Monday, April 30, 2012

Let's be reasonable

As you may have noticed, I’m working on some shorter, more concise answers to the big questions that are raised in this blog. This is not a trend toward witty quips. I hate witty quips. They were great in fifth grade, but their place is to give you something to think about, something to start to build a worldview around, not replace one. They are conversation starters. They are conversation enders if someone doesn’t want to know or doesn’t want to talk about how you arrived at your bumper sticker statement, but they are not a final answer. JT Eberhard gave a talk with 66 slides and lots of suggestions for how to respond to many of the objections to atheism this weekend at the Freethought Festival in Madison, WI. If you’re curious, here are a few:

Why argue about this at all? Shouldn’t people be allowed to believe what they want?

Sure, until they believe that they should pray for their child instead of taking them to the doctor when they have a curable illness. It’s fine until a High School student is ridiculed for not participating in a school prayer. This is not as rare as you might think.

Science can’t explain everything.

There are a lot of things that seemed unknowable or undoable in the last few centuries that have now been accomplished. Just because science hasn’t done something doesn’t mean it can’t.

Atheists just worship science.

We all defer to experts all the time. No one person can know everything. Science has built in checks and balances and its findings have been confirmed over generations. It is not a giant conspiracy theory.

It’s possible that [fill in the blank].

Possibility is always non-zero. We teach our children this so that they will strive to create a better world than the one we left them. Plausibility can be zero. We teach our children this so they won’t jump off a building based on; technically it is possible that they can fly.

JT didn’t have time for questions, but I had one more level that I didn’t think he had covered. I live in a small town where there aren’t a lot of people like JT, so I caught him on his way to lunch. My question was, what about the people who say,

I’m not really sure what I believe, theology isn’t really important, it’s more about community. I worship the universe, the mystery, and don’t have any particular image of God.

His answer was that any degree of unreasonableness is unhealthy. That’s the conversation starter. Where it goes from there depends on who you are talking to.

Any issues of health, career, who should be president, how our purchases affect the workers who made the product, what young people in our lives are learning, what cars we buy and how we drive them, what we say at a funeral, any of that, should not be left totally to chance nor should it be left to any unreasonable form of faith. I’m not suggesting that we paralyze ourselves by requiring a complete and thorough analysis of every mundane decision in life. At some point, you have to choose. You can choose to continue to think about it. You can choose not to. Just make your choice reasonable.

I know people that would never join an organization that promotes the official doctrine of their church. They would protest the activities that the organization engages in on a national level. Some of them are actively working to change the official statements of their church. They are members because they see their local church as an exception. They don’t see what they do on Sundays as a part of what their organization does everyday or what it has caused in the past. They compartmentalize the parts of their religion that they don’t like and disassociate themselves from them.

For any one individual, knowing just what they believe can be difficult to pin down. Most people don’t want to pin it down, and that’s fine, right up until I’m told I’m wrong for suggesting something is implausible or unreasonable when there is good evidence for it. I love to hear people’s life stories about how they arrived at their view of the universe, but that doesn’t come into play when you are talking about gravity or the need to breathe to survive. There shouldn’t be anything personally offensive about sticking to evidence on those issues. Applying reason to issues that are not as black and white should not be that much more difficult.

And I’m getting preachy again, so that’ll do it for now.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Elevator Conversation

Hold that 'vator! Hey, I heard you are an atheist. What's up with that? What are you so angry about?

It just means that I live my life on the premise that there are natural laws that are consistent throughout the universe. I could be wrong, but it gives me a lot of peace to view the world that way.

Could you push 6? What makes you so sure? What if there is a hell? A lot of people have believed that for a long time. There is a ton of evidence for God.

Right, I could be wrong, but Christians could be wrong and they should believe in Allah. Or we all could be wrong and we should be sacrificing to Zeus. How do you know? It seems we have a different idea about "evidence". I like to see experiments repeated and verified by more than one person.

That sounds boring.

There are many mysteries in the universe. Science begins with one person having an idea, an inspiration or an insight. They talk about it and find that others have had similar experiences. They keep looking into it, often opening up bigger questions and greater mysteries. If we had all of the answers, we would stop, but we keep exploring. Belief interrupts that process and claims to have an answer, a supernatural cause, "God did it".

Some people say, "God is everything, it is the great mystery", and I'm fine with that as long as you understand you are using "god" as a placeholder for things we don't understand. Just don't get stuck there. When some of that mystery is cleared up, don't argue that it should remain a mystery.

[Elevator stops at third floor. Look at shoes while people get on.]

What about morality? Science tells us nothing about that. Science doesn't create community.

[Sideways glances from the people who just got on]

Maybe. We do know that people need food, shelter and regular rest. We know when things are really bad. Deciding how we feed everyone, how we take care of the sick or what we do with people who want to take more than they give are decisions we need to work on together. I've never seen a concise set of rules that solves all those problems. I have seen technological innovations that could solve them if we wanted to and I've seen belief systems that promote torture, slavery and the death penalty for minor crimes. Show me a system that has consistently held together a moral community and I'll be interested.

Okay, well, my floor is next, I'll have to get back to you on that. But doesn't science say that there was nothing before the Big Bang? Everything has to have a cause doesn't it? Isn't it just an arbitrary choice to say God created everything or that it came from a quantum singularity?

I'll send you a YouTube link about that. That is a great mystery, and I don't understand all the physics behind it, but it still fits with the premise that there are consistent natural laws. The Big Bang started the 13.7 billion years that we experience, that we can see with telescopes. There were natural laws that caused the Big Bang, ones that we are only beginning to understand. It is not arbitrary at all. My search has always been for the real world.

Saturday, April 21, 2012


Time and Newsweek both had Jesus on the cover for Easter. Newsweek's Jesus was a hipster in New York. The article started with something that I hear a lot and is said as if it is non-controversial. It was something to the affect of "Christianity has become more politicized lately". What I can't figure out is when was it not politicized?

Moses was the lawmaker. He negotiated with a King for the release of his people. Then there were a lot of wars, supported by God until they united into a Kingdom and crowned their own King. The prophets continued to comment on policies of those Kings. In Jesus' time, there were various factions that had opinions about how to either ally with or fight against the Romans. Christianity really began to flourish when it got the support of Constantine and for centuries to be the legitimate King, you had to be crowned by the Pope.

This all finally started to break down in the 16th century, causing a lot of wars. In 1868, the 14th amendment to the United States constitution put the end to the debate about the separation of church and state. So for a few decades, at least in America, Christianity was not all that political.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Atheism Rising

This article came to me via Frank Schaeffer. He is an author and the son of a prominent evangelical from the 60's. He saw, from the inside, how the conservative form of religion we know today was built. He has since renounced that form of religion, but he still hangs on to his belief. He has 1430 Facebook friends and 5 of them liked my comment. They are a tough crowd, so I feel pretty good about that. See what you think.

First the article.

My comment is: Of course it looks different now. Religion constantly changes. Religions that don't change, die. Traditions are a way of passing on the arguments, the unanswered questions that take longer than one lifetime to resolve. The problems arise when the traditions get mistaken for answers.

I followed up a few hours later with this one:
I should add, I'm actually okay with fundamentalism not going away. Religion has been progressively tamed over the centuries and fundamentalism can find a place that is not harmful like it is now. We are doing fine living with all sorts of cultures with some pretty far out ideas all over the world. We just wouldn't consider having people from those cultures run for President if they said their beliefs should be central to the philosophy of the country. We wouldn't consider teaching their creation story as if it is scientifically probable.
but no one seemed to care much about it.