Jehovah, you too can become his friend!

JesusBaptism

Jesus and John sure were white for a couple of folks living in the desert of the Middle East.

A friend who requires obedience as a prerequisite for camaraderie is no friend at all.

But God is the one who says how he should be worshiped, and the Bible teaches that he does not want us to use images.

Similarly, God dictates that if we want to masturbate, we are only to use pornographic literature – never videos.

When you first learned what the Bible really teaches, did you find that your heart began to burn with joy, zeal, and love for God?

Well, I definitely had heart burn.

I did learn some about Jehovah’s Witnesses after reading this book. For instance, I knew that they refuse to celebrate holidays or birthdays, but I didn’t know that they are also encouraged to refuse gifts from friendly givers around these times. Of course, they offer a very satisfactory consolation to the poor children of these parents:

One of the best gifts you can give your children is your time and loving attention.

I was also surprised when I learned that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in a soul or spirit that exists outside of the body. They don’t believe that when we die our spirits travel to another realm.

The life we enjoy is like the flame of a candle. When the flame is put out, it does not go anywhere. It is simply gone.

Of course, they do believe that God will resurrect all the dead bodies worthy of eternal life and destroy the ones who aren’t. So there’s that.

Additionally, I learned that Jehovah’s Witnesses abstain from taking sides in politics. Though they are staunchly opposed to abortion, they choose to maintain political neutrality in worldly governmental procedures.

I used to think of Jehovah’s Witnesses as a weird sect of Christianity. It turns out that they believe most of the same things that other branches of Christianity believe, just without any of the feel-good doctrines that make a religion mildly tolerable. No meeting your relatives in the afterlife; no celebrations of birthdays or holidays – who wants to believe in nonsense completely barren of any redeeming qualities?

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Distinguishing Between Fiction and Reality

Today I stumbled upon an article published in The Telegram of Worcester, Mass. It is titled “When atheists turn to God,” and it is completely bizarre. I encourage you to read it.

Anyway, I couldn’t let such a strange piece go unchallenged, and the comments section didn’t seem the forum for a rebuttal, so I decided to write a letter to the editor in order to voice my thoughts. The full text of my letter is below:

Dear Mr. Sinacola,

At the outset of Dr. Gary Welton’s recent As I See It article, “When atheists turn to God,” it appears that Dr. Welton is preparing to present a rebuttal to the American Humanist Association’s latest lawsuit to have “under God” removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. He had the opportunity to guide readers to reasons he believes this lawsuit misguided, which could have generated genuinely interesting conversation about the implications of the phrase and the impact of the lawsuit.

Instead he elected to deliver a strange lesson in literature.

After briefly introducing us to the AHA case, Dr. Welton sets forth a barrage of quotes related to the initial subject in varying degrees. Why Dr. Welton chose to use fiction as the backbone for his article concerning real issues is beyond me. It’s one thing to utilize an excerpt from literature to bolster one’s argument; it’s another thing entirely to build a whole article out of quotes. In total, Dr. Welton’s article consists of 12 paragraphs of literary quotes and only six paragraphs of original material.

However, what is more concerning than Dr. Welton’s uninventive writing style is his conformity to the notion that, when faced with strife, atheists also turn to a higher power. If Dr. Welton had taken the time to talk to nonbelievers to discover how they cope with trying situations – rather than regurgitate quotes – he might have found that atheists have established a number of ways to deal with tragedy and hard times in a purely secular way. Greta Christina, a prominent atheist blogger, has written extensively on the topic.

Atheists have a hard enough time in this deeply religious country without people like Dr. Welton spreading lies about our behavior. I’d like to invite Dr. Welton to join me in a conversation about what life as an atheist is really like. I’ve found that one of the best ways to increase understanding of atheists is for believers to actually meet them, and I’m not sure that Dr. Welton ever has.

Though atheist characters in popular fiction might display a tendency to drift back to the supernatural, nonbelievers in real life have a much different story to tell.

Timothy Pate 

Washington, D.C.

I genuinely hope to hear back from The Telegram, and I hope that this letter will lead to conversations with Dr. Welton. I will post any developments on this site.

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The Rock and the Dead Fish

Image credit: Mr. T in DC on Flickr

If it wasn’t obvious previously, it’s clear as day now – anti-gay Christians are facing serious oppression in the United States.

At least, that’s what Kelly Boggs of the Baptist Press seems to think. In an article published on BRnow.org, Boggs tries really hard to argue that times are tough for homophobic Christians in America:

A  moment of truth is rapidly approaching for those who believe homosexuality is an immoral, aberrant behavior. The choice will be whether to capitulate to a culture that asserts, without evidence, homosexuality is natural, normal and healthy, or to insist it is sinful and suffer consequences.

First of all – a Christian complaining about making assertions without evidence? That’s rich.

And what are these dire consequences Christians will be facing? According to Boggs’ article, Christians might have to obey the law:

In 2006, Vanessa Willock, one half of a lesbian couple, contacted Elaine Huguenin about photographing a commitment ceremony to be held in Taos, N.M. Huguenin co-owns Elane Photography, located in Albuquerque, N.M., with her husband.

Willock communicated that the ceremony was designed to celebrate her homosexual relationship. Huguenin declined the business because she and her husband are Christians and hold the conviction that homosexuality is a sin. They wanted no part of celebrating that which they believe is wrong.

Though Willock found another photographer, she filed a complaint with the New Mexico Human Rights Commission. The commission ruled that Elane Photography had engaged in sexual orientation discrimination, which is prohibited by state law. The photography company was ordered to pay $6,637.94 in attorney’s fees to the lesbian couple.

The problem with claims from the Christian right that they are being persecuted is that what they call “oppression” is simply not receiving special privileges. The article makes the case against itself without realizing it: sexual orientation discrimination is illegal in New Mexico. Don’t break the law and you don’t have to worry about consequences. What Boggs and Huguenin want is for law to be based on religious values, which isn’t fair and simply doesn’t work.

But Boggs is sure that people such as Huguenin are martyrs for the Christian cause:

The push to have homosexuality accepted as natural, normal and healthy in the United States knows no compromise. The movement to have homosexuality celebrated in America will not stop, nor will it be satisfied, until all voices that would even whisper it is sinful are squelched.

Homosexual activists have long used their free speech right to publically advocate for their aberrant lifestyle. Many of these same activists now use almost any means possible to restrict the freedom of speech of those who believe their lifestyle is wrong. Can you say ironic?

Wrong again, Boggs. Bigoted Christians still have the same rights to free speech as everyone else. Have you noticed how the Westboro Baptist Church is allowed to spew its revulsion? What you’re not allowed to do is discriminate based on a person’s orientation.

It is becoming harder to maintain anti-gay sentiments in America, but that’s because the weaknesses in the arguments against equality are being exposed every day.

Boggs concludes with an appeal to other Christians to stand strong in their convictions:

When the moment of truth arrives, the choice will be whether to stand firm against the current of popular culture or float along downstream like a dead fish.

He just doesn’t realize that the dead fish in this situation is the person who unthinkingly follows the tradition of bigotry and hate in Christianity.

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Religiously Unaffiliated on the Rise in Brazil

Religion in Brazil

Image credit: Pew Forum

The Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project recently published a report mapping the religious landscape of Brazil. The study showed how Catholicism in the country is on the decline, while Protestantism is gaining traction. But the study also found that, like many countries, the unaffiliated’s slice of the pie is getting larger.

Finally, the number of Brazilians with no religious affiliation, including agnostics and atheists, also has been growing. In 1970, fewer than 1 million Brazilians had no religious affiliation. By 2000, that figure had jumped to 12 million (7%). In the most recent decade, the unaffiliated continued to expand, topping 15 million (8%) in Brazil’s 2010 census.

Of course, being an open atheist in Brazil still isn’t easy. According to a June 2013 article in NewsDaily, many Brazilian atheists don’t feel welcome in their home country, which hosts the largest population of Catholics in the world (125 million – even if they are on the decline).

“You have to be brave to say you are atheist. So there are still a lot of atheists in the closet,” said Daniel Sottomaior, president of the Brazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics, which is fighting prejudice and discrimination against people who do not believe in God.

Sottomaior, a 41-year-old civil engineer who lives in Sao Paulo and has received anonymous death threats, says that in Brazil — which will host a major Catholic festival called World Youth Day on July 22-28 in Rio and the pope’s first overseas visit — “atheists are likened to criminals.”

As the nonreligious population of Brazil and other countries continues to grow, it’s important that atheists everywhere show solidarity. Follow Sottomaior on Twitter (@ateus_atentos) and let him know that you support the work he is doing with the Brazilian Association of Atheists and Agnostics.

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Reasonfest Reflections

I attended Reasonfest 2013 at Kansas University in Lawrence this weekend. This conference was my first official atheism/skepticism/secularism conference. (I have spoken at regional Skepticamp events and on debate and interfaith panels, but this was my first ever event with big names of the atheist movement all congregating in one place.) I made the nine-hour drive with the president of Colorado State University’s Leaders in Free Thought, Stephanie Kaiser, and we stayed with Keiv Spare and Nevin Godfrey of KU’s Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics (we owe many thanks to Keiv and Nevin).

The conference fit my expectations almost perfectly. The seats were populated (though not densely) by enthusiastic secularists, eager to hear from their favorite Internet atheists. The biggest names at the event were Matt Dillahunty (The Atheist Experience), Greta Christina (Greta Christina’s Blog), JT Eberhard (WWJTD), and Seth Andrews (The Thinking Atheist). Those familiar with the movement also would likely recognize Keith Lowell Jensen (comedian), Nate Phelps (son of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps), Dave Muscato (American Atheists), Jerry DeWitt (Hope After Faith), and David Fizgerald (author/activist).

Some of the speeches and events were very well done and entertaining. The theme of the conference was “Modern Morality,” and some of the speakers incorporated secular ethical decision-making into their talks. Greta Christina, for example, gave her popular “Atheism and Sexuality” talk, in which she explores how atheists can make moral decisions about sex without relying upon religious morality found in holy books. Seth Andrews focused his talk on religious indoctrination of children, and the not-so-subtle changes churches are undertaking to attract the youngest generation. Matt Dillahunty and JT Eberhard participated in a debate with Mark Miravalle and his son Dr. John-Mark in which the two sides tried to establish whether atheists or theists had the better grasp of the necessities for morality.

However, some of the talks were underwhelming. For some odd reason, the conference started with Fred Heeren, a Christian who claimed a desire to stop the Christian attack on science. For such a proponent of science, however, Heeren was astoundingly dense when it came to turning the microscope on his own beliefs. Obviously frustrated with Heeren’s intellectual dishonesty, Eberhard questioned how Heeren could simultaneously be committed to scientific advancement and belief in the miracles of Jesus. Heeren’s answer: without a scientifically consistent universe, we wouldn’t be able to identify Jesus’ miracles as that. What the hell?

The bigger problem I had with the conference was its tendency to turn into a real-life version of /r/atheism on Reddit. Though the popular subreddit provides a platform for atheists across the world to voice their opinions, rarely does anyone float a real solution. At Reasonfest, we heard from many speakers who were eager to criticize religion (which does need to keep happening), but I wanted to hear more about how atheists could work to see the changes we want.

Dave Muscato was perhaps the best at giving practical ways atheists could make a difference. As the PR guy for American Atheists, Muscato revealed his approach to publicity, issues management, and media relations for one of the most recognizable atheist organizations in the country. He also hosted a workshop for debating, at which he imparted his knowledge of tactics and what is known as “amygdala hijacking.” Everything Muscato said was profoundly useful.

Most atheists – especially the ones dedicated enough to attend a conference – are well aware of the harm of religion. We’ve seen the detrimental impact it has on politics, science, and equality. Sure, it’s funny when we rattle off the absurdities of religion; but when the laughter ends, I want to know where we go from here.

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Unable to Achieve an Islamic World, Iran Aims a Bit Lower

There seems to be a lot of weird coming out of Iran lately. Just a couple days ago, they announced that Iranian scientists developed a time machine (that they weren’t making public for fear of the Chinese stealing their technology). Yesterday, they announced that they had developed an “Islamic Google Earth“:

The system will be an “Islamic Google Earth,” according to Mohammad Hassan Nami, Iran’s minister for information and communications technology. It will go by the moniker “Basir,” which means “spectator” in Farsi, and it reportedly will be ready for launch in the next four months.

Google Earth merely feigns providing a service, Nami said, but is actually used by security and intelligence organizations to obtain information from foreign countries.

What exactly will be different about the “Islamic” 3D map, Nami didn’t say.

What better way to make it perfectly clear how differently you see the world?

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