The Null Device

Posts matching tags 'atheism'

2013/3/27

A Berlin-based trainer manufacturer named Atheist Shoes has discovered that packages sent to the US with the word ATHEIST on the box have a way of going missing inside the postal service; packages sealed with printed tape reading ATHEIST were ten times as likely to disappear as unlabelled packages, and when they didn't disappear, took on average three days longer to reach their destinations.

Which could mean that a significant proportion of postal workers regard atheism as a hostile ideology to be stopped, even if they are technically committing a federal crime in doing so (even if they were caught and jailed, I imagine that FOX News and/or talk radio would talk them up as martyrs defending America from Satan); or perhaps, mindful of the prevalence of militant atheist terrorism around the world, they prudently detain the packages for extra screening. Of course, there's also the possibility that the tape confuses automated scanning machinery of some sort; perhaps one should repeat this experiment with a third cohort labelled JESUS SAVES; and perhaps a few other religious, political and neutral messages as well?

(I also wonder what the geographic distribution of the effect was. Does mail from Germany to the US usually pass through any fixed points? And would packages to, say, the deep South be significantly more likely to disappear than those to the Pacific Northwest?)

A similar experiment was conducted in the 1960s by the psychologist Stanley Milgram (best known for his infamous obedience experiment with the fake electric shock machine): volunteers would drop sealed, stamped envelopes with the name of an ostensible organisation and the address of a PO box on them, and by counting how many were helped to a mail box, would determine how much sympathy there was for the views encoded in the organisation name; i.e., the Society for the Protection of Cute Kittens would get more help than Friends of the Nazi Party. Only in that case, voicing one's disapproval was a passive act, and not a federal crime.

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2012/11/24

The conservative theocracy of Saudi Arabia is embracing modern technology on its own terms; it has just implemented a tracking system for women, whereby, whenever a woman travels abroad through a Saudi airport or border crossing, her male guardian (and all women in Saudi Arabia, being perpetual minors in law, have those) is informed by text message.

“The authorities are using technology to monitor women,” said columnist Badriya al-Bishr, who criticised the “state of slavery under which women are held” in the ultra-conservative kingdom. Women are not allowed to leave the kingdom without permission from their male guardian, who must give his consent by signing what is known as the “yellow sheet” at the airport or border
So far, the system is just tied into fixed borders, but once the principle that the men who have custody of a woman are entitled to know her whereabouts is accepted, the potential for expansion is huge. For example, the mobile phone network in Saudi Arabia could be configured to store each subscriber's sex and, if they're female, a link to her male guardian, and to allow him to get her phone's location at any moment. (I heard once that the Saudi mobile phone network is already configured to segregate subscribers by gender and disallow women from placing calls to men outside of a short list, though don't have confirmation of this factoid.) Think of it like Apple's “Find My iPhone” feature, only for your wives. But why stop there? Why not a daring programme of IT streamlining, giving male guardians real-time access to any data generated by about the women in their custody, from credit card purchases (with perhaps even an option for the custodian to approve or decline a transaction) to telephone and SMS logs of whom they're communicating with. When one is committed to using modern technology to mediaeval ends, the sky's the limit.

Technology is, however, helping to undermine traditional strictures in other places in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, here is an interview with a Saudi atheist, speaking under the pseudonym Jabir, who says that, with services like Facebook and Twitter, the few closeted atheists in the severely religious country are discovering that there are others who think like them:

“I was shocked to meet older people in their forties and fifties who been hiding their atheism for decades. They said that only recently with the young generation in their twenties had they found other people who think like them and were able to find social group that they can talk and debate about their ideas in.” Jabir politely demurs when asked about the backgrounds of these people; confidentiality and secrecy run deep in the Saudi Arabian atheism milieu.
Yet, it may also, as the political system reacts to these new conditions, be a time of tightening and ever greater social and religious restrictions. The nightmare situation for Jabir is that when the relatively reform-minded King Abdullah dies it will bring about a new monarch who will let the religious police and certain segments of the Saudi community start an aggressive witch-hunt for ‘non-believers’.
Meanwhile, in nearby Qatar, censors are going through Winnie The Pooh picture books and blacking out Piglet, because pigs are unclean in Islam.

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2012/6/19

Indonesia is not a good place to be an atheist. Alexander Aan, a self-proclaimed atheist has been jailed under a “cyber crimes” law, not long after having been beaten for his beliefs:

His crime was spreading his atheist beliefs through his Facebook accounts, “Ateis Minang” and “Alex Aan”, which the court said incited hatred and animosity against religious groups. In one posting, which was used as evidence in court against him, he professed “God does not exist”.
Aan is probably better off, and safer, inside. A local radical Islamic group has been anxious to get its hands on him, again. Before his arrest in February, he was dragged and beaten once the group was able to locate his whereabouts, a remote little town about four-hour drive from the West Sumatra capital of Padang. With his full name and photo posted on his Facebook accounts, it didn’t take long for anyone to find him. While the assailants walked free, Aan now has to serve time in jail.
Extrajudicially beating up atheists, mind you, is perfectly fine in Indonesia; in fact, the jury is still out on whether they are entitled to any legal protections at all, or whether a profession of atheism incurs an automatic sentence of outlawry, allowing others to hunt you for sport:
By regarding the case as a cybercrime, the court failed to address the one constitutional dilemma about the presence of atheists in the country. Do they have the right to exist in this country, and more importantly, if they are considered as being outside the constitution, can they expect state protections just as all other citizens
The largely dismissive public and official attitude towards Aan’s case is another sad reflection of the way the nation treats as impertinent a constitutional question such as religious freedom. We have seen this attitude prevailing in regard to recent cases of persecutions against followers of the Ahmadiyah and Shiites, and the increasing harassments against Christians who are deprived of their right to build places of worship. The Ahmadis, the Shiites and the Christians literally have to fight their own battles in the face of the increasingly indifferent Muslims. Aan himself is almost alone in fighting for his rights as a citizen of this country.

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2011/8/17

There's an interesting piece in Der Spiegel about the rise of secularism and the psychological differences between religious and secular people. According to the article, non-religious people (atheists, agnostics and the nonreligious) make up about 15% of the world's population, placing them third behind Christians and Muslims in number. Meanwhile, secularism is on the rise, with the often discussed religious revivals, in Europe, the US and elsewhere, being, more often than not, illusory. (In the US, a country associated with almost mediaeval levels of religiosity in public life, churches are losing up to 1 million members a year.)turned out to be and also an increasing number of people who identify as religious on surveys admitting that they don't actually believe in a deity.

According to Boston University psychologist Catherine Caldwell-Harris, the differences between the religious and secular minds may emerge from different thinking styles, with religious people being more likely to attribute sentient agency than secular people:

Caldwell-Harris is currently testing her hypothesis through simple experiments. Test subjects watch a film in which triangles move about. One group experiences the film as a humanized drama, in which the larger triangles are attacking the smaller ones. The other group describes the scene mechanically, simply stating the manner in which the geometric shapes are moving. Those who do not anthropomorphize the triangles, she suspects, are unlikely to ascribe much importance to beliefs. "There have always been two cognitive comfort zones," she says, "but skeptics used to keep quiet in order to stay out of trouble."
The rise of secularism has led to more study of what secularists do actually believe. And, it seems, there are a few outlooks they tend to share:
Sociologist Phil Zuckerman, who hopes to start a secular studies major at California's Pitzer College, says that secularists tend to be more ethical than religious people. On average, they are more commonly opposed to the death penalty, war and discrimination. And they also have fewer objections to foreigners, homosexuals, oral sex and hashish.
The most surprising insight revealed by the new wave of secular research so far is that atheists know more about the God they don't believe in than the believers themselves. This is the conclusion suggested by a 2010 Pew Research Center survey of US citizens. Even when the higher education levels of the unreligious were factored out, they proved to be better informed in matters of faith, followed by Jewish and Mormon believers.
The article also looks at the case of religiosity in Germany, where the East was ruled by an officially atheistic totalitarian dictatorship while the West retained strong links to Christianity. After reunification, the East remained considerably poorer than the West. Perhaps surprisingly, these conditions did not result in a new religious revival spreading through the East, but rather the opposite:
When the GDR ended its period of religious repression, no process of re-Christianization occurred. "After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the withdrawal of a church presence in the east actually sped up," says Detlef Pollack, a professor in the sociology of religion at the University of Münster. Ironically, the link between church and state contributed to secularization in the East, he says. Publicly funded theological professorships, military chaplaincies, and the presence of church representatives on broadcasting councils were common. As a result, public perception came to closely link authority with religion, which was seen as coming from the West.
As rapidly as secularism is rising, though, we might not see a powerful secular lobby any time soon. For one, secularists remain mistrusted in many places (in the US, according to a 2010 Pew Research survey, atheists are the most disliked group, behind Muslims and homosexuals). And secondly, given the broad differences in a movement by definition not bound by any dogma, the emergence of any sort of consensus is unlikely:
Then he tells of a meeting of secular groups last year in Washington. They were planning a big demonstration. "But they couldn't even agree on a motto," he says. "It was like herding cats, straight out of a Monty Python sketch." In the end, the march was called off.

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2011/5/14

Some atheists in the US have found a unique niche for making money from evangelical Christianity: by offering to care for pets left behind when their Christian owners are raptured:

Centre, an atheist, guarantees that if or when the Rapture comes, he or one of his 44 contractors in 26 states will drive to your home within 24 hours, collect your dog, cat, bird, rabbit or small caged mammal, and adopt it. (Rapture rescue services for horses, camels, llamas and donkeys are limited to New Hampshire, Vermont, Idaho and Montana.) The cost is $US135, plus $US20 per additional animal. Payable up front, of course, and good for 10 years.
Of course, to make sure that the carers will actually be available to take care of abandoned pets, they're carefully screened, and then required to blaspheme, ensuring that they're ineligible for eternal salvation.

Which raises a few philosophical (if not ethical) questions. If the carers are, in fact, atheists, then by definition they know that they will never be required to deliver the services they are collecting money for (much as their customers know that they will). In which case, would this make this service fraudulent? From the service provider's point of view, it's an easy $135 for doing nothing. Of course, if they leave the country without arranging for a backup to stay around, they could possibly be liable for negligence.

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2011/2/19

Whether or not there are any atheists in foxholes, there don't seem to be any in positions of political power who are willing to stand by their principles. Firstly Australia's outspokenly atheistic Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, proclaimed her wholehearted conviction in supporting an unaccountably authoritarian internet censorship system demanded by a Christian Fundamentalist fringe party, and now, Britain's deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, rules out eliminating the bishops from the House of Lords, instead planning to add unelected ministers of other religions for equality's sake. This token sliver of theocracy, these bishops, rabbis and imams will get to vote on legislation which affects all Britons, from waiving anti-discrimination legislation when the discrimination is guided by religious beliefs to blocking equal marriage rights for non-heterosexuals to keeping it a crime for the terminally ill to end their lives with dignity, going against the majority opinion of what is a largely secular society:

Here's a Trivial Pursuit question with an answer that isn't at all trivial. Which two nations still reserve places in their parliaments for unelected religious clerics, who then get an automatic say in writing the laws the country's citizens must obey? The answer is Iran... and Britain.
And here's the strangest kicker in this strange story: it looks like the plans being drawn up by Nick Clegg to "modernise" the House of Lords will not listen to the overwhelming majority of us and end these religious privileges. No – they are poised to do the opposite. Sources close to the reform team say they are going to add even more unelected religious figures to parliament. These plans are being drawn up as you read this and will be published soon. The time to fight is today, while we can still sway the agenda.
The atheists and secularists who are campaigning for democracy are consistently branded "arrogant" by the bishops and their noisy cheerleaders. But who is arrogant here? Is it atheists who say that since we have no evidence about how the universe came into being, we should be humble, admit we don't know, and keep investigating? Or is it the bishops, who claim that they not only "know" how everything was created, but they know exactly what that Creator thinks, how he wants us to have sex, and which pills we can take when we are dying? What could be more arrogant than claiming you have a right to an unelected seat in parliament to impose beliefs for which there is no evidence on an unbelieving population?
Fortunately, there are organisations in Britain fighting against such unaccountable religious privilege: the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association are both active in campaigns on issues such as this, and when the plans are published, they're certain to be at the front of the campaign against them. Whether the government will pay any heed to them depends on how many people are in the campaign.

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2011/2/6

It has emerged that the British government transferred nearly £2 million from Britain's foreign aid budget to pay for the Papal visit last year, on top of £3.7m from the environmental budget. This is presumably in line with the Conservative Party's platform (also shared by New Labour) that religion is a good in itself, from which it would follow that promoting religious organisations such as the Catholic Church increases the total amount of good in the world, and is thus a legitimate use of funds which would otherwise be spent feeding the hungry or eradicating diseases. Not surprisingly, this view is not shared unanimously:

[British Humanist Association] Head of Public Affairs Naomi Phillips commented, ‘Millions and millions from the public purse has been used to foot the cost of the Pope’s visit to the UK, with much of that diverted from crucial funds, including from foreign aid designated to help some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. It is irrational and wrong for government to say that the money was paid to recognise the work that the Catholic Church does overseas as an NGO – questionable in itself – when the money was used to fund the state visit. Most people, including Christians, did not think that the British taxpayer should pay for the Pope’s visit in the first place, and many will be astonished to see the detrimental impact that this illegitimate use of public funds has already made.’
(Disclaimer: I am a member of the British Humanist Association, and recommend this organisation to anyone concerned about religious privilege in the UK (of which there is a considerable amount, from Bishops in the House of Lords to faith schools teaching Creationism in science classes with the blessing of the political establishment).) Or, in the words of another atheist:

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2010/12/22

British comedian Ricky Gervais writes about why he is an atheist:

Why don’t I believe in God? No, no no, why do YOU believe in God? Surely the burden of proof is on the believer. You started all this. If I came up to you and said, “Why don’t you believe I can fly?” You’d say, “Why would I?” I’d reply, “Because it’s a matter of faith”. If I then said, “Prove I can’t fly. Prove I can’t fly see, see, you can’t prove it can you?” You’d probably either walk away, call security or throw me out of the window and shout, ‘’F—ing fly then you lunatic.”
So what does the question “Why don’t you believe in God?” really mean. I think when someone asks that; they are really questioning their own belief. In a way they are asking “what makes you so special? “How come you weren’t brainwashed with the rest of us?” “How dare you say I’m a fool and I’m not going to heaven, f— you!” Let’s be honest, if one person believed in God he would be considered pretty strange. But because it’s a very popular view it’s accepted. And why is it such a popular view? That’s obvious. It’s an attractive proposition. Believe in me and live forever. Again if it was just a case of spirituality this would be fine. “Do unto others…” is a good rule of thumb. I live by that. Forgiveness is probably the greatest virtue there is. Buts that’s exactly what it is - ‐ a virtue. Not just a Christian virtue. No one owns being good. I’m good. I just don’t believe I’ll be rewarded for it in heaven. My reward is here and now. It’s knowing that I try to do the right thing. That I lived a good life. And that’s where spirituality really lost its way. When it became a stick to beat people with. “Do this or you’ll burn in hell.”
You won’t burn in hell. But be nice anyway.
Also, this XKCD:

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2010/11/14

Recently, in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia has blocked Facebook, on the grounds that it doesn't conform with the kingdom's conservative Wahhabi Islamist values. (The big surprise: Facebook was apparently not blocked earlier. Given that even the relatively liberal Dubai blocks sites like Flickr, it's surprising that the Saudis have let their subjects wilfully poke each other online for so long.) The ban is said to be temporary; presumably Facebook doesn't usually contravene Wahhabi values.

Meanwhile, in the West Bank, Palestinian Authority police have arrested an atheist blogger after intelligence officers traced him to an internet café; 26-year-old Walid Husayin could get life in prison for heresy, though the Palestinian equivalent of the Daily Mail readership are calling for him to be put to death:

Husayin used a fake name on his English and Arabic-language blogs and Facebook pages. After his mother discovered articles on atheism on his computer, she canceled his Internet connection in hopes that he would change his mind.
Instead, he began going to an Internet cafe — a move that turned out to be a costly mistake. The owner, Ahmed Abu-Asal, said the blogger aroused suspicion by spending up to seven hours a day in a corner booth. After several months, a cafe worker supplied captured snapshots of his Facebook pages to Palestinian intelligence officials.
Officials monitored him for several weeks and then arrested him on Oct. 31 as he sat in the cafe, said Abu-Asal.
Apparently such intense surveillance of heretics is not unusual in the region; intelligence officers in both the relatively liberal West Bank and the hard-line Islamist-dominated Gaza work hard to hunt down dissidents, and even in Egypt, a blogger was charged with atheism in 2007 after intelligence officials monitored his posts.

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2010/10/23

Some anonymous person entered the phrase "why are religion so" into Google, and plotted the completions it suggested (based on past searches) in a Venn diagram, coming up with this map of stereotypes:

It's interesting to note that no trait is popularly attributed to all three of the Abrahamic religions. (Perhaps the average web user can't spell "monotheistic"?)

Meanwhile, typing "why are atheists so" suggests the words "stupid", "smart", "intolerant", "mean", "annoying", "angry", "hateful", "hated" and "awesome".

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2010/6/7

Skeptic PZ Myers recounts how, when he was a child, a crazy Christian lady converted him, unwittingly, to atheism:

And then she told us to kneel down in the gravel by the side of the road and put our hands on her Bible, which we did, because at this point I was afraid if I didn't our Mommy and Daddy would find our little corpses with our throats slit and a mad woman dancing in our blood. Then she recited some lengthy vow with lots of Jesus in it, looked at us expectently with another mad-eyed grin, and we mumble-whispered "yes, ma'am" and she let us go, throats uncut, hearts still in our chests, heads still attached to our necks, while she capered off triumphantly, having secured two more souls for her lord and master. She thought. But, as you can know now, all she actually managed to do was make me aware that people who believe in Heaven and Hell are freakin' nutbag insane.
Myers goes on to tear apart the ideas of an eternal afterlife, using the power of reason, starting with Hell in its various guises, from the absurdly corporeal (lakes of fire, with the damned being magically suspended for eternity in the state of a very physical death-agony; i.e., the stuff designed to scare the less sophisticated thinkers), and then working up to more subtle variations:
Other visions of Hell are a bit more sophisticated — it's a place of psychological torture, unending despair and futility, where you feel regret and sorrow for all time, or suffer because you are deprived of the presence of God. That's a bit more plausible for a disembodied self, I suppose, but still…throw a mob of people in a Slough of Despond for a long, long time, and at some point someone is going to get together with someone else and form a Glee Club, and there will be singing in Hell. And then a rugby match will break out, and there will be cheering and betting, and thespians will be pestering Shakespeare for some new plays, and before you know it, culture will emerge and it won't be Hell so much anymore.
But all right, let's assume God has figured out ways to permanently suppress the human spirit among all those deceased spirits, and actually has contrived a truly painful Hell, one that I can not imagine but that he can, being God and all. Now we've got the problem that the loving God we're all supposed to worship is an imaginative, creative death camp commandant, one who also maintains a luxury spa on the side.
Heaven, alas, doesn't fare any better. The visions of the blissful eternal reward awaiting the virtuous (or, in more liberal theologies, everyone) all fall down on closer examination. Some seem, frankly, hellish (an eternity of singing praises to God, surrounded by puritans?), and others are either inconsistent with human nature or have the nihilistic qualities of an eternal crack cocaine binge:
A paradise is also inhuman (I know, one can get around this by arguing that after death you can't be human anymore, by definition; but then that requires throwing away the idea of life after death, which is what most people find appealing). Think about what defines you now: it's how you think, your personality, your desires and how you achieve them — by what you strive for. Finish one project, and what do you do (after a little celebration, of course)? You look for something else to strive for, a new goal to keep you interested and occupied. But now you're in heaven. All wishes are fulfilled, all desires achieved, we're done with everything we've ever dreamed of, making Heaven a kind of retirement home where everyone is waiting to die. Waiting forever.
Of course, one could imagine ways around this. Perhaps there would be entire legions of angels whose job would be to lay on the entertainment, distracting the saved souls from eternal boredom in the way that one amuses a housecat (which, remember, is a territorial predator with no prey and nothing to defend its territory against) with a laser pointer. Actually, the idea of one of the newly-dead exploring and pushing against the logical constraints of a heaven, and discovering the infinite layers of distracting angels required to keep it heavenly and keep God's side of the contract to His faithful departed, and coming up against an infinitely sophisticated machinery moulded to the logical necessities (however odd) of keeping humans entertained for eternity, could be a good premise for a sci-fi (or, more accurately, phil-fi) story.

As problematic as the common Western idea of heaven is, the alternative involves the annihilation of the self as we know it in a supernova of infinite, mindless ecstasy, like a heroin overdose that goes on forever. (Blessed are the junkies?) And while that may be plausible, it doesn't sit well with the Abrahamic religions or most people's idea of heaven:

There are some religions that embrace this sublime vision of an ultimate end that does not include the mundane humanity of its believers — the Buddhist afterlife does seem to be a kind of selfless oblivion — but that does not include the Abrahamic religions. They've still got the cartoonish anthropocentric version of an afterlife, where you've got a body with limbs and tongues and penises and vaginas, and you get to indulge in the senses within certain confining rules. You get to meet Grandma and Grandpa again, and they aren't all subsumed in the godhead — they're there to give you hugs and a plate of cookies. And that's just silly. I can't believe a word of it.

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2010/1/3

As of Friday, it is illegal to insult religious beliefs in Ireland; this applies to any religion, which is the fiercely Catholic nation's token sop to pluralism. While secularists are dismayed, other religious groups are overjoyed; apparently, Islamic states are already using the Irish law as a template for a United Nations blasphemy law.

A group named Atheist Ireland (God help them best of luck to them; they need it) are taking on this law and challenging the government to prosecute them by publishing 25 blasphemous quotations, with authors varying from Jesus Christ to Monty Python, from known troublemakers like Dawkins and Hitchens to Holy Men like the current Pope (quoted slagging off Islam, mind you),

13. Bjork, 1995: “I do not believe in religion, but if I had to choose one it would be Buddhism. It seems more livable, closer to men… I’ve been reading about reincarnation, and the Buddhists say we come back as animals and they refer to them as lesser beings. Well, animals aren’t lesser beings, they’re just like us. So I say fuck the Buddhists.”
15. George Carlin, 1999: “Religion easily has the greatest bullshit story ever told. Think about it. Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time! But He loves you. He loves you, and He needs money! He always needs money! He’s all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing, and all-wise, somehow just can’t handle money! Religion takes in billions of dollars, they pay no taxes, and they always need a little more. Now, talk about a good bullshit story. Holy Shit!”
23. Ian O’Doherty, 2009: “(If defamation of religion was illegal) it would be a crime for me to say that the notion of transubstantiation is so ridiculous that even a small child should be able to see the insanity and utter physical impossibility of a piece of bread and some wine somehow taking on corporeal form. It would be a crime for me to say that Islam is a backward desert superstition that has no place in modern, enlightened Europe and it would be a crime to point out that Jewish settlers in Israel who believe they have a God given right to take the land are, frankly, mad. All the above assertions will, no doubt, offend someone or other.”
Atheist Ireland and their allies have a number of other campaigns on their site, including a campaign for a secular Irish constitution.

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2009/11/18

What's the difference between the BNP and atheists? The BBC doesn't feel the need to give atheists a forum.

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2009/10/5

Melbourne is set to host the biggest ever atheist convention next March, which will feature speakers including Richard Dawkins (referred to, somewhat facetiously, as the "High-priest of atheism" in the article's headline), Peter Singer and A.C. Grayling, as well as Australian commentators (mostly from the media) such as Robyn Williams and Phillip Adams.

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2009/4/29

They now have atheist summer camps:

The five days in Somerset will consist of traditional outdoor activities such as canoeing and cycling, combined with discussions about religion and non-belief. The centrepiece of the camp is an ongoing discussion where participants are encouraged to try to disprove the existence of unicorns, which serve as a metaphor for God.
Campers are told that two unicorns live in the area and cannot be seen, heard or touched. The adult councillors pretend to believe in the unicorns on the basis that an ancient book handed down through the generations says they exist. The children are encouraged to try to prove that the unicorns do not exist. If anyone is successful they will be awarded a £10 note which has a picture of Charles Darwin on it and is signed by leading atheist academic Richard Dawkins.
In the US the prize is a "godless" $100 bill from before 1957, which was when the US placed the phrase "In God We Trust" on all its notes. No child has definitively disproved the existence of unicorns and won the prize. "The idea of the unicorn debate is not to prove God doesn't exist, it is to illustrate that having such debates with religious people is futile because in the end faith trumps everything," said Miss Stein.

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2009/1/7

Atheist bus ads roll out across the UK. Having raised £135,000, the Atheist Bus Campaign has broadened its scope considerably, and rather than the original 30 bus ads in London, they're rolling out 800 across the UK, with interior ads giving quotes from famous atheists including Douglas Adams, Albert Einstein and Emily Dickinson.

A similar campaign has run in the USA, not a country typically associated with atheism. However, when the local atheist society tried to run one in Australia (not usually a religiously strident place), the advertising company knocked them back, considering promotion of Godlessness (with the scandalous slogan "Celebrate reason", no less!) to be a bit too much for Australian morés.

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2008/12/11

The American Humanist Association has taken a leaf from its British counterpart and run its own atheist bus campaign in Washington DC. Being in America, the message was somewhat milder; rather than telling people that "there is probably no god", it asked "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake." Of course, as one might expect, it still aroused an explosive reaction:
It's a simple question: "Why not try Jesus?" Equally simple is an opposite: "Why believe in a god?" Yet in the United States the first question is widely viewed as positive, or at least ordinary, while the second can be perceived as offensive and even hate speech.
The sudden high volume of visitors to our special campaign website www.whybelieveinagod.org crashed our server twice. Soon, the conservative talkshow hosts were clamouring to give us air time so they could argue against us and further rouse their audience. And conservative Christian organisations not only denounced our efforts but encouraged their flocks to come bleat in our ears. All this before our bus ads actually started to appear one week later. By the beginning of December we'd received 37,742 hits on our campaign website, logged 638 new members and received over $6,000 in new contributions.

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2008/10/21

Today was the launch of the Atheist Bus Campaign, a project to put advertisements on buses in London telling people that there is probably no god and no reason to worry. (The project was inspired by Christian groups' ads on public transport, which inform the reader that they are doomed to eternal torment unless they submit to the advertiser's particular beliefs, an altogether less friendly message.)

The campaign opened this morning, with a goal of attracting £5,500; half the amount required to run such an ad on 30 buses over four weeks. (Outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins had offered to provide the other half.) It reached its goal just after 10am, and kept snowballing like Craig Shergold's postcards; shortly before 11:30pm, it had passed the £45,000 mark, and was still rising. That's a lot of non-faith.

Looking at the donations and their comments is interesting; a lot of people have an issue with the phrasing containing the qualifying "probably" (which was there to keep from falling foul of truth-in-advertising regulations), finding it insufficiently strident, or likely to lead people into the fallacy of Pascal's Wager. More donors, buoyed by the success of the drive, have called for the ads to be run elsewhere in the UK (Manchester, for some reason, has a lot of demand). There are also a lot of calls for similar ads to be run in the United States; I wonder whether anyone will start such a campaign over there, or whether anyone would agree to run the ads.

The response from Christian groups (who seem to be the only theists interviewed; couldn't they get a rabbi or imam to weigh in?) has been mixed; one pressure group named Christian Voice has equated atheism and bendy buses as "dangers to the public" and predicted that they would be attacked with graffiti, whilst the Methodist Church has taken the view that publicity is good and thanked Professor Dawkins for encouraging a "continued interest in God".

It's not clear what will be done with the surplus £41,000 or so; putting ads inside the buses was one suggestion.

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2008/10/7

Atheist and Guardian blogger Ariane Sherine took offense at those ads religious groups have on the sides of buses, and decided to start a campaign to put a similar atheistic ad on buses in London. After some wrangling with advertising companies (who were reluctant), one has agreed to run the ad (which reads "There's probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life"; I think Douglas Adams would have approved, don't you?) if their sponsors can raise £1,100. As such, Sherine is looking for 1,100 atheists, agnostics or fellow travellers to pledge £5 each.

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2008/5/27

Atheism is gaining popularity in the US (by some accounts, it is now more popular than bubonic plague). Now some atheists are discussing whether or not atheists should have their own church. After all, churches (particularly in America) fulfil a social function, distinct from their religious function, as centres of communities and bring people together (which, incidentally, is the literal meaning of the word "religion"), and with recent studies pointing out the health benefits of having a good sense of community, perhaps, the argument would go, it is time for a church for the godless?

Many atheist sects are experimenting with building new, human-centered quasi-religious organizations, much like Ethical Culture. They aim to remove God from the church, while leaving the church, at least large parts of it, standing. But this impulse is fueling a growing schism among atheists. Many of them see churches as part of the problem. They want to throw out the baby and the bathwater—or at least they don’t see the need for the bathwater once the baby is gone.
There are already vaguely churchlike organisations for atheists (or those with religious (non)beliefs indistinguishable from atheism): the article mentions the Society for Ethical Culture, a 19th-century "secular cathedral", and Humanist Judaism, which maintains the traditions of the Jewish faith but jettisons the faith bit. And then there are the Unitarian Universalists and other content-free quasi-religions.

Not surprisingly, there is not only no agreement on what the new atheist creed is meant to contain, but also what it should call itself.

At this point, the movement can’t even agree on a name. Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great, prefers the term anti-theist because he’s entertained the possibility that God exists and finds the prospect frightening, the spiritual equivalent of living in North Korea. Daniel Dennett continues to promote the term bright, which, he has said, is “modeled very deliberately and very consciously on the homosexual adoption of the word gay.” (In the first chapter of God Is Not Great, Hitchens dismisses the term as conceited.) And Sam Harris, brash young scientist that he is, triggered a minor revolt last fall at the Atheist Alliance International Conference in Crystal City, Virginia, when he lashed out against the term atheist, disparaging those who identify with a negation. “It reverberated in atheist circles as a sacrilege,” Harris told me. “But what’s worse is adopting language that was placed on us by religious people. We don’t feel the need to brand ourselves non-astrologers or non-racists.”
Dennett sees value in atheism’s great awakening, in the energy and money that come from organizing, but he counsels caution. “The last thing atheists want to see is their rational set of ideas yoked up with the trappings of a religion,” he says. “We think we can do without that.” Even Richard Dawkins is not one to reject certain memes based on their churchly pedigree. He calls himself a “cultural Christian,” admitting that he likes to sing Christmas carols as much as the next guy. But there’s a limit to his tolerance of religion.
While I can understand the arguments, the idea of an atheist church seems a bit absurd. For one, atheism is a purely negative belief, by which I do not mean that it is harmful or wrong, but that it is only a statement of what one does not believe. If I tell you that someone is an atheist, I am telling you nothing about what that person actually does believe; they could be anything from a Buddhist to a Marxist to a secular humanist, to say the least; the only thing you know is that their belief system does not include a personal supreme being. As such, atheism in itself is not much of a rock on which to found a church. Granted, one could beef it up with a range of complementary beliefs or values (such as beliefs in the beneficience of science, the innate dignity of the individual, the equality of races and sexes or the humour of Monty Python), though then it ceases to be merely atheism and becomes something else.

Besides which, I doubt whether an atheist church could be remotely successful by any standard. Without the promise of eternal salvation (or some equivalent form of supernatural brownie points), going to church becomes just another activity, competing for time with a myriad possible other activities. Do you go to the Church of No God to hear a reading from Douglas Adams and then discuss it over tea and biscuits, or do you read a book or catch up with a friend or go rollerblading or see that new exhibition you've read about? Without the all-seeing gaze of the Almighty keeping tabs on His flock (or, more precisely, the common belief in such), such a church would more often than not take second place to other activities.

In fact, the whole question of whether atheists need their own church appears, to me, to be the wrong question, particularly when attendance of mainstream churches has been declining in recent years. A better question would be how the social function that churches fulfil could be best fulfilled, in today's society, without religion. (The key phrase is "in today's society"; in a world where people move around much more than they used to, don't necessarily live amongst people who share their cultural or religious outlooks, and where communications are often mediated by increasingly powerful technology, such as mobile phones and the internet.) While these changes have led to the breakdown of traditional social structures, they are also ushering in new forms of social connection (as Clay Shirky describes in Here Comes Everybody), and it is far from clear that creating an atheist church would make any more sense than designing a new high-tech buggy whip.

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2008/5/20

The City of London Police are prosecuting a teenager for calling the Church of Scientology a "cult" during a demonstration:

The incident happened during a protest against the Church of Scientology on May 10. Demonstrators from the anti-Scientology group, Anonymous, who were outside the church's £23m headquarters near St Paul's cathedral, were banned by police from describing Scientology as a cult by police because it was "abusive and insulting".
The teenager refused to back down, quoting a 1984 high court ruling from Mr Justice Latey, in which he described the Church of Scientology as a "cult" which was "corrupt, sinister and dangerous".
The City of London police came under fire two years ago when it emerged that more than 20 officers, ranging from constable to chief superintendent, had accepted gifts worth thousands of pounds from the Church of Scientology. The City of London Chief Superintendent, Kevin Hurley, praised Scientology for "raising the spiritual wealth of society" during the opening of its headquarters in 2006.
Liberty director, Shami Chakrabarti, said: "This barmy prosecution makes a mockery of Britain's free speech traditions. "After criminalising the use of the word 'cult', perhaps the next step is to ban the words 'war' and 'tax' from peaceful demonstrations?"
And Charlie Stross weighs in:
I don't care whether Scientology is a "cult" or a "religion", however you slice or dice those terms. Personally, I think the two are interchangeable; your respectable religion is that other guy's cult, and vice versa.
But I am now officially fed up with this public bending-over-backwards to be respectful and sincere towards superstitionists of every stripe, to the point that religion trumps freedom of speech, as this case demonstrates so clearly. And the religious still aren't satisfied — they're out for more. I see no distinction between Christianity, Islam, and Scientology, in this respect: if you give them an inch they'll try and take a mile, as witness the ambush vote on lowering the age limit for abortion that the god botherers have tacked onto the current embryology bill.
We need to kick the bishops out of the House of Lords, ban the Police and judiciary from taking donations from religious organizations, and get religion out of politics by any means necessary.
I pretty much agree. The difference between a "cult" like Scientology and a "respectable" religion such as Christianity is not in the plausibility of their beliefs. (Christian doctrines such as the Virgin Birth and Noah's Ark aren't any more rational or less weird than the tenets of Scientology; they only seem that way to us because they're part of the cultural wallpaper of Western civilisation.) IMHO, religions and their believers should be judged on their actions, rather than on the respectability of their particular brand of mythology. (As Voltaire wrote, there is nothing more respectable than an ancient evil.) And religions shouldn't be automatically entitled to be handled with kid gloves and reverential deference, or, indeed, to impose restrictions on those who do not adhere to them (such as the proposed bans on embryo research), just because their organisations are founded on supernatural or unprovable beliefs.

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2008/5/14

In the popular beliefs of our times, the figure of Albert Einstein fulfils the role of the metaphorical "smartest human being ever", to the point where urban legends attributing factoids to (such as "we only use 10% of our brains") to various luminaries end up mutating into "Einstein said that...". So, not surprisingly, a lot of people are eager to claim the great man's endorsement for their beliefs, however tenuously.

Not surprisingly, there has been much debate about Einstein's views on religion (i.e., whether his famous statement that "God does not play dice" was an acknowledgement of a higher being or mere metaphor), with both theists and atheists claiming him for their team. Now, newly released letters from 1954 reveal that, at least towards the end of his life, Einstein regarded religion as "childish" and "primitive legends":

In the letter, dated January 3 1954, he wrote: "The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.
He wrote: "For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people.
The letter recounts Einstein's questioning of religion having begun at age 12.

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2008/4/3

Tony Blair is launching a foundation to promote religious faith in public life. Blair's Faith Foundation is not specific on which religious doctrine the faith should be in, as long, as long as actual religious faith is involved. Because it would be a shame if the big decisions that affect millions of lives were made on some lesser basis, such as, for example, reason or empirical observation.

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2008/2/10

MySpace's legendary contempt for its users has now extended to deleting the Atheists & Agnostics group with 35,000 members, apparently because its existence offended some religious hardliners.

“It is an outrage if Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and the world’s largest social networking site tolerate discrimination against atheists and agnostics-- and if this situation goes unresolved I’ll have little choice but to believe they do,” said Greg Epstein, humanist chaplain of Harvard University. News Corporation, Murdoch’s global media corporation which also includes Fox News, purchased MySpace in 2005.
The group has now been undeleted; here is more on the incident from the group's moderator, Bryan Pesta:
We were deleted two years ago due to complaints from a group called the "Christian Crusaders." They would search Myspace for profiles they found offensive, and then mass complain to customer service. Their strategy was to send so many emails to customer service that someone, somewhere at Myspace would delete the profile or group.

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2007/12/7

In Portland, Oregon, there is a campaign to get 42nd Avenue renamed to "Douglas Adams Boulevard":

It will reflect Portlanders’ commitment to the arts.

It will reflect Portlanders’ respect for the environment.

It will reflect Portlanders’ desire to provide technological access to all.

It will reflect Portlanders’ passion to further education to all people.

It will remind all Portlanders’ the most important lesson in times of uncertainty and fear…

…DON’T PANIC.

Of course, Douglas Adams was also an outspoken atheist, a position that's still considered controversial in America (though, apparently, getting less so, with sympathetic atheists appearing on TV shows such as House). If the majority of Americans would still be unwilling to accept an atheist holding public office, would they be willing to rename a street after one?

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2007/6/13

Secularist philosopher A.C. Grayling weighs in on the curious case of why the recent publication of half a dozen anti-religious books has caused so much alarm, while the constant flood of religious books attracts no attention:

Half a dozen anti-religious books; what is amazing is how little, if anything, is said about the many thousands of pro-religious books published every year all round the world. The magazine Publishers Weekly reported earlier this year that the member publishing houses of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association between them produced 13,400 new titles in the two years 2005-6 alone. This is just one segment of the religious publishing industry in just one wing of one of the world religions; the mind boggles at the extent of forests being felled for purveyance of religious doctrine, opinion, exhortation and polemic in every shade, nuance and type.
I had the good fortune to see Grayling speak at the Hay-on-Wye festival recently, and while he is in a similar philosophical camp to the likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, he certainly couldn't be classified as a "militant atheist". Then again, according to this blog post (also via Peter), the very phrase "militant atheist" is one of those weasel words, so thoroughly assimilated into the vernacular that people use it to describe people of quite moderate views, which just happen to be anti-religious:
From the meaning of "militant", you might expect that Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens are burning down churches, or at least leading protests, stirring up crowds with their fiery rhetoric. You would be disappointed, of course. What Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens have done is write books. Hitchens is more of a curmudgeon than a militant, and Dawkins and Harris are both rather mild-mannered. Nobody is leaving their public events carrying torches and singing the atheist analogue of the Horst Wessel song.
I'm not sure I'd agree about Harris; his The End Of Faith seemed to echo a lot of rather ugly neoconservative warblogger polemic.

Though the blogger seems to have a point that a lot of people are willing to cut people a lot more slack if their behaviour or demeanour has a religious justification.

When Jerry Falwell died recently, newspaper obituaries rarely described him as "militant", even though the adjective fit him much better than mild-mannered atheists like Harris. Ironically, however, the Associated Press obituary by Sue Lindsey, referred to Falwell's father and grandfather as "militant atheists".

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2006/11/20

In his recent book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins asserted that, in today's America, atheists have a standing similar to what gays had 50 years ago. (According to a poll quoted by Dawkins, only 49% of Americans would approve of an atheist holding public office; other traditionally disenfranchised minorities (women, gays and African-Americans) get scores in the high 70s to 90s.) Dawkins' picture is grim for American atheists: they're routinely vilified as amoral nihilists, and often subjected to intimidation.

Scott Adams (the Dilbert one, not the text-adventure one), however, presents a more optimistic picture: according to him, atheists are the new gays; books by Dawkins and gung-ho neoconservative atheist Sam Harris are topping the sales charts, and, as likeable gay characters did a few decades ago, openly atheist characters are now filtering into TV shows:

Prior to 9/11, it would have been career suicide for a public figure to come right out and say God is a fairy tale. Now it's a feature of popular culture. You can see it on cable of course, in shows such as BullSh*t, Real Time, The Daily Show, and Southpark. But it's also a feature of network TV. The main character on House is written as the most brilliant human on the planet, and he's an atheist. The new show 3lbs has a similar character. I can't remember anything like that ten years ago.
Adams puts this down to 9/11; whereas during the Cold War, America was fighting a nominally atheistic Soviet Union (hence "In God We Trust" having been added to US currency during the McCarthy era), it is now fighting adversaries who, whichever way you look at them, epitomise religious faith at its most extreme.
Ask a deeply religious Christian if he'd rather live next to a bearded Muslim that may or may not be plotting a terror attack, or an atheist that may or may not show him how to set up a wireless network in his house. On the scale of prejudice, atheists don't seem so bad lately.
Depends on the "deeply religious Christian"; don't a lot of religious hardliners in the US lump everybody outside of the One True Religion, from Godless feminists to Wahhabi Islamists, as part of the same Satanic Other?

Anyway, Dawkins suggested in his book that there are many more atheists in America than are willing to identify them as such, and that many of political leaders (and even some religious leaders) who, for reasons of pragmatism, profess to be acceptably religious, are closet atheists, and that if they started coming out of the closet, this could trigger a change in American political culture. Adams suggests that this may be happening now. He furthers that to propose America's first explicitly Atheist President: Bill Gates.

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2006/11/3

Famous atheist Daniel Dennett has a near-death experience, fails to recant his conviction that there is no God/Heaven/Flying Spaghetti Monster/glorious afterlife:

Yes, I did have an epiphany. I saw with greater clarity than ever before in my life that when I say "Thank goodness!" this is not merely a euphemism for "Thank God!" (We atheists don't believe that there is any God to thank.) I really do mean thank goodness! There is a lot of goodness in this world, and more goodness every day, and this fantastic human-made fabric of excellence is genuinely responsible for the fact that I am alive today. It is a worthy recipient of the gratitude I feel today, and I want to celebrate that fact here and now.
And while he forgives those who prayed for him, he chides them for wasting their time doing so when they could have expended the effort on something that would have made a difference:
I translate my religious friends' remarks readily enough into one version or another of what my fellow brights have been telling me: "I've been thinking about you, and wishing with all my heart ... that you come through this OK." The fact that these dear friends have been thinking of me in this way, and have taken an effort to let me know, is in itself, without any need for a supernatural supplement, a wonderful tonic. These messages from my family and from friends around the world have been literally heart-warming in my case, and I am grateful for the boost in morale (to truly manic heights, I fear!) that it has produced in me. But I am not joking when I say that I have had to forgive my friends who said that they were praying for me. I have resisted the temptation to respond "Thanks, I appreciate it, but did you also sacrifice a goat?" I feel about this the same way I would feel if one of them said "I just paid a voodoo doctor to cast a spell for your health." What a gullible waste of money that could have been spent on more important projects! Don't expect me to be grateful, or even indifferent. I do appreciate the affection and generosity of spirit that motivated you, but wish you had found a more reasonable way of expressing it.

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2006/10/3

BBC News has some excerpts from Richard Dawkins' new book, "The God Delusion":

When I interviewed for television the Reverend Michael Bray, a prominent American anti-abortion activist, I asked him why evangelical Christians were so obsessed with private sexual inclinations such as homosexuality, which didn't interfere with anybody else's life. His reply invoked something like self-defence. Innocent citizens are at risk of becoming collateral damage when God chooses to strike a town with a natural disaster because it houses sinners. In 2005, the fine city of New Orleans was catastrophically flooded in the aftermath of a hurricane, Katrina. The Reverend Pat Robertson, one of America's best-known televangelists and a former presidential candidate, was reported as blaming the hurricane on a lesbian comedian who happened to live in New Orleans.* You'd think an omnipotent God would adopt a slightly more targeted approach to zapping sinners: a judicious heart attack, perhaps, rather than the wholesale destruction of an entire city just because it happened to be the domicile of one lesbian comedian.

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2006/6/30

In Tampere, Finland, an atheist group has set up a website to help people resign from the church.

Easy resignation through the web site has increased the rate of resignations in Finland. Resigning through the web site only requires filling a short personal information form, after which a local city council will receive an email about the resignation. In cities where the city council does not accept email resignations, Freethinkers will pay the postal fee.
The rate of resignations from the Evangelic Lutheran state church of Finland has increased rapidly in recent years. 27009 people resigned from the church in 2004. 33043 people resigned in 2005, which is 22% more than in 2004. There are approximately 5.26 million people in Finland, which gives a proportion of people resigning from the church of 0.6% in 2005. The most common reasons cited for resigning from the church have been saving church income tax (1.3% on average), lack of religious beliefs and belief in another religion. A person can avoid church income tax by resigning before a new year begins. Increased resignation rates in November and December (shown in the figure) supports the theory that the most common reason for resigning is avoiding the income tax.
Finland is officially a Lutheran country, with everyone belonging by default to the state church unless they submit a resignation form. Mind you, one could argue that a universal state church is just another implementation of a secular society; the levels of zeal one can expect from such an organisation make the Church of England look like Branch Davidians by comparison, and many of those who do belong to the church see the inside of one about three times in their lives.

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2006/3/23

A telephone survey of 2,000 households across the United States has revealed that atheists are America's most distrusted minority. Americans see atheists as a threat to the American way of life, rate them below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in "sharing their vision of American society", and are the least willing to allow their children to marry one.

Even though atheists are few in number, not formally organized and relatively hard to publicly identify, they are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public. "Atheists, who account for about 3 percent of the U.S. population, offer a glaring exception to the rule of increasing social tolerance over the last 30 years," says Penny Edgell, associate sociology professor and the studys lead researcher.
Edgell also argues that todays atheists play the role that Catholics, Jews and communists have played in the pastthey offer a symbolic moral boundary to membership in American society. "It seems most Americans believe that diversity is fine, as long as every one shares a common core of values that make them trustworthy—and in America, that core has historically been religious," says Edgell. Many of the studys respondents associated atheism with an array of moral indiscretions ranging from criminal behavior to rampant materialism and cultural elitism.
Of course, not all Americans would prohibit their children from marryin' an atheist. The study found, not surprisingly, that intolerance of atheists is inversely proportional to one's education and exposure to diversity.

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2005/11/21

An essay by an American correspondent on what it feels like to be an atheist:

Imagine, seriously imagine for a moment now, that these people, the vast majority of the electorate, vote for politicians based in large part on what they think Santa wants, campaign speeches all end with "Be good or Santa won't come to visit". And most of these voters won't even consider voting for someone who doesn't believe in Santa Claus and his factory at the North Pole. Yet they routinely congratulate themselves as belonging to the most graciously tolerant and open minded people in all of history.
Picture your life unfolding in this world: As a child you also believe in Santa because your parents told you to, but as you grow up you become skeptical, some things just don't seem to add up. By the time you're six or seven years-old, you start asking legitimate questions like "How does Santa get down the little chimney, how does Santa get the time to visit each house, how does Santa know the kids who've been good from the ones who've been bad" and so forth. These questions elicit first strangely evasive answers devoid of content and a general sense of unease among the adults you're asking. Over the next few years that moves onto reactions of scorn, patronizing insults, and open hostility. But never, ever one single answer that holds up over time.
Finally you come to suspect there is a real possibility that there is no literal Santa Claus at the North Pole with a toy factory run by elves and flying reindeer. You began gently asking other folks about your concern. But, when you confide in a few of your most trusted friends and closest family members that the whole Santa idea is a nice sentiment to be sure, but it doesn't make much rational sense and there is no evidence for it, the reaction ranges from puzzlement, to pity, to shock, to anger, to open accusations and implications that you're some kind of mental defective for even wondering about it.
You don't understand what's going on, none of this Santa stuff makes any sense and there's zero evidence for it, why can't everyone just admit that? What's the big conspiracy about? Why is everyone pretending there really is a Santa? Then it slowly dawns on you, around age ten or eleven ... the chilling, horrible truth:
They're Not Pretending. They REALLY Do Believe There Is a Santa Claus.
I'm wondering: is the author of this piece originally from some redneck backwater, or is such open hostility to atheism a mainstream part of American culture?

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2005/9/28

A new study has shown that, far from being essential to a healthy society, widespread religious belief is socially corrosive, and correlates strongly with a range of social ills, from violent crime to sexually-transmitted diseases:

Published in the Journal of Religion and Society, a US academic journal, it says: "Many Americans agree that their churchgoing nation is an exceptional, God-blessed, shining city on the hill that stands as an impressive example for an increasingly sceptical world.
"In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies. The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developing democracies, sometimes spectacularly so."
In contrast, the relatively secular UK has fewer social ills, and Scandinavia (which has national churches which most people see the insides of about twice in their lives), Japan and the Godless cheese-eating surrender monkeys have been the most successful in reducing murder and early mortality rates, sexually-transmitted diseases and abortion.

The report seems to be mainly about religiosity in the US, where evolution is seen as a litmus test of theological correctness, which causes it to read somewhat strangely elsewhere. (The phrase "pro-evolution democracy" sounds a bit like "heliocentric-astronomy democracy" or something.)

"The non-religious, pro-evolution democracies contradict the dictum that a society cannot enjoy good conditions unless most citizens ardently believe in a moral creator," he says.
Advocates of strong religious values are unlikely to be convinced by this report, especially if they reject the scientific method as Godless.

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2005/8/31

Creationists in the US have launched upon a new offensive: buying up the country's numerous dinosaur-shaped roadside attractions and turning them into Creationist propaganda exhibits, disputing the Godless heathen assertion that dinosaurs died out before humanity arose:

The nearly 7-acre museum, low-tech theme park and science center embodies its founder's belief that God created the world in six days. The dinosaurs, even super carnivores such as T. rex, dined as vegetarians in the Garden of Eden until Adam and Eve sinned -- and only then did they feast on other creatures, according to the Christian-based young-Earth theory.
About 4,500 years after Adam and Eve arrived, the theory goes, pairs of baby dinosaurs huddled in Noah's Ark, and a colossal flood drowned the rest and scattered their fossils. The ark-borne animals repopulated the planet -- meaning that folk tales about fire-breathing beasts are accounts of humans battling dinosaurs, who still roamed the planet.
Cranky old atheist scientists have responded with the usual disdain:
"Dinosaurs lived in the Garden of Eden, and Noah's Ark? Give me a break," said Kevin Padian, curator at the University of California Museum of Paleontology in Berkeley and president of National Center for Science Education, an Oakland group that supports teaching evolution. "For them, 'The Flintstones' is a documentary."
But the Creationists aren't daunted:
The pastor and the Kanters now hope to turn Mr. Rex's innards into exhibits about cryptozoology -- the study of speculative creatures, such as Bigfoot -- and creationism. They will somewhat mirror those in Santee, which takes visitors from Genesis to modern times with placards that say Darwin "came at just the right time to be the catalyst for a revival of ancient paganism" and that evolution birthed Communism, racism and Nazism.
Kids flock to the huge statues. "And it's not like they're crying, 'Oh, mommy, take me out, I'm scared.' They're drawn to it," Chiles said. "There's something in their DNA that knows man walked with these creatures on Earth."
In other words, "in your heart, you know it's flat".

I wonder how long until the Creationists' Australian counterparts start buying or building roadside Big Things to spread their message; and, indeed, how much Federal Government funding they will be eligible to receive for such faith-based programmes.

Along similar lines: a New Republic article on how the religious right adopted postmodernist relativism as a weapon against that frustrating Enlightenment empiricist tradition, paving the way for know-nothingisms like "Intelligent Design" to be passed off as equally valid alternatives. It'll be interesting to see whether they'll succeed by weight of numbers in rolling back the Enlightenment and rendering scientific rationalism as a secret doctrine much like alchemy, taught only on a need-to-know basis to those who design and launch the religious-broadcasting satellites and web browsers the masses use, or whether the counter-Enlightenment will burn itself out, and possibly drive inquiring minds towards hardcore atheism at the same time.

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2005/2/27

Seen at Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park this afternoon:
Christian Atheism

He didn't speak, though did spend some time staking out a corner with his eclectic collection of signs and printed materials. For some reason, nobody seems to have gone up to him and asked about the finer points of Christian Atheism.

One of his signs:

A bit further on, a chap in a baseball hat was either waving or threatening to burn an American flag; a crowd had gathered around him and were remonstrating vigorously with him. Not far from there, Cory Doctorow and his posse of copyright-policy troublemakers had set up and addressed the crowd on the evils of the broadcast flag and WIPO treaties.

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2004/12/8

Surprise of the day: Hollywood's adaptation of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials books will do away with the atheist subtext, making the evil Church into a secular authoritarian organisation of some sort instead.

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2004/7/6

The Invisible Pink Unicorn. Because atheism, like all other religious orientations, needed a logo. And there are two other logos to choose from. Two of the three logos there look a bit like the Star Trek logo, which may or may not say something about the sorts of people who would wear an official atheist logo.

Meanwhile, evangelical Christianity has punk rock merchandise. (via MeFi.) How long until someone starts making "hardcore atheist skate-punk" T-shirts?

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2003/12/5

A while ago, various atheists, secularists, scientific rationalists and freethinkers started calling themselves "Brights", to differentiate themselves from the benighted wretches still living in a mediæval world-view governed by invisible spirits. The Bright movement has attracted prominent figures such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett; however, that doesn't make it any less silly:

The problem with the word bright is that it is too easily seen as confirming this link between atheism and intellectuality. Or to put this more precisely, if people with no belief in god begin to self-identify as brights, they run the risk of apparently confirming what many religious people already suspect about them, that they consider themselves to be better or more intelligent than people who believe in a god.

My view exactly; to the uninitiated observer (whose hearts and minds the movement is ostensibly trying to win) saying "I am a Bright" would look a bit too close to waving one's MENSA card in their face. Never mind that that's not the intended purpose; the perception is what counts. Which makes it looks like the Bright movement is the product of the classic wonks with plenty of abstract intelligence, a good deal of pride in it, but not enough basic social nous to avoid rubbing people the wrong way; not exactly the people you'd want doing your PR.

But that's not the only possible flaw with the "Bright" movement; the belief that people who don't believe in the supernatural are immune to dogmatic beliefs is a fallacy, as anybody who has ever spoken to a Marxist or an Objectivist (and there's another sect claiming to be guardians of "rationality") will know.

Which thoughts lead on to the second point about the kind of movement the brights idea is likely to foster. It is certainly going to contain some odd bedfellows. Scientific atheists and Marxist atheists will be united in thinking that there is definitely no god, but they'll fight like cats and dogs over the fate of the bourgeoisie. The agnostics will irritate both groups by sitting on the fence, whilst freethinkers drive themselves crazy trying to find a viewpoint unique to themselves. The skeptics will watch the whole thing from afar with slightly cynical smiles, and the postmodernists will talk past themselves, as per usual. As for the rest of the world? They wont see past the name. And laughter and parody will be the result. Therefore, one can only hope that the bright meme fails on its evolutionary journey.

And then there will be the inevitable "What Kind Of Bright Are You" test all over the blogosphere and LiveJournals everywhere. (via Stumblings)

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2003/6/23

Atheists have received a bit of a bad rap over the years. In the U.S., where the word is still tainted by McCarthy-era associations with Soviet Communism, the people who openly call themselves atheists tend to be those with massive chips on their shoulders about religion, whereas everybody else who doesn't believe in a deity is an "agnostic" or "unitarian universalist" or some other equally euphemistic term. Godlessness is widely seen as a moral failing, to the point where belief in the right brand of supernatural mumbo-jumbo is an essential qualification for any sort of public office.

Richard Dawkins, Atheist headkicker extraordinaire, wants to remedy this by taking a leaf from the gay pride movement's book, appropriating a more cheerful and positive word for the atheist/agnostic/skeptic community. Just as homosexuals became gays, atheists can now call themselves Brights. Which strikes me as a bit silly, though maybe it'll catch on. (Though wasn't the word "gay" used as a term of abuse for people deviating from sexual norms before the gay-pride movement reappropriated it? Perhaps a catchy meme would require setting up a puppet anti-atheist vilification movement to plant an easily invertible term of abuse in the ideosphere.) (via FmH)

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2003/6/22

A book titled The Hidden Key to Harry Potter claims that the Potter books are Christian literature in the Inkling tradition of Tolkien and C.S.Lewis, written to "baptise the imagination", and not the anti-Christian propaganda various religiots have been claiming them to be. The article points to a lot of Christian symbolism in the books (though how much of that is deliberate is another question; after all, the abovementioned religiots pointed to "symbols of evil" throughout the books). Interesting that it claims that Gilderoy Lockhart, the villainous charlatan, is modelled on the atheist author Philip Pullman; I wonder whether that was Rowling's intention or the interpretation of the author of the book. (via FmH)

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2003/3/24

I was deliberately avoiding blogging about the war (you can find all manner of kibbitzing, pontification, play-by-play commentary and ill-informed speculation in too many other places, or just bypass the armchair pundits and tune into the BBC or someone), but this piece is too good to pass up: Richard Dawkins on Bush and the system that elected him.

Osama bin Laden, in his wildest dreams, could hardly have hoped for this...
Bush seems sincerely to see the world as a battleground between Good and Evil, St Michael's angels against the forces of Lucifer. We're gonna smoke out the Amalekites, send a posse after the Midianites, smite them all and let God deal with their souls. Minds doped up on this kind of cod theology have a hard time distinguishing between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Some of Bush's faithful supporters even welcome war as the necessary prelude to the final showdown between Good and Evil: Armageddon followed by the Rapture. We must presume, or at least hope, that Bush himself is not quite of that bonkers persuasion. But he really does seem to believe he is wrestling, on God's behalf, against some sort of spirit of Evil.

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2003/1/17

A good interview with Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials books, in a Christian magazine named Third Way, going into Pullman's views on religion, atheism and morality in a secular belief system.

The kingdom of heaven promised us certain things: it promised us happiness and a sense of purpose and a sense of having a place in the universe, of having a role and a destiny that were noble and splendid; and so we were connected to things. We were not alienated. But now that, for me anyway, the King is dead, I find that I still need these things that heaven promised, and I'm not willing to live without them. I dont think I will continue to live after I'm dead, so if I am to achieve these things I must try to bring them about and encourage other people to bring them about on earth, in a republic in which we are all free and equal and responsible citizens.
I'm amazed by the gall of Christians. You think that nobody can possibly be decent unless they've got the idea from God or something. Absolute bloody rubbish! Isn't it your experience that there are plenty of people in the world who don't believe who are very good, decent people?

(via Stumblings in the Dark)

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2002/8/16

More evidence that we're living in the age of George W. Bush: BBC bans atheists from "Thought for the Day" radio slot. (via Pagan Prattle)

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2002/7/2

Healing the rift between Church and State: A Slate article on how America, a nation founded by secularistic Freemasons during the Enlightenment, became One Nation Under God, with monotheism of a particularly Protestantoid stripe its official core value. (Well, either that or fast-food franchises.) Not surprisingly, it had a lot to do with the McCarthy Era, and the fight against Godless Communism. (Even now, atheism is seen as un-American, and surveys show that many if not most Americans wouldn't trust an atheist with public office. What would Jefferson have said?)

I wonder what effects a War Without End against bomb-wielding religious fanatics would have. Perhaps the only good to come of it will be that people will come out of it not trusting those religion-spouting sonsofbitches. (via Reenhead)

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2002/3/14

A public service announcement: Please instill in your children conservative valuse of dogmatic religious conviction and intolerant social beliefs... or your child may be one of the one children who join the Taliban. (via the Horn)

(The conservative "Godless liberal pluralism -> joining the Taliban" argument is, of course, absurd; however, one wonders whether or not there may be a weaker memetic effect, in the sense of children with no exposure to religion having reduced immunity to fundamentalist religious memes; I have heard of atheist/humanist parents who deliberately went to church with their children for a year or two to "innoculate" them against getting religion and becoming fundamentalist zealots. Though, of course, one could apply this argument to other virulent belief systems, such as Marxism or Objectivism, for example.)

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2002/3/12

Scratch an atheist and you'll find a Communist terrorist: Since the terrorist attacks, discrimination against atheists has increased in the US, with the Godless being shunned, denied jobs and vilified as traitors if they reveal their beliefs. As a result, many have retreated to the closet.

Mark Barnes of San Francisco says that revealing his atheism was as difficult as revealing his homosexuality in his native Oklahoma. Filmmaker John Mendoza, whose 2001 movie "Blasphemy" was shown at the meeting, says his mother, "who prayed on her knees in front of the sacred heart of Jesus every day, felt she had failed me and my older brother told me to stay away from his children." And Mary from Berkeley says, "My parents still think I'm going through a stage. Mom, it's been like, 15 years!"

Wonder if it will get to the stage of atheists pretending to be Christians (or indeed Buddhists or Unitarian Universalists or something), or of witch-hunts for "new Christians" who are just going through the motions and secretly teaching their children Darwinism and secular humanism. The more some things change, the more they stay the same. (via 1.0)

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2001/10/9

Scratch an atheist and you'll find a Communist: Not surprisingly, the Taleban's Judaeo-Christian kindred spirits are having a field day in the wake of the WTC attacks, with American secularists shamed into silence, as not to appear unpatriotic, and the theocrats making the most of the new mood to push everything from prayer in schools to posting the Ten Commandments in public buildings.

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2001/9/16

Richard Dawkins looks at the WTC attack, and puts the blame on religious delusion:

If a significant number of people convince themselves, or are convinced by their priests, that a martyr's death is equivalent to pressing the hyperspace button and zooming through a wormhole to another universe, it can make the world a very dangerous place. Especially if they also believe that that other universe is a paradisical escape from the tribulations of the real world. Top it off with sincerely believed, if ludicrous and degrading to women, sexual promises, and is it any wonder that naive and frustrated young men are clamouring to be selected for suicide missions?
To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are used.

(via Stumblings)

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2001/6/15

An old yet most interesting interview with Greg Egan, the Australian hard-scifi author.

Music is just as important to me, on a personal level, as literature, but any influence it has on my writing is usually pretty tangential. I did write a story called "Worthless" for In Dreams - a recent anthology on "the culture of the 7-inch single". I'm a big fan of The Smiths, so the first idea that occurred to me when I heard about the anthology was to try to write a kind of SF equivalent of a Smiths song - a story with the same ambivalent attitude to the whole idea of worthlessness, half-embracing it as a positive thing. That was a one-off, though. The only other story where music played a major role was "Beyond the Whistle Test", in which scientists use neural maps to design advertising jingles which you literally can't forget.
I don't want to write motherhood statements - feel-good stories that cave in at the end and do nothing but confirm everything you ever wanted to believe; I've done that in the past, and it's insidious. Stories like that should be burned. If I'm certain of anything, it's that understanding how the real world works - how human brains actually function, how morality and emotions and decisions actually arise - is essential to any kind of ethical stance which will make sense in the long term.
As Paul Davies has said, most Christian theologians have retreated from all the things that their religion supposedly asserts; they take a much more "modern" view than the average believer. But by the time you've "modernised" something like Christianity - starting off with "Genesis was all just poetry" and ending up with "Well, of course there's no such thing as a personal God" - there's not much point pretending that there's anything religious left. You might as well come clean and admit that you're an atheist with certain values, which are historical, cultural, biological, and personal in origin, and have nothing to do with anything called God.
Australia possesses thousands of subcultures, quite apart from any question of ethnicity. One of those subcultures consists of people who consider their nationality a vital part of their self-image; that's their right, but they should stop deluding themselves that everyone else thinks the same way. Nothing's more ridiculous than talking about the "unique Australian character" - unless it's talking about the "mystical qualities of the Australian landscape".

(ta, Peter!)

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2001/2/1

Slouching towards Gilead (cont.): The U.S. under Bush moves closer towards a Religious Right theocracy, with Christian Fundamentalist extremist John Ashcroft's Attorney-General nomination clearing Congress; meanwhile, Bush proposes extra tax deductions for donations to "faith-based" charities. (Which may amount to a punitive tax on atheists/agnostics/freethinkers and other such unamericans.)

"No, I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God."
- George Bush Sr.

Real chip off the old block, that W.

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