Thursday, December 27, 2012

Now Answering Your Questions!

‘Tis the season to ask atheists questions! The Illini Secular Student Alliance is now accepting any and all questions that you’d like us to weigh in on! Morality, science, philosophy, you name it; we'll give you our thoughts! 

But be quick, you only have a few weeks to get your questions in, because come January, a group of us will be sitting down to answer them on video! If you’re not already subscribed to our YouTube channel, please do so now to be notified when our answers go public!

Happy holidays!

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Christmas Army

As the War on Christmas rages on, you've likely begun to hear an annoying ringing of bells in public. The  "soldiers" this season are outside of grocery stores and standing on street corners as a part of the Salvation Army's winter campaign. If that persistent tinkling has given you thoughts about donating, though, you should give it a second thought. The Salvation Army is hardly as harmless as it appears, and shouldn't be welcome in secular society.

The Salvation Army began as a militarized religious cult, but gradually gained more credibility through charitable work and disaster relief efforts. Due to this trend, many people think the Salvation Army is a nonprofit group, but that's simply not true. The Salvation Army is actually a Christian denomination that split off from Methodism in 1865. As such, it has a list of eleven doctrines, the last of which claims the wicked will endure endless torment in the afterlife. The wicked, by the way, includes practicing homosexuals, who subsequently aren't allowed to hold certain job positions offered by the organization. It's ... reassuring ... to know that they still accept homosexuals who aren't "practicing". In 2001, the Salvation Army went as far as to lobby for a change in grant and tax regulations that would protect their "right" to discriminate against homosexuals. Thankfully, the Bush administration denied their request.

When a portion of the organization was about to offer domestic-partnership benefits to gay employees, evangelical supporters were outraged, and the organization quickly retracted the decision. Then, in 2004, the Salvation Army threatened to close its operations in New York unless they were granted exclusive permission to discriminate against homosexuals. Mayor Bloomberg refused to make an exception for the organization, but chose to not enforce the ordinance that would ban said discrimination - which basically granting the exception, just with some flowers and perfume thrown on top to distract the public. Furthermore, although the organization has to keep fighting to maintain it's "right" to discriminate against homosexuals, in other areas it doesn't even need to try. As a church, the Salvation Army has the right to discriminate based on religion, something nonprofits can't do.

So, this season, if you hear that annoying ringing, don't dig in your pockets for spare change. Instead, donate to a secular, less political organization. However you choose to spend your money this month, don't forget to spend time with those you care about, and have a Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Countdown to the End of the World

My Story

I must have been about 12 years old when I first saw a History Channel documentary with a segment on the Mayan Calendar. I believe it was an old episode of History's Mysteries focusing on something known as the "Bible Code" - the jist of it being some guy claiming he could uncover hidden messages from god by fitting Bible passages into some sort of matrix. He said he found "2012" and "asteroid" in one of these matrices, which the narrator suggested could be a reference to the end of the Mayan Calendar. Having considered myself nominally Christian at that point in my life, I found the idea tantalizing  After all, if the Bible were already full of explicit doomsday prophecies (the entirety or Revelations, for example), who's to say it couldn't contain some kind of hidden message as well?

I'll be honest. I was a late bloomer as far as the whole skeptic thing is concerned. I fell for this idea - hard. I figured if my classmates knew they only had a decade or so left to live, they might live their lives a little differently. I was compelled spread the rumor around like wildfire. Suffice it to say I wasn't simply a believer in the Mayan Doomsday Prophecy, I was a veritable doomsday evangelist.

In fact, I told so many people about the impending destruction of the planet that I was continually pestered about it for years. They'd ask me: "So Derek, you don't really  think the world's going to end in 2012, right?"

As my answers began to change. "Just you wait" when I was 13 "Well, the Mayans were talented astronomers" at 15; and finally "No, of course not" by 17. And now, I sit here quite comfortably mere hours before the date I once thought would bring about the end of all life on earth. On the internet and in person, I only hear the 21st of December referenced as an offhand joke. Hell, it seems like more people took the May 2012 rapture seriously than the end of the Mayan calendar.

But this Mayan Doomsday Prophecy has been such a large part of my life for so long, I feel obliged to indulge myself in giving it one final moment of thought before it is relegated to obscurity. There are three basic questions I'm hoping to answer: what is this whole Mayan Calendar business about, why is it bullshit, and is anybody actually taking this seriously? Feel free to skip around as your interests dictate.

What are the various Doomsday Predictions for December 21, and how do they relate to the Mayans?

Without getting too technical, these predictions stem from the "end" of the Mayan Long Count Calendar, which records the passage of time using a mythological creation date as a reference point. After 5125 years, we reach the end of a cyclical period known as a b'ak'tun. We are currently living in the 13th b'ak'tun, and which is the last of the b'ak'tuns specifically enumerated on the long count calendar. On 21 December 2012, that final cycle will come to an end.

Nobody's quite sure exactly what the end of the Long Count Calendar is supposed to signify, but in this ambiguity lies the beauty of the thing. Since the Mayans themselves made no specific predictions, you're more or less free to make up whatever you want and claim that it stems from their overly complicated and impractical calendar. As such, there are a litany of ideas about what is supposed to happen on Friday - each more entertaining than the last.

1. Asteroid/Nibiru/Planet X Collision with Earth

This is probably the most widely accepted doomsday theory out there among believers. It is predicated on the idea that the Mayans (who were avid astronomers) were somehow able to predict a catastrophic collision between earth and a mysterious interstellar object two thousand years in the future. The actual object differs significantly depending on who you talk to; it could be anything from a large asteroid to a hidden planet on the edge of the solar system called Nibiru or Planet X.

2. Massive Solar Flare/Geomagnetic Reversal

Another idea is that the Mayans were able to predict unusual activity on the surface of the sun. They chose for the end of their long count calendar to coincide some kind of solar flare which was able to completely engulf the Earth, or failing that, mess with the Earth's magnetic field. What I find most interesting about this theory are the uniquely modern concerns associated with it. What would the Mayans have cared if the magnetic poles on earth changed? Not to mention they would be similarly uninterested in satellite or radio interference...

3. First Contact With Aliens

Considering the rise in popularity of the Ancient Aliens interpretation of human origins and development, it's only natural that our little green friends would play a role here. Naturally, the hypothesis here is that extraterrestrial visitors helped the Mayans design their long count calendar, and would return on Friday in order to...enslave all humanity? Give us a high five for progress? Deliver some sort of important message? The "why" here isn't clearly defined, but hey, you can't prove aliens didn't visit the Mayans. Checkmate.

4. Simultaneous Earthquakes and Volcanic Activity

Okay, now we're starting to get a little far out. Whereas every theory up until this point incorporated some sort of interstellar element, this idea is basically that December 21st will be marked by more conventional natural disasters. This makes less intuitive 'sense' because you can't even resort to the "Mayans liked looking at stars" argument as a last ditch effort. It's entirely unknown how the Mayans would have known anything about when or where seismic activity would occur - unless maybe the ancient Mayan religion was the one true religion and their gods are still actively guiding our affairs today.

5. Spontaneous Spiritual Awakening

From the New Age tradition, we come to the most horrendous cataclysm yet: a spiritual rebirth ushering in a time of peace, love, and understanding. Rather than interpreting the end of the cycles in the Mayan Calendar as necessarily negative, this theory assigns an acute spiritual awareness to the Maya. I can't explain how this is supposed to work, but I can link you to a source so you can recognize spiritual awakening when it happens to you.

So how can we be sure this is bullshit?

In a word - math. Sure, the Mayans paid attention to the stars and made some accurate predictions. But the size and scale of their observations pale in comparison to the sheer computational powers of modern astronomy. Last week, NASA released a video from the future confirming what they thought all along: that human life would continue well beyond December 21, 2012. If you haven't seen this, it's well worth a watch. The NASA scientists clearly and calmly explain why each and every one of these theories are entirely implausible - with just the right amount of whimsy.

Is anybody actually taking this seriously?

Unfortunately, yes. Despite the fact that a moment of research can quickly dispel any anxiety surrounding December 21st, the hype continues to set in around the world. In Russia, people all over the country have been rushing local stores for food and supplies for the better part of a week. The hype has been so bad that the President of Chechnya has ridiculed it in an official statement to the press:

"People are buying candles, [matches, salt, and torches] saying the end of the world is coming...Does no one realize that once the end of the world comes, candles won't help them?"
Regardless, stores all over Russia are reporting shortages of essential living staples as people flock to try and ride out the apocalypse.

In China, officials are desperate to keep this kind of hysteria from taking root in the first place. Already, Chinese authorities have arrested nearly 100 people for spreading rumors of impending disaster on Friday. According to the Guardian, the feature film 2012 first spread the idea of an apocalypse based on the Mayan Calendar to the Chinese people when it was released in 2009. The situation there is already rapidly getting out of hand:
"Authorities in far north-western Qinghai province arrested 37 members of a group called the Church of the Almighty God for spreading doomsday rumours last Thursday, according to a provincial government website. The group, which was founded in 1992, believes that a female Jesus has been, or will be, reincarnated in mainland China. It has called for death to the "Big Red Dragon", its term for the Communist party. Hundreds of its followers have clashed with police in three provinces over the past week.
"A big eye was found in the sun on 9 December in Beijing, and female Jesus manifested herself with her name. Great tsunamis and earthquakes are about to happen around the world," said part of a text message that the group sent to its adherents, according to the state-run Global Times newspaper. Chinese authorities call the group an "evil cult" that is guilty of embezzlement, kidnapping and torture."
Even here in the United States, misconceptions surrounding the Mayan Long Count Calendar are a serious concern. NASA astrobiologist David Morrison (featured in the above video), can speak to this problem better than most:

"...the fantasy has real-life consequences. As one of NASA's prominent speakers on 2012 doomsday myths, Morrison said, he receives many emails and letters from worried citizens, particularly young people. Some say they can't eat, or are too worried to sleep, Morrison said. Others say they're suicidal.
'While this is a joke to some people and a mystery to others, there is a core of people who are truly concerned,' he said. 
Not every 2012 apocalypse believer thinks the world will end on Dec. 21. Some, inspired by New Age philosophies, expect a day of universal peace and spiritual transformation. But it's impressionable kids who have NASA officials worried. 
'I think it's evil for people to propagate rumors on the Internet to frighten children,' Morrison said."

This Friday will be one of those unique times during which expertise of skeptics will be of interest to the general population. If you know someone who is or even may be a believer in the Mayan Doomsday Prophecy, make it your duty to inform them of the truth. Life will go on through the weekend, and we ought to do our very best to make it that far with as little tragedy as possible.

I'm still very excited to live through December 21, 2012. It is a date that has occupied a prominent spot in popular culture - and indeed my own life - for many years. While I feel the mysteries surrounding the date itself have been all but entirely dispelled, I look forward to exploring the greatest lingering mystery of them all: Why did this idea ever take off in the first place?

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Problem with Public Atheism

Something I’ve noticed is that Americans seem to have more of a problem with atheist messages in public than religious ones, even if it’s an Islamic message. Thousands of people drive by Christian and Muslim billboards every day, and you rarely hear complaints on the news. On top of that, college campuses are prime spots for preachers, but most students just ignore them, or maybe they’ll stop and listen for entertainment.

Conversely, atheist billboards are very often put into the “controversial” category, even if it’s something as vanilla as, “atheists exist”, and public events by secular college groups receive much more negative feedback than religious events. While there are obvious answers, I think there’s an important answer that’s not so obvious.


The obvious answers include the fact that atheists are the least trusted minority, the fact that atheism has a negative connotation, etc., but another important, not-so-obvious explanation of why public atheism creates such a stir pertains to what it means to say, “I am an atheist” as opposed to “I am a Christian, Muslim, Jew, etc.”

The only thing that atheism asserts is, “There are no supernatural things; your god is not real”, and if you directly tell that to peoples’ faces, they don’t usually receive it well. Compare that with a Christian billboard that says, “Jesus loves you”; the main message there is “I believe in the Christian God.” Of course, this does imply that everyone else is wrong, which is the same message of public atheism, but the difference is that while religious messages merely imply this idea, atheist messages state it outright. This means that atheism is, by its nature, a more confrontational message than that of a religion.

There’s really nothing that we atheists can do about this because that’s what being atheists means, but it’s something to keep in mind as we go around talking about our beliefs.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

We Need to Talk

“So I might want to be a Christian…tell me about Jesus.”
“He’s amazing! He can walk on water!”
“What? That’s stupid; no one can walk on water!”
“Yeah they can! Jesus did!”
“Here, lemme throw you into this pool, we’ll see if you can walk on water!”

And thus I decided I did not want to be a Christian.

The above conversation is one I had with a friend when we were ten years old. I’m in the minority of atheists—my parents are secular, and I was raised with a National Geographic in hand, not a Bible. So why was I looking at Christianity? Did I feel a spiritual emptiness in life? Was I desperate for a community? 

Well, no. My Grandma told me God was real, and my parents never said otherwise. So, as a child, I thought God must be real. I decided that since God was real, I should be a Christian. I told my mom this, and she told me I could start going to church and become a Christian when I was 16. So I asked my friend about Jesus, and we had the above conversation. I immediately decided the whole thing was bullshit, and that was that.  But looking back, it would have been so easy to fall into belief. So I had to wonder—why didn’t my parents talk to me about religion more explicitly? They raised me to love science and to be a critical thinker, and they taught me about different world religions in comparison with Christianity. But why didn’t they ever say, “We don’t believe in God, and here is why…”? Was it considered too heavy a topic for a child?

Talking about non-belief is important. Many people, especially young people, don’t realize there is an alternative to religion, and that there are communities for it. At our University’s “quad day” this year, one international student found our booth and said “I thought I was the only one.”

Now I’m not advocating that atheists become the new Jehovah’s Witnesses and canvass the neighborhood handing out copies of “The God Delusion” and booing people who say “Merry Christmas.” 

But neither do we have to hide, or be afraid to tell people “I don’t agree with you.” And if they ever have questions, they’ll know someone they can talk to, and they’ll come to you. This isn’t a topic that’s too heavy for kids—on the contrary, they’re curious! Personally, I’ve had multiple friends ask me about being an atheist, including born-agains that I am quite sure will never seriously question their faith. But at least they’ll know that there is another option than faith. It may be the first step to thinking critically about the belief system they’ve grown up with.

I’m still friends with the girl who told me Jesus walked on water, and she actually classifies herself as a spiritual agnostic now. I can’t claim credit for it, but when she started to question some of what her evangelical church said (Gandhi is going to Hell, dating a Catholic is immoral because they aren’t real Christians, etc.), she knew she could ask someone else what they thought and get another viewpoint on things.
She realized, despite her blinkered upbringing, that there were alternatives to her beliefs, which is something we nonbelievers should strive to reinforce.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Religion as Natural Logic

We don’t know when man first chose to explain natural phenomena with the supernatural.  We also don’t know when man attributed these normative explanations to cognitive beings. However, we do know these supernatural, cognitive beings have provided explanations for phenomena for several millennia and in all corners of the world, and because of this, we know religion does not have a single origin; religion did not appear in one location at one time and spread throughout the human population. An easy explanation for ubiquity of religion would be that it is always easier to come up with a faux-explanation than to reason that the real explanation is out of our reach due to a lack of information and resources.  But this easy explanation is just that: it’s easy. The real explanation is, essentially, impossible to understand.

We can appropriately understand why religion came about by knowing that we, as living creatures, do not understand the concept of non-living. Because we are cognitive creatures and because the means in which we know of the physical universe is through our cognitive abilities, we cannot comprehend the existence of non-cognition; we are only sure of a subjective reality and can therefore, in a mistake of natural human logic, only understand inanimate physical objects as having the same cognitive abilities as ourselves. The philosophically inclined might understand this better with a background in metaphysics. The non-philosophically inclined need only understand this: God is in the rain, even for atheists.

If we look at a rock, we see a kind of immobile animal; we personify the rock. If we break the rock, we think (or at least our subconscious thinks), we kill it. We believe we “kill” it because dying is what we understand to happen to cognitive beings when we “break” them. However, the pieces the rock breaks into are also alive and, in this case, plentiful. Welcome to the logic of a subjective mind.

The most relevant example would be everyday encounters with inanimate objects and our attempts to understand their origin. I personally like to refer to the process of attributing human characteristics to non-human objects as “passive personification.” It is because of this passive personification that weather has a personality and our dolls enjoy hugs.  It is also this reason why we think of the dead as still alive in some vague, inexplicable way and, cannot for the life of us, understand the concept of death. Perhaps most importantly, it is because of passive personification we are able to experience and appreciate the sensation of beauty, which is nothing more than believing we are witnessing a creation more complex than we can possibly fathom.

The conclusion: religion follows a naturally logical (although structurally illogical) process.  The same logic behind religion fills the holes of futility in everyday life.  We all commit these fallacies and we all stand by them because they are how we function.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Atheist Books to Give and Receive this Winter

A happy winter solstice to all, and may your Festivus season be filled with joy and merriment! As the War On Christmas marches on and another year's campaign is at hand, I'd like to take some time to recommend some gifts you could give and receive this season that all do their part in taking the Christ out of Christmas. There's no doubt that baby Jesus would shed many tears were he to encounter each and every one of this excellent pieces of literature, and while this is nowhere near a comprehensive list, I personally have read each of these books, and they are each excellent. Happy reading!

God, No! by Penn Jillette isn't the first book by the great atheist magician Penn Jillette, but it is most certainly my new favorite. I picked it up late this summer in the "controversial reads" bin at my library and chuckled quietly to myself, but the chuckles evolved into deep laughter as soon as I started reading. Jillette talks about the magic of Sigfried and Roy, Extreme Elvis, and how easily people can be tricked, and the narrative itself is a satire of the Ten Commandments--the Penn Commandments. Touching and, of course, funny, I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys loud, boisterous magicians and/or skepticism. (Also worth mentioning is Jillette's newest book, Every Day is an Atheist Holiday!, which I haven't yet read but should also prove to be excellent.)

Chances are, if you're familiar with the skeptic blogosphere, you've stumbled on Greta Christina's post about atheists and anger. Her post is a long but certainly not comprehensive list of a few things that rustle our collective jimmies; it's her most famous and most heartfelt piece of online writing. And on top of that, it's now available in book form! Beginning with the Litany of Rage and expanding on each idea therein, the book serves to remind everyone, both religious and nonreligious, of just what sorts of things bother us atheists so very, very much. Of all the skeptic literature I've read this year, this is the book I'd most recommend you give to an open-minded theist.

Don't be fooled: Faitheist, by Christ Stedman, isn't a conversion tactic or anything of the sort. I put this book down just before I started writing this post, and it's left me deep in thought. Esentially, the book is a critique of what Stedman sees as the problem with New Atheism - its hostility towards religion. The book discusses how we should focus on working together with the religious, instead of sneering at them. Written by an ex-born again Christian, the book talks of the importance of community and how religious pluralism can be beneficial. A thought-provoking read.

The newest book by the esteemed Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta, The Young Atheist's Survival Guide, is a collection of stories about and testaments by young atheists. Contained within are details on the persecutions they faced at the hands of their schools and communities, how they stood up for their rights, and thoughts on bigotry towards atheism. This is the book for students of any age who are wondering what it's like to be openly atheist, and what sort of bravery it takes to stand up for your rights.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Still Alive (But Discussing Death)

What happens after we die? Many religions have a heaven to look forward to, or a hell to fear – but can atheists even imagine what happens if there’s no afterlife? I believe so, and furthermore, I think it’s nothing to be afraid of. Two days ago, an article was published on a blog, Patheos, entitled “A Similarity Between Atheists and Christians”. The article basically says that Christians cannot fathom heaven, and likewise, atheists cannot fathom nonexistence. Therefore, they’re in the same boat regarding death.

The article tries to prove that we cannot conceive of nonexistence in the same way that we can’t imagine a color we’ve never seen. However, it’s rather simple to think about abstract things, even when we’ve never experienced them. For example: zero, space, or the 4th dimension. Carl Sagan explains how we can think about things even if we can’t experience them in this video. When I think about death, the closest comparison I can think of would be dreamless sleep. I don’t recall the experience, and for me it seems like no time passed from when I fell asleep, yet I can understand the concept. 
The only thing Christians and atheists truly share about their ideas of death and the afterlife (or lack thereof) is confusion and fear.

I think these feelings are natural, and part of being human. The point about “imagining nonexistence” aside, I think Christians' and atheists' outlooks on death have much less in common than the article’s author believes. Furthermore, I disagree with many atheists' opinion on death - that it is better to be living than dead. The first problem with this proposed commonality between atheists and Christians is that heaven is described (albeit poorly) in the Bible. Heaven is described as an essentially “good” place; it is pleasurable to be in heaven. And according to Christians, it’s much better than our current existence. In contrast, atheists are conflicted over whether death is essentially negative, neutral, or even positive. At the last year’s Skepticon’s Death Panel, the panelists all agreed that death is a negative thing.

Skepticon IV on death and rationalism

So how should atheists view death? I’d like to propose an alternate opinion to the Skepticon IV panel. I think death isn’t negative at all. What makes an experience negative? Pain, sadness, regret – atheists believe no negative qualities exist after death, so how could nonexistence itself be negative. Of course, death can have a negative (or positive) impact on the living, but that’s a different issue. I don’t see how the state of being dead, in the atheist perspective, can be negative or positive. Instead, I propose that it’s perfectly neutral. Epicurus made a similar argument, which, like mine, also relies on a strong belief in materialism.

Even those who thing death is neutral strive to continue living. That’s part of being human. We have the unique opportunity to make our current existence positive – something that death can’t be. Those who don’t believe in an afterlife understand the importance of making the most out of their lives, rather than doing things they don’t enjoy in the hopes of achieving a better afterlife. Although imagining nonexistence might be difficult for some, I think it’s entirely possible to do so, just as we can understand the fourth dimension. And I, like Epicurus, Mark Twain, and many others, believe it’s nothing to fear.