Atheists: Less Crime, Less Vengeance, Less Racism

Check out this article in the LA Times about Secular Family Values and how great they are. It’s a few months old, but worth reading and relevant to many conversations held here. The conclusion will reassure many MSP readers:

Being a secular parent and something of an expert on secular culture, I know well the angst many secular Americans experience when they can’t help but wonder: Could I possibly be making a mistake by raising my children without religion? The unequivocal answer is no. Children raised without religion have no shortage of positive traits and virtues, and they ought to be warmly welcomed as a growing American demographic.

Some comments on my brother’s “Mormon Stories” interview

The Swiss post-mo club had a fantastic party yesterday — thanks friends!! — and the subject of the recent Mormon Stories interview with my brother (John Hamer) came up. I had linked to it for about a week in the “Exmo Radio” widget (until replacing it with a discussion of SCOTUS, DOMA, etc), but I hadn’t actually listened to it. I’ll admit, I’m not much of a podcast person. Anyway, the guy who had listened to it mentioned that John talked about me in it (I’m the sister “Carol”), so I figured I should listen to it.

And I did, just this morning! The first half anyway. And I kept feeling like I wanted to be there adding comments. But, alas, it’s too late (and I wasn’t invited anyway), so I have to settle for writing my comments here. You might want to listen to it before reading this.

Sexism & girl scouts:

John mentions being haunted by a childhood memory of telling me that the girl scouting award I was so proud to have earned wasn’t the same as earning the Eagle rank in Boy Scouts. I have no recollection of him making any such remark (but I’m sure he’s talking about me because I’m the sister who earned the Girl Scout rank). The problem wasn’t making the remark — the problem is the truth behind it. It wasn’t the same thing, and it especially wasn’t the same thing to my Mormon community.

I liked being in Girl Scouts, but I always wanted to do all of the cool stuff that the boy scouts got to do. My mom let me be in Girl Scouts, and I enjoyed the camping and I liked being able to earn badges like the boys. But my mom had me quit Girl Scouts when I turned 12 because at that point I would be in the church YW program. (Not a good substitute, BTW.)

Anyway, John had just recently earned his Eagle rank (and had gotten this big Court of Honor and all the accolades from the ward), and I wanted to earn the top rank I could before dropping out of Girl Scouts. So my mom and I made a huge push to earn as many badges as possible and finish up the top rank (of a total of three ranks, as I recall). I think I earned the last two in the same ceremony (which was kind of borderline against the rules, but they allowed it, probably because I was leaving anyway). I didn’t organize a service project, and what I did was not equivalent to becoming an Eagle Scout. I wanted to be an Eagle Scout, and I could and would have done it if only I’d had different junk between my legs.

On being a non-believer at BYU:

I totally agree with what John said about how it wasn’t hard to avoid trouble with the Honor Code police (“Standards”). The people who got in trouble were the believers who believed that the church and BYU standards are fundamentally good and are in your corner, even if you’re different. People like John and me who recognized the system as fundamentally dishonest — we did what we had to do to get by, and did fine.

On the other hand, I found it interesting that John said that the deception didn’t bother him. J. Dehlin asked John H. whether it was hard to be a non-believer at BYU (@16:42), and my immediate reaction was “Yes!!!” Yet John replied: “No.”

It was hard to need to be phony all the time. It was hard not to be able to be honest about who I am. It was hard not to have any real friends. Kids today are lucky because it’s easy to use the Internet to find like-minded fellows. Perversely, John benefited by being gay in addition to being a non-believer because there were (underground) support groups for gay people at BYU. For me, there was nothing I could do to find people like me without getting kicked out.

And lying to get an Ecclesiastical Endorsement, which was required for continuing enrollment…? It was hard and not hard. Sitting there and coming up with the right words and saying them correctly was not hard. And — as John pointed out — it was a dishonest and unethical system that put me in that position, which is how I justified doing it. I wasn’t even 18 when I started BYU, and I was much younger (and a believer) when I was locked into the choice of BYU. If my parents had put 10% of their income per year into a college fund instead of into tithing, I might have gone to an ivy, but as it was, BYU was my only option. And I didn’t try to stop believing in Mormonism — my non-belief was entirely unintentional.

Still, I feel like lying to stay at BYU was a major hit to my integrity. I could have chosen not to do it, and found a way to deal with the consequences. (As I’ve said, this was one of the “improvements” in the fictionalization of the story.) Yes, the church set me up in a way that was totally inappropriate. But I hold myself to a higher standard than I hold the church. Just because the church is dishonest, that doesn’t make it OK for me to be dishonest. In the end, I chose to get myself financially independent as quickly as humanly possible so that I could ensure that I would never be put in the same position again.

The word “atheist”:

This is one of the main reasons why I’ve never tried to organize any sort of LDS-related interview including both me and John together. John is a famous and high-profile convert to the Community of Christ, and I know that he doesn’t identify as atheist anymore, and yet it’s not entirely clear that he believes in God. (He probably clarifies this point in the second half of the podcast — I’ve only listened to the first couple of minutes of it so far) Maybe he doesn’t want to be put on the spot about this with his atheist sister. Which is fine, that’s his own business.

I found it really interesting, though, his avoidance of the word “atheist” during the podcast. When he was describing his family, he mentioned our faithful Mormon mom and our two faithful Mormon sisters, he mentioned our Evangelical Christian dad, he described our brother Ben as a “Unitarian”, and he mentioned my work on Outer Blogness (yay!) — but he failed to mention that Ben and I are atheists. And even more interesting was this statement (@32:56):

If you are some kind of a hard atheist where you’re saying there is proof that that that that some kind of a god doesn’t exist, I don’t think that’s supportable, so I would have been an agnostic.

I assume he knows how atheism works. No atheist I know claims such a proof here’s a typical atheist on this question.) An atheist is someone who lacks a belief in the existence of a God or gods. A strong atheist is someone who believes that the gods claimed by religions do not exist. Someone who claims to have a proof of God’s non-existence is called a “straw atheist” a.k.a. “straw man.”

The second podcast starts with the same old grayer than thou claims about atheists, that they just took Mormonism’s claims too literally.

I completely understand that many people like going to church, and some people really want to be a part of a church community. Whether you believe the truth claims are not is a secondary concern for many (probably most) people when deciding whether to be a part of a church. I understand why and how people who have been LDS would want to stay LDS and/or stay in a Restoration (eg. Joseph Smith-founded) tradition. That doesn’t seem weird or crazy to me, even though I’m not interested in being part of such a community myself. I think that joining the Community of Christ is a very good option for a lot of people who have problems with the CoJCoL-dS and who see church attendance as “the baby” (not “the bathwater”) when they go through a belief transition.

Is it too much to ask that that respect be mutual? Is it possible to argue for church attendance without trotting out the straw atheist and whipping him a bit? God only knows…

Points of agreement between atheists and Mormons

In my last SiOB, I highlighted a list of “things that both atheists and Mormons can largely affirm together” by Aaron Shafovaloff. Then Andrew S picked up the discussion and even attracted Aaron Shafovaloff himself to attempt to explain it.

I had highlighted the list mostly because many of the items were so hilariously off. In an attempt to account for the phenomenon of people choosing to “stay LDS” after a loss of belief, Shafovaloff had tried to come up with a list of beliefs that are common among the three groups: atheist exmos, agnostic NOMs, and believing Mormons. That’s a reasonable approach, but the key problem is that Shafovaloff didn’t make a serious attempt to understand any of these positions or what they have in common. His list seems to be more an exercise in trying to discredit the three categories by lumping them together.

Then it hit me that it actually is an interesting question! Are there points where atheist exmos, agnostic NOMs, and believing Mormons are more likely to agree among themselves than to agree with non-Mormon Christians? Absolutely!

Here’s my first attempt at such a list:

  • The unique beliefs and doctrines of Mormonism are no crazier than the beliefs of Christianity — they simply seem more outlandish because they’re less familiar to most people.
  • Some of the unique beliefs and doctrines of Mormonism are more appealing and/or make more sense than their mainstream Christian counterparts.
  • Although they are related, the question of whether the CoJCoL-dS is true and whether it is a net force for good are two separate questions.
  • There are many reasons why people might want to continue to practice Mormonism and/or identify as Mormon even after a loss of belief.
  • Mormonism encourages a number of worthwhile pursuits such as journal-writing, genealogy, setting goals, self-reliance, and growing your talents.
  • Fiddler on the Roof is one of the best musicals ever!
  • The text of the Bible alone does not conclusively point to a specific set of beliefs about God. The particular doctrines of modern Christianity are more a product of millennia of traditional interpretations building on one another than a product of directly reading the text.
  • It doesn’t matter if you can find some Bible passages that seem to contradict Mormon beliefs. The Bible contradicts itself. It doesn’t need Mormonism’s help. If you believe that a benevolent God wrote the Bible, then it is reasonable to imagine He’d provide some additional guidance to explain it.
  • Calling Mormonism a “cult” is problematic since it implies that older religions are somehow wholly different in character.
  • The principal arguments against Mormonism also apply to Christianity.

What do you think? Which points would you add, subtract, or alter?

Maybe once it’s honed, we can pass it along to a faithful Mormon blog for their feedback!

Gregory Prince Doesn’t Care About Freethinker-People?!?

In the Fall 2011 issue of Dialogue (44:3), Gregory Prince interviews Shaun A. Casey about religion and presidential politics in light of his recently published book, “The Making of a Catholic President: Kennedy vs. Nixon 1960.” Just one page in is this exchange:

Prince: When was the religion of the candidate first an issue? Was it Al Smith?

Casey: Well, I think it can go all the way back to 1800 when Thomas Jefferson ran. He was attacked as being an atheist. You see it crop up in American presidential elections from time to time.

Prince: But there, with Jefferson, you have what his religion wasn’t. When was the first time that a candidate was under attack because of the particular faith tradition that he embraced?

Correct me if I’m wrong here, but did Gregory Prince just suggest that if it’s prejudice against a nonbeliever, it doesn’t count as prejudice? Or is he saying that prejudice only matters when it is against a faith tradition, not a reason tradition?

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIUzLpO1kxI

Building on a Religious Background

The following is an article I wrote for the October / November 2011 issue of Free Inquiry (the magazine of the Council for Secular Humanism), reposted here with permission from the editors. The Oct/Nov issue is a special issue on Mormonism, and one other MSP regular also contributed to it.

I am an atheist, but I grew up Mormon. My children have asked their grandparents and others about religious belief, about how it works, to try to understand it. But for all of their interest and curiosity, I doubt they’ll truly understand what it’s like to be a part of a religious community, and to truly believe in it. I wouldn’t recommend raising children in religion just so they’ll have the experience, but as for myself, I wouldn’t trade in my experiences for a non-religious background even if I could.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that a single claim can seem either obviously crazy or perfectly reasonable depending on how you’re exposed to it. Consider the Mormon belief that God was once a human and that humans can become Gods. As a teenager, it was an epiphany for me to encounter Christians who scorned and ridiculed this belief — not for being a deadly heresy, but for being obviously absurd. Meanwhile these same Christians believed in an omnipotent three-in-one God with no beginning who loves His human children, and promises them an eternity of unchanging subservience (best case scenario) or an eternity of torture. I’d been exposed (as least tangentially) to mainstream Christian beliefs my whole life, so their theology didn’t really shock me. But I was shocked by their crazy belief that Mormon theology was somehow objectively more crazy than their own theology.

This is a lesson that I’ve carried with me. For example, one time some colleagues invited me to a Hindu Diwali celebration, and I was surprised to see people pouring milk and honey and orange juice over statues of their gods, apparently to please them. “Wow, that’s crazy!” I thought, and then I stopped myself. Crazier than symbolically eating your God? Or than putting olive oil on someone’s head to perform a faith healing?

So much of what seems normal and reasonable depends on the beliefs you’re brought up with and on the things the people around you believe. Other trappings can influence your perception as well, such as homeopathic medicines that are packaged up like real medicine and sold in an ordinary pharmacy. One thing I’ve learned is that the natural “That’s crazy!” reaction doesn’t always lead to a rational exchange of ideas. If a person thinks that claim X is reasonable, and you say it’s obviously crazy, then in that person’s eyes you may be the one who looks like a raving lunatic. A lot of times you need to start by understanding why belief X seems reasonable to the other person before you begin to discuss it.

Spending my formative years in a minority religion has shaped my perspective and has helped shape who I am. Note that I wasn’t raised in some sort of isolated community of believers who fear and shun all contact with the outside. I went to an ordinary suburban High School that had only a handful of Mormon students, so most of my friends were not Mormon. On the other hand, Mormonism is a time-consuming religion that requires a lot of socializing with other believers, so it was as though I had one foot in one community and one foot in another. Thus I observed how minorities are judged (and misjudged). And I learned that being different is more than OK — it’s something to be proud of.

Now that I’m an atheist, I have additional perspective. I haven’t forgotten my past, so it’s a little like being bilingual. I can translate between two communities. On the Internet, I can correct errors and mis-impressions on one side or the other. On the Mormon side, you naturally see people who believe in the usual stereotypes about atheists: that they’re miserable, amoral nihilists, or whatever. Sometimes on the Bloggernacle (the network of faithful Mormon blogs) people write posts using those stereotypes as basic “everybody knows”-type background assumptions about atheists. I’m one of the ex-Mormon atheists that help to challenge the stereotypes not only by posting comments directly on posts that misrepresent atheists, but also by maintaining a long-term personal blog about my ordinary life as a mild-mannered mom.

On the other side, I can correct erroneous claims people make about Mormons and Mormon doctrine. In particular, there’s a lot of confusion about polygamy — mostly due to the publicity wing of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints broadcasting misleading half-truths like “We have not had any connection with polygamy for over a hundred years; we have no connection with any modern polygamist groups; the modern polygamist groups are not Mormon; end of story, stop asking us about it.” In reality, the modern Mormon polygamist groups are branches of the same tradition, they have as much right as any other branch of Mormonism to self-identify as “Mormon”, and while the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the branch with the pairs of missionaries with suits and bikes and little name-tags) renounced the modern practice of polygamy, it hasn’t renounced it as an eternal doctrine — notably their “eternal families” include polygamous families.

My Mormon past puts me in a unique position to provide constructive criticism to the Mormon community. When I encounter Mormons talking amongst themselves, I know the lingo, and what’s more, I grok what they’re talking about because I’ve lived it. We have shared experiences. When the Mormons were working to get Proposition 8 passed in California, I could talk to them about what’s wrong with that, without having them immediately dismiss me as someone who hates/misunderstands Mormons. I can approach them — not as someone who thinks Mormons are crazy cultists — but as a family member who just wants to see my own people do the right thing. I currently write for the group blog Main Street Plaza, and we discuss politics with the faithful all the time. The leaders and the publicity arm of the CoJCoL-dS constantly spread memes like “Gay marriage is a threat to our freedom of religion,” and “people who criticize the Mormon involvement in Proposition 8 are hypocrites because they’re bigoted against Mormons,” etc. As a member of the family, I can discuss with faithful Mormons what’s wrong with those messages in a calm and constructive manner.

As an aside, I want to make it clear that — while I’m interested in engaging thoughtful believers in constructive, civil dialog — I’m not denouncing other approaches. No matter how nice and well-meaning I may be, “apostates” are viewed with suspicion in Mormonism and in many other religions. That’s why I don’t want to disparage the outspoken “new atheists” who are highly critical of religion. They’re the ones who open up the middle ground where “nice” tactful atheism can occur — by moving the poles of the debate. You’re misunderstanding the dynamics of the debate if you think that angry atheists harm the position of the bridge-building atheists. Really it’s the opposite. The only reason religious people see you as a nice atheist — as opposed to seeing you as a servant of Satan who should have no place in the discussion — is because there’s someone else out there who’s less “nice”, providing contrast. If any atheists are advocating crime or violence or taking away religious people’s civil rights, then I’ll denounce them for it. But if they’re offending people by challenging the wrong-headed notion that religion has a monopoly on morals and ethics, I’ll thank them for putting those points on the table of discussion.

Actually, the alliance between the Mormons and the rest of the Religious Right is one of my favorite topics to discuss with believing Mormons. Naturally, I think that Mormons — being a minority religion, like the Jews — need to understand the importance of protecting the rights of minorities. The problem is not merely the fact that the Evangelical Christians think that Mormonism is a dangerous cult. It’s possible to make political alliances with people that you don’t like personally. But as I (and even many faithful Mormons have pointed out), it’s not in the Mormons’ interest to promote laws allowing majority religions to impose their beliefs on minorities — such as encouraging a precedent where a 51% majority can enshrine religious-based discrimination in the California constitution. When Mitt Romney gave his famous speech describing American political discourse as a “tapestry of faith,” many of the Mormon blogs fawned all over this one-ended bridge towards the Christian Right’s private club. And I was right there on Main Street Plaza to present the view that the speech was more about exclusion than inclusion, and to direct people to articulate articles explaining the following: “In a speech Romney was forced to give because he feared unfair discrimination, Romney did not stand against intolerance. Instead, he simply asked that it not be directed against him, a man of faith. You can be intolerant, but do it to them, over there. Theyre even more different,” and “Romney opposes bigotry in self-defense, not in defense of others, which is to say that he does not really oppose it at all.”

Another central part of my online work is to help build a community for former Mormon bloggers and encourage harmony and understanding within mixed-belief families. For years I’ve been gathering up former-Mormon bloggers into a huge blogroll called Outer Blogness, and I do a weekly link roundup (Sunday in Outer Blogness) to encourage people to visit each other’s blogs. Faithful Mormons naturally have a community of people to share their faith experiences with (at church), but losing belief can be incredibly isolating because in real life there’s very little context for sharing your experience with others. Family members and people at church typically find a loss of faith very threatening, and often react with fear and hostility rather than understanding. As soon as people get online, they’re usually pleasantly surprised to discover a whole world of others who have gone through similar experiences. And they can share strategies, including ideas on making the transition smoothly and on maintaining loving ties with family members who still believe. That was also the theme of my novel ExMormon: the grand comedy of growing up Mormon, caring about your Mormon community and identity, but then losing belief and reconstructing your expectations and your relationships. Believers have found the novel to be a fun and non-threatening starting point for understanding their non-believer friends and family members better.

Atheists who were raised in other religions can form the same sorts of bridges with their own communities. I encourage them to do so. It makes sense that — within the atheist community — secular Jews should take the lead when discussing Israel, and people raised Muslim should take the lead in discussions about problems in Muslim countries, for example. They have added perspective on the subject, plus they can be trusted not to be biased by racism against their group nor by believing that their group is doing God’s will. Being raised in religion isn’t better or worse than being raised without it. But I believe that those of us who were raised in religious communities have a special role to play, and we should step up and play it.

In defense of religious ‘brainwashing’

Originally published at the USU SHAFT site.

Ive enjoyed several of the videos produced by The Thinking Atheist. This video, however, should make them reconsider their (already rather smarmy) name.

In the video, several atheists relate their Christian upbringing, which they now not-so-fondly remember as brainwashing. Dawkins has sometimes gone so far as to claim that religious education is a form of child abuse. It can be, but the complaints made by the atheists in the video struck me as petty. There are too many grave injustices in this world for me to care about your being dragged to church every Sunday as a child. (Though Ill admit that my religious upbringing wasnt very strict, and I generally dont regret my experience in Mormonism.)

The main point of the film is that its wrong for religions and religious people to target the youth. But if you believed in a real, literal Hell, youd be obligated to do all you could to ensure that your kids averted it. Just as you wouldnt let your kids drink poison to find out its lethal, you wouldnt expose them to or let them hold poisonous (read atheistic) beliefs that would imperil their salvation. If that requires a degree of so-called brainwashing or indoctrination, then so be it. Were I ever to have kids, I would of course try to teach them to be open-minded, critical thinkers. Id even encourage them to investigate the worlds religious traditions. But thats a luxury I have as someone who doesnt believe in the threat of Hell.

To be sure, I think the degree to which religious parents inculcate religious beliefs in their children is often detrimentalespecially when those beliefs are terror-inducing, like the concept of Hell. But this video misidentifies the problem. The problem isnt the indoctrination so much as its content. It doesnt make sense to ask Christians to stop steeping their children in their respective religious faith or to stop proselytizing. To ask this of a Christian is to ask them to be a hypocrite. Again, if you believe in a real Hell, its imperative that you save people from it. No, the only appropriate response is to challenge the very belief (in this case, Hell) that is motivating the actions.

And another thing: Isnt everything you teach children a form of brainwashing? Kids are evolutionarily primed to be sponges for information. Kids may be born atheists, as the video asserts, but they are not born critical-thinkers. Theyre curious, granted, but theyre nonetheless impressionable. Critical thinking is a skill that requires a fully-developed brain and years of intellectual exercise. Even were you to teach your children skepticism, they would accept those lessons unskeptically.

Whats more, I have a hard time believing that the people interviewed here are not raising their kids to be atheists, just as the religious parents raise their kids to be religious. Why is the latter brainwashing, but the former not? Because Christians host concerts and pizza parties (how nefarious!)? Give me a break. Were not talking about a pedophile luring kids into his van with candy, but sincere religious people concerned about the spiritual well-being of their children.

Im very supportive of the movement for nonbelievers to come out of the proverbial closet, but it seems many new atheists expect religious people to go into one. Id rather everyone have a voice in the public square, the marketplace of ideas. The more debate and discussion, the better. This video, though, trades in the kind of lazy accusations and caricatures of religious people that do little to advance our dialogue.

the necessity of religion?

"Me? I'm a deist. But religion, well, that's useful for social control."

I’ve read a number of articles and book chapters over the last month or so that have started to change the way I think about religion. After leaving Mormonism and becoming a secular humanist and atheist, I thought the superiority of my new views would be self-evident to anyone who took the time to consider my views. That superiority led me to think that the world would also be a better place without religion – give everyone secular humanism and all superstition and irrationality would disappear, we’d have world peace, etc. Over the last 9 years since I arrived at that position, I have softened my views somewhat. I now have respect for some religions (e.g., Quakers), who seem sincere in their beliefs and don’t make outlandish truth claims that are easily falsifiable by science. Others I continue to disdain for their abuses of power and absurdist claims. Ergo, I no longer think all religion is bad.

But even this position has recently begun to change as a result of a number of recent studies I’ve read. Several of these show a strong correlation between IQ and secularity: the smarter you are, the less religious you are (Nyborg, Helmuth. 2008. The intelligence-religiosity nexus: A representative study of white adolescent Americans. Intelligence 37:81-93.) Other studies have shown that elites have long thought of religion as a tool to keep the masses under control (similar to Marx, yet different at the same time), for example: That religion was a fraud designed to keep lawlessness at bay was a notion which was being openly expressed 2,500 years ago in Athens. (p. 120,Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin. 2010. Morality and Immorality among the Irreligious. Pp. 113-148 in Atheism and Secularity: Volume 1 – Issues, Concepts, and Definitions, vol. 1, edited by Phil Zuckerman. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.)

The forefathers of the US were not religious, but were believers, and they saw the “social control” element of religion as useful: How could the most influential people of their time and the paragons of elite society reject religion amid a populous of dogmatic believers? The answer, of course, is that they were not anomalies, but representative of their time and status. The principle founders of the constitutional government of the United States were not atheists, but they were not Christians either. They were Deists. Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Madison all tended to understand religion in its pragmatic application in social control and rejected supernaturalism, but held to the notion of a creative force in society. They believed, though some to a greater degree than others, in an unobtrusive supreme being who created the universe, but paid scant attention to earth’s occupants. In their views, this “clock-maker” did not suspend natural law, answer prayers, or magically procreate with virgins. (p. 235,Cady, Daniel. 2010. Freethinkers and Hell Raisers: The Brief History of American Atheism and Secularism. Pp. 229-250 in Atheism and Secularity: Volume 1 – Issues, Concepts, and Definitions, vol. 1, edited by Phil Zuckerman. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.).

"I have no need for religion, but I'll pander to the fools."

And, finally, Lincoln also thought of religion as a tool to appease “the fools”, as he calls them:Lincoln never joined a church, did not believe in revealed truth, and saw no reason for prayer in his own life. Biographers have strongly disputed the characterization of Lincoln as a Christian. Soon after Lincoln’s death his long-time friend and personal security guard, Ward Hill Lamon, presented The Life of Abraham Lincoln to an unreceptive American reading public. In it, Lamon asserted that Lincoln was a man of great conviction and spiritual want, but alas, a man of little faith. “Mr. Lincoln” he wrote, “was never a member of any church, nor did he believe in the divinity of Christ, or the inspiration of the Scriptures in the sense understood by evangelical Christians.” Lamon even quotes Mary Todd as stating, “Mr. Lincoln had no hope, and no faith, in the usual acceptance of those words.” In the 1880s, one of Lincoln’s long-term associates opened up to the Louisville Times on the subject of the former president’s beliefs:He went to church a few times with his family while he was President, but so far as I have been able to find he remained an unbeliever. . . . I asked him once about his fervent Thanksgiving Message and twittered him about being an unbeliever in what was published. “Oh,” said he, “that is some of [secretary of state] Seward’s nonsense, and it pleases the fools.”Yet the myth persists as to Lincoln’s religiosity. Due to the myth of the “Great Emancipator” and Lincoln’s status as the country’s most beloved leader, many Americans refuse to accept Lincoln’s ambivalence towards religion.” (p. 240,Cady, Daniel. 2010. Freethinkers and Hell Raisers: The Brief History of American Atheism and Secularism. Pp. 229-250 in Atheism and Secularity: Volume 1 – Issues, Concepts, and Definitions, vol. 1, edited by Phil Zuckerman. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.)

Karl Marx obviously thought of religion as an opiate, but in his thinking it was designed to keep the masses from revolting against the bourgeoisie, not to actually provide them with a facile belief system that aligns with their lower-order thinking, which is the implication of Nybor’s article. As a sociologist, I’ve long held that Marx was generally right in his view, but now I’m questioning that position. Maybe religion is, in fact, necessary for “the masses” and not for “the elites” because the masses CAN’T think about the world in any other way. Admittedly, a recent study just came out showing that elites in the US are just as likely to be religious as they are irreligious. Even so, maybe religion is, if not a good thing, a necessity for people who are simply not intelligent enough to think about the world from a more rationalistic perspective.

Now, before the religious readers out there start labeling me “arrogant,” or “bigoted,” or “elitist,” or something else suggesting I’m denigrating religious people and suggesting they are less intelligent, keep in mind that I’m just trying to grapple with data and research that suggests this. And the obvious implication, if the data are to be believed, is that religion is, at some level, necessary for “those” people. I’m not trying to say that I’m: better, superior, more intelligent, etc. I’m simply trying to wrap my head around these findings. What do the rest of you make of them?

LGBs and atheism

I just finished reading a two-volume set on atheism and secularity. There were a number of interesting findings in the books. I’ll probably post about a few more of them. But I’ll start with this one from p. 98:

Whereas 62 percent of heterosexual respondents are believers, only 42 percent of LGB respondents are believers. The LGB respondents are more likely to be atheists than were heterosexuals: only 2.5 percent of the heterosexual respondents claim they do not believe in God, compared to 5.6 percent of the LGB respondents. Whereas 4 percent of the heterosexual respondents are agnostics, 12 percent of LGB respondents are. Thus, according to the GSS data, GLB people are nearly three times more likely than heterosexuals to respond to the GOD question in an atheistic or agnostic way. (Source:Linneman, Thomas J., and Margaret A. Clendenen. 2010. Sexuality and the Secular. Pp. 89-112 in Atheism and Secularity: Volume 1 – Issues, Concepts, and Definitions, vol. 1, edited by Phil Zuckerman. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.)

I’ve long suspected this was the case but have not been able to find much data on this. Since we have a number of LGB readers, what are you thoughts on this? (Of course, I’d like non-LGB readers to comment as well.)

What happens when journalists don theology hats?

You get arguments like Lane Williams’s in the MormonTimes this morning. Williams begins by lamenting the fact that atheists occasionally receive media attention:

Reporters have provided a great deal of attention to these atheists, stoking the controversy over the existence of God. Even if reporters had no purpose to question religious faith, doubts have become more mainstream, or so it seems to me.

Of course, he then has to claim that the media coverage is actually biased in favor of atheism and against religion:

While I have not undertaken a detailed analysis of the coverage of atheism in the news media, I did once look for a few days in 2007 at the news coverage of Rep. Pete Starks decision to become the first American politician to admit publicly that he was an atheist. My unscientific set of observations suggested that coverage of Starks beliefs was favorable toward his coming out. The decision was framed as a stand for free speech. One typical article in a Bay area started this way: Rep. Pete Stark believes in democracy and free speech but not in God.It seemed a far more favorable framing than I see of most religion coverage, frankly.

At this point, Williams plays his first card – “the victim card.” Poor Mormons are so often “reviled” in the media; the coverage is so unfair. And if you don’t believe them, just ask them – they’ll tell you, using wholly unscientific measures. (Of course, when actual scientists sample the media for bias, they find none.)

He then says that it’s okay for journalists to discuss atheism because, well, they have to, and he almost even suggests that they should do so in a balanced way:

As disappointing as it is to say this, reporters may not be able to do much better than provide a balanced conduit for atheists in the modern world we live in. Journalism is a secular enterprise that reports both sides of a prominent issue. So as atheism becomes more prominent, journalism will write more about it. Journalism will therefore become a conduit for atheistic arguments as well as religious ones, I presume. To be sure, if atheism gains increased public interest, then a news reporter, regardless of his or her religious beliefs, should write about atheism in a fair way and allow its adherents a voice. I expect nothing less in journalisms coverage of religion. I cant have a different standard for the less religious among us.

But if you read closely, what he’s really saying is, “We’re going to have to talk about these atheists occasionally. We don’t want to, and we’ll feign objectivity, but here at MormonTimes.com, you all know we won’t be objective. But we’re going to say we are, which, in the minds of our readers, is sufficient.”

(Note: I’d be remiss to not also mention the “both sides” idea, which is also so much bullsh*t. There aren’t always “two sides” to stories; journalists need to get that through their heads. Sometimes there is the side with all the evidence and then there is the side with no evidence. That does not mean the side with evidence should get to say anything. They should get to say nothing! h/t Skeptics Guide to the Universe and Steven Novella)

He then pulls back the curtain on MormonTimes:

So my point today, really, isnt so much about reporters; my point is to use the opinion format of this blog to take a public stand because so few news reporters can or do so.

You heard it here, folks, MormonTimes is a venue for pro-Mormon bias. Okay, that’s not a surprise. But the fact that he’s admitting it is kind of a surprise. MormonTimes.com is the Mormon Church’s attempt at pseudo-objectivity while simultaneously spewing pro-Mormon propaganda.

But the best is yet to come. Williams now dons his “theologian” hat and tries to claim “evidence” for god, as though this journalism professor from BYU-Idaho has better arguments for the existence of god than the legions of theologians over the millenia. What are his arguments?

1) Call into question the idea that there is a uniform understanding of the scientific enterprise:

I would draw attention to Gervais phrase that there is no scientific evidence for the existence of God. I concede his point that science, as some people understand it, does not, indeed cannot, provide complete evidence for God.

Mr. Williams, how do “other” people understand it?

2) Call into question what qualifies as “evidence”:

But in drawing attention to his adjective, scientific, we miss the noun, evidence. Mormons believe there is evidence for the existence God for those willing to experiment upon the word of God. The beating heart of Mormonism is that evidence.

This is where the article falls apartcompletely. His first claimed evidence – “order” and “diversity” in nature (a.k.a. the teleological argument):

Like Brigham Young, I find the unique combination of order and diversity in nature compelling. While I can immediately tell that an aspen tree is an aspen tree, I also know that no two aspen trees are alike. This order amid uniqueness impels me to think there is a God, but, alas, this sense of order is not Mormonisms last evidence.

Of course, science explains diversity in nature. And science explains the seeming order as well, but does not claim that “nature” is some how “designed,” like objects that are created by man. Ergo, this is not evidence for the existence of god but rather evidence for the existence of nature, which is a tautology – nature exists is an assumption of science. (See more rebuttals here.)

He gives another example of finding beauty in nature as evidence of the existence of god, but then gives his second piece of “evidence” – human creativity:

When I experience great art and great architecture and the creativity of the human spirit, this experience impels me to think there is a God, but, alas, this is not Mormonisms last evidence.

This is also not evidence of god’s existence but of the remarkable feats of evolution. Humans are capable of what they are capable because of evolution. That is awe-inspiring, but does not provide evidence of god’s existence.

His coup de grace, the Holy Ghost a la Moroni’s promise:

Mormonisms last evidence sits in the power of the Holy Ghost that comes to the hearts and minds of those who seek God through earnest, submissive prayer and faithful action. It is an “experiment” successfully repeated millions of times around the world.

Williams goes so far as to label this an “experiment”:

Faith and prayer would be science because scriptures provide a pattern to follow they provide an experiment, if you will. As with science, this pattern has repeated and replicated itself for many people in many circumstances. Indeed, this faith and prayer might qualify as a partial science were we mortals the scientists in charge of the parameters through which answers to prayers come. We are not, so it is absurd to call this experiment a science.

In science, if an experiment is unreliable, meaning it does not turn out the same way every time, we consider it a failure. In the case of “praying to god” for the truthfulness of Mormonism (or for his existence, which, of course, requires a priori faith in that god that he does exist, else why pray to him?), this is a remarkably unreliable “experiment.” Millions have failed to arrive at the same conclusion as Williams. So, Williams is correct when he says “it is absurd to call this experiment a science.” Bingo! It’s not. What’s more, it’s not evidence. But Williams doesn’t seem to get that:

That our Mormon evidence for God doesnt emerge in a laboratory under full human control doesnt make it any less of an evidence. Indeed, it is the most compelling evidence of anything I have ever known.Millions of Mormons, including me, would say that God answers prayers because of their own experiences with the Holy Ghost and prayer. Therein lies our evidence that God lives. I assume other religious believers feel much the same way.

Mr. Williams, that it doesn’t emerge in laboratory conditions does make it “less of an evidence.” In fact, it makes it “no evidence at all.” Yes, you had some emotional experience. But that emotional experience cannot be replicated with other people reliably and there are perfectly reasonable alternative explanations for the experience you had that have to do with brain chemistry and emotional states. So, I don’t deny an experience, but claiming that your experience provides “evidence” for the existence of a completely nonsensical deity is absurd.

Finally, I have to point out that major failure on Mr. Williams’s part to understand his own beliefs. He claims, at the end of the article, to “know” that god exists. He doesn’t. He believes god exists. In fact, he has faith that god exists. And if Mr. Williams really understood what that meant – believing in things that are hoped for but not seen – he would also realize that he has no evidence for this whatsoever. If he did, he wouldn’t have faith. He would have knowledge of god’s existence. But he doesn’t.

Mr. Williams, if I may make a suggestion… Stick to your subjective reporting on all things Mormon and stay away from theology. You don’t have the bona fides to pull this off.

Afterlife? I’d rather not.

I was very sick when I converted to Mormonism. I like to joke that I wasn’t getting enough oxygen to the brain, but the more mundane truth is that I was confronted with the reality of my mortality, and like many people, I panicked. I couldn’t really die, right? I’m too solid, too complex to disappear completely. What a crime that would be, that someone so unique and essential could be gone forever.

Religion offered me a respite from this fear. Church members answered my questions about death quite satisfactorily. If our bodies must be subject to the humiliating mortification of slippage, we need some sort of consolation prize. Heaven is that consolation prize. Even Hell is its own sort of gift. The promises and threats of Mormonism reinforced my desperate hope that I’d continue on, even if I didn’t.

Now that I’m not a believer, I’m extremely skeptical that there will be an afterlife. Beyond this, however, I don’t think I’d even want one. The only thing I should need to do after I die is decompose properly. My strongest desire for myself after death is to be eaten and digested and turned into soil. I came from the earth, I feed from the earth, and I must feed the earth myself. That is the totality of my life cycle. And that is enough.

Far from being disgusted by the biological processes of decomposition, I feel, instead, awed by the power of the earth to destroy. Every enzyme in our organs will ultimately be the agent of our physical destruction. Every inhalation of oxygen creates compounds intended for ruin. This is awesome to me – worthy of awe. By contrast, the concept of an afterlife is disappointing. That’s not the way I want to go out. Who needs God when we have oxidation?

There’s a dead sheep in the underbrush on one of my favorite hiking trails, and whenever I see her, I think of myself similarly, laid out under the grape vines, slowly disintegrating, feeding the microorganisms and animals and insects. I’m moved to consider this end of myself, and I’m reminded of the need for celebration and authenticity in my daily life. This is all I’ve got: that crumbling sheep is my destiny.

And though it would be a simple thing to consider my spirit divested from this grotesque biology, I don’t believe in an eternal soul. My consciousness arises as a result of my advanced biological systems and when those systems inevitably fail, my personality will collapse as well. My self will leak out of my limbic system and neural memory as surely as my intestines will uncoil into putrefaction. I will be gone, wholly. My body will be recreated into a million things and thoughts.

At one time, I slavishly followed after conceptions of the afterlife that filled me with fear and self-loathing. I lived with the sure knowledge that I would be stripped from my family because of my ethical weaknesses. Some other woman would parent my children while I puttered around in a lower kingdom. God would have no desire to know me. It was this belief that kept me active in the Church long after I’d lost faith. Eventually, though, I realized that living under the thumb of fear, that whorish old slave driver, is no way to live at all.

But what of the remnants of that cruel motivation? Well, this is what I’ve got so far.

How about you? What do you believe about the afterlife?

(I regularly leave outrageously long, tangential comments at MSP, and I also blog at chicken tender. Many thanks to the MSP crew for letting me post today. This is a great community and I’m pleased to be a part of it.)