Monday, February 28, 2011

My life story, Part II

Me in college
As I said in my last post, my parents decided to take me back to church.  We started attending a small Methodist church, and not long after my parents discovered a local Christian radio station that rebroadcasted many things from Focus on the Family.  They slowly started becoming much more conservative in their religious beliefs.  When I was eighteen I was baptized in the same church we attended.

Not long after that we moved, I ended up doing home school my last two years of high school because we had to move several times and it would have been too much work starting new schools every couple of months.  This hurt my science education, but at the time I really didn't care, nor even realize I was being shorted.  I still managed to get into a good private college, Hendrix, in central Arkansas.

Yes I am in this photo, top row 6th from the left

During freshman orientation I met several people who were involved in a campus ministry called Student Mobilization. This group was heavily focused on mission work and evangelism.  I became increasingly focused on religion, I even decided to major in religious studies, with the plan of becoming a pastor or something along those lines.  My first two summers I went to a summer retreat with Student Mobilization to teach me how to be a better evangelist.  I stopped playing video games very much by the end of my sophomore year because several people in the ministry thought it was a waste of time that could be better spent sharing the gospel with other students.  I gave up listening to secular music and only listened to Christian rock, which except for 3 or 4 bands is almost universally horrible. I ended up giving up many things that made me who I was in a effort to fit in.

During this time I believed myself to be happy, after all I had friends that I fit in with, a group to belong too, and, of course, I was "saved."  However, there were a few dark clouds.  I occasionally felt like I didn't fit very well, like religion was the only thing I had in common with many of my friends.  I still "struggled" with pornography from time to time.  (there is a masturbation joke waiting to be made there but I will resist the urge) Also, I had niggling doubts about things, particularly theology.  These issues would occasionally make me depressed but I mostly ignored this stuff.

My first real doubts about religion came after my third year of college.  I did not attend Student Mobilization's camp that year, instead I decided to go on a mission trip to India, and I did this by going through another group that some people in Student Mobilization recommended to me.  I ended up in Calcutta for the summer, and as it turns out more than half of the group I was with came from a charismatic Pentecostal background.  I had, of course, read about these groups in classes and had talked with a few before.  However, as a guy with a background in Methodist, Baptist, and Non-denominational churches I had never been in the middle of a large group of people charismatic Christians.  The way the approached religion was so different than I did that it was hard to relate to them.  For instance, I believed in demons, but was rational enough to know how germ theory worked.  Therefore, when I got sick I went to the doctor or took some medicine.  I didn't blame demons for things that were caused by completely natural causes.  However, most of these people did blame demons, and wanted to pray over people, and preform faith healings on them when they got sick.  I thought it was common sense, we were living in a strange country with all sorts of germs we were not accustomed too, it was more likely for us to get sick than back home.  I felt like I had stepped 400 years back in time while speaking to some of my fellow missionaries.

Furthermore, some of them had prayed over me to receive the gift of speaking in tongues.  I felt nothing, but eventually I just started speaking gibberish because I was rather uncomfortable and wanted out of the situation.  I was certain they would see through the ploy, but instead they fell for it.  I knew I was not doing anything but spouting nonsense, there was no mystical experience.  There was just...nothing.

These events gave me pause, especially when I got home and had time to reflect.  The position they took would have seemed perfectly reasonable a few hundred years ago, and in fact seemed scripturally sound.  My thoughts on these things were more scientifically based, and they had thought I was not a faithful enough Christian because of it.  The question that came to my mind was how much of my own beliefs were might seem just as crazy to someone else.  I didn't have a good answer, but I did not like the implication of my thoughts.

The year after I came back from India the ministry I was involved in had a change of leadership on my campus.  They guy who took over had been a friend of mine for several years so I was naturally supportive of what he was doing.  However, he ended up being rather controlling and making massive changes to the ministry.  Many of these changes ended up pushing me out much of my active role there, the biggest of which was the shut down of the meeting in which I played guitar for the worship band.  I felt a bit put out by this, but still tried to support him.

I ended up staying in college for a 5th year for various reasons, at this point the new leader became almost hostile to me, he told me outright that I was "not submitted enough to the authorities that god had placed in my life," and told me that he would not write any recommendation for me to join any ministry upon graduation. (which was still a career goal of mine at this point.)  I can only guess this was because I was developing a habit of asking uncomfortable theological question, and because I did not share certain personality traits he found were needed for being a evangelist.  At the same time he decided to start a new weekly meeting for the ministry, and unsurprisingly he did not ask me to be in the worship band.  He instead picked a "disciple" of his that he clearly liked better than me.

Of course since I was a 5th year student most of my closest friends who would have defended me had already left, so with no one to turn to I was quickly ignored.  I became depressed, stopped attending church, barely paid attention to my classes and as a result almost didn't graduate.  I ended up a credit short and had to take a summer class to get my diploma, and on top of that I had no job prospects when I graduated since any ministry was going to ask for references, which I knew I would not get.  Plus I was having serious questions about my religion which no one, not even God, seemed to be able to answer.  By the time I finished college I was an emotional wreck.

I'll leave this to be finished in part 3, don't worry, it will end on a happier note.  Haven't you guys ever been to the movies?  Trilogies always look worst for the protagonist at the end of part 2.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Jesus dance

For those of you who think I am going to hell for my atheism here is a video I found on YouTube made by someone who may well end up there first.  This video made me smile.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

UFO meeting in the phoenix area

I did not know this until I saw a local news report on TV, but apparently Arizona is hosting one of the largest UFO conferences in the United States this year.  They will be in town till this Sunday.

I had a good laugh at the news report.  One minute you had a guy trying to convince everyone that this wasn't a group of people who belonged in a loony bin, and the next minute a person was telling the interviewer that they were only 23% human and the rest of them was made up of various other alien species.  They never said which parts were which.  How many people wanna bet that if we took a sample of their DNA it would look 100% human?

On the other hand the largest UFO conference is only slated to have about 1,000 attendees, so maybe people aren't quite as gullible as I sometimes think they are.

My life story, Part I

Me at around thirteen.
My blog has been up and running for well over a month now, and I seem to actually be getting a few readers.  I am happy about this, though I doubt I will ever be as well known as blogs like Pharyngula or Atheist Experience, we will just have to wait and see.  In any case, I mention over in the "about me" section that I was once a fundamentalist Christian, which is something that I am sure will leave some readers curious about how I got to where I am today.  This being the case I thought I would write a few posts explaining the journey that got me here. 

In this first part I am going to talk a bit about my early life, before I became a Christian, leading up to why I converted in the first place.

In my preteen years I did not get along with people my own age very well, and often hung out with adults.  From a young age my parents cared about education, they read to me, encouraged me to read and told me to use a dictionary if I didn't know what a word meant.  I was reading books like "The Lord of the Rings" by the time I was twelve so it should not be surprising that I had a college level vocabulary before I started Jr. High.  Don't get me wrong, I did normal kid things as well, but I often did not fit in well with other people my age.

Since I was picked on a lot I became even more introverted throughout Jr. High, and high school.  When I was about fourteen I started learning computers which didn't much help my status as a nerd, since this was back in the early 90's when very few people knew much about them.

Through most of this time I gave very little thought to religion, I would have said I believed in god, I also would have said I believed in evolution, but I knew very little of religion or of science, nor did I really care about them.  I had my fantasy/sci-fi books, my video games and my computers so I didn't really care about any of this.

Things changed when I was around sixteen, my parents caught me reading some pornography.  *gasp* *shock* a sixteen year old male reading porn?  Say it ain't so.  Well, to much of the world this might have seemed rather innocuous, even expected, but to my parents it was a sign that I was on the proverbial highway to hell.  My parents had been more religious when they were younger, and in their wisdom decided they needed to take the family back to church so they could "fix" me.

I resented it at first, but at the same time the church offered a place to belong and fit in.  Christianity even often sells itself in this way, and for a social misfit like me this appealed to me greatly, so I gave it a chance and over a period of a year or two I came to believe in Christianity.

I will end here for part I.  In Part II I will speak about my religious experience, and my descent into fundamentalism.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sometimes religious people get it right

I ran across this article yesterday, by a Baptist of all people, written debunking many myths about church-state separation that are spread by the religious right.

Everyone knows how often I rant about church state separation and how seldom religious leaders seem to understand its importance.  This being the case, I thought it important to point out a religious leader who has it right.

With a few exceptions most of this article could have been written by me.  I suggest everyone go give it a read.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Bible studies in public shools

So Kentucky it trying to push a bill through offering a bible study class in public schools.  I know, hard to believe from the state that brought us the Creation Science Museum, but its true. Not really much to be said here, though the article does start out with the writer parroting the old canard:
Did you know the well-used governing phrase is not in the U.S. constitution?
This tells me that the writer clearly needed a better history education not more Bible study while he was in school.

Personally I have no problem with teaching students about the bible if it is done from a secular perspective.  I strongly believe that most people who read the bible in a more scholarly fashion will come away with more doubts about Christianity, not fewer, so by all means have the kids seriously study it using modern historiography.

I do doubt, however, that a teacher who refers to the bible as "the holy book" is the correct choice for such a endeavor.  I suspect that he will spend much of his time telling his students why Christianity is true and far better than all those "heathen" religions.  Though considering he admits to already using the bible in other classes he may well be doing that already.  

I also found some of the comments on this article rather funny as well.  One in particular by a person who's screen name read "praise God."  He says:
God is the forefront of this country!!! Religion should BE our schools!! maybe then we wouldnt have so much violence in this world... is also possible that a Bible class could cut down on teen suicide..think about it!! kudos to this school!! God Bless!!
So horrible writing aside, (does he really need exclamation points after everything?) I found this funny since a study of history shows that religious beliefs seem to have no correlative effect on the level of violence in a society.  Furthermore, it is also true that the level of violence in most modern societies are lower than they ever have been in human history. 

Further, one group of teenagers that have a suicide problem are gay students, and I don't think it is unreasonable to suggest there might be a correlation between gay bashing and passages in the bible like Leviticus 20:13 which says,
If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.
In short this bill seems to be a thinly veiled attempt to use the government to push religious teachings on students.  hopefully it will be seen as such by the Kentucky house of representatives who are currently debating the bill...but I wouldn't count on it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Why can't we all just get along? This is why.

I ran across this article by Rabbi Adam Jacobs when I saw a link to it over on the Atheist Experience blog.  Rabbi Jacobs writes this to say that he wants atheists and theists to get along better, unfortunately his letter is full of many of the various canards and tropes which tend to irritate atheists in these dialogs.

He actually starts out pretty strong in the first paragraph but quickly descends into nonsense in the second paragraph, by saying the following:
The first point I'd like to explore is that there really are no true atheists. It seems to me that in order to claim with certainty that there is no God you would have to have knowledge of the totality of the universe - seen and unseen - and I don't think any of you guys are ready to make that claim.
So he starts his dialog with atheists by asserting that we are not real, and completely invalidating our beliefs.  Is this really his best effort in outreach to the atheist community?  This particular topic is annoying to atheists for three reasons.  One, it is a straw-man, I know of no atheist who actually asserts that they know there is no god.  Second, it is a useless semantic argument.  Third, we do not need to prove there is no god with 100% certainty in order to not believe in one.  Anyone should be able to think of hundreds of things that they do not believe in without being 100% certain about it.  What is mostly annoying about this is that Jacobs claims to know quite a bit about the atheist mind set, later in the article he even claims to have been one, a point I will comment on more in a moment.  If he understands us so well why was this the opening volley of his article?  I can only conclude is knows less than he thinks, or he wants to make us angry.

He continues in this third paragraph by saying that debates over religion are pointless because we all have are so called "experts." Atheist have Dawkins, Hawkins etc. and theists have C.S. Lewis, and Anthony Flew.  Of course I might point out that Flew is a Deist and not a theist, which is not a minor distinction, but that is not what really struck me.  The problem with this is that he basically misunderstands us again.  The so called "new atheists" don't really put that much stock in experts, at least not the way he seems to think.  The facts speak for themselves and I don't really care who makes the arguments so much as I care whether they are good arguments.  For instance, while I respect C.S. Lewis in many ways his arguments for religion are extremely bad, not as a matter of opinion but as a matter of objective fact.  Besides, just because we disagree does not mean we should all stop having a dialog on this issue in order to get along as he seems to think we should.  I simply do not share his opinion that this debate is pointless.

He then start the fourth paragraph by saying
Having spent a sizable portion of my life as an atheist, I understand your perspective.
Reading this made me chuckle since he started this article by saying there are no atheists, but in any case he goes on to admit he only recently learned why we have a problem with religion, that is:
You believe that we are ruining the world and stunting its progress.
I have a bit of difficulty believing it took him this long to realize that this is why most atheists have a problem with religion, it is not like we hide this from people.  However, I give him credit for seeing this point honestly, most simply ask atheists in some sort of mock bewilderment why we seem so angry all the time.  Though he goes on to list several groups of atheists who he says tried to ruin society too.  He lists Hitler among these even though he was clearly not an atheist, or at least if he was had no problem making religion a major part of his regime.  However, my biggest problem with this tu quoque argument is that they simply dismiss their own failings by pointing out the failings of others.

First, as atheists, we are well aware of the excess of certain political ideologies, we are also aware that some of these ideologies are atheistic in nature.  Most atheists I know would happily oppose such groups for many of the same reasons we speak out against the excesses of religion.  This is because our opposition of organized religion is really a separate issue from our atheism.  As an example of this look at the writings of Thomas Paine, who was a founding father, and a Deist.  He wrote several books attacking organized religion with far more vitriol than anything Dawkins or Hitchens could muster despite his ardent belief in god.

Second, telling us about the bad things that non-religious people have done is not conducive to a solution, and people like Jacobs manage to completely misunderstand what our complaint is when it comes to religion anyway.  Our chief complaint (or at least mine) is not a laundry list of the bad things religious people have done, but with the basic philosophical underpinnings of religious thinking.  This thinking makes it easier for bad ethical teachings to go unchallenged, and can often make even those who WANT to be good, do things which are harmful because their religion says the actions are virtuous.

I have yet to ever hear any theist adequately defend any of this.  Every one I have ever spoken with has always avoided the question entirely by pointing out that atheists have done bad things too.  We know this, it's obvious, being an atheist is no guarantee of rationality.  Indeed I, as an atheist, would take issue with the ethics of the atheistic governments, like communist China,  that Jacobs mentions for the same reason I take issue with religious ethics.  No one was allowed to question anything in communist regimes, the system was clearly not working but anyone who said so ended up in a prison or dead.

He ends up trying to say that theists are not anti-science but that, "see scientific proof and inquiry as subject to certain inherent limits."  This statement seems to be extremely anti-science to me.  Perhaps I misread him, but I typically see statements like this as saying they are OK with science as long as it doesn't question any religiously motivated beliefs, anyone who knows a smattering of the history of science should know why that is an unreasonable demand of scientific inquiry.

He ends his article with an argument from design, which seems rather preachy for someone who started out by saying they weren't trying to preach.  When he says to atheists,
You don't enjoy my conviction that there are aspects of existence that are, by their nature, beyond the reach of science.
he is quite correct, but I have no trouble admitting that there might be some things beyond the reach of science.  I just happen to think it absurd to assert this with conviction when there is, by definition, no evidence for it.  If it is beyond the reach of science then it, also by definition, cannot have any effect on anything in observable reality, since that which exists but has no effect on us is indistinguishable from that which does not exist at all then a conviction that such a thing exists is pointless at best.

That happens to be my final conclusion about his article, a pointless waist of time, I doubt any atheist is going to read this article and leave it with the urge to open a more friendly dialog with Jacobs about religion.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Athiests are all doomed....apperently....I guess.

The ruination of atheists everywhere or a confused 
man with bad grooming be the judge.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams of the Church of England is working to fight against all of our evil atheist persecution. You know all those evil things we do, like fighting for equal treatment under the law, demanding that Christians stop using force of law and government funded organizations to foist their beliefs on others.  

Clearly we are evil destroyers of all that is good in modern society, and though we thought we were fooling everyone.  However, this genius without a comb saw through our ruse.  He knows our secret plans, and the horrible things we want to do.  

For instance:
the Church could lose its place at the centre of public life unless it challenges attempts to marginalise religious belief.
This is just the sort of horrible thing that we athei.....wait....what? I'm not actually seeing the problem with this.

Lets try this again:
However, the document says that this intolerance is becoming more widespread and can be seen in public bodies, which it says must be challenged over attitudes of "suspicion or hostility towards churches and other faith groups". 
Exactly, this is nonsense, it is not as if religious groups have done anything to deserve suspicion....oh wait, I forgot about all the stuff they do that makes them deserving of suspicion.

OK, lets try this one more time:
the Church of England can appear too vague on where it stands on issues and risks further divisions over the introduction of women bishops and future debates about sexuality.
Seriously, what reason could the Church of England possibly have to open a debate about equal rights for women and other minorities?...oh right...the reason is all that stuff I just said.

On second thought, never-mind, i take it back. Rowan Williams is not a danger to atheism, secularism, or skepticism, he is a desperate leader in an organization that is becoming increasingly irrelevant, and shrinking by the day, and is angry that they no longer lead the way in ethical thought, or anything else for that matter.

Neither he nor the report he endorsed offer any real intellectual challenge to the "new atheists," all they offer is a tired old diatribe while pining for years gone by when they had all of the power instead of most of it.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Pinheads for everybody


Everyone should remember Bill O'Reilly's idiotic comment about the tides proving god's existence.  I talked about it in a post last month.  It seems that those of us on the blogosphere struck a nerve with O'Reilly causing him to scramble to explain himself.  

Of course, in typical O'Reilly fashion, his explanation involved calling everyone who has the gall to criticize him a "pinhead," and claiming we are all just "desperate," whatever that means.  I suppose this means I am now officially a pinhead.  

Yes, yes, I know my blog has hardly been around long enough for someone like O'Reilly to notice mine in particular, but it's close enough for me.  Being called a pinhead by someone who so regularly shows his ignorance of and outright disdain for both science and atheists is a badge of honor in my book.

In any case, his response was an ignorant rant of even more epic proportions than his last one.  I would like to call attention to one of the low points in his argument.    
Okay, how'd the moon get there? Look, you pinheads who attacked me for this, you guys are just desperate. How'd the moon get there? How'd the sun get there? How'd it get there? Can you explain that to me?  How come we have that and Mars doesn't have it? Venus doesn't have it. How come? Why not? How'd it get here? How did that little amoeba get here, crawl out there? How'd it do it?
One of mars' apparently non-existent moons
So what exactly does the earth have that Mars does not have?  I tried to be fair to him I really did, but he had only mentioned two things at this point, the sun and the moon.  If he is really unaware that Mars orbits the same sun as us then there is no hope for humanity, so I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he is talking about the moon.   The problem is that that Mars actually has two moons, so he still comes out as looking like a horribly ignorant buffoon.  

Truthfully I don't even have to quote anymore of his argument because it all breaks down the same stupid nonsense that O'Reilly always uses in these arguments.  His entire argument for god's existence is always a giant argument from ignorance.  I cannot remember him ever once defending his beliefs in this area without resorting to this.  He seems to believe a lack of scientific explanation (or even his lack of awareness of such) justifies a belief in god.  It does not, and cannot, reasonably do this.  Furthermore, this has been pointed out to him multiple times and yet he persists in using this same argument.

I really have a hard time understanding how people manage to stomach his program, and his ignorance.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Thomas Jefferson vs. Clebe McClary. Who will emerge victorious?

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation has for an injunction to block Clebe McClary from speaking at the Marine academy prayer luncheon.  This has prompted another shit storm of controversy about what role religion should be able to play in the public sphere and over the interpretation of the constitutional rules regarding this divisive issue.

So, Is Clebe McClary's speaking engagement at the Marine academy prayer luncheon unconstitutional?  This is not a simple question, and to answer it we really need a history lesson.  Many people in favor of McClary's right to speak have been intoning that old canard that the phrase "separation of church and state" is not in the constitution.  Of course they are technically correct which, as I shall attempt to show, is a very long way from actually being correct.

The exact phrase used in the first amendment is, "congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." First, I very rarely hear people make the argument that since the amendment only mentions congress that all other parts of government, particularly the state governments are able to ignore this rule.  However, the Due Process and Equal protection clauses in the fourteenth amendment passed in 1868 have consistently been cited in rulings by courts to extend most of the regulations in the bill of rights (the first ten amendments) to extend to states.

Second, while the phrase "separation of church and state" do not appear in the U.S. Constitution, it does appear in a letter penned by then president Thomas Jefferson in 1802 to the Danbury Baptist association.  In this letter he makes the following statement:
I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.
 The entire letter is posted in the library of congress.

Many people have argued that Jefferson's statement, and the establishment clause in the 1st amendment which he references is only meant as a one way wall, preventing the state from injecting itself into religion but not preventing the reverse.  Such a position requires that one completely ignores the historical context in which both the 1st amendment and Jefferson's letter were written in.  The Danbury Baptist association, to which Jefferson's letter addressed, was only being persecuted by Connecticut's government in a very technical sense.  That is to say, the government of Connecticut had been taken over by a group of Christians which were theologically Calvinist.  This group was using the government to engage in the persecution of non-Calvinist people living in that state, including an extra tax that non-Calvinists were required to pay.  Baptist groups, which believed in free will, were at the top of that list.  The issue Danbury Baptist was having was not that the government was persecuting them, but that another religious group used the government as a vehicle for their abuse.  This is exactly what the first amendment was meant to prevent, and exactly what Jefferson was speaking about.

The odd thing is that Calvinists had not fared better in Europe, one of the primary reasons Calvinists had come to the colonies in the first place was to escape persecution by the English government which was connected with the Church of England.  Indeed this sort of escape from persecution for religious or political beliefs was quite common among many of the groups who had moved to the Americas during the early period of colonization.

The idea I am trying to get across here is that to make the "wall of separation between Church and State" only work in one direction would essentially make it work in neither direction.  To allow people to inject their religious beliefs into politics will always result in the state taking actions that interfere with religious freedom.

McClary clearly has a particular religious view that not every citizen, or Marine for that matter, shares, and a rather sectarian view at that, but no matter who speaks some people will not agree with their theology.  The real question I have is not whether this particular person should have the right to speak at the Marine's prayer luncheon, but why the Marines are having a prayer luncheon in the first place?

As long as religion is allowed an official place in state institutions, and politics, the first amendment is effectively being ignored, and issues like the one that the Danbury Baptist association was forced to endure will continue to occur.  Only time will tell whether or not people will heed the lessons our countries founding fathers learned, or if those who wish to circumvent the establishment clause will need to relearn the folly of merging religious belief with government the hard our expense.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

I weep for america's science education.

Pseudoscience plagues the health of our nation  

I ran across this article today. I was aware of most of the facts contained therein but there were a couple of things that I found disturbing, though not particularly shocking.

In particular the following quote:

Roughly 50 percent of Americans polled believe the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. Scientists put its age at more than 4.5 billion years. Forty percent of those surveyed believe that dinosaurs and humans coexisted on Earth, despite the 65 million-year gap shown by the fossil record. When asked to name a living scientist, 46 percent were unable to name even one. Of those who did, the top three were Bill Gates, Al Gore, and Albert Einstein, who died in 1955.

The part in bold seemed particularly bad, not that 46 percent could not name anyone, that I expected, but that the top names given by the other 54 percent were not living scientists. Those who think Einstein is still alive need to read a history book, but the other two are not even scientists. Bill gates is a computer programmer and Al Gore is a politician. Is this really the best our education system can do?