Reasons Part 1

I think that it is fair to say that most atheists have reasons for not believing in gods.  There are intellectual reasons aplenty for not believing that I will look at in the coming weeks.  There are some who do not believe because of the way they were brought up or educated, or because they have simply adopted the beliefs of the culture in which they grew up.  The same is probably true of many Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, etc.

Other atheists choose atheism because they just feel that atheism is right.  The intellectual reasons either escape them or simply don’t matter because they follow their feelings that atheism is the right choice.  Perhaps they looked into other faiths and couldn’t decide which one suited them most and so decided on none.  Again I strongly suspect that the same is true for many people of faith who hold their beliefs because they just seem right to them.

There is another group though who are labelled as apatheists.  Apatheists or people who are apathetic with regards to religion choose atheism as a default option.  Rather they don’t choose at all, they simply don’t care one way or the other about or for questions of religion.

I don’t mind admitting that I find the idea of apatheists more than a little unsettling.  How can people not care?  For me a key event that triggered my own exploration of religion and rejection of many aspects of it was the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001.  In that case religion was used as a force for evil (and I don’t use the word lightly) to motivate people into attacking the West.  The reaction to this from religious groups helped to cement my views.  These views though are more about religion than about the existence or non-existence of God or gods.  Turned away from religion I explored the matter of existence from an intellectual view point.  Finding no compelling reason I am an atheist.  For other people 9/11 drew them into a faith a cemented their ties with a religion, perhaps they drew strength from their faith where I saw only division.  One thing 9/11 did was to prompt people to decide on faith.

Yet to have people who just don’t care strikes me as callous and more than a little odd.  Was 2001 really so long ago that people have forgotten about it?  Were the events so far removed from their lives that they’ve been able to dismiss them as unimportant?  I do not understand it and I do not feel that it is right.  Yet it must be the default position for anyone who comes into this world.

A child is born with no knowledge of religion and is taught all that they later know about the gods or God, about faith and about the organisations that are built on these viewpoints.  By my definition of atheism, that it is a lack of belief in God or gods, a child has had no chance to believe or not.  They fail to believe because they do not know that there is a choice.  These are not atheists but apatheists.  Once apprised of the facts they can choose to believe in one faith or none and can choose their own reasons for doing so.  To remain uncommitted is not something that makes sense to me.

I should point out that apatheist here is a different stance than agnosticism.  An agnostic has explored the ideas of faith and no faith and decided that they haven’t got enough information to choose.  The information is not quite compelling one way or the other.  They are not indifferent but intellectually honest.  Being unable to know in the true sense of the word they wait patiently for a juicy piece of evidence or reasonable argument that may sway them.  This is not a lack of interest or a path of ignorance but a balancing act of competing ideas.  Atheism answers the question of belief and agnosticism answers the question of knowledge.  They are not on the same scale of belief.

Perhaps an apatheist is simply exercising the same lack of interest in God that they see God exercising in them. Now there’s an idea, if a callous one.

I originally wrote this for Off The Map – Atheist in 2009 as part of a series explaining why I lacked belief in gods.

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Promoting moral growth

This is a response to a comment on Google+ that really turned out too long to post there.

Are you familiar with Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development?  Too many people, particularly the right wing religious people who make up a very influential bloc in North America are stuck on the obedience and punishment stage. Perhaps it is the idea of obeying religious covenants that have been firmly ingrained into their psyches or perhaps they are simply deferring moral growth to their pastors.

To take an idea from Marx; religion is the opiate of the masses, it holds back moral development.  I should say it can hold back moral development rather than that it does.  If we want humanity to reach a post conventional level of morality where we at least engage in a mutually beneficial social contract (that open minded and permissive morality where we don’t judge those who are different based on our own preferences) then we need to work past the restrictions that religion places on growth.

My dissent with regard to Marx’ assessment of religion as a limiter leads me to say that I’ve known a few highly moral religious social commenters but that religion per se does not promote this kind of development (neither does its absence in all fairness).  I can see it in some aspects of Buddhism and if you read almost anything by the Dalai Lama you’ll see how acceptance and understanding are key to his view of personal and social happiness but you still find bigoted Buddhists.  I can see some fantastic moral lessons in Roman Catholicism too.  Charity for example is key to many Catholic endeavours, unfortunately the Holy See and the Bishop of Rome hardly seem to exemplify this quality.  There is also an idea in Islam that encourages the questioning of dogma and its constant reassessment.  Again it is something that we tend not to hear about these days but it did help Islam to advance scientifically, medically and culturally over its neighbours until our European ancestors crushed them.

I’ve said many times how I view religion as a Curate’s Egg with both good and bad parts.  Every religious person cherry picks their scripture and takes from it what lessons best suit them.  I think that this is a good thing and we, I mean society in general, should encourage it.  We need to encourage them to cherry pick the parts that promote a better society and to explain away or ignore the parts that limit or harm society.  We can do this by making society more moral and promoting humanist ideas.  As something of a utilitarian I think that we should examine moral questions from the principle of the least harm caused rather than from the viewpoint of an authority who dictates moral considerations but as long as those moral considerations that are dictates are to the benefit of all then we can certainly adapt them.

The Ten Commandments dictates prohibitions against murder and theft and promotes the idea of accepting that what others have is theirs.  The Eight Fold Way promotes wisdom, ethical conduct and mindfulness of others.  The Sermon on the Mount promotes compassion for the poor and hungry and condemns greed and violence.  I think that we can agree that these are good things that we could readily adapt into every day social contracts of morality alongside other ideas.

Let me know what you think.

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Belief vs belief

“Atheists don’t believe in anything” is an odd thing to say, when you think about it. It’s based on a twisted and confused understanding of what belief really is. Very simply put, in everyday conversation, ‘belief’ refers to a person’s convictions. They are matters of faith rather than ones where evidence or proof is thought to be evidence or even relevant. In matters of philosophy a ‘belief’ is ‘any fact of the matter or proposition which might be held to be true’, or what we think of as being true for everyone and everything, for example:

It is Friday.
1+1=2.
I was born more than 3 days ago.
The sun will rise in the east and set in the west (relative to my current location).

That kind of thing are objectively true (or false) for everyone. Beliefs can be very specific or very general, trivial or serious. Beliefs can be suppositions (if the sun had come out it would have been a brighter day) or absolute statements of fact (If Alex is taller than Beth and Beth is taller then Cait then Alex is taller than Cait).

Philosophically ‘beliefs’ have truth value. They are capable of being true or false.

We have two distinct kinds of belief: The kind of beliefs that are either true or false and the kind of beliefs that are strongly held convictions. The latter include:

democracy is the best form of government.
cats are better pets than dogs.
Mozart was the finest composer who ever lived.
apples are a finer food than oranges.

These are subjective and are based on the preferences of the person making them. There is a distinction here that is sometimes lost when we discuss beliefs. How many times have you seen or heard the question “How can an atheist go through life believing in nothing?” or something similar? I’ve even seen it given as a statement and a condemnation. Atheists or rational beliefs are dismissed as having less value than theistic beliefs. Ultimately though, it is a failure of the person asking the question in understanding the difference between conviction and truth.

People of strong conviction even refer to their beliefs as truth, sometimes even capitalising it as Truth to give in added power. I know I’ve done it, I’ve considered some of my own convictions as so obvious and irrefutable that they must be true. Again though this is a confusion between the idea of belief inherent in truth and the belief inherent in a strongly held conviction. There being no way to prove (or disprove) the existence of God or gods, religion is a belief that falls firmly within the bounds of a conviction and is incapable of being true or false without further evidence. That isn’t to say that we cannot glean honest and good ideas from religion, just that the idea of proof isn’t relevant.

What meaning do we give to our lives without the firm convictions of religious belief? It isn’t as easy as taking the beliefs of a community (a church) or a family and adopting them. An atheist instead has to ascribe meaning to their own life and adopt those convictions that make sense. For me that gives the beliefs that I hold greater strength. I have challenged them myself in arriving at them (and continue to do so) so they are much stronger as a result. The values that I have and the beliefs that I hold have come about through questioning and evaluating them. It is true that some theists do this too. I just don’t think that they do it as often.

When someone says of an atheist that we don’t believe in anything they are failing to grasp the nature of belief. Both a theist and a non-theist may share identical beliefs in things that have truth value but will differ in beliefs that are formed of conviction. We both have convictions and true beliefs but some people fail to grasp the difference and place them together. This doesn’t help anyone to discuss or understand the differences in their beliefs.

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Good vs Evil

I’ve taken this from a comment by Quesita on a forum that I frequent and changed a few minor things so that it sits well better in isolation.
 
I am genuinely baffled by the concept that a belief in a deity would help me better distinguish between good and evil, and whatever falls in between. I really spent a great deal of time last night and today thinking about this very question, and trying to make sense of the concept.
 
I mean no disrespect, but I would really appreciate it if you theists could walk me through one, specific historical example, and help me understand some questions:  “If God doesn’t exists, what is good and what is evil? Who decides them?
 
Dozens of interesting examples come to mind, but let’s just pick one, and take slavery in the US. 
 
A mere 15 decades ago, many adherent Christians in the US believed that kidnapping, torturing, and raping people, in order to exploit their labour for financial gain, was completely consistent with the teachings of the Bible. Now maybe it is because I am a heathen atheist who does not really understand good and evil, but for me, kidnapping, torturing, and raping in order to benefit financially really sort of falls into the evil category. In fact, if we were to have a scale of good and evil, I’d put that sort of behavior pretty far down on the evil side.
 
So help me understand. I know that there was slavery in the Bible. Do Christians really believe that kidnapping, raping, torturing and then benefiting financially is consistent with the teachings of the Bible? Did Jesus forgive those kidnapping, raping, torturing folks because they accepted him as their savior, and therefore had a better understanding of good and evil than I do? Did Jesus let those kidnapping, raping, torturing folks into heaven because they vocally proclaimed that Jesus was the best deity ever? And did Jesus subsequently condemn my beloved parents to an eternity of hellfire because they were too busy helping humanity to sing Jesus’ praise? 
 
Is it possible that slavery was ok then, but isn’t ok any more because Christianity’s understanding of the concept of “good” has, for lack of a better word, evolved?
 
Or is Jesus the kind of deity who buys into “the end justifies the means” as a reason to turn a blind eye to some sins? Was Jesus really a bit put off by the all the nasty stuff that went along with enslaving millions of human beings for so many generations, but decided it was ok because many of those slaves, (and an overwhelming number of their decedents), ended up being Christian? 
 
Or did those kidnapping, raping and torturing folks who called themselves Christians, really misread the scriptures? And if so, why did God write scriptures that are so easily misunderstood? I mean, there are a bunch of references to slavery in the Bible. I can see how they might have gotten it all wrong. And if they were really so seriously misreading the scriptures, how do you know that you and your pastor are not seriously misreading the scriptures as well? 
 
You see, for me, kidnapping, raping, torturing and enslaving other human beings for financial profit is evil, under any circumstances. But I am not a Christian, so I don’t really understand good and evil in the Christian way. So when I work my way through the above example, without the help of a skilled Christian to help me really understand it, these are the possible conclusions that I draw:
 
Kidnapping, raping, torturing and enslaving other human beings for financial profit;
A) Is ok and consistent with Christian teachings on good and evil.
 
B) Was ok in the past, but isn’t ok anymore because Christianity changes with the times. 
 
C) Is ok and consistent with Christian teachings on good and evil if the people being kidnapped, raped, tortured and enslaved end up learning about the Bible. 
 
D) Isn’t really ok and consistent with Christian teachings on good and evil, but folks who engaged in those practices get to go to heaven anyway because they accepted Jesus. (Sort of like the way that people who say “God damn it” when they stub their toes get to go to heaven because, after all, we are all sinners but if we accept Jesus our sins get forgiven.) 
 
E) Is not ok and is not consistent with Christian teachings on good and evil, and the folks who engaged in those practices in the name of Jesus already went to hell for all of eternity because they misunderstood God’s confusing scriptures as they apply to slavery.
 
F) Another explanation which I am missing because I don’t understand good and evil and because I don’t have Jesus to guide me and help me understand.
 
I would really, really appreciate clarification from some of our Christians friends.
 

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Call-me-Dave Tough on crime

I’ve left the comment below to tenderhooligan’s blog post regarding this news story. I’m pretty pissed about the rioting which was mindless destruction for it’s own sake but the measured response by law enforcement should be against the perpetrators and the political response should be about the causes of the riot. So far I’ve not seen a politician address that at all.

I’m horrified by this story. The son has been arrested and is facing prosecution and probably a jail term. Fair enough, he committed a crime and society seeks to put in place corrective action and demonstrate a deterrent for future offenders. That deterrent shouldn’t extend to his family who are not responsible for his crime.

I note that Call-me-Dave says that “they’ll have to find housing in the private sector and that will be tougher for them”. Tougher? Yeah, let’s see a family (presumable on benefits or with a low income) raise a few thousand pounds for a deposit and a few thousand more for their first month or so rent.

No, what’ll happen is that they’ll go to the council again and ask for emergency accommodation for the 8 year old and mother (who they are already housing). The council can refuse as an evicted family is deemed “intentionally homeless” but in practice they won’t. They’ll be put up in a B&B or temporary accommodation for 6 to 12 months and go right back on the housing list.

When the son gets released after he finally gets a trial and they let him out for time served or shortly after they’ll apply for accommodation again. As an ex offender he’ll be given preferential housing and the family will end up in another council flat. Maybe even the same one.

Oh and the flat won’t be used for the next eighteen months. Most councils have a policy to keep flats used for crimes empty for a period to deter people who went to these properties (dealers, buyers, etc) from returning. Then it’ll be redecorated at tax payer’s expense and let out again.

The lovely Hil says that the council are within their rights according to the typical council tenancy agreement. Also that there is probably more to this story than is being told. Councils rarely evict based on single incidents.

Another thing. The eviction process is an expensive and drawn out process. Anyone who advices Sartain-Clarke’s mother will tell her to stay in the flat until the bailiffs arrive to evict in order to maximise their chances of being rehoused. That means more cost to the tax payer.

It looks to me to be an expensive and pointless exercise in public relations where Call-me-Dave can say that he is being tough on crime without actually doing anything constructive. Then again I may just be a cynic.

Apparently Call-me-Dave will make a speech about council housing reforms today.

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National Blood Week

It’s National Blood Week. I’m not due to donate for another month but if you’ve been thinking about donating your time for a good cause then giving blood is a good cause.

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Christians object to Disney’s “Gay Day”

Walt would spin in his grave.

An anti-gay Christian group is spending $7,000 to fly planes over Orlando, Fla., dragging giant banners that read, “Warning Gay Day at Disney.” The campaign is part of the group’s boycott and protest of the annual event.


Florida Family Association claims thousands of people enter the park each year during “Gay Day” only to turn around and leave when they realize gay people and same-sex couples are present. The group says it wants Disney to reschedule Gay Day at night after the park closes.

Heavens to purgatory, gay people exist and they go out in public. Quickly, lock up your families so they aren’t exposed to the horror.

The Florida Family Association says patrons of the event wear T-shirts that “promote homosexuality” and dress in drag. The groups also charges that gay couples publicly kiss, hug and grope each other – behavior the group’s leaders believe will turn children gay if they witness it.

Shocking! Gay people daring to show affection for one another in public. Not only do they have the audacity to exist but now they aren’t even cringing in shame at they own gayness. What is the world coming to?

Why do Disney allow this?

The six-day Pride celebration draws about 160,000 people, who spend an estimated $150 million, to the area to celebrate. Thousands of the event’s participants visited Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom on June 4.

Oh yes, two incomes, no dependents. That means that they have money to spend. But surely Disney don’t want to take the gay money, won’t it turn them gay?

/sarcasm.

On a positive note I think that it is great that the Christian Right are helping to advertise this event. After all it originated as a way to raise awareness of gay issues and to highlight that non-hetero people exist and aren’t just going to disappear because some people can’t accept the fact.

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