Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Too tolerant of tolerance?

            Many people may have heard about the recent controversy surrounding Ben Affleck and Sam Harris’s “debate” (if you can call Ben Affleck shouting “racist” over every word that came out of Harris’s mouth a debate) regarding the criticism of Islam. Harris argued that we should be able to freely criticize Islam because Islam is “the mother lode of bad ideas” and its doctrine supports many terrible things. Affleck claimed that Harris is racist and disgusting and that it’s Islamophobic to criticize Islam.

            There are a ton of articles that go in-depth about why Sam Harris was right or wrong, (including Harris's own response to the controversy) and I believe that Harris was absolutely correct that people should be able to criticize Islam (or any religion for that matter) and it’s not Islamophobic. Harris kept attempting to point out that he was in no way attacking Muslims as people, but only Islam’s dangerous practices, such as a death sentence for apostasy. However, Affleck obviously didn't understand that (probably because he refused to listen to a word Harris said) and claimed that Harris was attacking individuals for their beliefs, when that wasn't actually the case.
            There is a huge difference between a religion and its followers, and people refuse to see that difference once a religion is criticized. The second someone condemns an aspect of a religion, many people claim that person is condemning every person who follows that religion. As one online commenter stated, we should “hold religions responsible for those who do evil in their name, but don’t hold the practitioners of the religions responsible for what other practitioners do.”
            I think the uproar that arose from Harris’s comments regarding Islam stems from the widespread belief that we need to tolerate everything and everyone no matter what. While I’m all for tolerance of people and their culture and customs, tolerance can be a very bad thing when taken too far. There are many customs and ideas that we should stand against and not tolerate, but it’s ingrained in us that if we protest another’s culture or belief, we are being prejudiced.
            Last year Leyla Hussein conducted her own experiment to see how far people would go in the name of political correctness. She went around London and asked people to sign a petition in support of female genital mutilation (FGM). She would tell them that she was trying to protect her culture, tradition, and rights, and that “it’s just mutilation”. 19 people signed the petition in only 30 minutes. They told Hussein that they didn’t actually support FGM, but that they would sign the petition to protect her culture.
            We need to learn to differentiate between criticizing dangerous and harmful practices and criticizing the people that support them. It is never okay to discriminate against or hate someone because of what they believe. It is okay, however, to condemn and hate the belief itself. I’m not just talking about Islamic practices. The KKK is a Christian organization, which is a fact most people overlook. If we have groups like the KKK and Westboro Baptist Church and worse running around doing and saying horrible things because of the Bible, maybe we need to take a look at their motivations. Obviously most Christians are not horrible racists and a lot of them are good people, but you can’t deny that the Bible has some pretty racist and terrible practices in it. That doesn’t mean that all Christians believe in these practices, but the fact that groups of people do is an indicator that we should at least critically examine the doctrine. In a free and just society, we should be able to freely critique any religious doctrine, and not be accused of being prejudiced against the people who follow that religion.

            Tolerance of individuals is a must. Tolerance of their belief system is not. Once we get past the idea that we must tolerate everything or else we’re being prejudiced, the sooner we can critically evaluate outdated ideas and practices and become a better society.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Suffering and Religion

I'll admit it. I found out about Brittany Maynard from a click bait title on my Facebook feed. Hers has all of the parts of a perfect viral story: beautiful 29 year old with lethal brain cancer decides to legally end her life through the Death with Dignity Act in Oregon. Maynard's story is bringing back to life the debate surrounding the idea of physician-assisted suicide and the ethics of terminal patients willingly ending their own life instead of suffering through their disease.

Ever since the announcement last week, people from around the world have weighed in on the subject. I have ignored most of the discussion on the topic because this is, and should be, a personal decision. However, a religious friend of mine posted about a plea to Brittany to continue to live and dispose of her pill. This response caught my attention because it comes from another terminal cancer patient.

Kara Tippets, the author, suffers from breast cancer that is slowly killing her. Naturally, she should have some valued insight on fighting such a terrible disease and staying strong throughout the difficult treatments. Tippets instead says that Maynard's choice of action is not "what God intended". She further implores Maynard to stay alive because her suffering will bring beauty to her life. Maynard's doctors fed her a lie about the pain and suffering in dying of terminal brain cancer. Additionally, Tippets states that Jesus died and overcame the death that these women are facing in cancer. Jesus only wants to shepherd her to death the natural way.

After reading this response, I was speechless. Tippets is asking a woman making the most difficult decision of her life to change her mind because of the big guy in the sky. Tippet seems to think Maynard should suffer through losing her ability to walk, talk, eat, and control her bodily functions because Jesus will show her beauty in a horrific death. My first thought was "where is the beauty in losing the one thing we value the most, our mind?".

As I tried to piece together Tippet's train of thought from her post, I noticed one overarching idea. The promise of paradise in a religion overrides every other option. Religion tends to make people think that suffering is the only way to reach the proverbial carrot at the end of the stick. I am not saying that people who believe in a deity would not chose to end their life like Brittany or vice versa. I am saying that religion has a funny way of deluding people into thinking that suffering a prolonged and painful death is worthwhile to potentially see Heaven. It is hard for secularists to wrap their mind around this concept because we do not have a paradise at the end of our lives. We just have a wooden box buried under six feet of dirt. For us, there is no beauty in the suffering of terminal cancer, only pain and sadness.

Whether or not Brittany goes through with her end-of-life plans, one thing is clear. The decision a terminal patient faces in this situation is difficult and emotional. If the individual decides to forgo suffering for a dignified death on their own terms, I believe that is their right. Religious people should not condemn patients for valuing their life over a potential paradise.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Preacherman's Past

Tommy Nugent is coming to U of I on October 29 to perform "Preacherman", the hilarious story of his journey from a youth minister to an atheist. Before you see his show, you should know a little more about his experience, so here it is.

Tommy was born into a household where his mother was religious, but not his father. Even so, he and his mother attended Baptist churches semi-regularly. Later on, his mother enrolled him in a private Baptist school from sixth grade through high school. From his Baptist high school, he went straight to North Central Bible College in Minneapolis.

During his time in college, his fear for his father's soul grew, and he cried over the idea of his father going to Hell. But then, at the end of one summer, Nugent was given the opportunity to give a sermon at his church; his dad attended church to hear it. Then, during the altar call, his dad stepped forward and committed to faith, and Nugent's fears became joy.

Nugent started his ministry and his work as a youth pastor right out of college at age 21; he moved to Detroit with two other pastors, and he soon had a congregation of over 100. At the time, he thought the Holy Spirit was calling him to do this. However, just two years later, he de-converted, and he now believes that what originally drew him to become a youth minister was actually a combination of his desire to be onstage, his desire to follow in the footsteps of his youth minister, and to have a job that would help the world.

Tommy Nugent will elaborate on and continue his story on October 29, so stay tuned for the hilarious "Preacherman" coming soon!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Freethought Book Project and Pen Pal Program

If any of you ever volunteer for Urbana-Champaign’s Books to Prisoners Project at the IMC (Illini Media Company) building as I have in the past (or really, know anything about prison systems and their libraries), you already know the heftiest and most frequent donations received tend to be Bibles. NIV, KJV, pocket Psalms. You name it, they probably have it. And within the warehouses of such charity groups, shelved somewhere between ‘mythology’ and ‘Christianity’, you will find the requisite atheist author. But it’s akin to searching for a green pea buried deep in a vat of mashed potatoes. You’ll discover it eventually, you will, but who knows when another green pea will appear again?

In response to the rampant proselytization in penitentiaries, Leslie Zukor founded the Freethought Books Project in 2005, which is now coordinated by Jesse Markus (CFI-Portland) and Sarah Kaiser (CFI field organizer). The main goals are to a) simply provide literature of a secular nature b) demonstrate to those incarcerated that, indeed, religion is not necessary to live an ethical life. On one hand, it’s straightforward volunteer work. On the other hand, it’s also a way to build a secular presence in institutions we know are already dire and uncomfortable to say the least, especially for the nonreligious and other minority groups.

But it doesn't stop at books. Last year, CFI's volunteers began a pen-pal program and received, according to their website, “over 40 requests” for correspondents. While that doesn’t seem like a lot at all, it should be considered that even if we round up with statistics, there aren’t a lot of openly atheist, secular, and agnostic people in prison.

You would think that with such a reasonable amount of requests, everyone would have someone to talk to and they’d be flooded with items to send inmates and everything would be joyous, lovely, peachy-keen, completely covered.

Alas. I wish that was the case. Truth is, there are many prisons that don't even have libraries. Inmates are only allowed to possess a certain number of books (to keep within their cells). Sometimes three, sometimes seven. It varies from state to state, and from one correctional center to another. Some are allowed hardbacks, some strictly paperbacks. Sometimes there’s a weight limit on what can be sent. Sometimes there’s not. It’s infinitely more complicated than it should be, but the most direct and supportive action secularists can take is to donate magazines, journals, and texts while also making a concerted and personal effort to reach out. These are people struggling daily to tolerate existing in cramped, festering quarters with not-exactly-nutritional food and little time to themselves. 

Regimentation, dehumanization, overpopulation. It’s not a pleasant picture, and for those with limited options in reading material, it’s worse. For those without access to some form of education and sparse contact with the outside world, on top of being surrounded by strangers and the ugliness of the judiciary branch, it’s psychologically damaging in a way we will never realize or understand unless we’re there.

If you would like to contribute, please visit CFI's website for more information about the Pen Pal Program and how to send gently used and brand new literature. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Myth of Atheist

The notable figure, Atheist, is said to have originated sometime pre-Enlightenment Era, though many claim that Atheist, like the divine Super-Deities in the sky and elsewhere, has always been. Often confused with Grendel of the epic poem Beowulf, Atheist has, to this day, baffled many. Developing a presence in science and philosophy as well as literature, Atheist has been found to move among disciplines with no clear identity aside from its name.

Part of the consternation surrounding Atheist has to do with that fluid nature, but the rest stems from the fact that no one can directly pinpoint when Atheist first emerged in popular culture or when Atheist was, well, Atheist, just as no one can easily surmise what Atheist might have looked like then (or how it may be perceived in a modern context).

Common allegories about Atheist suggest a diet rife with ‘human infants’ and basic vegetation, although other stories have presented evidence that has led some to believe Atheist was actually an omnivore on the fence about vegetarianism. Scholarly debate on this matter has led many to think, “Perhaps Atheist was a vegetarian in the sense that it only ate human infant flesh? Does cannibalism really even count as carnivore behavior?” Erudite individuals across the world still disagree on what Atheist’s eating habits could have been, but many academics will cite placentophagy and placenta-based medicine practices as potential explanations for this myth. 

 +  +  = ???
Experts believe Atheist may have looked like a combination of these three figures, but our population today seems to show no DNA evidence of such an evolutionary lineage.

Current psycholinguists and historiographers working together for decades posit that, according to their studies tracking Atheist’s travels from East Africa to Europe and onward toward North America, the Atheist’s diet was more likely comprised of whatever could be found. In coastal regions, shellfish, and in plains regions, whatever mammalian creatures were available (like bison, antelope, and so on).

Anthropologists in North America and Eastern Europe today feel strongly that Atheist would have dined upon Pizza Rolls, diet Coke, and paltry side salads while working toward a bachelor’s degree likely to be useless without further specialization.

Regarding Atheist’s social behavior and interests, some say it was an avid reader and reclusive, but that Atheist fancied collecting rocks. Others propose the contrary: that Atheist was outgoing, dynamic, not very book-driven, and lacking in hobbies. A few journalists have tried to support the idea that Atheist never truly existed, but that theory arose from a growing discontent at Atheist’s complicated plurality. Some have even gone so far as to conjecture that sightings have increased in the last thirty years. But then again, if sightings of Atheist really were increasing and Atheist proved extant, wouldn't we already know? 

Perhaps the discord is fueled in part because Atheist has no particular gender or orientation, no definitive ethnic genealogy, and no religion. Atheist has no particular style or image, and yet, Atheist is all at once resonant of something.

What is that something?

Perhaps simply, humanity; but, perhaps Atheist is even more elusive and confounding than we can conceive. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

No atheists allowed

Anyone who pays any attention to politics knows that politicians say some pretty shitty things.  It seems like every week brings a new politician who makes an outrageous statement that makes me wonder how such a person could get so far in government.
This past summer, Tea Party candidate Scott Esk advocated stoning gay people and “punish[ing] abortionists severely for their committing of murder”. Esk looks forward to applying Biblical principles to Oklahoma law, according to his website. In 2012, Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock claimed that when a woman gets pregnant from rape, it’s because it was part of God’s plan.
This week, former head of South Carolina’s Republican party Todd Kincannon tweeted about Janay Rice, “I hope the dumb bitch who initiated physical violence with her NFL player fiancĂ© learned a good lesson when he justifiably beat her ass.”
            When reports of politicians saying awful things like this come out, people tend to be angry for a while, and then forget about it. We have way more sleazy elected officials than people want to admit. And yet, we keep electing them. It’s also no coincidence that the majority of politicians who say such offensive things happen to be Republican. The GOP has a reputation for making tactless, insensitive statements. 
While many statements politicians have made can be considered terrible and extremely offensive, public opinion seems to think that there’s one statement more horrendous and unacceptable than any other. That is the statement, “I don’t believe in God.” 
Even though about twenty percent of the population now identifies as nonreligious, atheists are the most distrusted minority in America. Psychologists recently conducted a study that showed atheists are just as distrusted as rapists. As of now, we have no openly atheist members of Congress, and seven states’ constitutions have even banned atheists from holding office.
Every time I read about a politician claiming women shouldn’t vote or that being gay is a crime that should be punishable by death, I am extremely bothered that we allow these people into our government and forgive them when they say and do incredibly offensive things, while at the same time, people are completely unwilling to tolerate an atheist in government. People are so scared that an atheist will ruin our country with their “immorality”, when really, the politicians making horribly offensive statements usually justify them with their religion.
This bias against the nonreligious comes from the widespread belief that lack of god is equivalent to immorality. I think as more people come out nonreligious and people realize that others they know don’t believe in a god, this misconception won’t be as widely accepted, but for now, atheists are put on the same level as rapists. Once people start realizing that morality is not connected to any sort of belief or lack thereof, it may be acceptable for a candidate to run for office as an atheist.
Though we don’t have any openly atheist members of Congress at the moment, atheist Democrat James Wood is running for Congress in the 5th Congressional District of Arizona. In an interview in April, James Wood stated “I am running as an atheist, because I believe in honesty and disclosure; being open and honest about who you are and what you believe, I think, is vital to the democratic process.” Though I’m not optimistic about the outcome of the election (mainly because his district is primarily Republican, and he’s not a popular candidate) I applaud Wood and I think what he’s doing is fantastic. Other nonreligious politicians should follow suit and maybe it would defeat the stigma of running for government as an atheist.

In my opinion, the most religious politicians are the ones who act with the least morality and hurt our country the most. I look forward to the day that people are open-minded enough to elect an open atheist into office and stop forgiving politicians with harmful religious agendas and offensive attitudes.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Stop misusing the word "purpose"!

We humans are obsessed with "purpose"; we instinctively view things as having a purpose, and we tend to think of "purpose" as an inherent quality of an object, much like its weight, shape, or texture. It seems natural to ask, "What is the purpose of this thing?" whether the question is appropriate or not.

What I'd like to do here is to explain, to atheists and theists alike, that the "purpose" of an object has nothing to do with the object itself: the purpose of an object is simply what conscious beings intend for the object. I say this because many people, religious or not, speak about an object's purpose as if there is an objective fact of the matter.

As an example of atheists misusing the word "purpose", I've often heard atheists say that, realistically the purpose of life is to reproduce. However, this is not the purpose of life; this is not what life is "for". This is simply what most life automatically does. I will unpack this distinction below in my "light box analogy" and explain why this is an incorrect use of the word "purpose".

My first piece of evidence for "purpose" being a state of mind, rather than a quality of an object, is Webster.

This definition, and the synonyms listed, indicate that the purpose of an object is simply what is intended or desired for that object (intended or desired by a conscious being), and has nothing to do with the object itself.

To illustrate this further, and to explain why the "purpose" of life is not only to reproduce, as I've heard many atheists argue, I will talk about my hypothetical "light box". Imagine that I am building a "light box", and I tell you that its purpose is to light up. However, as I haven't finished it yet, it doesn't actually light up, not yet, anyway. Furthermore, I also tell you that this box was originally manufactured as a paper weight, and I am now turning it into a "light box". Still, I maintain that its purpose is to light up, and I think we could all agree that its purpose is indeed to light up, even if it doesn't currently light up, and even if it used to do something different. This demonstrates that an object's purpose has nothing to do with what it currently does, nor with what it did in the past: it's all down to what I intend for it.

In this same way, life (as in, every living thing) doesn't have a purpose, unless you, the reader, intend to use every last living thing on this planet for something. Your life, however, can have a purpose: it's whatever your life goals are: it's whatever you (Bill, Jill, Kelly) are "for". You, as a conscious being, can give yourself a purpose.

Another illustration that may help is what I call the "doorstop" thought experiment. Imagine I open my front door and enter my house, and as the door begins to swing shut behind me, the wind blows a rock underneath the door, jamming it open. At this moment, is the purpose of the rock to hold the door open? No, that's just what it happens to be doing. However, if I come back to the door and say, "Oh! Perfect! I needed something to hold the door open so I can bring a table inside," now the rock has a purpose: now the rock is  for holding the door open. Notice that while the rock suddenly has a purpose, nothing about the rock itself has changed. The reason it has a purpose (to hold open the door) is because I, a conscious being, gave it one: I now have an intention for it. Thus, purpose is simply the product of a mind (in this case, my mind). This also means that there is no such thing as "objective purpose" by definition: purpose is necessarily subjective because it requires a mind (a subject) to generate it.

The point of this blog post has been made before, but I still think it deserves more publicity in atheist circles, as I still hear the word "purpose" being misused. This point has most notably been made by Richard Dawkins in the context of evolution and the apparent purpose of evolved features of plants and animals.
Dawkins discussing the question of "purpose"