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"

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Growing Up in the Christian Mecca

Colorado Springs, Colorado. From the outside, it is a seemingly innocuous city nestled into the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The sights alone attract a billion visitors to the area every year and most people think the main attraction is the scenery. For those who live there, the city is known for something else entirely: Christians.

Aerial View of New Life Church

Colorado Springs is home to the headquarters of 81 religious institutions, including the likes of Focus on the Family, Young Life, and the Navigators. Naturally, the city was dubbed the “Christian Mecca”, a title that remains today. The city also has a large Mormon population, adding to the mix of Evangelical Christians, Catholics, and other denominations.

When I was a little kid, my family moved across this country to Colorado Springs. We joined a new church and that became a fixture of our family life. As I started going to school, I realized that people were identified by their church and religious denominations more than anything else. It was natural to ask people about their faith within minutes of meeting them. Everyone had their own church to call home and they were all very proud of it. I had friends who were Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, and a myriad of other religions. The only group absent from my religious friends were atheists. 

I realized that I was a skeptic at a young age (around twelve or thirteen). I remember leaving my church one day after a discussion about my confirmation. I refused because I viewed the system as exploiting the young members of the church into doing "community service" that included running the soundboard during services and working at the church thrift store. I thought that church was merely a facade for money making.

As I grew into a young teen and started questioning my beliefs, I was able to rely on this culture to truly discover everything that Christianity had to offer. I went to services at a megachurch, a Mormon temple, and other similar denominations. This pushed me even farther into skepticism. I wondered how all of these people could coexist in one city without ever thinking about how it is possible for everyone to not be worshiping the “true” religion. 

Throughout high school, I had to hide my atheism from everyone because this “Mecca” changed the entire dynamic of the school. For my freshman year English project, we had to read portions of the Bible (which no one even raised an eyebrow at). The popular kids were all in Young Life. The Mormons attended seminary every day during school hours across the street in a small building to strengthen their faith in the church. There was no outlet for secular students and the idea of a group was too blasphemous for some people to consider. It was so strange for me to think that a community as religiously diverse as Colorado Springs would shun and shame people who were non-religious.

Most of the people I grew up with still don’t know. I still pretend that I am a good Christian girl when I go home. I always go to Christmas Eve service with my family and sing the hymns along with everyone else. With the exception of one or two individuals, I have told the people who matter that I am an atheist. It sucks that I have to lie about my beliefs every time that I go home, but my town just is not ready to deal with people who do not believe.

Friday, August 22, 2014

How NOT to Run a Bookstore: Secular World Edition

If there is one thing I hate about being an atheist (and a poet) living in central Illinois, it's feeling out-of-place, insulted, and gypped by local chain bookstores.

To be fully honest here, I always feel disappointed whenever I visit Barnes & Noble, no matter where I am. Their selections are poor, they shelve mainly mass marketed paperbacks, and they're all about what's 'popular' and they tend to  play to assumed audiences. Well, mostly the regional managers do. Hence the problem. Chain bookstores are kind of like Starbucks. Each one is essentially the same, with variations on the theme. Changes are made based on what the demographic looks like in an area and based on the manager's prediction of what will sell/entice the public. Usually it involves making a proposal and having that motion cleared by someone higher up in the ranks.

Regardless, a few months ago I went to their location in Bloomington (IL), and I decided to mill about for five or so hours. That's standard for me. On the bargain table, I saw about eight hardback copies of "Mortality" by Christopher Hitchens. My initial reaction was, "Wow, I forgot to read this." My next reaction was, "Wait, why are these marked down to $6.95?"

I then began to roam the whole place, scanning keywords and cover art and, lo and behold, what do I see in the distance? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It's two huge stacks filled on both sides with something the head honcho titled "Christian Fiction." And what is in front of it? A similarly long and huge shelf stacked with Bibles titled "Bibles." And off to the side, nearby another bargain bin is a section labeled "Spirituality." I could have built two whole kayaks with the wood from the shelves used for those sections. That's how big they were.

1. All of that belongs somewhere like, oh I don't know, Family Christian. Because that is what they sell. That is what they are in business for. That is not Barnes & Nobles' area of expertise and it shouldn't be.

2. This appears not to be only a Bloomington, Illinois issue. A reviewer of Evanston's B&N mentioned a large amount of Christian children's literature without much diversity.

3. Last I checked, Christianity is a kind of spirituality? Why is every other dogma relegated to "Spirituality" then, and a small, out-of-the-way holding space? That's rude.

4. "Christian Fiction" is just like saying "The Bible" so I don't know why the two were not lumped together under a giant neon sign electrically screaming and pulsing "CHRISTIANITY REIGNS HERE."

But when I visited the Barnes & Noble on the north side of Chicago (in Lincolnshire) a week later, there wasn't a trace of any of this. (Also, their paperback copy of Mortality with a roughly cut cover was nearly double what I paid at the B&N in Bloomington for a hardback. I guess that's the godless discount). There wasn't any semblance of a theistic bias when I went to the one associated with DePaul this past January either.

Of course every money lover wants to tailor their market. But has Bloomington's B&N gone a bit far? I think so. And the message I'm getting is that the stores with directors who push and advertise a dominant religion are likely on their last legs, desperate for income and patrons. With so many independent bookstores closing, this can only mean an ebook takeover for a spell, a brief tidal rejuvenation, and then another ebb.

So my question is: What will happen to places like Barnes & Noble in Midwestern small cities as the digital age creeps further and Christianity fades away? Combined, that's one hell of a sucker-punch, and "Christian Fiction" and Bibles (which at one time were the content nearly only Christian stores proffered) likely won't be enough to boost sales.

I can only imagine that if Bloomington's B&N started to expand their collections in paltry departments (like the poetry and memoir categories), they might actually sell more. And I mean, really, one can only sell so much Christian propaganda and exhibit favoritism for so long before the business crashes and buyers leave out of disinterest and disgust and walk their little fannies elsewhere.

But as a litterateur and library dork, I must say this is perhaps the best decision they could have made. Their mistake will be the public's gain. Perhaps within the next ten years, they'll be liquidating their assets, and I'll be laughing about their failure to factor in the rise of irreligion and the decline of faith-devotees as our oldest generations die out.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Every Activist Needs Allies

     Over the summer, ISSA has been fortunate enough to send officers, including myself, to both SSAcon in Columbus and CFIcon in Amherst! Cool! At both of these conferences, we were regaled with tales of secular humanist outreach and activism. We heard about a Center for Inquiry representative who stood up to Saudi Arabia at the UN Human Rights Council (watch that video in the link, it's crazy), and the amazing international volunteer work done by the Pathfinders Project, a pioneering attempt to establish a humanist service corps to rival religious missionary volunteering. There were so many other great talks at both events--I highly encourage you to keep an eye out for the conference recordings, which should be available on youtube soon™.

Pictured: the coolest human rights activist I've ever met.

     One speaker that really made me think critically about the importance of activism and my place in it was the great Leo Igwe. In case you haven't heard of this excellent gentleman, you should know that he is one of the most influential Nigerian humanists alive today, and he is massively passionate about the causes he champions, including the malign influence of Boko Haram, the importance of keeping Nigeria's government secular, and witchcraft accusations. Although it's not frequently mentioned in Western media, Nigeria and many other African countries today still have a superstitious and hateful distrust of witchcraft, which can lead to ritual killings and human sacrifice, and have entire communities that are "witch camps"; these are essentially concentration camps where thousands of women that are accused of witchcraft and exiled from their homes under threat of death are forced to live for the rest of their lives. These witch camps are populated exclusively by women, because superstitious dogma claims that only a woman can practice witchcraft, and they are severely lacking in even basic housing, sanitation, and medicine. Leo has spent more than a decade raising awareness, money, and support for women and children accused of witchcraft.

     When I heard Leo talk in Columbus a few weeks ago, I wasn't sure my ears were working correctly. Nigeria, a developed country, in the year 2014, was accusing women and children of witchcraft, and these accusations were so serious that people had to flee for their lives? It baffled me. However, Leo talked about his experiences battling "deadly misinformation", and I quickly went from incredulous to outraged. I could write at length on the topic of witch hunts and the inhumanity of witch camps, but that's a topic for a different day.

     Leo's talk also provided the title for this blog. He spoke at length about the need, present and future, for atheist and secular activists to not only effect change, but to gather allies--that is, people who may not agree with us 100% on every issue, but who are willing to work together to right wrongs. Just as the LGBT movement gathers allies on everything from marriage reform to effective sex education, we need to find groups who agree with us on important issues like church-state separation, secular legislation, real science education, etc. and form coalitions to make our voices heard. Although it might sound cheesy, this kind of networking is critical.

     Allies are essential for a variety of reasons, but one of the most obvious reasons is also one of the most important: they have the numbers to amplify the secular movement's voice far beyond the reach of the soapboxes we normally stand on. Although trends suggest the broader secular movement is still growing in size and influence (hooray!), and we have more ways to spread our message than ever before, we are still only a tiny fraction of the populace. Pew's frequently-cited survey on the presence of "nones" in American society might be heartening, but many people, including prominent atheists, tend to forget that many of these nones are spiritual and church-attending people. These people could make excellent allies, but they are almost certainly not going to be active in the secular movement. Similarly, while the opinions of hardcore atheists might be viewed as extreme and alienating by liberal Christians, there's no doubt in my mind that many of those same Christians share our desire to see the wall of separation upheld, because that wall protects them just as well as it protects us.

     Leo was hardly the only speaker at SSAcon to mention the importance of allies--everyone from the esteemed August E. Brunsman IV to the hilarious Preacherman mentioned the importance of reaching across the aisle at some point. Many speakers at CFIcon had something to say about reaching outside of the (potentially) insular secular community as well. I shall paraphrase James Croft extremely poorly: "Although you guys are working hard to save the world, you're not the only people that live in it. Go out there and make friends!"

     If you're involved with a campus or community secular group, don't be afraid to make friends! ISSA regularly gets involved with religious and advocacy groups on campus for service and volunteer work, from cleaning up our local Boneyard Creek to blood drives. We have a lot of room for improvement, but I can say confidently that these are some of the most valuable activities the club is a part of, not only because we improve our community, but because we form connections with other groups and show them that atheists and their ilk are pretty cool folks. You can too! While there is no cookie-cutter approach to forming coalitions, the author humbly suggests starting small and finding groups near yours that might agree with you about an important issue or two. Maybe you could check out Openly Secular? There's a whole lot of opportunity out there.

     Until next time, heathens!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Review of the Madison Freethought Festival

ISSA attended the 3rd Freethought Festival this past weekend of April 12, and while I (Alex) have been a member for three years now, this was the first conference/festival I attended, and I now see what all the excitement is about.

In the video below, I highlight two of my favorite events at the festival: Hemant Mehta's talk on branching out into different forms of media, and the debate between Rev. Matt Slick and Dan Barker (president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation).

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Atheism, Poetry, and the Tabling of Secularism

Let's talk poetry. 'Atheist' or 'Agnostic' is likely not the first thing people associate with 'Poet.' Perhaps for obvious reasons. But I've been thinking lately: what do we think about when we think about poetry? And how is secularism influencing this particular writing field?

In response to a recent call for submissions by poetry journal Rattle editor and author Tim Green, I sent a message to him inquiring why the editing board decided to do a series called "Poets of Faith" and not anything open to secularists this season. Rattle tends to do different themes every few months or so. In the past, they've put out issues like "Tribute to Law Enforcement" and "Single Parents." But in the few years I've been following what they publish, I haven't seen anything related to secularism. I'm not at all against a "Poets of Faith" series. It's often very interesting to see what religions or spiritual paths people identify with, and how it impacts their writing, and how it can be molded into each individual's craft and how, in some cases, it's fairly absent. I just thought the lack of inclusion something to note. In any case, his response interested me greatly, because I believe there was a misunderstanding. When we had our back and forth, I meant 'secular' as in 'non-theist.' When he said 'secular' he meant 'would claim to be secular in any identifiable way.'

Interesting distinction. In any case, I liked how he clarified, and I'm posting it here.

"In my experience, poets are very similar demographically to scientists. There's a small percentage who make faith claims -- Dana Gioia, Mark Jarman, Marie Howe, etc. But the majority are secular, or a kind of Mary Oliver agnostic, leaving room for mystery but rejecting any dogma. I mentioned the scientist issue, because that's something I've been planning to do for a while, but what might work out would be an Atheists Poets issue. I think atheists are 10% of the general population (supposedly, I think it's actually much higher, but that's what the surveys say). Among poets willing to make that claim, it's probably a little higher, 15 - 20% maybe, which is probably what the percentage is for religious poets. We'll probably do that sometime."

I consider this to be fairly accurate, and I'm left here wondering: why are poets demographically similar to scientists? Why might so many poets identify as atheist or agnostic? 

My guess would be that poetry tends to require a writer to scrutinize and consider a situation, or object, or feeling (or whatever) from a variety of perspectives with a certain thoroughness known as critical thinking. But when I search the term 'atheistic poets' on Google, university library catalogs, and local databases, I get nothing academic. Through Google, the only promising hit was on The library databases gave me nothing, and the only other 'atheist poets/poetry' hits were amateur blogs. Very amateur blogs. When I searched 'secular poetry' the internet nearly caved in. I got results ranging from "Guide to the Secular Poetry of T.S. Eliot" to "Medieval Hebrew poetry in Muslim Egypt: the Secular Poetry of the Karaite Poet Moses ben Abraham Dar'i" all the way up to "Morality and Masculinity in the Carolingian Empire." More than half of the results included 'secular' and 'religious' and their derivations in the titles, and the range was spread nicely.

Secular [sek-yuh-ler]: adj. of or pertaining to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, sacred; temporal.

Atheism [ey-thee-iz-uhm]: n. disbelief in the existence of a supreme being or beings. (Atheistic is reflexive of atheism, so it was pointless to put its definition  here).

Welcome, all, to the gray area. I have a hunch that past authors have had to waddle in it, because of social pressures or other reasons. The ambiguity in classification has made things... interesting for poetry. Most atheistic writing I've found tends to be nonfiction (thanks Dawkins), and I worry that the atheist community isn't representing itself very well in the arts right now. We call nonreligious music 'secular' but in doing so, we're only simply saying that it's 'not religiously themed.' Are we doing the same in poetry? Has 'secular' become the living room rug we all step on and prefer versus the hardwood floor panels of 'atheism'? Every term has its distinctions, but when it comes to visibility in poetry, 'secular' just doesn't seem to hold up.

I think there tends to be very little discussion about poetry, and how atheists manufacture meaning for themselves and in their writing. I think there also tends to be the assumption that non-scientists are more spiritual than they actually are. (Although, to speak frankly, I think powerful individuals in society are always assuming the general populace is more religious than it is). 

So, what are atheist poets to do? Rally for their own spaces, perhaps as I politely did? Embrace the vagueness of 'secular' for whatever reason? It's my position that any mode of action that is respectful and beneficial should be taken. 

Getting lost staring into space induces wonder, always, but there are other fascinations equally powerful, I think, that are often talked about in poetry. Poets tackle everything. Poetry, to me, is a life conference. 

So, my position is also that we need more poets saying, "Hey, I can write beautiful, artful things, revel in semantic wonder...and not believe in a higher power. This is my awe."

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Think of the Children

I don't know about anyone else, but almost nothing makes me angrier than people who refuse to vaccinate their children. I don't know what "research" they're doing, but it seems that watching celebrities and reading blog posts about how doctors are out to get you seem to be about it (Jenny McCarthy, anyone?). I've always assumed (hoped) that these people were a sad, confused minority, but as it turns out, half of America believes in at least one medical conspiracy, according to a new survey.

Before I continue ripping people a new one for not checking their sources, this survey was approved by the institutional review board of the University of Chicago. It surveyed over 1300 people and was weighted to provide a representative sample of the people of America. In a word, it's pretty legit.

20% of respondents believed that the government is lying to us about vaccines. 20% believe cell phones cause cancer, but big businesses bribe health officials to lie about it 12% believe that the CIA infected African Americans with HIV by pretending it was the hepatitis vaccine. A whopping 37% believe that the Food and Drug Administration has natural cures for cancer but isn't releasing them.

Sorry Jimmy. Maybe if you had enough Facebook likes you could have that magical herbal tea.

The people who believed these studies tended to rely on celebrity doctors and the internet for medical advice. Of all the people who depended on those two sources, 80% believed in at least one theory. They did not get physicals as often and shunned things like flu shots and sunscreen. One thing that I found surprising was that the conspiracy theorists came from all across the political spectrum, demonstrating that research ability isn't just lacking on one side. They were more likely to be poorer and less educated, but the study indicated that there were conspiracy theorists from all different backgrounds.

So are these people stupid, or crazy? No. The government is confusing as all get-out, and there's always a new health craze attractive person on TV telling you not to worry, they have all the answers to keep your family safe and in good health. But these people don't know where to get good information, or maybe even how to begin looking. As the public school system in America heads downhill, so does our ability to think critically and be true skeptics instead of paranoid theorists. So I guess this is really a call to teachers and parents and congressmen and administrators--teach the kids to be critical thinkers. To not rely on Dr. Oz or WebMD for their health. To know how to read a study and see if it's well done. To be able to realize who to trust (hint--your doctor is a good one. They don't go through 12 years of post high school education to joke around) but also how to get second opinions. Let's teach our kids to be real skeptics instead of fostering the next generation of paranoia.