The Evolution of a Bully

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I first encountered Ken Ham at an ICR conference in Michigan. I was a young homeschooled kid and adored Ken Ham from the first time he opened his mouth. I loved his Aussie accent, his beard, his jokes. I retold his story … Continue reading

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La Garduña

‘La Garduña’ arose in Spain. From the mid-fifteenth to the nineteenth century, this secret organization was the pioneer of many other criminal societies that have sprouted throughout history. It is no coincidence that the Neapolitan Camorra was born in a … Continue reading

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Nazi racial ideology was religious, creationist and opposed to Darwinism

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1:Introduction Among those who dislike Darwin’s explanation of human beings as the product of evolution a common accusation is that Darwinian thinking has led to horrors such as the Nazi holocaust. For example the American religious commentator Ann Coulter writes: … Continue reading

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The Historical Construction of the Atheist as the ‘Other’ in the United States

To better understand how an “atheistic American” came to be understood as a “contradiction in terms” and what this negative perception of unbelief reveals of the importance of religion for civic belonging and collective identity in the United States, it is first necessary to study the theological, cultural and political patterns that have contributed, from the colonial times until the 21st century, to the constant “othering” of atheists from a certain American collective imagination: how and why not to believe in God came to be regarded throughout the centuries, not only as a moral and social stigma, but also as an essentially “un-American” behavior. Throughout this historical analysis, religion will clearly surfaceas a significant “moral boundary” – as a“principle of (private and public) classification and identification” within American society – closely tied to the dominant ideals of morality and citizenship in the United States.

Village atheist

In American colonial society, as in John Locke’s England or in Voltaire’s France during the same period, non-believers – even though they were almost inexistent – were commonly loathed and feared. The figure of the“village atheist” pertained to the collective imagination, as that of an immoral and dangerous individual abandoned by God, unable to distinguish between good and evil, and condemned to be an eternal outcast, “detested”, abhorred and despised by everybody, as pest and plague to society.” In a traditional rhetorical script that became known as the “Jeremiad”, religious and political leaders often instrumentalized this popular fear of irreligion to guarantee the social order and the unity of the community. Prophesying the decay of religious beliefs and the imminent spread of atheism almost became a kind of“cultural ritual” among New England pilgrims, designed to guarantee religious, social and political obedience. John Winthrop, the Governor of the Massachusetts bay colony, often agitated the specter of atheism in his sermons, warning immigrants that a “laissez-aller” in their religious commitment could lead to the breach of the Covenant they had passed with God, and thus to the fall of the “city upon a hill” they had dreamt of building in their new land. A century after Winthrop, during the first “Great Awakening” of the 1730s, the preacher Jonathan Edwards similarly warned people of

the risks of religious indifference and enjoined them to turn to God in order to avoid a moral decay of the community.

Irreligion in Winthrop’s and Edward’s discourses was not only rejected as a religious fault, as an individual sin, but also and above all as a social and political offense that could have threatened the moral purity and the stability of the whole community. Atheism was therefore stigmatized as what Jeffrey Alexander calls a “civic vice”, i.e. an“impure”“illegitimate”, and ”unworthy” social behavior that could have represented a potential “pollution” of the community – bringing immorality, licentiousness and anarchy – and thus that had to be legitimately “kept at bay”, on the margins of society. As Alexander further argues, it is precisely “in terms of symbolic purity and impurity”that within a community, “marginal demographic status is made more meaningful”, and “centrality is defined.” Thus, in American colonial society, religion was already emphasized as a crucial individual, social and political value, as a “symbolic boundary” – one among many others – safeguarding the community from the danger of moral deviance and distinguishing between those who had the legitimacy to belong and those who did not. It was, for instance, for the very purpose of avoiding a “pollution” of the community by potential irreligious individuals, that most colonies decided to limit their rights and their participation in the life of the polity. Atheists were traditionally prohibited from serving as witnesses in a trial or from being members of a jury. A vast majority of the colonies also required candidates for public office to take a religious oath, thus excluding religious minorities (Quakers, Baptists, Presbyterians, Jews, etc.), when there was an established church, as well as non-believers in any case. In this regard, it is interesting to note that John Locke himself contributed to the political implementation of his philosophical rejection of atheism in the American colonies, when he took part in 1669 in the drafting of the “Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina”, of which Article 95 stated that overt irreligion was “illegal” on the whole territory of the colony: “No man shall be permitted to be a freeman of Carolina, or to have any estate or habitation within it, that doth not acknowledge a Lord and that God is publicly and solemnly to be worshipped.”. Belief in God became therefore in this particular case a requirement of the law itself, necessary, even if not sufficient, to be considered a “pure”“virtuous” and legitimate member of the community.

After the War of Independence

After the War of Independence, some of the new American states similarly continued to impose restrictions on religious minorities and, of course, on non-believers, notably by requiring individuals to take a religious oath to testify in courts or to hold a public office. Even in cases where the official church had been disestablished and religious liberty inscribed in the law, political authorities, convinced of the social utility of having religiously committed citizens, still tried to foster belief in God and an active religious practice, as exemplified in the Constitution of Vermont. Ratified in 1786, the text guaranteed complete religious freedom, but nonetheless explicitly stated that citizens ought to practice their faith, in order to maintain a “religious spirit” indispensable to the “moral purity” of the society. Chapter I, Article III affirmed that“all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences (…). Nevertheless, every sect or denomination ought to (…) keep up some sort of religious worship, which to them shall seem most agreeable to the revealed will of God.” This official discouragement of religious indifference clearly indicates that religion was considered in Vermont – as in most of the new American states – as a necessary“civic virtue”, as a basic and essential attribute of the new republican citizen.

More significantly, this ambiguity between the necessary protection of freedom of conscience and the promotion of religion as a useful social and civic value was also salient at that time in the Founding Fathers’ thoughts on the place of religion in public life. Both the Federal Constitution of 1787 and the Bill of Rights of 1791, which they contributed to draft, by respectively prohibiting religious tests for federal public offices (Article 6) and the establishment of religion at the level of the national government (1

st Amendment), made clear that belonging to the political community – citizenship – did not depend at all on a belief in God, and that the (federal) state could not legitimately use religion to distinguish between citizens. AsJames Madison wrote, “no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and (…) religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance.” All the more emphasizing the secular character of the new federal government, the founding document of the United States made absolutely no reference to Christianity, to God or even to a“Supreme Being” or a “Divine Providence”, as such was the case in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, leading many alarmed commentators to denounce the dangerous religious “infidelity” of the drafters. And it is indeed true that, far from being pious Christians, some of the most important Founding Fathers – Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, and Adams – were closer to Deism, influenced by Enlightenment philosophers in their conception of a “benevolent Supreme Being” who created the world but did not intervene in human affairs.

Yet, even those “infidel deists”, who wrote and ratified a “Godless Constitution”, seemed to believe, as Locke did, that some sort of “religious spirit” was necessary to maintain a healthy republican society. Indeed, once elected presidents, George Washington, John Adams and James Madison regularly exhorted Americans to believe in God. Despite their deeply held conviction that the “business of civil government” was to be “exactly distinguished from that of religion,” they still closely associated belief in God, morality, and “good citizenship” as three complementary qualities. Encouraging some kind of diffuse religious spirit was for the Founding Fathers a way to guarantee that people would have a minimum set of moral values, which they believed could contribute to make them more virtuous citizens, and more likely to respect the new laws of the young republic. Washington, in his 1796 Farewell Address, written by Alexander Hamilton, famously stated that it was unreasonable to believe that“national morality could be maintained in exclusion of religious principle.” John Adams similarly wrote in 1798 that “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people”, one year after he had signed the Treaty of Tripoli, whose Article XI reaffirmed the secular character of the American Republic (“The American government is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion”). Jefferson, who was perhaps the only Founding Father who was openly willing to tolerate atheists, suggesting that they could be protected under the 1st Amendment, allowed during his presidency the public funding of American Bible Societies. Created at the beginning of the 19th century by another Founding Father, John Jay, they were supposed to“promote the extension of true religion, virtue and learning” in order to “clean” the “impurities of our moral atmosphere”. Therefore, it seems that even for the most skeptical Founding Fathers, religion appeared as one of the most useful warranties of “civic solidarity” in a Republican society. Overt atheism, if it could not legally alter one’s status as an American citizen, was still to be discouraged as deviant social behavior, better confined to the margins of the Republic.

Moral boundary

The stigmatization and “othering” of unbelief still continued to sharpen in the first half of the 19th century, as religion also began to play a central role in the building of a certain American identity. During this period, the United States was indeed characterized by a powerful movement of religious revivalism, the second “Great Awakening”. Evangelical sects started proliferating throughout the country, converting people massively in famous “camp meetings”, while romantic historians undertook the “Christianization” – or more precisely the “Protestantization” – of the American Republic. They heightened in their works the myth of a Protestant nation founded for religious reasons on religious principles by religious men. More than being a “civic virtue”, religion became intimately linked with the history, culture and core values of the United States, thus gaining even more salience as a “moral boundary” in Americans’ collective imaginations.

In this context, where religious minorities such as Catholics were also stigmatized and discriminated against by protestant nativists, irreligion, more than being a threat for the “moral purity” of the community and for republican values, came to be progressively castigated as “un-American” in essence. As religion became more and more integrated into “the ethos of American life”, unbelief was becoming all the more inconceivable. Thus, the figure of the atheist became increasingly associated, not only with the figure of the deviant immoral citizen, but also with the figure of the alien or of the nation’s enemy more generally. At the beginning of the 19th century for instance, atheism came to be systematically linked to the violence of the French Revolution. The writer Mercy Otis Warren expressed her fears that the “cloud of infidelity that darkened the hemisphere of France” could travel to the other side of the Atlantic and poison the American “national character, (…) free from any symptoms of pernicious deviations from the purest principles of morality, religion and civil liberty.” Thomas Jefferson, who had lived in France during the Revolution, was accused by his Federalist adversaries and by Evangelical preachers of being an “atheist in religion”. Alexander Hamilton, in a series of articles entitled The Stand, repeatedly warned Americans against “French atheism”, particularly against the “political leader of the adherents to France”, the “pro-consul of a despotic Directory”, whose election as president would destroy religion. A Connecticut penman asserted even more categorically that we are not Frenchmen, and until the atheistical philosophy of a certain great Virginian shall become the fashion (which God on his mercy forbid), we shall never be.

This strong rejection of atheism and the importance of religion as a “symbolic code” – as a principle of social categorization and identification – , was noticed by Felix de Beaujour, a French diplomat assigned to Washington between 1804 and 1811, and who was surprised to discover that if Americans seemed indeed ready to accept almost“indistinctly” any kind of religious faiths or practices, “atheists alone [were] rejected”. He explained further that“[Americans] regarded [atheists] less as the enemies of God than of society”, (…) on the principle that the truth of each religion, individually, may be contested, but the utility of all is incontestable. Religion, as an indispensable basis for morality, “civic solidarity” and collective belonging in the United States, was thus more generally understood as an essential constituent of a certain Durkheimian “moral order”, i.e. of “a common public perception of reality that regulated, structured and organized relations in the community (…), (operating) less through coercion than through inter-subjectivity” and which contributed to “define the internal bonds” within American society.

This crucial role of religion in 19th century American society was confirmed a few decades later by De Beaujour’s fellow citizen Alexis de Tocqueville,

who also noticed that an individual who dared to express his irreligion publicly and – even worse – to criticize religious beliefs, was almost immediately despised and shunned by other Americans. In a comment that is still relevant today, he wrote that “in the United States, if a politician attacks a sect, this may not prevent the partisans of that sect from supporting him; but if he attacks all the sects together, every one abandons him and he remains alone.” Tocqueville acknowledged that some Americans probably did not believe very sincerely in their faith: “I do not know whether all the Americans have a sincere faith in their religion – for who can search the Human heart?”. But he also judiciously remarked that the skeptics would always rather lie and say that they believed in God: “among Anglo-Americans, there are some who profess Christian dogmas because they believe them, and others who do because they are afraid to look as though they did not believe them”. Thus, in order to hide and to overcome their “stigma”, the non-believers met by Tocqueville felt compelled to resort to what Erving Goffman called the strategy of “passing”, i.e. pretending to be part of the “unstigmatized (religious) majority” in order to “gain social acceptance,” an attitude that all the more testified of the “social desirability bias” of religion and of its strength as a “moral boundary” in American society.

The various trials for blasphemy that were held at that time in the United States give another meaningful illustration of the centrality of religion (Christianity to be precise), for a certain “moral order”. In various states, individuals were prosecuted for having denied the existence of God or for having attacked and insulted the Christian religion. Yet, blasphemy was not sanctioned for theological reasons – in order to defend the dogmas and beliefs of a specific faith – but rather because it served a secular purpose, i.e. guaranteeing public safety. In a country inhabited mostly by Christians, attacks against their religion – and thus their identity – could indeed potentially represent a source of conflict. When in 1837 the Supreme Court of Delaware condemned an individual named Thomas Jefferson Chandler for having declared that “the Virgin Mary is a whore and Jesus Christ a bastard”, the Judges clearly explained that the anti-blasphemy laws of the state were not designed to protect a faith in particular or even religion in general, but were necessary to preserve the unity and integrity of a community that such comments against its deeply held beliefs and identity could offend and divide: “The common law took cognizance of offences against God only when by their inevitable effect they became offences against man and his temporal security .”

As mentioned earlier, non-believers were of course not the only religious minority despised and stigmatized in that way in 19th century America: to the sound of “anti-Popery” cries, Protestant nativists regularly attacked Catholic immigrants, accusing them of being a threat to republican values and questioning their loyalty to the American government. But in the first half of the 20th century, the American “circle of the We” started widening progressively, as religious minorities were increasingly being culturally, socially, and politically accepted into American society. A 1959 Gallup survey testified of this process of inclusion, as 72% of Americans affirmed that they were ready to elect a Jewish President and 70% a Catholic, a result that was confirmed one year later by Kennedy’s victory. Yet, this broader tolerance of religious diversity did not necessarily imply that religion as a “moral boundary” – as a standard of morality and “good citizenship”and as a basic attribute of the American “self”– was disappearing and becoming irrelevant in the United States. Indeed, while the 19th century Protestant nation was becoming a “Judeo-Christian” country, the atheist continued to be perceived and stigmatized as an unacceptable “other” in American society.

“Godless communist”

Its symbolic exclusion and its status of “outsider” even worsened during that period, when in the official rhetoric of the US government against the USSR, Communism and atheism came to be systematically associated with each other, conflated into the common figure of the anti-American enemy. In the language of religious and political leaders, the “godless communist” was often contrasted with the “religious American”Joseph McCarthy declared for instance in a speech, that the “Christian world”, led by the United States, was facing the “atheist world”, dominated by the USSR. Alluding once again to the “impurity” of atheism and to the risk of moral “pollution” it raised, American officials explicitly encouraged irreligious Americans to give up their deviant and “pernicious doctrine of materialism”, which, as the director of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover pointed out,

“readied the minds of our youth to accept the immoral (…) system of thought [known] as communism”. And it was for the very purpose of exacerbating the religious identity of the United States against the “cold” atheism of the USSR, that Congress decided to add “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” on the dollar bills, respectively in 1954 and 1956. A few years earlier, in 1952, senators, supported by President Truman – to whom Communism was the “deadly foe of belief in God and of all organized religions”– had already decided to establish a National Day of Prayer. Their intention was to defend the United States against “the corrosive forces of Communism, which sought simultaneously to destroy [the American] democratic way of life and the faith in an Almighty God on which it was based.”

Socially and politically marginalized since the founding of the first colonies, stigmatized as an immoral and dangerous citizen throughout the 19th century, the non-believer became the official enemy of the American Republic during the Cold War. Professing one’s irreligion – even in one’s private life – meant to symbolically break away from the rest of American society and to share the same values as the Soviet enemy. As Will Herberg wrote in 1955, “declaring oneself atheist, agnostic or even humanist” in the United States during that period, almost inevitably implied “being obscurely ‘anti-American’.” During the Cold War, the stigmatization of the atheist as an “other” reached its climax: like Communism, unbelief was perceived as intrinsically incompatible – and irreconcilable – with the nation’s history, values and identity. Relegated beyond the boundaries of the “We”, the atheist, just as the Communist during the same period, could never be assimilated into the fabric of society and could only be imagined as a “dissident”, an “alien” or an “enemy”, fundamentally different from – and antagonistic to – the (good) American citizen. Religion clearly surfaced as a seemingly impassable “moral boundary”, separating the insiders from the outsiders (the atheists) – those “who did not share the core characteristics” of the “legitimate participants in the ‘moral order’ ” and against whom the symbolic “contours of American culture and citizenship were imagined.” The “good American” was the “good believer”.

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Atheism is Not a Religion

This is a refrain I’m hearing a lot from religious apologists – atheism is a religion. Also its equally fallacious siblings, science is a religion and evolution is a religion. It’s a sign of their desperation that the best argument they have is not that atheism is wrong, or that god does exist (supported by evidence of course), but that atheism is a religion too. A strange argument for a religious person to make on the face of it. Is it supposed to strengthen the atheist’s position or weaken the theist’s one? In reality it’s a sign they have run out of arguments.

Still, this argument is widely made, and so it needs to be addressed. Atheism (and here I mean the so-called “weak atheism” that does not claim proof that god does not exist), is just the lack of god-belief – nothing more and nothing less. And as someone once said, if atheism is a religion, not collecting stamps is a hobby.

That really ought to end the discussion right there. Clearly, a mere lack of belief in something cannot be a religion. In addition, atheism has no sacred texts, no tenets, no ceremonies. Even theists making this argument must know all that. So they must have something else in mind when they trot this one out, but what is it? What are they really thinking? Well, if you look at various definitions of religion, the only things that could possibly apply to atheism would be something like this:

6. Something one believes in and follows devotedly

or this:

4. A cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion.

Obviously I don’t know if that’s what they mean – I don’t read minds. But I can’t see what else it could be. They must be referring to certain activities of atheists – writing books and blogs, financing bus ads, joining atheist groups, etc. They think atheists are “religious in their atheism” as one person put it to me – the word “religious” being used here colloquially to mean something felt very strongly, or followed enthusiastically. But this definition of religion is so broad that virtually anything people enjoy doing very much, or follow strongly or obsessively, is a religion. It’s a definition of religion that is so broad that it’s meaningless. In reality, most of the things that people follow enthusiastically, are just hobbies. And ironically, although not collecting stamps is not a hobby, getting involved in atheist activities (writing books and blogs, attending atheist meetings) might well be a hobby for some people. But it is a hobby, not a religion.

What Is Religion?

I’m sure that argument won’t convince all theists to abandon this rhetorical trope they love so much. To really address the argument, we have to define religion, and then see if atheism fits the definition. While I don’t think I can define religion completely, I think I can state the minimum that religion has to have to still be a religion. And it seems to me that there is one thing at least that is common to all religions. It’s this. In my view, religion at a minimum, has to have the following characteristic:

Religion must include something you have to accept on faith – that is, without evidence commensurate with the extraordinary nature of the belief.

Most religions will include other things too, but they must require faith. Of course, not all things that require faith are religions, but all religions must require faith.

The minimum definition covers all the religions I’m familiar with. For example, it includes any religion that involves belief in god or gods – something you have to believe in without evidence. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism… all require you to believe in god or gods as a minimum, without evidence. The minimum definition would also include religions that don’t require belief in god, but require faith in other things. For example, I believe it would include Buddhism, which (for example) includes the belief that living beings go through a succession of lifetimes and rebirth. It would also include Scientology – no evidence for Xenu, that I’m aware of. Maybe you can think of some actual religions that would be excluded, but I haven’t been able to so far.

So religion requires belief without evidence. And by that definition atheism cannot possibly be a religion because atheists do not have to believe in anything to be an atheist – either with or without evidence. QED.

Now, some religious people may say, “but that’s not my definition of religion”. To which I say, OK, then give me your definition. Give me your definition of religion, that doesn’t require belief without evidence, that includes your religion, the others I named, and atheism. And it needs to be better than the two dictionary definitions I cited above. Give me that definition. Because here’s the thing. The problems I have with religions are:

They are not based on fact or on any reasonable evidence commensurate with the claims they make. In many cases, the claims they make are plainly absurd and are actually contradicted by the evidence.
Religious proponents demand respect, and adherence to their delusions by others. This despite (1) above.
Those are the aspects of religion that I object to. Clearly atheism doesn’t fit 1 (or 2) above, so it is nothing like any of the religions I object to. If your religion does not require belief without faith, then I probably wouldn’t have a problem with it. Assuming, of course, all the tenets of your religion are actually backed up by evidence extraordinary enough for the extraordinary claims your religion makes. But they never do.

In my view, theists will have their work cut out to deny this minimum requirement for religion. Come on – they even refer to their religion as “my faith”.

Evidence and Extraordinary Evidence

Some religious people will claim that their religious beliefs are backed by evidence. This is where it gets tricky, because many religious people genuinely believe their religion is rational and backed by evidence. For example, one Christian I debated cited that the evidence Christianity was real, was (and I quote), “the resurrection of Christ”. Of course, the resurrection of Christ, if it had actually happened, would be pretty good evidence for Christianity. But, unfortunately, there is no good evidence for the resurrection. Certainly, nothing close to the extraordinary evidence we would need to accept this extraordinary claim.

Extraordinary Claims

This needs explaining in more detail. Why do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence? Well, all claims require exactly the same amount of evidence, it’s just that most “ordinary” claims are already backed by extraordinary evidence that you don’t think about. When we say “extraordinary claims”, what we actually mean are claims that do not already have evidence supporting them, or sometimes claims that have extraordinary evidence against them. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence because they usually contradict claims that are backed by extraordinary evidence.

So why is Jesus’ resurrection an extraordinary claim, and why is the Bible not extraordinary evidence for it? Well, the resurrection goes against all the evidence we have that people do not come back to life, spontaneously, after two days of being dead. Modern medicine can bring people back from what would have been considered in earlier years to be “dead”, but not after 2 days of being dead with no modern life support to keep the vital organs working. In fact, it is probably reasonably safe to say it has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that people cannot come back to life after being dead for two days without modern life support. So, extraordinary claim it is.

On the other hand, the evidence we are offered in support of this extraordinary claim consists only of accounts written decades after the event, by people who were not there when the events described were purported to have occurred. We are offered nothing but hearsay anecdotes from superstitious people with a clear reason for wanting others to think the story true. This is hardly acceptable evidence to counteract the fact that this never happens. Christians might ask, what evidence would an atheist accept for such an extraordinary claim? And in reality, it is hard to imagine that there could possibly be any evidence good enough for us to accept the resurrection as true. Christians may claim that this is unfair, or that we are closed minded, but the fact that you are unlikely to find extraordinary evidence for this event 2,000 years after the fact, is hardly the non-believer’s fault. The real question, considering the weakness of the evidence, and the wildly extraordinary nature of the claim, is why would anyone believe any of it in the first place? The truth is, they accept it on faith. In fact, the acceptance of this story on faith alone is usually considered to be essential to the true believer. And although that was just Christianity, the same lack of evidence, and belief based on faith alone, applies to the claims of all the other religions that I’m familiar with.

Religions require belief in extraordinary claims without anything close to the extraordinary evidence that is required. Atheism requires no belief in anything. The contrast couldn’t be clearer.

But the believer has one final shot – one last desperate rhetorical item to fling at the atheist. Here we go.

More Faith To Be An Atheist?

The final argument many religious apologists throw into the mix is it takes more faith to be an atheist than it does to believe in god. That certainly took me by surprise the first time I heard it. I think what they’re trying to say is this. Atheists think matter just appeared out of nowhere, that something came out of nothing. But where did the matter come from? To think that matter appeared out of nowhere requires more faith than to think a creator made everything. Why is there something rather than nothing? To think that matter just appeared by itself, requires faith.

Atheists don’t think matter came out of nowhere. Atheists say we don’t know where matter came from; we don’t know why there is something rather than nothing. Maybe one day we’ll know, or maybe we won’t. But we don’t know now. Theists are exactly the same. They don’t know either, but the difference is they make up an explanation (god). But it’s just a made up explanation – they have no reason to suppose it’s true, other than that they just like it.

And it’s a useless explanation. Unless they know something about this “God” – how he created everything; why he created it; what he’s likely to do next – it’s a lack of an explanation. It’s just a placeholder until a real explanation comes along. Except that the theist won’t be open to the real explanation when and if science is able to provide one. The god placeholder prevents investigation into any real tentative explanations. The theist who says god created everything, is the one with the faith – faith that “god” is the explanation and that no other is possible. The atheist is content to say “we don’t know”. For now, anyway. And it’s obvious that saying “we don’t know,” requires no faith. That may be a hard thing to do for people who want all the answers, but it certainly isn’t religion.

One last thing. Some theists have responded to the “if atheism is a religion, not collecting stamps is a hobby” argument by pointing out that non stamp collectors (aphilatelists?) don’t write books or blogs about not collecting stamps, don’t post anti stamp collecting ads on buses, don’t ridicule stamp collectors, etc. This is meant to demonstrate that the “stamp collecting” analogy is weak. It actually demonstrates that the analogy is very good, since it highlights one of the main problems atheists have with many religious people.

Here’s the thing they are missing, and the real problem most atheists have with religion. If stamp collectors demanded that people who don’t collect stamps obey their stamp collecting rules, started wars with groups who collected slightly different types of stamps, denied non-stamp collectors rights or discriminated against them, bullied them in school, claimed you had to collect stamps to be a suitable person to run for public office, tried to get stamp collecting taught in schools as science in opposition to real science, demanded that people be killed for printing cartoons that made fun of stamp collectors, claimed that non-stamp collectors lacked moral judgment, made up ridiculous straw man positions they claimed non-stamp collectors took, and then argued against those straw men positions etc etc, – then non-stamp collectors probably would criticize stamp collectors in the way atheists criticize many religious people. And with good reason. Not collecting stamps would still not be a hobby. Or a religion

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In the Name of Freedom

“100,000+ civilian deaths so that democracy should be brought to the Middle East”.

Grounds provided to Parliament for invasion: false and proven incorrect The UN process to clarify that falsehood: rejected, against the will of the international community Bush regime ideology: shock and awe in line with the ‘Program for a New American Century’

Yet democracy (the later justification for war) was ignored. Democracy is still compromised by this demonstrated military culture that resists transparency. Democracy needs press freedom, judicial fairness and accountability, and transparency.

Democracy is not just a one-off vote. It is a culture, an accountability, an openness, a protection of the innocent. It is the freedom of the press to uncover hidden injustices. It should also be legality.

Was this war legal?

Were the actions without a 2nd UN mandate legal?

Was Abu Ghraib legal? Would we ever have been told about it, if it hadn’t come to light? Or the rape and murder at Haditha?

Was the aerial bombing from great height a disproportionate action endangering the Iraqi civilian population? Would we ever have countenanced it against our own UK or US civilian populations?

Was the suppression of information like this legal?

Was the UK or US government aware of some of this information, and if it suppressed it, and acquiesced in its implications and violations, was it acting illegally its roles and responsibilities as an occupying force with responsibilities towards the civilian population?

Who killed the innocent civilian Baha Mousa? Which UK soldier did that? Why wasn’t he prosecuted? Why did colleagues collude in a cover up?

Is the Ministry of Defense properly accountable or does it collude with the hiding of relevant information that should be part of accountability in a democracy? Why was it alright for the Ministry of Defense/British Aerospace to be engaged in weapons deals with Saudi princes, which involved illegal bribes, when the Saudi regime is non-democratic and has a bad human rights record?

What I’m really saying is: first Tony Blair said imminent attack from weapons of mass destruction was the reason for ignoring the UN processes already in place. Then, when this claim was shown to be doctored and false, the argument shifted to ‘bringing democracy to Iraq’ (as if Saudi Arabia and countless other trading partners couldn’t be invaded on that pretext as well).

But, the democratic majority of the UK ad USA opposed the invasion without the legality of a 2nd UN mandate. Democracy also involves, legality, openness, transparency, accountability.

Countless known crimes in this terrible history of events have gone unaddressed and uncared for. People’s intimate family lives have been shattered.

Perhaps the greatest crime that has gone unaddressed was the decision – against international opinion and against our own nation’s democratic opinion – to invade Iraq and unleash chaos.

The Iraq War was a disaster and it did nothing for the “war on terror”, motivating new martyrs, and totally losing the battle for “hearts and minds”.

So I am wholly under-impressed by people who try to portray journalistic truths being brought to light as if *they* are the ones in the wrong.

Our culture is way too militaristic. Our soldiers – like *all* soldiers of courage, including Iraqi soldiers – deserve recognition for individual courage in an invidious situation. But was it worth the 100,000 dead mothers, children, sisters, grandparents, innocent people? Was it worth our own dead soldiers?

And how many more British and American soldiers will die in Afghanistan before we pull out, which the politicians know we must, yet they fear the losing face, and so other soldiers will die needlessly I fear. Indeed it’s a weekly death count. As is the continuing civilian death toll there, when innocent people get strafed at weddings, or just wiped out by drones, and so the killing (and on the evidence of the past) the cover up goes on.

If we devoted a fraction of the money we spend on militarism to education, health, and help for those in need, of any faith or creed perhaps we might start winning hearts, and demonstrating democracy. Perhaps we’d stop the hypocrisy of invading countries in the name of democracy while remaining trading partners and colluders in regimes that are non-democratic and oppressive.

If Wikileaks contributes in some way to greater accountability in the future, then maybe politicians will take the responsibilities of war and its (in this case unplanned) aftermath more seriously.

But surely, we live in a democracy because we vote once every 4 years? If the people we vote for then go against the clear democratic will, and worse still, if they should ever break international law in going to war then what exactly are we exporting (apart from more arms) to the countries we claim to democratize?

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Atheists and rapists: you just can’t trust ’em

Atheists are a pretty disliked bunch of people in North America. Most atheists will be aware of polling data that puts them at the bottom of the loathing pile.

Question is, what’s driving that loathing? Will Gervais (University of British Columbia, Canada), who’s previously published some fascinating research into this topic, is back with some more research (co-authored by another couple of Azim Shariff and Ara Norenzayan).

Gervais’ basic hypothesis is that prejudice against people who are not part of your group can be driven by different fears. For example, White Americans fear Black Americans, but view homosexual Americans with disgust. Gervais puts that together with another idea that many people have – that fear of supernatural punishment makes people more honest – to hypothesise that people dislike atheists specifically because they distrust them.

To test this, they took advantage of a clever psychological trick. Here is its original form (invented by Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman), as described 2011 in The Guardian:

Linda is a single 31-year-old, who is very bright and deeply concerned with issues of social justice. Which of the following statements is more probable: a) that Linda works in a bank, or b) that Linda works in a bank and is active in the feminist movement? The overwhelming majority of respondents go for b), even though that’s logically impossible. (It can’t be more likely that both things are true than that just one of them is.) This is the “conjunctive fallacy”, whereby our judgment is warped by the persuasive combination of plausible details. We are much better storytellers than we are logicians.

In Gervais’ twist on this classic study, students at the University of British Columbia were told about Richard. Here’s Richard’s story:

Richard is 31 years old. On his way to work one day, he accidentally backed his car into a parked van. Because pedestrians were watching, he got out of his car. He pretended to write down his insurance information. He then tucked the blank note into the van’s window before getting back into his car and driving away.

Later the same day, Richard found a wallet on the sidewalk. Nobody was looking, so he took all of the money out of the wallet. He then threw the wallet in a trash can.

So, is Richard most likely to be a teacher, or a teacher and a Christian? What about a

teacher and Muslim. Or a rapist? Or an atheist?

Well, the chilling results are shown in the graphic. Atheism was up there with rapist as an intuitive fit to Richard’s character. Atheists? Don’t trust ’em!

Gervais and co ran another study, in which half the students were given a different version of Richard. This Richard is not untrustworthy, but he is disgusting (with horrible, flaky skin and snot all over him).

They found that that the disgusting Richard was not associated with atheism (or, indeed, with homosexuality – even though they found in a different study that homosexuals evoke disgust).

What this and some other studies they did showed is that the reason atheists are disliked is specifically because they are distrusted.

They also found that the degree of this distrust is governed by the strength of belief that supernatural monitoring helps to enforce good behaviour. Those who believe this are most likely to distrust atheists.

So although lack of familiarity with atheists increases distrust, it seems that the root of this distrust is not simple fear of the unknown, or even fear about moral corruption, but rather a genuine and seemingly deep-rooted fear that people will not behave well unless they have an invisible policeman watching over them.

Which probably says rather more about these Christians than it does about atheists!

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