Tuesday, June 28, 2011

ISSA wins award for being goodest without God

As Becca mentioned in an earlier blog post, this past weekend was the 2011 CFI Leadership Conference, and the representing ISSA officers (Franklin, Ed, and Becca) learned a great deal and had a great time. The biggest problem was simply the number of hours in the day- we would wake up at 7:00, listen to speakers, talk and eat with other groups, then go back to the dorms and continue discussion over various forms of alcohol, staying up till as late as 4am before getting up the next day to repeat the process.

There were many highlights of the conference, including a truly excellent presentation given by our own Ed Clint about our positive experiences doing interfaith without sacrificing firebrand activism, and what other groups can take away from our experiences, which sparked a significant amount of talk about interfaith the rest of the weekend.

By Sunday morning everyone at the conference was pretty exhausted, and there was an award ceremony scheduled for 9:15 that morning. Becca and I were exhausted after only getting around four hours of sleep, and Ed had gotten less than an hour, so I can only imagine how he was feeling in the morning. But, being the good little ISSA representatives we were, we got up and drove over to the conference center to support the award winners. When the “Good Without God” award came up, we were extremely surprised to hear that we, in fact, were the winners, and the three of us went up to accept the award. There wasn’t any real clarification for what we won the award for, and we weren’t thinking very clearly as it was, so I will say that Ed did truly an excellent job of describing the bus ad campaign ISSA ran at the beginning of the year and how it was in large part thanks to the ideas generated at the CFI conference last year, and when he was done neither Becca nor I could really think of anything to add.

However, like any other situation like this, shortly after we sat down I thought of about a million other things we should have said while we were up there (other than, “I’d like to thank God,” obviously). I should have talked about our Interfaith Bake Sale, in which we not only worked with the Navigators to help raise money for Japan relief, but inspired MAFA to join our cause. Or our multiple blood drives we do every year. Or our service trip to Florida to help build houses with Habitat for Humanity. Or even just the board game night we did with the Navs and MSA, which, while not service related, makes significant steps forward in improving negative perceptions about atheists and show that we are just normal people who like to have fun, and, most importantly, love board games.

We should have brought up that, while it was only the three of us accepting the award, we really have our entire membership to thank. While the officers are usually the ones who plan the events, it isn't us who are "good without God"- it is everyone in the group, and without you guys, we would have never been up there accepting the award in the first place. The reason we won this award is because ISSA is filled with truly great people who not only believe that you can be good without God, but that we must demonstrate it as well. You all are truly an inspiration, not only to your officers, but to secular groups across the nation.

So, in short, thank you everyone! We were truly honored to accept the "Good Without God" award on your behalf, and all of the officers of ISSA are looking forward to an even better year starting this fall. Hopefully I'll be able to be more articulate when we go up for the next award we get :D

Monday, June 20, 2011

On Engaging the Religious

There is plenty of room within the atheist community for debate, dissent, and disagreement. Despite what some will say about Hitchens or Dawkins, we really don't subscribe to any sort of dogma. I personally find this diversity of thought immensely valuable. However, upon browsing the atheism subreddit the other day I found a post that rustled my jimmies to such a degree that I felt compelled to write about it.

Those of you familiar with Reddit know that it is a social media website offering news and discussion of current events, along with a number of "subreddits" that focus on more specific subjects. In general, given the sort of sensationalist hivemind that oftentimes dominates discussion, I try not to take most things I read there too seriously.

But this post was different to me. It's actually difficult for me to pick a starting point here because I dislike almost everything about this post so severely. The link to the post is here, but for the sake of convenience it is reposted below:

I feel as though when you're up against willful ignorance the only recourse is to chastise and humiliate. I value civil rights over personal feelings, and I feel that a threat to those civil rights must be dealt with on a personal level.
So when a pair of black ladies come to my door and hand me a picture of a blonde blue eyed jesus, I don't argue with them or invite them to casual conversation. I'm past that. I tear their jesus in half and hand it back to them. When I see mormons walking the streets (and I see the fuckers) I approach. I ask what they are doing in my neighborhood spreading hate and lies. I tell them I don't like their kind around here. I revile them as they revile gays, and I show them in kind with brutal contempt. If I'm driving, I make sure they at the very least see the bird.
Now street evangelists, those are the one I get into it with.. I'm actually quite learned in all their little tricks, games, and intellectual stretches, and I pick them apart for as long as I have time, calmly, politely, and smugly. I hope I leave them feeling confused and frustrated, because I have no interest in educating them.
I truly feel this is the best way to deal with them. They are always crying about being the victims. Like it or not, fellow atheists, I plan to give them something to cry about every chance I get. Do not ignore a weapon in your arsenal out of squeamish good taste. I don't worry about being "like them".. I'm being like them in the sense I'm being like a thug when I pick up a club to repel a thug.
And I am absolutely done extending courtesies they have no intention on returning.

For one, the author's self-righteous, cocksure attitude epitomizes exactly what it is that I, as a skeptic, find annoying about the religious mindset. This guy just 'feels' he's doing the right thing without any sort of evidence, let alone common sense or basic decency. Yet he will continue to act aggressively based on this vague notion regardless. Why choose to provoke others and inflame passions when the summation of human knowledge is on our side?

Furthermore, this violates what I consider to be an essential ethical principle - that you should treat others as you would like to be treated. There is a reason this maxim has been independently developed by cultures ranging from the Ancient Greeks to the Confucian Chinese to the Native Americans. It is a basic and intuitive means of empathy and compassion.

How one could be blind to the irony in fighting for tolerance by refusing to tolerate the beliefs of others beyond me. It is the government, not the private citizen, that poses a threat to our right to freedom from religion. Walking up to a Mormon on the street and saying you "don't like [his] kind around here" makes you sound like a bully and a bigot rather than a thinking person with a viewpoint worth respecting. Atheists ought to be politically - not personally - aggressive; we will accomplish much more by voting, writing to representatives, and filing lawsuits than we ever could by antagonizing ourselves.

The fact of the matter is that atheist groups around the world very frequently engage in acts of charity and generosity - not to impress anybody, just because it is the right thing to do. When Japan was devastated by a 9.0 earthquake and ensuing tsunami just a few short months ago, we at the Illini Secular Student Alliance teamed up with the Navigators (a campus Christian organization) and held a bake sale to raise money for Red Cross relief. On Kiva.org - a website where willing donors provide capital to impoverished entrepreneurs - atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers outspend their Christian counterparts by a 2-to-1 ratio.

But one can never underestimate the ability of people to make rash or hasty generalizations based upon personal experience. To too many, one bad apple spoils the bunch. The author's approach extenuates a divisive wedge in our society, rather than appealing to the common ground we share as members of the same community, the same culture, and the same country.

You will not convince a religious person to give up their faith as a result of a fifteen minute conversation on the street. Hell, you can talk to them for hours on end and you will not succeed. But what you might be able to do is plant a little tiny seed of doubt. Be earnest and plainspoken. Give them something genuinely insightful to mull over. At the very least, you could promote a little more rational thought in a world that so sorely needs it.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Meanwhile, in the skeptic movement...

Sometimes we in the atheist movement focus so much on all the ridiculous ideas of religion that we forget about all the other crazy things people believe. Shermer discussed it a decent amount in his talk he gave here (which unfortunately we won't be able to put up a video for, but his TED talk was very similar), but it's easy to forget it's out there and how prevalent it is.

A while ago I was at a small get-together and I met a girl whose mother is a "Rosicrucianist," a term I had not previously heard of. For those who are on the same page I was (and too lazy to click on the page I linked to), the Rosicrucionists are a secret society based on the teachings of Christian Rosenkreuz, and apparently have secret knowledge about the end of the world and how it should be run if it were to come. They also affirm the claim that the Georgia Guidestones (pictured on the left) come from Rosenkreuz as well. The three of us (the girl, my friend and I) talked for probably a couple hours, and the amount of ridiculous was steadily increasing as the conversation progressed. At one point I think the girl claimed that the moon is hollow and created by aliens (the Annunaki, obviously), and that even the people who have gone to the moon have noticed strange lights and objects! All this said with 100% sincerity, as if it were not only true but the most obvious thing in the world.

Last night I finally got around to searching the interwebs for more information on all these "theories" (I use the word "theory" in the least scientific sense possible), and came across the blog of Michael Sheiser, who is a "scholar of biblical and ancient Near Eastern languages, cultures, and religions." It only took a short while to realize that this guy knows his stuff, and his website debunking Zecharia Sitchin, (Sitchin is an author that makes many of the claims that the girl I referenced earlier did), is a great example of his knowledge of the field and standards for evidence.

I then found his blog page where he does similar debunking, and came across a post about ancient elongated skulls, debunking the claim that they are proof of alien intervention. The post itself is pretty straightfoward- but the comments are ridiculous. Do yourself a favor and read through them, and it will give you a lot of insight into the minds of the sort of people who accept these conspiracy theories.

What I find most fascinating with these people is that they readily claim that organized religion is ridiculous yet use the same strategies as the religious to support their claims. A couple of my favorites (all quotes are taken verbatim, and MSH refers to Michael Sheiser):
I would like to know ho you MSH are so convinced that all of Sitchin’s work is nonsense. Aren’t you open to possibility or closed to any idea that humans and earth have been visited before. You must know that notables such as F Crick who discovered DNA structure, Einstein somewhat, Carl Sagan when stoned, and many other reputable scientists “believe” in panspermia. The idea that in Assyrian the word for Jupiter can only be Nibiru is a bit short sighted. Why is that dictionary true and the only interpretation? When it was written, scholars did not believe America was visited by Vikings. Nobody thought hybrid creatures could be made in the 1950s outside of sci-fi fans. The history of science changed over time and perception changes. if the scholars who created these dictionaries knew about more modern abilities and the plethora of stars and planets in ourt galaxy alone, they may have thought differently. until you come up with a Sumerian text that says “no aliens ever came and gave us ideas, and that zigarrut (sp?) was only a weather balloon stand,” then you must allow for possibility and stop creating fame by bashing those who raise questions.
To summarize: The world of science/academia has been wrong in the past, so any claims we make may indeed be wrong. Therefore we have to entertain all possibilities, regardless of how ridiculous they are.

Here we also see the classic problem with burden of proof. "You can't say I'm wrong until you prove that we weren't visited by aliens thousands of years ago." Sound a bit familiar? Who cares if I can't prove you wrong? Until you provide any sort of decent evidence that you are correct I have no reason to entertain them.

Next quote:
I see that you are trying to educate the public about your findings. I am always wary of people who seem overly interested in debunking others’ ideas. I keep an open mind and I think that is really the way to go when it comes to living one’s life. The tone of your website seems close-minded and fearful. When people’s ideas and beliefs are challanged people react in different ways; some look at new ideas with wonder and curiosity, others get angry and do whatever they can to debunk these new ideas. You fit into this second category. Still, a very interesting site. Gave me another perspective to plug into my reality!

Summary: Skeptics are just scared and angry, which is why they are so "closed minded" about these sorts of things. If you are truly open to all ideas you will see that this makes a lot of sense!

The fact of the matter is that the X-Files have it right- people want to believe. We have some sort of natural disposition to do so. We find it exciting. One of my personal favorite quotes:

as you start to understand the truth, try not to beat yourself up too much, as it is quite likely you will feel like an idiot, I know I did. As the truth starts to unfold to you, you will wonder how you could have believed anything else, but there is no deny the truth. it is a humbling experience and without doubt, a humble man is able to accept the truth easier. lets face it, it is very unnerving, when you first begin to realise that, hell, there could be some truth in this, and that just maybe, we have been genetically engineered by et’s. maybe we aren’t that unique and whilst we (humans) have a few redeeming qualities, we are really just not as special as we like to believe..

Summary: It's hard to get past being so closed-minded and wanting "evidence" to accept claims. But once you do, anything is possible, and it's really humbling!

Even if religion were to be completely removed from our society, we'd still have this kind of thinking going on, all the time. Religion isn't the root of the problem: Poor critical thinking skills, combined with an innate desire to believe the paranormal and that something exists bigger than ourselves, is. The latter is something that we won't be able to get rid of, but luckily by minimizing the former we can help alleviate it.

And props to Michael for doing such a good job representing the skeptics and countering bad ideas- keep up the good work!