Showing posts with label Interviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Interviews. Show all posts

Monday, June 9, 2014

An Interview with Sabio Lantz

The following is an interview with Sabio Lantz of Triangulations.

On your blog, you use the pseudonym Sabio Lantz to, in your words, protect your professional and personal relations. What do you expect would change if you went public with your real name? (I’m obviously not judging, I also use a pseudonym.) What is your advice for other atheists who are unsure if they should conceal this aspect of their identity or embrace it publicly?

As you know, Religionists look upon Atheists with great disgust (see here). I have significant personal experience with Christian bigotry both as a victimizer and a victim.  I’ve written here and here of incidences where I lost (or almost lost) jobs because Christians were disgusted by this atheist. Also, my children have lost many new friends over the years when their parents found that our family were not believers. And as a former Christian, I unfortunately totally understand why believers do this.

I work in medicine and most of my patients are very web savvy.  They not only look up information on their health but also pull up info on their medical providers.  So I need to be careful because the overwhelming majority of my patients are Christian.  Even at my place of employment I am careful about how I say things in our Christian dominated milieu.  If my colleagues could easily find my on-line writings —and they would— it  could present unnecessary challenges at my work place and possibly threaten to my livelihood and well-being.

My advice to other atheists on this issue is that they be simultaneously cautious and brave.  Religious folks can be dangerous.  A good balance between being quiet about your beliefs or out-front about them comes from wisdom and luck — and I wish them much of both.  The answers will be different for everyone.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  I have made many mistakes and hope others don’t make as many as I have.

You have mentioned that you’ve been banned from atheist sites in the past. What were the events that lead to this action? When your beliefs cause you to dissent from the common atheist worldview, how do you find the atheist reaction? What do you think can be done to keep free thinking at the valued over a pressure to conform to the beliefs held by the more prominent atheists?

I must start this reply by saying that I have also been banned on several  religious sites, but I am sure your readers can imagine why.  But it is odd to be banned by atheists.  Banning because of violations of commenting policies is one thing.  And indeed, based on my comment policy, I have banned one or two atheists who made personal attacks on my site.

Atheists come in all stripes.  Sure, we all share several traits: not believing in gods  and valuing empirical evidence more highly than anecdotal subjective evidence are the two that come to mind.  But short of those, differences abound — and thus the difficulties of an “atheist community”.  We all have different temperaments, religious backgrounds, political alliances and philosophical positions.  Mostly, we all have different experiences.  All these differences have caused me trouble with other atheists who expect more uniformity.

Put simply, many blogging atheists are so angry with the religions that they are familiar with, that they detest when I point out when they overgeneralize about “religions”.  These anti-Anti-religion atheists seem to prefer the echo-chamber of the back-slapping buddies in their comment threads.  When I question the over-reach of these atheists’ claims and challenge their self-righteous hyper-rationality, they usually counter with ad hominem attacks and eventual banning. Most of these atheists are more interested in rhetorical lambasting of religion than they are in careful analysis.  They will spare nothing to attack religion — including, ironically, their rationality.

The solution:  I think we will always have these sorts of personalities — both in religious and atheist circles.  This sort of personality is difficult to change.  Probably the best way to change each other is by in-person meetings and not on the web where our social skills are not activated in the same way as they are in face-to-face encounters. That said, most atheists I deal with are delightful, but blogging draws disproportionately from the angry, cloudy-thinking sort.  In your comments, I will let those who dislike me tell you their version —why they really dislike me. I am sure their evaluation will be far less glorious, for we are always the hero in our own stories — and I am sure I am no different.

According to your “Share Thyself” (I’ll link to this) table, you list your ontology as naturalist, yet your posts are often sympathetic of the supernatural, especially those that share mystical experiences. How do you reconcile naturalism while leaving the door open for something more?

As I have posted here, I have had, and continue to have, many very odd experiences. Though I use to , I no longer don’t believe in the supernatural, but I also don’t think that just because I have these experiences that I am deluded, silly, weak or stupid.  Some of them are indeed tough to explain.

Many atheist have never had these sort of experiences and look down on those who do. I actually feel a bit sorry for these folks because such experiences are fascinating!

So my goal in sharing my “supernatural” experiences is to loosen Atheist disdain for those who claim such experiences.  But likewise, I am trying to show theists that even atheists have these experiences and that we can interpret them in naturalistic ways or at least not jump to the supernatural.  I try to show that supernatural experiences, no matter how strange, are probably more natural than our minds try to tell us they are.

Like you, I’m a father of a boy and girl. I’m always interested in how fellow atheists approach teaching the concept of religion to their children. What do you tell them about God, if anything? Do you have any tips for me?

My wife, like you Grundy, was raised Catholic and was far more bitter about religion than I was — I have softened her over the years as she has observed more benign forms of religion.  Several of my atheist friends have taken their kids to local churches so they fit in and can learn about religion and then choose on their own when they grow up.  We have opted to not play that game — but if played well, I do think it can be an OK option.

Since I have lived all over the world, I read my kids stories from many religious traditions and try to make it clear that all religions have silly ideas but that they all can carry great morals and ideals within their mythology.  Nowadays, I don’t read books to my teenagers but I point out and discuss stupid, bigoted religious beliefs as they pop up in the news.  We also discuss the bigotry they feel from religious kids in their schools. But I don’t care if my children grow up religious, I just don’t want them embracing a non-inclusive flavor of any religion, but otherwise, I don’t care. Instead, I care that I maintain a close, affectionate, supportive relationship with my children if I can.  That is a challenge for all of us, no matter how we raise our children. I have no advice on this, however, because I am never sure I am doing the “right” thing.  :-)

As atheists, we often talk about the harm caused by religion. What do you see as the primary benefit of religion, if any? 

“Religion” is a broad fuzzy term, even if anti-religion atheists or even religionists try tell us they know the true definition.  Nonetheless, using that broad notion we can see philanthropy, social care networks, psychological comfort and many more potential benefits of religions.  There is no one “primary” benefit, there are lots of different potential benefits.  As for the potential harms, they are clear to all of us.  I wrote a post here that attempts to show a more sophisticated way to evaluate harm vs. benefit in religion.  You may enjoy the diagram.

A favorite mantra of anti-religion atheists is that “the harm of religion far outweighs any good”.  First, ironically, these self-proclaimed gloriously-rational atheists are making an empirical claim without evidence and without any way to clearly test their pseudo-science claim.  Secondly, their claim is based on their own very simple view of “religion”, but that is a long conversation.

Would we be better without religion?  Well, not if it meant everyone would instantly be turned into the nasty sort of atheists.  Being a good person is not dependent on being atheist vs. theist and I only care about good people. Grundy, your blog’s subtitle is cute and clever: “One Day we’ll all be atheists, I’m just an early adapter”, but I don’t think religion (or things like it) will ever disappear — so I am for always improving religion for those who are unable to leave it.  I think theists can improve their theism to be more inclusive and kinder.  For example, see my post on “My Favorite Kind of Christians”. Likewise I think atheists can improve their worldviews.  Hell, we can all improve ourselves.

Is there anything that would once again convince you that there is a god? If so, provide an example.

Probably like many atheists, for me to again believe in a theist god, it would take amazing, overwhelming evidence. After all, the theist God is suppose to be all-powerful, all-caring, all-knowing, personal and interventional, so evidence for such a being should be able to blast us out of the water with clear evidence. The story books tell us that once God did give amazing signs and wonders, but that was before there were cameras, recorders and such.  But I am open to have my opinion changed yet again.  For if nothing else in my life,  I am a master of embracing ridiculous beliefs.  Se my post: “Confession Tales”.

But re-embracing God would be difficult.  For as my post call “The God Switch is Off” shows, there are several obstacles to my believing again.

In my post, “Most Christian’s Don’t Believe”, I again try to illustrate that “religion” is something much different than the mere declaration of supposed doctrinal truths that many religion-is-evil atheists try to maintain. With that in mind, my post on “A God I could Believe In”, tries to get behind the word “god” to show the complexity of how religious people hold their beliefs.

So, sure, in some kind of highly qualified way I believe in “God” today.  Heck, in my post “Monkey Religion vs Cat Religion” I try to show theists that there are many versions of “God”.  The monkey religion version is still one that my mind has echoing about without much cognitive dissonance. To understand that sentence, the reader will have to understand my view of “Many Selves”.

As this post illustrates, my atheism is an accidental epiphenomenon.


Thank you for the invite to write out replies to your questions.  I never dreamed I would spend so much time addressing atheist’s opinions of me.  I thought my insights and opinions were fairly bland and uncontroversial among atheists until I started blogging.  My blogs is full of posts pointing out the problems with theism, atheism, Buddhism, Hinduism and myself.  For indeed, nothing should be sacred!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

An Interview with Tjaart Blignaut

The following is an interview with Tjaart Blignaut of Massive Activity.

Over time, your blog has taken a much greater focus on atheism. Why this change of focus? Have you always been an atheist?

I have been an atheist since about the age of twenty one or twenty two. I spent quite a lot of time being quiet about my atheism, because I thought that beliefs were something personal that shouldn't be disturbed. My mind was changed gradually when I became aware of Richard Dawkins' out campaign. When I came out I realised that atheism was very much misunderstood, and I became troubled by the fact that Christians would totally ignore the fact that I was an atheist. My position was readily dismissed as a phase, or I was told that I would eventually turn back to belief. This thoughtless dismissal frustrated me, and I turned to blogging and engaging with believers online to say all the things I felt needed to be said, and pave the way for more atheists to feel like they could come out and speak out. If I could help one person to find a way out of faith, I would have accomplished my goal.

What would you recommend to a believer who is starting to question their faith to ease them further down the road to atheism or critical thinking?

I would recommend not seeing it as all or nothing. Questioning your faith does not mean you will become an atheist. If your beliefs are true you have nothing to worry about, if they are not true you need to think about whether holding false beliefs is good for you. The problem is that if you never honestly engage with yourself, you will never really know. There will be all these unanswered questions in the back of your mind that you will have to ignore or push away. A second piece of advice is just the attitude that you take toward questioning. The best way to prove a true belief is to try and disprove it. This is not an easy attitude, because it is natural and easy for people to want their beliefs to be true. A great way to think through your attitude is to learn about psychology. Psychology lays bare our biases so we can guard against them when we engage in thinking exercises. It is also fun and interesting, and it will help you generally improve your understanding of yourself and others. You have nothing to lose by learning an questioning.

My audience is mostly based in the Americas. What is the believer to nonbeliever ratio like in South Africa? What are the most common beliefs? The most irrational?

South Africa did not ask religious affiliation questions in the last national census. Wikipedia pegs non-religious at 8% in 2007, but this number seems questionable, the source at least is missing in action. The 2001 census shows more than 6 million non-religious people, but the term non-religious is not particularly useful, and based on observation this is probably not very indicative of the number of atheists. I have a few atheist friends, but I think they are overrepresented among software developers.

Calvinism has a strong influence here among white Afrikaners, and they had considerable influence in the Apartheid government. Many people here are falling into evangelical churches though, and many of these churches are US brands. There is a massive Rhema church in Johannesburg, and Joseph Prince and friends feature prominently on the religious channels on our satellite TV provider. There is a Christian book store in every mall!

Christianity dominates, but Islam is growing, Hinduism is ever present (I attended a Hindu wedding recently), and traditional African beliefs are still quite popular in rural areas. Traditional beliefs are probably the worst, because many young teenage boys die in a tribal tradition where they are circumcised in an unhygienic way, although society is kicking back hard, and they probably won't be able to do it for much longer. Muti (magical medicine) is also still practiced, and wildlife like Lions or Hyena can sometimes be mutilated for this magic medicine. Surprisingly, medical insurance companies in South Africa are required to pay for treatment at witchdoctors (not a leap from homeopathy I guess, which is also covered).

South Africa is an immensely plural society, and I could probably write a book on this topic alone. South Africans are pretty tolerant of each other because there are just too many groups for any one group to assert its religious authority in government and get away with it. Even though lots of people despise each other, we manage to get along. Here is a video of a gay Zulu wedding, I think it is something beautiful, tradition without backwards dogma. It is not representative of South Africans, but it does give me hope. Gay Couple Marry! Traditional African Zulu gay wedding a first.

You are very involved with counter apologetics and debate on Google+. What do you find is the best way to interact with apologists?

The best way I've found to approach apologists is to take them seriously. I think that they feel threatened by a growing atheist movement, and get the feeling that atheism is this new silly fad. A lot of them are clever people, but often they are conservative thinkers. The same kind of phenomenon shows with people who refuse to get smartphones and show off with their old monochrome Nokias, or in professional work people who insist that newer programming languages and paradigms are stupid and that old dependable ones are better. The behaviours are very similar, and it involves a lot of confirmation seeking and cognitive dissonance. The comparison isn't perfect, but I think the overlap is striking. We humans can become emotionally attached to ideas just like we do to tools we use that are outmoded or even fashion items. That's where I think apologists are mistaken. They think that fluidity in thinking and beliefs amounts to being disloyal or unpredictable.

That said, I have had some good discussions with them, and I respect them as thinkers insofar as they at least attempt to learn what their position entails. I've found that their arguments are not meant to convince atheists though, their arguments are meant almost exclusively to convince themselves and their fellow believers that they don't have to rip the existential carpet from under their feet. It's fun to engage with the arguments though, because you get to learn how to better think critically and evaluate what people are telling you. Of course there is the hope that the apologists will change their minds, but I'm not sure if this is possible. There is a fundamental shift required in how someone thinks before they can evaluate a foreign position. The other remote possibility is that an apologetic argument will sway me back to the believer side. I am open to this, as most of their arguments only account for a deistic god anyway, and I don't have a problem with there being a universal creator. The practical difference between an atheist and a deist is almost negligible, because a deistic god has no demands on its creation.

Do you use a different approach with classic apologists versus presuppositionalists?

Absolutely. You can have a really good time discussing arguments for the existence of god or the nature of knowing with classicalists sometimes, but with presuppositionalists you are basically dealing with someone who is deluded. Someone who is delusional will not change their mind under any normal circumstances. Presuppositionalists are not people who are putting forward an argument, they are putting up a mental barrier to refuse to let any arguments in. They are dependent on certainty in what we know to be a changing and uncertain world. I think that a godless world scares them to their core, and they are engaging in denial in order to avoid trying to address their insecurities about it. My focus with presuppositionalists has been an abject failure, but what I have tried to do is to just break through their certainty so that I can have a discussion with them to begin with.

To what extent do you now believe Jesus was real? Did he exist? Did he perform miracles? What do you base this on?

I don't have a problem with Jesus existing, but I think that question is odd, because we know other historical figures that were admired often had their history highly embellished by their followers. Not having a corroborated account of the man, it is hard to say anything about who he was. In that way then, it may be that Jesus as people understand the historical figure, may not exist. Maybe such an account will still show up. History is after all never complete. As for claims of his divinity, those claims are difficult to believe, not only because they are fantastical and contrary to what we know about reality, but also because the symbolism of suffering is totally unnecessary for an omnipotent god. He could forgive instantly, so the display of the crucifixion seems contrived and melodramatic. It is consistent with the kind of things we see in mythology, not of the kind of things we should expect from an all powerful, all knowing, all good deity.

The other problem I have with Jesus is that the trinity was a huge cause of violent conflict for Christians. If Jesus had taken some effort to clear up what the trinity meant all of that could have been avoided.

Who is your favorite atheist public figure and why?

I would have to say that Peter Boghossian takes that position for me currently. I was extremely disillusioned with the interactions I was having with believers until I picked up his book. The idea of having discussions instead of debates, delivering small micro inoculations against faith, the socratic method, treating believers with respect and the readiness to change ones mind are all things that have a great potential to make our interactions with believers more civil, productive and honest. I have been guilty of talking at believers instead of with them, but I am changing that. Shock value and mockery have their place, but ultimately we will push people away if that is how we define all our interactions with people exclusively.

What do you see as the most beneficial aspect of religion? The most harmful?

Religion brings people together. I think that can be a good thing. Some churches genuinely support their members both financially and psychologically. Some churches also preach positive messages and are genuine in their attempts to do good. My sex education class in high school was done by a religious group in a church building, and they delivered good education, telling kids that masturbation was okay, that you could do other naughty things besides sex, that condoms were good, and that sex was natural and not shameful. It wasn't perfect, but it is a far cry from the abstinence only education that some believers try to push on horny teens. Of course I think that secular groups can accomplish all the same things, but I think that those churches that do good deserve credit where its due.

What I find most damaging about religion is that it is a gateway belief. My scepticism certainly did not start with religion, it started with medical quackery. I could see how people were spending a great deal of time and money on ineffective medical treatment, and I wanted to change that. The problem that believers face is that they have been taught this idea of faith being a virtue. It can be trivially easy to lead many of them astray.

A church is a con man's best chance at a payday, because there is no other place where people will willingly call themselves sheep. It is this understanding of the world that makes it easy for believers to fall for so many other traps. In my view this is why politicians can hijack religion, why pastors can suck their congregations dry, why a believer will indulge in astrology, believe in witches, demons and satanic conspiracies, or spend the last of their savings paying for homeopathy instead of seeking treatment at real medical institutions. I don't think the world will be capable of destroying superstition if religious superstition is allowed to flourish and faith is encouraged as an essential trait of a good person.

Monday, April 29, 2013

An Interview with Thom Burkett

The following is an interview with Thom Burkett of A Hopeful Hero's View.

Since a requirement for priesthood is celibacy, atheists often think those who would choose to enter the clergy are less into women than the average population. In your experience, did you find that your fellow priests struggled with their abstinence? Could the prohibition of healthy sexual relationships be a contributing factor into the Church’s history of sex crimes and scandal?

Sexual orientation is certainly a controversial topic regarding a seminarian’s choice to be celibate or abstain. While I do believe based on my experience that many young men entering the seminary, at least whilst I attended were gay, I do not believe it was because of their sexual orientation they choose to be celibate.  Rather celibacy, based on theological teaching that homosexual behavior is a sin/immoral, is an option in the Christian life. In fact Bishops have called for homosexuals to engage in abstaining from sexual activity as a way to continue to live a moral life within the catholic/Christian context of their community.  

I did find that many priests struggled with celibacy and abstinence, but I would not say it was the majority.  In fact I experienced that most priests are able to be celibate and abstain from sexual or intimate relationships.  I think that seminarians – those studying to be priests – struggle with celibacy more than a parish priest.  Partly because it is so new/foreign and partly because these young men are living in close quarters together and the temptation may be for some, overwhelming. However, I think that by the time these men are ordained priests (usually after 9 years of seminary) they are more capable of maintaining celibate lives.  Though obviously not all the time, I included.

From psychological studies done, for example, celibacy and in fact sexual abuse are NOT more prevalent among catholic priests or the catholic clergy. What is more disturbing is the hierarchy of the Church covering up abuse and moving sexual predators from one parish to another with no with regard for the safety of the children involved.  I have observed that the scandal of “predatory priests” is more sensational and therefore finds more press than sexual scandals say among family members, teachers, or other professions (doctors, etc.).

The phrasing of the question itself, “healthy sexual relationships” implies those celibacy/abstinence are not healthy sexual practices.  I would disagree, and remind readers that in fact many people are celibate, and not always for religious or faith based reasons.  Being celibate/abstaining from sexual activity can be fruitful/healthy lifestyle choices, but they would need to be practiced by persons fully aware of their own sexual appetite and desires.  Appropriate ways to reassign sexual urges in healthy activities would need to be discovered and practiced.  All in all, celibacy/abstaining from sexual activity aren't bad – I believe it is in the context the Church applies them and the lack of providing seminarians and priests with the context for how to successfully live a celibate life that create issues and infidelity to celibacy and theological teachings of the context of celibacy in an active minister’s life.

How does the hierarchy of the Catholic Church compare to military chain of command? From an outsider, it seems like the authority of the Pope is nearly absolute. To what degree could you, as a priest, influence the higher-ups? To what degree did you have to follow your superiors?

The Church is indeed hierarchical; however I wouldn't compare it to a military structure.  It’s more of a medieval feudal system.    The pope while having some absolute authority only has it in matters that are solemn papal declarations (ex-cathedra).  The doctrine and theological teachings of the church do not hold that the pope is infallible on all matters, and there are many instances of papal declarations made that have been reversed.  It is extraordinarily rare that a pope make an infallible declaration in the manner required by their own theological institution.  My experience of practical living as a priest was most certainly in a “hierarchical chain” – however I had complete autonomy regarding preaching, teaching, day to day operations of my parish and church.  In larger context, disagreement with Church doctrine/theology would result in corrective action and would be met with swift retaliation and discipline.   My influence as a priest of higher ups was nominal to non-existent.

As a priest you heard the confessions of members of your congregation. (As much as I'd like to ask what about the most outrageous confession you ever heard, I won't.) Do you feel the admission of guilt helped these people in anyway? Do you feel it helped you when you went to confession?

I think the practice of confession can be reconciliatory for some people who may be struggling with issues of morality or guilt from something that they have done/did to another person.  However, my usual experience of confession was it was extraordinarily routine – for example, “I was angry at my husband”, “I lied to my wife”, “I stole a grape at the grocery store”, “I had impure thoughts.”  I never personally enjoyed the experience of confession and felt it was an unnatural way to resolve issues of moral conflict in a theological context.  Confession to a priest is a construct for believers to confess to the priest acting “in persona Christi”, as well as acting as a representative of the human family.  It was a way to say “sorry” without taking accountability to the persons/person that wrong may have been inflicted upon.  Often most of the “sins” confessed were day to day normal human emotions, anger, lust, greed, pettiness, and most people confessed such trivial things that it was a fruitless endeavor.

Is there a specific doctrine of the Church you found especially hard to accept? Did you feel pressure to preach on topics that you didn't believe were true?

Abortion was especially difficult. I do not oppose the legal right of woman to control their own bodies, and the absolute teaching of the church regarding abortion was impossible for me to accept.  I also absolutely disagreed with the church on its stance regarding homosexual activity and gay rights (they still qualify homosexuality as a moral wrong).  I disagreed with the church’s stance regarding woman and their role in the church (no woman priests for instance).  I refused to preach or discuss these topics with my congregation.

Leaving a religion usually means leaving a primary social group. This must be doubly so for a man of the cloth. Did you experience difficulty maintaining friendships or finding new ones after leaving your church? Do you have any advice for others facing this problem?

I lost every friend I had as a priest and literally haven’t heard from a single person I knew as a priest, including a few who were my best friends.  Additionally leaving the priesthood cost me relationships with most of my family and I maintain relationships only with my parents (I have two brothers and two sisters whom I have lost most contact with).  I had no issue making new friends after ministry and discovered very quickly a close group of friends (all of whom are atheists) that have been my friends for nearly 15 years.  My advice – make friends based on common interests, music, arts, sports, food drink.  Get out, explore the world. There are almost 8 billion people here; there are other like-minded folks who don’t define themselves by their theological beliefs.

Have you found yourself taking up other more atheist-typical viewpoints since dropping Christianity? For example, are you more socially or fiscally liberal today? Why do you think certain values that aren't necessarily linked to belief or disbelief tend to fall in line with theists or atheists?

I am most certainly more liberal since leaving the church.  The biggest difference now though is my lack of desire to ask others to conform to my way of thinking.  I am an atypical atheist in that I hold no malice towards theists, nor do I describe their belief systems as inferior or wrong.  I know from my own experience there is no divinity, god, spiritual being in charge or interacting with humanity, space or time.  We are the result of a chaotic but glorious happenstance in the universe, a perfect collision of atoms and matter and anti-matter that resulted in life as we know it.  The only divine force is that of the universe itself, the laws of physics and nature.

I believe humans are genetically basically the same and our evolutionary journey has been such that many of the same “beliefs” exist from place to place, practice to practice.  On a very base view, humans are only able to survive because we are “pack” animals. Our evolution of culture and society are the reason we are the dominate species on earth, without these, individuals humans would not exist, we have neither the physical strength nor instincts to do so. Much like a solitary ant or bee, our success is gained by our hive.  A point of this evolutionary growth is the practice of religion, much of that religious experience evolved as a way of understanding a universe so as to hold it in context for greater growth.  The soaring cathedrals of Europe helped us develop and grow cities, language evolved as a way to preserve theological thought, science math all have roots in theological and religious context.  Yet as we evolve our understanding of “divinity” has evolved and I see atheists as the next step of that evolution.  We no longer need mythology to justify humanism, our own desire to grow as species naturally evolves from the need to support and tend to each other in a consistent respectful way.  Our very nature dictates this, no moral code assigned by a theological system is necessary.  There is no evidence of the divine, yet evidence is overwhelming for evolution, big bang, natural law and physics.  I think theists cling to their beliefs because it makes a very complicated universe, which is inconceivable, a concept they can grasp.  Think of it, when you look into the night sky there is no end to that which you see, yet because we are finite in mortality, our brains cannot truly grasp the infinite, and thus to make it understandable some folks turn to theology/theism, and that way when the look at the infinite sky they can define it in a finite way as part of a “god’s” plan.  Thus their brain is capable of understanding that which truly is not understandable.  I can acknowledge as an atheist that the universe is bigger than my understanding – and that is perfectly okay.

What do you see as the most beneficial aspect of religion? The most harmful?

The benefit of religion – its ability to move people to do good to one another, to care for, and tend to each other’s needs.  The most harm?  Religion’s exclusion of the possibility that they might be wrong about their belief is absolutely harmful.  They are so afraid of being wrong they cannot admit it, and thus is born fundamentalism and from that so too hatred.  Religion tends to be absolute, rigid – in most if not all theological systems, belief in god is fundamental.

Even as an atheist I’m not afraid to acknowledge I might be wrong about the universe – but so far everything about the world I experience has proven me right -  in ways that are measurable by others outside of my own experience.  Faith, religion cannot make that claim (why are there so many examples of divine in the world and its history).

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

An Interview with Very Rarely Stable

The following is an interview with Very Rarely Stable of Atheist Biblical Criticism.

You are an ex-evangelical Christian who writes “a blog devoted to biblical studies without a confessional bias.” You may not have a confessional bias, but since no one can criticize completely objectively, what would you say your bias is now? How do you try to stay objective, if that is indeed your goal? 

Firstly, many thanks for offering to interview me; as a new blogger, this makes me feel like something of a VIP, but on a fraudulent basis!

I agree wholeheartedly that no one can write without bias, and in scholarly literature this is often pointed out. But when it is pointed out, frequently that seems to be the end of it, and there’s no attempt to examine, reduce or counteract one’s bias. It’s as if we now have a mantra, “bias is unavoidable” which then justifies a “so anything goes” approach.

In the field that I’ve taken up, biblical criticism, most authors and scholars come from a Christian or Jewish background, and most of them practice their religion in some form. There are atheist and agnostic biblical critics (a few have become relatively famous, such as Bart Ehrman) but their numbers are much smaller than their confessional colleagues.

When I was an evangelical fundamentalist, I came across biblical criticism almost by chance, and found that it was a fascinating subject that very much challenged my assumptions and beliefs about the bible. At that time most biblical critics, it seemed to me, felt free to come to conclusions in conflict with their religious denominations, and I found this quite refreshing and indeed surprising. For example, a Roman Catholic, Raymond Brown, wrote a book that is still the major work on the birth of Jesus, in which he produced, amongst many other things, a very detailed critique of the virginal conception. In the first edition of this book he doesn’t give an opinion as to the veracity or otherwise of this doctrine, but it has been immensely helpful to anyone wishing to challenge it. So much so that by the time of the revised edition it seems (according to comments he makes in the preface) that there had been attempts to nobble him. I thought he set a very good example of how one can at least try to step outside of one’s inherent bias – no one can ever entirely succeed, but one shouldn’t give up trying.

However, at that time a few evangelical fundamentalists were joining the biblical critical fold and producing shoddy work trying to defend their presupposed doctrine of inerrancy. The rot, it seemed to me, had started in the UK with the late FF Bruce becoming professor of theology at Manchester University. He recruited another inerrantist to the faculty, and then this disease spread to other universities in Britain. There are now quite a number of inerrantists working in British universities churning out their apologetics.

I’ve always felt rather outraged by this, as I’ve found the work of these fundamentalists to be useful only when they happen to coincide with views of non-fundamentalists – which they do only on subjects they consider non-essential to the fundamentalist way of thinking.

Outside of the evangelicals, it has always seemed to me that there was a healthy variety of opinion which helped find a balanced way forward in the field. I suppose “peer review” is one of the key ways of assisting this. I have tried to be widely read in the subject, so that I’m not reliant on one narrow view. I do appreciate the works of Christians and Jews, although I grit my teeth when I start reading a fundamentalist work!

In the not-so-distant past, when the Richard Dawkins site had a user-friendly forum (which closed down in, let’s say euphemistically, “unfortunate” circumstances) I wrote a few posts there which were like mini-articles. I found writing these helped me reflect and often change my opinion in at least some respect – I might be sure my “opponent” was wrong, but when I set out to write down why, I found my opinions could be modified, at least to a certain extent.

These days unfortunately the various successor websites to the Richard Dawkins forum haven’t got the attraction that the big name gave to that site. I find they also tend to be invaded by single-issue groups, which are hard to keep at bay. So I decided I should start my own blog to help get my thoughts down on some issues, which will (and has) modified my thinking. I’m also hopeful that these thoughts will lead to some discussion, as a sort of substitute for peer review. At the moment my blog isn’t visited very much, and so this has barely started. But, for example, there’s been an interesting contribution from someone with knowledge about ancient weaponry, and I very much hope that I’ll eventually get more numerous visitors with helpful comments and criticisms.

You gradually left a series of churches. Leaving a religion usually means leaving a primary social group. Did you experience difficulty maintaining friendships or finding new ones after leaving your church? Do you have any advice for others facing this problem?

When I was a child my parents moved from Roman Catholicism to Anglo-Catholicism – it was in the post-Vatican II era, when lots of young couples made this move owing to a certain doctrinal disappointment (nuff said?!). So I guess, to a degree, I’ve always found it acceptable to move churches. Indeed for a short while during my 20s I returned to Roman Catholicism – I was desperately trying to retain some kind of christian belief, and an RC priest told me that his church would consider me always to be a Roman Catholic, as I had been baptised.

I think the hardest break I’ve had was with evangelical fundamentalism. Exclusive groups always have things in place to make it hard for people to leave. Largely I enjoyed my time as an evangelical, and in a way it was the form of Christianity which, contrary to what one might expect, got me actually thinking about what I believed and why. I also made great friends in evangelical Christianity, and was sad to leave them behind. In a way my greater sadness is that they couldn’t share in new understandings I had come to.

As I left the movement I had a few difficult conversations with evangelicals who tried to convince me I was wrong to challenge evangelicalism. Perhaps it was easier for me as I came out of evangelicalism with 3 friends. I no longer have a friend who is an evangelical, and I see this as fairly inevitable. I do have friends who follow less extreme forms of religion.

What would I say to others facing this problem? Yes it’s hard, but it’s also psychologically hard trying to believe 6 impossible things before breakfast. I’d also suggest not being too hard on those who remain behind in your previous religion – yes they can say hurtful things to you, but you were also one of them once, so you should know how these religions work and how they influence their adherents to say or do certain things.

Churches, just like many religious communities, provide a ready package of potential friends and a social outlet. I think for many of us atheists who have left a religion with all its creature comforts, we can find it difficult without this off-the-shelf option; and finding others with common interests and shared values who are open to befriending can be problematic. My only advice is to be creative about how you build up a network.

Dealing with family members is much more hard, and here I’d say I have no general advice – I think everyone’s situation is different; by all means take advice from others, but at the end of the day you have to do what you think is best. I’m not “out” as an atheist with my parents even in my middle age (!) although they might suspect. Personally I prefer it that way.

I find people who defend the bible do so from a very narrow perspective. Considering you’ve been interested in bible studies for some time and read both Hebrew and Greek, what is one of the more surprising misconceptions of the holy book?

I think when “defending” the bible, what people are actually defending is a human concept about the bible, most commonly univocality or inerrancy. The documents of the bible are simply documents of their time and their communities; they sometimes portray themselves to be older than they actually are, but this is usually betrayed in some form or other.

It’s difficult to know what to pick for the most surprising misconception – there are so many options; of course, many of them have been done to death on blogs and other Internet sites. Obviously for inerrantists, I could easily pick from the myriad of contradictions or errors of fact that are made. At the moment on my blog I’m going through “Who killed Goliath?” where, if you didn’t know that two different people are accredited with the killing, this subject might surprise you. However, my blog is not about going through the various contradictions, rather in this series I’m looking at how the various different stories evolved.

I think that one of the biggest misconceptions about the bible is concerning its “universality”. It’s probably fair to say that the New Testament authors were writing for a reasonably wide audience, as well as for the communities where the authors lived and practiced their religion. They wrote in Greek, which was the lingua franca of their day, a bit like English is today. Indeed many of the authors were rather limited in their knowledge of Greek – the grammar of the book of Revelation is all over the place! Nonetheless, they chose to write in Greek in order to increase their readership.

In contrast, the Old Testament or Hebrew bible was written by Hebrew speaking people (mostly men!) for Hebrew speaking people; I don’t think that any of the authors/redactors had any suspicion that people outside of the small Hebrew speaking world would take an interest in their work, that is until the 3rd/2nd centuries BCE. These people weren’t writing anything like a universal work; a lot of the meaning in the texts is bound up with the Hebrew language itself.

Take the book of Ruth as an example. It opens with a play on words: there’s famine in Judah, so a man from Bethlehem… Err, geddit? Probably not, unless you happen to know Bethlehem means “house of bread/food”. In verse 2 of the opening chapter Naomi’s two sons are called Mahlon and Chilion which mean “sickly” and “death” respectively; they die in verse 5, which is not a surprise if you know what the names mean, but in translation you’re left out of this information.

The Hebrew bible wasn’t originally meant for the wider world – just for Hebrews and their religion. That doesn’t mean it’s uninteresting to modern, non-Hebrew-speaking people. On the contrary I find it fascinating; but it’s fascinating as a historical work – that is what it reveals about the people who wrote it, their societies, their customs, traditions and beliefs.

Have you found yourself taking up other more atheist-typical viewpoints since dropping Christianity? For example, are you more socially or fiscally liberal today? Why do you think certain values that aren't necessarily linked to belief or disbelief tend to fall in line with theists or atheists?

Yes, I think some of my non-religious views have changed as a result of leaving my religion behind. For example, although I don’t think I was ever the most ardent anti-abortionist, I certainly kept to the party line when I was an evangelical; I would see things very differently now. Politically also I have moved significantly to the left, although I’m not sure that this is entirely due my rejection of religion, rather I would attribute it more to a greater experience in life as I get older.

I suspect that the correlation between certain beliefs/affiliations and particular values is not as total as people suspect. Even within evangelical fundamentalism in my day there were some who were pro-choice for abortion, although they tended to keep their heads down. The pressure to conform, or be seen to conform, along with the kudos that comes with being seen as zealous, can give a skewed view of what many religious people actually do believe.

To take another example, why do so many western Roman Catholics use contraception whilst at the same time defending to the hilt the Catholic Church on everything? Where is the clamour from the overwhelming majority of western Catholics for this wholly unreasonable doctrine to be overturned? Of course there are a few individuals or isolated small groups that do speak out; but this in no way matches the quantity of practice against the doctrine. It seems that on some things religions can live with a significant amount of dissent from the official position.

I think atheism is a more diverse stance. I doubt there’s much controversy about contraception amongst atheists, but abortion is more likely to lead to lively debates, with no “one” atheist position. I do feel more liberty to consider options I wouldn’t have before.

It's easy for atheists to feel superior to Evangelical Christians. Considering you were once Evangelical, is there any insight you can give about who you were at that time that might sway atheists from dismissing outright the character and intelligence of theists?

I very much agree with the thrust of this question, and find that I have to remind myself from time to time that I was once an evangelical fundamentalist; if I fell for it, I can hardly be too tough on those who are in this religious movement today! I feel also that one element of evangelicalism is a feeling of superiority as well; evangelicals have “discovered” the truth, which others need to discover too – once they do then they’ll “know” too. It’s akin to gnosticism. These competing senses of superiority don’t help either group.

I also remind myself that I met some very nice people in evangelicalism, many of whom were very intelligent. Just like I did at that time, they confined their intellectual ruminations to evangelically “sound” areas, and in this respect we were all victims of a complex system.

In the polemics between atheists and evangelicals – a necessary debate in my view – we need to find a way of helping evangelicals to broaden out their thinking without alienating them from the outset. We recognize their ugly traits all too readily, but sometimes it’s less easy to spot how poorly we can come across. I’m not suggesting that we refrain from ridicule, for example, but each technique has its place, and an overuse of one type of argumentation does us no favours.

I don’t have a magic bullet for getting evangelicals to think out of the box. For myself the breakthrough came because I had unanswered questions about my faith; I went looking for answers, at first in the typical evangelical way that consists of consulting other evangelicals and reading “sound” books; when I found that this failed to answer my questions, I started reading elsewhere. But the effort came from within me – I had to “own” my personal research.

I suspect that broadly everyone moves on in this kind of way. It is very hard to admit you were wrong about something, particularly when you have so much invested in it. Having someone else ridicule you is not always the best way of ensuring your own mind is opened to new possibilities. Having said that, I think ridicule does sometimes have a place, and can work as a wake-up call.

To what extent do you now believe Jesus was real? Did he exist? Did he perform miracles? What do you base this on?

Of course, all over the Internet these days is the “Jesus mythicism position” (or perhaps I should say “positions”, because there are a number of them) that argues there was never an individual person behind anything that Jesus is represented to have said or done; rather the Christianity movement was either an artificially invented religion or grew up out of misunderstandings of various mythological stories. I’ve never been impressed by arguments for these positions, although some are of better quality than others (some are of remarkably poor quality).

That said, the question of the historical Jesus is tremendously complex. Any historical person who came to be seen by a movement (or again, more correctly, “movements”) as a hero, is liable to be subject to considerable exaggeration and invention, particularly if the individual lived in times where there were next to no external controls over historical reporting. Picking through the available texts for things which might have actually been said or done, is so difficult as to be next to impossible. And it is this degree of exaggeration and invention which lends some air of credibility to mythicist positions, who can point to it to claim that everything must have been invented.

In Jesus’ case, as this particular “hero” belonged to a peasant-class in something of an unimportant backwater for the time, it is fairly inevitable that information about him only came from “hero-worshippers” rather than more neutral individuals. Criteria for judging what may have been historical about the exaggerated accounts that have survived of his life, are in themselves very challengeable from all quarters, and it is easy to point out over-confidence that has been expressed on numerous occasions about such criteria.

Added into this mix are the strivings of evangelical apologists, who adopt from the outset the unscholarly position that everything in the New Testament actually happened. They seek to dress up their arguments in scholarly garb, which only serves to mislead. I find a number of arguments by mythicists are really directed against these evangelical apologists than against others who are more honest and open in their research.

Amongst the small number of scholarly paradigms that are adopted about the historical Jesus, I feel the most plausible is that Jesus was some sort of Jewish apocalyptic preacher; he may also considered have himself to be (or been seen to be) some sort of healer. I also think it very likely that he was crucified, although the reasons for this capital punishment are so debatable as to be irretrievable with any confidence.

The stories about his resurrection are likely to have evolved as a result of this “unacceptable” end to his life, according to his followers. Other miracles for Jesus are pretty much par for the course for heroes of the time – even the best historians of the time (and I wouldn’t count any gospel writers amongst these) reported supernatural events.

In this respect I like the story in Mark 8:22-26 – a less than spectacular miracle where Jesus takes 2 attempts to cure a man of his blindness, the first by spitting in his eyes. I suspect this might be a survivor (albeit subject to considerable modification) of Jesus’ rather unsuccessful career as a healer.

He was no more successful as an apocalyptic preacher, just like those who came before him. The events he expected to arrive imminently completely failed to materialize.

Overall, I think there is very little we can be sure about concerning his life. Nevertheless the most likely explanation for the rise of a new religion is that there was at one point a charismatic leader with followers.

What do you see as the most beneficial aspect of religion? The most harmful?

Religion, at its best, gives a sense of community; it educates, alleviates poverty and provides healthcare.

Of course it is rather easier to spot its faults, and there are plenty of critiques widely available. From a rather long list, I would select the worst feature of religion to be its ability to keep its adherents in poverty, whether through educational ignorance, or opposition to contraception. But I would choose this aspect because of the sheer weight of numbers that it oppresses.

Needless to say, I think any rational judgement would see that the harmful effects of religion vastly outweigh the beneficial.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

An Interview with Lady Atheist

The following is an interview with Lady Atheist.

What motivated you to start your blog? What motivates you today to continue?

I don't remember why I originally started it but I re-started it after I moved to Indiana.  I felt like I'd gone into a time travel vortex and wound up in the 1950s.  It was a very isolating feeling after coming from an ethnically and religiously diverse neighborhood and workplace in D.C.  I had lived in a neighborhood with neighbors from Ethiopia, Ghana, Colombia, El Salvador, India, the Middle East, Russia, Europe, and the Far East.  I knew muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Catholics, and atheists, and then I came to Fundytown, U.S.A.   I saw "Men at Work" signs for the first time in thirty years, and the women staffing my workplace, which is dominated by women, talked about "man hours" and "manning the desk."  I don't think I'd ever experienced that kind of language before!  And then about half of the license plates read "In God we Trust," with an image of a waving U.S. flag -- and it's not a special issue plate.  It's one of two basic choices.  (That was one of my first blog posts.)  Quite a few of my blog posts are about how shockingly behind and fundamentalist this state is.  Last week I had a CT scan done and the waiting room had a Gideon's Bible and some religious literature, along with the usual magazines.  That's the second time I've seen that here.  I asked a coworker and he said it's typical here.  You'd never see that in D.C.  When disconnects like that happen in my life it makes me think.... and then I blog about it.

Also, I thought that the blogosphere and the booksphere (?) of atheism was dominated by men and hoped I could bring a female perspective to the table.  I'm not a feminist in the academic sense of the word, just in the practical sense of the word.  I think that just by being female I'll notice things a man might overlook.  Last  year Malala Yousefzai's story truly outraged me and I have incredible admiration for her.  When I was her age I asked if I could take drafting and I was told I'd have to take the boys' shop classes as well, and I'd be the only girl... which pretty much meant being bullied, so I backed down and never learned how to make a birdhouse or a decent drawing of one.  And here she is risking her life, and almost dying, just to go to school at all.  It's possible for a man to empathize with that but I really imagined myself in her shoes.  I don't think I would have had her courage.  As a child and teen I was definitely repressed, but nothing like that.  I haven't seen male bloggers talking about her very much and I was almost obsessed for awhile.

Out of twenty interviews with atheist bloggers, you are only my second female interviewee. this shows that either not many atheist activists are women, or that women often turn me down for interviews (among other things.) Assuming the first scenario, how can we turn more women on to atheism?

I think the social aspect of religion is very appealing to women.  The stereotype is that we're friendlier and more interested in connecting with others and forming mutually supportive bonds.  Although I'm girly in a lot of ways, I "think like a man" to an extent, (grew up with only brothers, male cousins and male friends-of-family!) and I'm something of an introvert so I don't miss the churchy things as much, but it would be nice to have gal pals.

I suspect that church for many women isn't so much about what you believe as what you *do.*  I've known people who church-shop based on the social activities.  It's how Rick Warren built his empire.  Some of my friends in D.C. went the direction of New Age "seeking," which offers some of the same satisfactions but it's still believing in the supernatural.  Without religion, you can fill up your schedule but all the people would be different from day to day.   Atheist groups and gatherings need to have more fun stuff just for socializing.  I think that has to be at the local level to replace that nurturing that comes from church.  hmmm I wonder if I know enough atheists to get a softball team together for the church league...

Yours was one of the blogs that inspired my link round-up posts. Obviously, mine are much shorter and haphazard than yours. What is your criteria for link worthy content? What are your favorite blogs or websites?

Aw shucks.  Infidel753's round-ups inspired mine.  During the heated election season last year I was sick of reading about politics, which is what his round-ups focused on for awhile, and I wanted to read more about religion, so I started my own round-ups.  I don't have special criteria except that the item has to get to me emotionally -- like it makes me laugh, makes me angry, makes me smile -- or it's just darned interesting and new.  I like learning about what's happening in other countries and non-Christian religions especially.  I wish U.S. news outlets would cover these things.  I go looking for them because I feel cheated by our news system.

My favorite website is google news!  I follow many blogs and I can't say any are real favorites because they all have some great posts and some posts that don't do much for me.  I like posts that give me an insight to the way religion works, and ones that clarify academic topics that are hard for "outsiders" to learn about.  Blogs by people who used to be deep into a totalitarian form of religion are fascinating to me.  A whole book like that would feel too much like Jerry Springer voyeurism to me.  Blogs are bite-sized and more focused.

You use an alias on your blog. To what extent are you "out" in your personal life? What do you suppose would happen if you used your real name on your blog?

I have a few friends at work who are also atheists, and that's helped me overcome my initial feeling of isolation a lot!  Using an alias gives me some freedom to comment on religious stuff I encounter at work, though more and more I just share it with non-believing coworkers.  Someone offered to pray for my CT results to be normal, and I found a fellow non-believer to talk about that with.  (and roll eyes)  I'm polite to believers because they mean well, but it's grating.  One of my non-believing friends gets an e-mail a few times a month from another coworker who tries to convert her.  She is a member of FFRF and long-time atheist so she takes it as a challenge and debates her friend.  I just don't want to deal with that crap so I don't advertise but I wouldn't lie about it either.

Ten years ago I was living in Texas and a coworker who was only tangentially related to my job kept sending me Godspam.  I asked her to stop it, and I told her I'm an atheist.  She kept sending it.  She didn't target me.  She was just too lazy to delete my name from the mail header when she hit "Forward" to her whole contact list.  Finally, I copied & pasted her contact list, and all the contact lists in all the headers of all the other forwards before it, and I sent out one huge spam of excerpts from Bertrand Russell's "Why I am Not A Christian."  After that, the Godspam stopped, but really...  that's what it takes with some people.  Godtalk is considered "harmless" and "nice," and atheists are already considered whiny babies about prayer in school, etc., so I'd rather not go there.  ... and then there are the Christians who are not so nice.  You don't know who they are until they decide to make life rough for you.  You can't unring that bell, and I have to work with these people.  I haven't told my neighbors but they know I don't go to church on Sunday or put up Christmas decorations so they have probably figured it out.

To what extent do you believe Jesus was real? Did he exist? Did he perform miracles? What do you base this on?

I was brought up in the Episcopal church with the standard belief that all of it really happened.  It took some time for the beliefs to unravel after I realized the supernatural stuff just wasn't tenable.  I've been reading the books of Bart Ehrman and others, which are just plain interesting history.  At this point I think there probably was a guy named Jesus who had a cult following and got executed by the Romans.  Everything else is likely bogus or faked. I'm currently reading Ehrman's Lost Christianities, which is an eye-opener.  During the first few centuries, Christians hardly agreed about anything except there being a guy named Jesus who was a leader who got killed.   History is so easily faked.  Look at Elvis sightings, or Scientology or Northern Korea.  Why couldn't Christianity have started the same way?  Holy books shouldn't be read as journalism.  Even journalism shouldn't be read as journalism!  There's always something unsaid or a story that goes by the wayside because some other story is more interesting.  I think the miracles were either outright fakes or stories borrowed from myth.  Early Christians were more concerned with converting people or promoting their theology than in telling any history so they aren't trustworthy sources.  And there are no other sources.

Who is your favorite atheist public figure?

Lewis Black.  For him, religion is funny in a stab-me-in-the-eye-and-kill-me-now kind of way.

What do you see as the most beneficial aspect of religion? The most harmful?

Most beneficial:  having someone come to your hospital room when you need comfort.  I wouldn't find the prayers or fairy tales comforting, but having someone there during your bad times is important.  I can't really count on my family to be any comfort.  People who do that every day would be pretty good company when you feel like crap.

Most harmful:  Giving credence to visions and hallucinations of the mentally ill.  Mental illness runs in my family, and it's hard to tell someone who's read the Bible that God wasn't really talking to him.  Not that someone with a delusion about a celebrity couldn't be equally sick, but aside from some movies and TV shows, there's no societal support for believing it.  And then if the delusional person can convince other people that God has spoken to him/her, there's that chance of a destructive cult starting up.  Could Charles Manson or Jim Jones have convinced people to kill for them if they hadn't been primed to believe God could speak to chosen people?  If Christianity would adopt the position that God no longer talks to people, I'd be more sympathetic toward them.

Monday, February 18, 2013

An Interview with Paul Sunstone

The following is an interview with Paul of Sunstone's Cafe.

What motivated you to start your blog? What motivates you today to continue?

My therapist started me blogging.  He felt it was such a good idea that he nagged me for six months.  I finally gave in rather than listen to yet another speech about the value of stimulating the side of my brain that blogging allegedly stimulates.  Nowadays, I keep at it because I've come to believe my therapist's theory that it does stimulate a part of our brains that can use some stimulation.  I've also come to enjoy the blogging community.  There are a lot of blogs out there and some are pretty damn good reads.

My current blog, by the way, is actually my third blog.  I began with Cafe Philos, which is now defunct but still gets between 200 and 400 views a day from the search engines.  I made about 5000 posts to Cafe Philos over several years.  My second blog I held only briefl --a few months. And now my third I plan to keep as long as I can think of things to write about.

You cover a range of studies on your blog. Out of philosophy, psychology and science; which do you think is the most valuable in evaluating reality and one's own perception of it? Why?

I'm pretty much convinced science is currently the most reliable means we have of establishing reliable facts and theories.  I wouldn't want to guess whether it actually "evaluates reality".  That would get me into metaphysical speculations about what is or isn't reality, and I try to avoid metaphysical speculations unless ponticating upon them is absolutely necessary to getting some chick in bed with me.  Seriously, I do try to avoid metaphysics, which is why I'm a methodological naturalist, rather than an ontological naturalist.

Why is science so reliable?  I think it's the scientific method.  The method all but guarantees that, over time, scientists will winnow out less than reliable facts.  For instance, experimental results are often enough double checked, either directly or indirectly, by other teams of scientists.  Thus no single scientist or scientific team is entirely relied on to establish a fact -- especially an important fact. That helps weed out biased results.

Philosophy basically involves pushing reason to its limits.  Therefore, it is not necessarily grounded in empiricalism.  That is, it's all about using rigorous logic to see how far you can take reasoning.  But, if you think about it, that doesn't mean you ever need check your reasoning against empirical evidence.  Science is a more reliable guide to empirical fact because it checks its reasoning against empirical evidence.        

What would you recommend to a believer who is starting to question their faith to ease them further down the road to atheism or critical thinking?

I'm the last person you want to ask that question of.  I grew up agnostic -- my mother thought religion was too important for children to make decisions about so she forbade us to arrive at any conclusions about it until we were adults.  It was as much a rule in our hosehold as was curfew or "do your homework".  So, having grown up agnostic, I never encountered a book that was decisive in turning me into a non-theist.  Hence, I don't have much of a feel for what would help someone ease on down the road to critical thinking.  My best guess would be start off by reading in any science that catches your fancy.  Learn how that science is done.  From there -- and only after you have a good grounding in at least one science -- maybe proceed to some philosophical critiques of religion.

Who is your favorite atheist public figure?

I love Sam Harris.  Even more than I love Richard Dawkins.  I disagree with about one half of all Sam says, but I firmly believe he is an original thinker.  Two hundred years from now, it seems unlikely to me that Christopher Hitchens will be remembered for his contributions to literature.  Daniel Dennett might -- might -- be recalled for some of his contributions to philosophy.  And Dawkins might be recalled for some of his contributions to biology.  But I believe Harris has the best chance to still be a famous figure two hundred years from now. Among other things, Harris has proposed the notion that morals can be grounded in science.  Whether he's right or wrong about that, he's made such a strong case for it that it is likely to be discussed for decades -- or even centuries.

To what extent do you now believe Jesus was real? Did he exist? Did he perform miracles? What do you base this on?

I figure Jesus was once just as real as Elvis was once real.  If you gathered up all the stories about Elvis, you would find some of them more or less factual, and some of them urban legends.  For instance, there are now legends or myths about Elvis being spotted after his death, or about people praying to Elvis and hence being cured of some disease.  Just as urban legends have sprung up around Elvis, I suspect urban legends sprang up around Jesus.  Why him?  Basically, who knows why there are so many urban legends about one guy but not about another.  Elvis has far more urban legends about him than does the dead drummer for Led Zepplin.  Why is that?  Who knows.

I highly doubt Jesus performed any miracles.  I think all of his miracles very well fit the pattern for urban legends.  Of course, at this piont in time, it's pretty much speculation what really happened back then.  But we do know for a fact that some people get miracles ascribed to them after their death.  I suggest that is fundamentally what happened to Jesus.

As for Jesus being god, I would be more inclined to believe the laws of gravity are suspended every year at the Colorado State Fair in order to allow pigs to fly, than that Jesus was god.

Do you see yourself as part of a wider atheist/skeptic or political movement?

To the extent that I see myself involved in a wider movement, I account myself no more than a very minor part of that movement.  No one is going to mention me in a book about the new atheistism, for instance.  I haven't made any original contributions to that cause.  If there's anything that I am an original thinker in, then it's on the subject of mysticism.  I've spent 35 or so years studying mysticism a little bit like a scholar would study politics.  I'm not a participant in it, but I've been highly interested in it over a long period of time.  And I've had one or two thoughts about it that are most likely original.

What do you see as the most beneficial aspect of religion? The most harmful?

I suppose the ability of religion to unite people into a community is its most beneficial aspect -- at least for the majority of people.   But that gets screwed with again and again.  Instead of saying, "We're all brothers and sisters on this planet", and then leaving it at that, religion defeats itself over and over again by going on to say, "We're all brothers and sisters, except those who are not of our faith."  Now, granted, some religions do not pull that us versus them crap. Zen Buddhism, Shinto, Taoism, and so forth do not.  But some of the largest religions, Islam and Christianity, do pull that crap on people.  And Judaism, although not a large religion, does too.

So today I see a pressing need for a common belief in our brotherhood and sisterhood.  A world wide awareness that we're all in this together.  If only because you cannot blow up your half of the planet without poisoning my half.  But the two major faiths are still picking sides, as are some of the lesser faiths, and the faiths that have the most appropriate message of brotherhood and sisterhood in this day and age are not the fastest growing.  We need to work to change that.  If we're going to have religions, then they need to be beneficial to humanity and not just to one group of humans or another group of humans.

Monday, February 4, 2013

An Interview with Bruce Gerencser

The following is an interview with Bruce Gerencser of The Way Forward.

It sounds like your original problem with your church was that your congregation wasn't taking Christianity seriously enough. At some point this turned to you taking Christianity even less serious than your fellow pew fillers. How might have the apathy of Joe Believer contributed to your doubts, if at all?

I was a hard-core Fundamentalist Baptist when I entered the ministry in 1976. I trained for the ministry at Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac Michigan. I had impeccable Fundamentalist Baptist credentials. Over the course of twenty-five plus years in full-time ministry, my beliefs changed as I continued to study and read. I have always had an inquisitive mind and I was known as a pastor who always had his nose in a book. (some former church members and fellow pastors have suggested my penchant for reading is what led me to where I am today)

For many years, I read books that were safe, books that kept me in the Fundamentalist box. I moderated this or that belief, but I never strayed from orthodoxy. In the mid-1990's, I began reading books that I would describe as dangerous or even heretical. These authors forced me to confront the validity of many of my beliefs and, over time, my theology moderated. I became a garden variety Evangelical, quite conservative, but a long way from my Fundamentalist Baptist roots.

In the early 2000's,my political views changed from right-wing Republican to Democrat. My view of the hot-button social issues also changed. By the time I pastored my last church in 2003, I was a Progressive Christian, so far from my Fundamentalist roots, that many of my pastor friends considered me a liberal or an apostate. I still believed the Bible was the Word of God, but I believed Evangelicals had distorted the teachings of the Bible and largely ignored what the Bible said about ministering to the poor and disenfranchised.

After I left the ministry in 2003, my wife and I began searching for a church to attend. Over the course of a few years we visited over a hundred churches in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Arizona, and California. We were looking for a church that took seriously the teachings of the Bible, especially the teachings about the poor, war, and ministering the disenfranchised.

I was extremely restless and I began to wonder if American Christianity was bankrupt, and that the Christianity of the 20th century was nothing like the Christianity of the First Century. This disaffection was the fertile ground my disbelief and later rejection of Christianity found root.

Leaving a religion usually means leaving a primary social group. Did you experience difficulty maintaining friendships or finding new ones after leaving your church? Do you have any advice for others facing this problem?

When I left the ministry I lost twenty-five years worth of friends. Not one fellow pastor would call me friend. Instead, I became a cautionary tale, an illustration to be used when warning people about imbibing at the bar of the philosophies of this world. These relationships required fidelity to certain beliefs, and when I could not longer believe those things, and said so, my friends left me in droves. (here is one man preaching about me in a sermon)

Today,we have two Christian friends, Dave and Newana Echler,  that we spend time with. For a long time, I was pretty much friendless. One day, through an internet search, I came across a former pastor turned agnostic named Jim Schoch. Jim lived ten miles from where I lived. For several years, Jim and his wife Tammy were our "church" and their friendship made a huge difference in our lives. Unfortunately, Jim and Tammy moved to Arizona two years ago and we were left without any non-Christian friends.

Rural NW Ohio is decidedly Evangelical and Republican. Like vampires,atheists and liberals only come out at night. We lurk in the shadows of a culture dominated by Jesus and the Christian Bible. I am the local face of atheism so opportunities to gain new friends are sparse.

The dearth of friends has had one good side effect; it forced my wife and I do deepen our relationship with one another. Our friendship blossomed and the longer we were were away Christianity the better it got.  I also have met a number of non-Christians through The Way Forward, people I count as my friends.

I encourage former Christians to seek out new relationships through Humanist, Atheist, or Freethought groups. All of us like to hang out with like-minded people. The problem for my wife and I is that these groups don't exist in our area. The closest group is fifty miles away. I've had thoughts of starting a local humanist or atheist group.

We have to accept that our godlessness leaves us on the outside looking in. Loneliness is sometimes part of what is means to be an atheist. (and why some atheist blogs have become hangouts for like-minded people)

You raised six children while an evangelical and now have eight grandchildren as an atheist. I find it a interesting dilemma of indoctrinating kids into a faith that you one day leave. Whether you've done this or not, can you draw from your experience how one should deal with such a transition?

Fortunately, the effect of my atheism on my children has been quite minimal. When I first deconverted I sat my children down and told them where I was on the god question and that I was cutting them loose. I was no longer going to be their pastor, the patriarch of the family. Each person would have to settle the god question for themselves. I wanted them to know that they were free to believe whatever they wanted to believe, and that I would love them regardless of what they believe. (none of my children are Evangelicals)

Some of my children attend church, but none of them attend church on a weekly basis. According to Christians in my wife's family, I have ruined my children.  I suspect the next big issue will be when my grandchildren get older and they ask, "Grandpa, Daddy said you used to be a preacher and now you don't go to church. Why don't you go to church?" My children know I will not shy away from questions like this. I hope to answer their questions openly and honestly. In the meantime, I encourage my grandchildren to be inquisitive about the world they live in. I have high hopes that one day one of my grandchildren will be a renowned scientist.

My advice to anyone going through a similar transition is that they consider the cost very carefully. I was able to hide behind the agnostic rock for awhile, but when I said, "I am an atheist," I was no longer in control of how people might respond to me. My children are often asked, "is your Dad Bruce Gerencser?"  I am a frequent letter to the editor writer and my letters put my children in the unenviable position of having to defend me. (and I encourage them not to defend me)

Above all, people need to be open and honest about their beliefs. I know some atheists have to stay in the closet for the sake of their marriage or job. I didn't have to do this. I was free to say,"I am an atheist." Not everyone can do this, so I don't judge others when they don't follow the same path that I did.

I notice that in a post in January of 2011 you considered yourself agnostic while in a post in January of 2012 you identified as an atheist. Now that it is January of 2013, what are you and how did you make that final leap from agnosticism to atheism?

I explain it this way. I am agnostic on the god question but, based on the available evidence, I live my day to day life as an atheist. The problem with saying,"I am an agnostic" is that is requires an explanation. Saying,"I am an atheist" is straightforward and there is little doubt about what I mean when I use the word atheist,

I am going on my fifth year as a non-Christian. I am comfortable in my atheist skin and my life reflects this. The only time god crosses my mind is when I am blogging or swearing.

Have you found yourself taking up other more atheist-typical viewpoints since dropping Christianity? For example, are you more socially or fiscally liberal today? Why do you think certain values that aren't necessarily linked to belief or disbelief tend to fall in line with theists or atheists?

My social and political views began to evolve towards the end of my time in the ministry . I voted for George W Bush in 2000 and he was the last Republican I voted for. If I were to describe myself today, I would say I am a liberal, with a socialist bent and a tinge of libertarianism. Christian writers like Thomas Merton,Wendell Berry,  Dorothy Day, Jim Wallis, and Brian McLaren, along with Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, were instrumental in setting me on a course of radical political change.

Evangelicals have a hard time separating their religious beliefs from their political beliefs. Sadly, Evangelicals are joined at the hip with the extreme right of the Republican Party. State and Church have become one, which is interesting because when I entered the ministry thirty-six years ago, church leaders emphasized the separation of church and state. These days, they deny that the separation of church and state even exists.

Atheists have varying, and widely diverse political views but, most atheists tend to gravitate towards liberal political views. I suspect this is true because many atheists also consider themselves humanists, and humanism is, at its heart, a liberal and progressive system of thought.

Do you see yourself as part of a wider atheist/skeptic political movement?

Yes, I do. I am a member of American Atheists, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, American Humanist Association, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. These groups advance the beliefs and causes I consider important and I think it is important for me to support them.

What do you see as the most beneficial aspect of religion?

The most beneficial aspect of religion is the cultural and social identity it gives to believers. They are part of something bigger than themselves. Weekly services, communal meals, and social activities, give the believer a sense of belonging.

A common complaint of Christians-turned-atheist is that they miss the social connection belonging to a church gave them. This is an area where we as atheists must do better. Many atheists, myself included, feel like the Lone Ranger, often without even a Tonto to be our trusted friend. While I don't think we need atheist churches, we do need groups that promote a kindred spirit and fellowship among atheists.  We often look for someone else to get these groups started. Maybe we need to be the one to get things going in our community.

Monday, January 21, 2013

An Interview with Sheldon Cooper

The following is an interview with Sheldon Cooper of The Ramblings of Sheldon.

It's easy for atheists to feel superior to fundamentalists. Considering you were once a fundamentalist, is there any insight you can give about who you were at that time that might sway atheists from dismissing outright the character and intelligence of theists?

In my experience as a former fundamentalist, the mix of the various IQ’s of people really isn’t that different from the general population.

I knew some people that weren’t very smart, then I knew people like my ex’s father, who was at the top of his field as an engineer for a defense contractor, and one man who had advanced degrees in economics that he used in his job in local government.

As for myself, I was rather advanced for my age as a child. I tested very high, many grades higher on subjects such as history and English than others my age. I have an IQ of 113 (not sky high, but OK). I was explaining world events that were going on in the news to my parents, who had a hard time understanding what was going on, and I was holding my own in advanced theology discussions with pastors, when I was as young as 7 or 8 years old.

I always questioned, I always wanted to know more, and I’ve noticed that’s a common pattern among people who have rejected the fundamentalism that they were raised with.

I do not think that fundamentalists are any less intelligent than the rest of us, but the problem is a deliberate shutting off of normal reasoning processes. Fundamentalism has a belief in absolutes, that some things are true no matter what. You start out first with your decision to believe, then you try to justify it, instead of coming to conclusions through evidence.

It takes a lot of stubbornness in sticking to what you believe, and ignoring all evidence to the contrary, or trying to explain it away. It’s a process that’s very confusing and frustrating to outsiders. Cephus from the blog Bitchspot hits the mark when he calls it a massive circular clusterfuck.

Fundamentalists for the most part, aren’t stupid, but they are stubborn, and don’t follow the same reasoning patterns that most of us follow (or should follow).

As for character of fundamentalists, that’s a murky area. In my experience, most were decent people who were desperately trying to live up to the extremely high standards of fundamentalism (and feeling very guilty when they didn’t live up to them in some small way).

However, you have to be careful before trusting someone who is a fundamentalist. The high standards, and the guilt accompanying them will lead to people burying their flaws, both minor and major character flaws very deeply.

This makes it very hard to tell who is trustworthy, and who isn’t, combined with the fact that it is relatively easy for a sociopath (such as a pedophile) to slip into fundamentalist circles and culture, because of the way that their culture is set up. Be cautious when letting one into your life, because dangerous people can be hard to spot.

There was a time when you went to a Baptist college that was considerably less Baptist than your upbringing to that point. While this was a stressful experience for you, would you credit it as the first introduction of doubt? Did anyone make fun of you for your strict, fundamental understanding of the faith? If so, what effect did that have on you?

I think some clarification is needed here, except for my exposure to the cult known as the Independent Fundamental Baptist organization in elementary school, my parents have always been more extreme than the churches we were often affiliated with (it’s odd, I know).

Most of my childhood/teen years were spent in the Assemblies of God and Southern Baptist denominations, and I think my beliefs until my loss of faith were closer to the Southern Baptist denomination than they were to that of my parents.

As often as I post about the IFB, II think some of my readers may have mistakenly gotten the idea that I spent most of my life in that group. if anyone thought this, I apologize for the misunderstanding, and no, it’s not deliberate.

Anyway, no one did make fun of me for my beliefs when I entered college, even though there was a little more variety in beliefs than what you might expect for a Southern Baptist university.
(I would estimate that about 60 % or so were Southern Baptist, 30 % other denominations, and about 10 %, mostly athletes, weren’t Christians at all, no profession of faith was required to enter.)

What led to so much confusion was being unfamiliar with the whole typical American classroom experience (since I was in a private school until 5th grade, then home schooled until 12th), and going from parents having an extreme amount of control over my life, to actually being able to make day to day decisions for the first time. It was too much all at once, and it led to depression (along with severe fatigue and pain), panic attacks and a complete nervous breakdown.

In some ways, picking up the pieces afterwards led me more back into my faith, since my family  blamed me for the depression (it was nothing more than “guilt” and “not having a right relationship with god), I believed it, and I sank myself deeper into fundamentalism.

However, that started leading me out of fundamentalism, seeing the barbarity of the Old Testament for what it is, and seeing the conflicts and practical impossibilities of the Bible (like Noah’s Ark). It’s rather ironic that it seeking to reclaim my faith, I lost it in the process.

It was a slow process, (it took over 2 years from the time I came back to the time I lost my faith), and I didn’t realize what was happening at first.

You've describe yourself as a "closeted agnostic blogger." What do you suppose would happen if you used your real name on your blog? What would happen if all your family and friends knew that you no longer believed?

My feelings may change later in life, but I don’t think that I will publish my real name on the blog, or on any accounts linked to the blog.

Being “Sheldon Cooper” helps me to be more able to express myself on my blog. It makes it easier for me to tell details about my past life that I may not otherwise be as comfortable saying if my real, legal name was out there, attached to the blog.

Besides that, I wouldn’t want to open myself up to threats or personal attacks on my character, the likes of which have unfortunately started becoming common in the atheist blogging world recently.

As for friends and family, I don’t want to make the decision to come out until about a year or so from now, when hopefully I’ll be in a more stable place in life emotionally, etc, than I am now.  I know eventually, I’ll have to come out to everyone, that just a given, I’ll have to do it someday in order to move on with my life.

Coming out to friends shouldn’t be too hard, I have done that on a limited basis, with people I knew I could trust, and it wasn’t too bad, I think most people would either be confused or trying to bring me back into fundamentalism (and that I can deal with fairly easily)

The real problem here will lie in the problems it will cause with family. If I come out on a large scale to people I knew from my past fundamentalist life, word will circle back quickly to family, and they most definitely will not be as accepting of me now. If I come out to people from my past, I’ll have to come out to family at the same time, that’s what I’m not looking forward to. There will be a lot of confusion and anger (since they will likely see it as a rejection of them, not just their beliefs), and they are rather close minded, I hate to say....

As a user of Google Plus, how does it's atheist/agnostic community compare to that of Facebook and Twitter? How would you recommend a new user get acquainted to the social network?

I personally haven’t experienced the atheist communities on either Facebook or Twitter. I don’t use Twitter at all, and my Facebook page is for personal use, it has mostly people from my past fundamentalist life (and I don’t hardly use that account at all anyway).

As for Google +, I like it, there’s a very strong atheist/skeptic community there that is very close knit, and they love to debate about anything. I’ve heard many people who have made the switch from Facebook say that they love it, the crowd there seems to be much smarter and more skeptical over all. I’ve had invitations from fellow bloggers to join Twiiter, but I think that I would have a hard time keeping up with more than one social media account for my blog.

Have you found a community to call your own since leaving your faith? Does it incorporate your outside life, or only on-line? What is the main difference between this community and your church?

As far as outside/offline life, I have no support community, and I’ve come out to very few people.

Online, running the blog has been a great experience in helping to move forward. I started the blog because of the encouragement of Montreal blogger Godless Poutine, he said it was “good therapy” for him, and it’s proven true for me as well.

Finally getting to tell my life story to people from around the world, and get feedback from that audience, both on the blog and on Google + has helped me to move forward in many ways.

In my early days of unbelief, I was also a regular poster on the discussion boards of, an online support group for former Christians. I feel like I kind of outgrew that site in many ways, especially now that I have the blog, but I highly recommend the site for anyone who is struggling with the transition out of Christianity.

To what extent do you now believe Jesus was real? Did he exist? Did he perform miracles? What do you base this on?

Do I believe Jesus was an actual, historical person who existed on the earth at some point?
He probably did exist, (I know some atheists would disagree with me on that), but seeing as I am an agnostic now, I don’t believe in the miracles that he supposedly performed. I think much of what we now consider Christianity came out of the Council of Nicaea.

There were many conflicting beliefs and practices (as well as what writings should make up the Bible) within the early Christian church, but that all changed when Constantine wanted to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire. The Council, and the Roman government probably felt it was best to accept writings and orthodoxy that portrayed Jesus as a powerful, miracle working son of god, because it best suited each other’s interests and ideas.

What do you see as the most harmful aspect of religion?

It’s a tie between the deliberate shutting off of normal reasoning abilities (as I talked about in response to question 1), and the hostility towards anyone who doesn’t look, think, act the same way as the believer.

Both are damaging, the first causes someone to abandon all reason, and often leads to rejection of science, and higher learning, while the other leads to hate, discrimination, and in worst case scenarios throughout history, even wars and genocide.