“He wrote that . . . .”

Quote

“He wrote that he cared not a whit whether a neighbor believed in no god or in many gods, since such a private opinion ‘neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.'”

The above is from a book by the late Christopher Hitchens, writing about, and then quoting, Thomas Jefferson.

In my opinion, we’d all be better off if those atheists who actively try to destroy the faith of believers would follow Jefferson’s example, as described here, and follow the simple advice of the saying, “live and let live.”

The Problem of Gumball-Machine Theology

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Within the nontheistic community, which includes agnostics, atheists, and many who eschew such labels, much debate and discussion has occurred on the subject of tactics. Should religion be fought by any means necessary, including outright ridicule, as if it were a self-evident evil, under any and all circumstances? Or should a different approach be used — a friendlier one, albeit one which still argues against religion as a whole? Anyone can easily find examples of the latter approach, by doing such things as a Google search for the terms “friendly atheism,” or reading Daniel Dennett’s excellent book, Breaking the Spell, which is quite reasonable, engaging, and, well, friendly, in its tone. He is nothing like, for example, the late Christopher Hitchens, whose writing is quite angry, and therefore much more likely to cause offense to believers.

I’d like to suggest a third approach, one that focuses only on one particularly harmful type of religion, and I welcome discussion on the subject. I have noticed religion doing harm, in many ways. I have also noticed religious people doing extremely good things, and thereby making the world a better place, and I am proud to call many such people my friends. However, I have never seen good come from the actions of a religious person who subscribes to what I call “gumball-machine theology,” or GMT for short (with apologies to the residents of Greenwich). Perhaps this is where the nontheistic community should focus their efforts. Perhaps there are even religious people who will wish to help in the effort to rid the world of GMT, in order to “clean their own houses.” I hope this is a way that all reasonable, intelligent people can find common ground on the often-divisive topic of religion.

I should, of course, explain exactly what I mean by GMT. I will begin with an example from my childhood.

From approximately ages 10-14 (my ages, not his), my father was deeply involved in a variant of Buddhism known as “Soka Gakkai.” Fans or adherents of true Buddhism will find little of value here; I consider it a degenerate form of that religion, and recently learned (reading Hitchens) that Soka Gakkai was the driving ideology behind the Imperial Japanese extremists who led their country to fight on the same side as the Nazis during WWII. No one else in my family was interested in practicing Soka Gakkai, but that did not stop my father from dragging us to meetings, proselytizing to us (in this group, or call it a cult if you wish, this is called “shakabuku,” which translates to “bend and flatten” — I may have been bent, but I was not flattened), and generally making our lives completely miserable for these four long years. Soka Gakkai involves a lot of solemn chanting, in ancient Japanese, and the alleged power of such chanting is quite amazing. I actually heard the following at one of those horrible meetings: “If you need a new refrigerator, and you chant long enough, you will GET a new refrigerator.” That’s GMT in a nutshell. Need a fridge? Well, they’re stored in a celestial gumball machine. Insert ample chanting, twist the knob, and a refrigerator will fall out and land in your kitchen. True Buddhists would be both offended and embarrassed by this — and rightly so, for it is blatantly ridiculous to anyone with their brain set in the “on” position.

Another example of GMT can be found within Christianity, although not all Christians use GMT, any more than all Buddhists do. As with Soka Gakkai, “Gumball Christianity” is a degenerate form of one of the world’s major religions. Especially if you live in the American South, which is, sadly, infested with GMT, you’ll recognize the “reasoning” often found on small tracts, often left in public restrooms and similarly odd places: say this simple prayer, believe it in your heart, and you are saved forever, and can be assured until your dying day that you will see heaven when that day comes — no matter what you do in the meantime (!). GMT often includes the phrase “once saved, always saved,” and it is easy to find alleged Christians who use GMT to justify drinking like thirsty camels (alcohol, though, not water), engaging in promiscuous sex (or worse), committing the sins of gossip and slander, spreading bigotry (I’d bet that many Ku Klux Klansmen have these tracts in their back pockets, probably marking a page in Mein Kampf or The Turner Diaries), but still remaining smugly assured that heaven awaits them after death, for they, after all, bought the divine gumball. True Christians are appalled by this; they find it extremely insulting to portray God as an easily-controllable salvation device. If you believe that God created you, it simply makes no sense to also believe that you can control His decision regarding your eternal post-death abode. Non-theists are also appalled by such “reasoning,” but it can be hard to tell that they are, for you’ll typically find them laughing (they can’t help it) at such vivid displays of illogic. Often, they’re laughing to keep from crying.

Many, many people also have also cried — any many lost their lives — because of my last example of GMT: the 9/11 attacks in 2001. The hijackers of the jets on that day believed that martyrdom would secure, for them, a never-ending place of honor in a luxurious, sensual heaven. Yes, they called themselves Muslims, but this essay is no attack on Islam. My first Muslim friend ever, a Saudi Shi’ite I met at UALR, taught me long ago that he had no belief in a gumball-machine deity. He was wracked by guilt, one day, because he had been eating pepperoni pizza with some American friends. He had asked them if pepperoni contained pork (forbidden to Muslims), and had been assured by these ignorant Americans that pepperoni was pork-free, made only from beef. Thus assured, he had eaten the pizza, only to find out later he had been misinformed (perhaps deliberately, as a sick joke — he wasn’t sure), which is when his guilt began. He was sincerely worried about the fate of his immortal soul, and I did not wish to see my friend suffer. I asked him if Islam contained anything like the Catholic Sacrament of Penance (Confession), only to be told that he could pray, he could discuss the incident and ask for advice from his imam, and he could apologize to God for his transgression, but he could have no assurance forgiveness would be given to him, because the final decision would be God’s alone, and God cannot be controlled, he said, by any man, nor even any religion, nor religious organization. I respected that, offered what comfort I could, and remembered this well when the 9/11 attacks occurred. It was, no doubt, those early conversations with my friend which prevented me from falling into the trap of blaming all Muslims, rather than simply the individuals responsible, for the crimes committed on that horrible September day. The best thing that can be said for these “Gumball Muslims” (the hijackers, of course) is that they were, at least, willing to pay a very high price for their “gumball,” for they all lost their lives. That’s (deliberately) very faint praise, however. No matter how expensive the gumball, there can be no justification for what those people did — as many, many of my Muslim friends have told me in the years since 2001. Gumball Muslims offend and embarrass true Muslims, just as Gumball Christians offend and embarrass true Christians, and Gumball Buddhists offend and embarrass true Buddhists. And, of course, non-theists roll their eyes at all of this, often using these outrageous excesses to attack religion as a whole.

Whether or not you are religious, I do hope I have convinced you that GMT is a bad thing — a perversion of religion, if you will. I hope my non-theistic friends who actively oppose religion will make GMT a primary focus, for it is clearly among the most dangerous forms of religion. I hope my theistic friends will oppose GMT as well, and try to cleanse their own religions of these perversions, for such “repair work” is much easier done by insiders, rather than outsiders, in any group.

(This was originally published in December, 2009, as a Facebook-note. It has been slightly revised here.)

Progress

As the people in my life (even in its periphery) get to know me better, I’m finding it necessary less and less often to point out that I’m an atheist, for I’m not running into the assumption-of-Christianity much any more.

On a related note, I also don’t ever have to tell anyone that I don’t collect stamps.

What I do not know:  is this a widespread phenomenon, or is it just me who is experiencing it?

The Evolution of Sam Harris’s Writing

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The Evolution of Sam Harris's Writing

Sam Harris is my favorite author of non-fiction, but this has not always been the case. He is usually classified as one of the “Four Horsemen” (along with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens), to the point where he has remarked that some treat them as “one creature with four heads.” I’ve read books by all four men, and they are very different. Harris started as my least favorite of the four, and has become my favorite. How did this happen? Well, it took some time.

Sam Harris began his career as a writer with a book called The End of Faith, written in the wake of, and largely in response to, the 9/11 attacks of 2001.

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Despite my atheism, I did not care for this book. It bashes Islam too much for my tastes, and Harris is still criticized for this fact, generally by people who have not read the rest of his work. Reactions like mine to this book are rare among atheists, for one simple reason: most atheists have a far less favorable view of Islam than I do. For more on that, please see my previous blog-post, and the earlier one it links to.

Islam is not the only religion criticized by Harris in his first book — not by any means. As someone who has never had a Muslim attempt to harm me, but who has suffered greatly at the hands of certain Christians, I was far more receptive to his arguments against the Christian religion. Many members of that religion noticed those arguments as well, and Harris was deluged with hate mail, much of it from enraged Christians in the USA. He wrote his second book as a response to this torrent of criticism.

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This second book paid much less attention to Islam, and far more, as the title implies, to Christianity. I enjoyed it more, but admit that this likely has as much to do with my personal history as anything else. Still, Letter to a Christian Nation remains the only book I have ever read in a single sitting; it was so compelling that I was unwilling to stop reading it until the last page.

Both of Harris’s first books may be described as “beating the drum of atheism,” an activity which is interesting and useful only up to a certain point. To his credit as an author, he realized that writing more books which repeat this process would be waste of time. He therefore decided to move on to other subjects — and, in my opinion, his books improved greatly as a result of that decision. Here’s his next one:

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The Moral Landscape is not a book about atheism, nor religion. Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, and this book considers human values from a scientific point of view:  questions of good and evil, and whether or not such questions can be addressed scientifically. Ethics and morality are things for which some people consider religion essential. Rather than belaboring the fact that he disagrees with this, Harris, in this book, simply makes a compelling case that such topics can indeed be addressed using the scientific method.

This was Harris’s first book after he made the excellent decision to move out, beyond his previous focus on atheism and religion. Were it not for this decision, I would not name Harris as my favorite non-fiction author. The arguments in this book are compelling, I learned much from reading it, and recommend it highly.

Harris’s fourth book tackles the topic of honesty, and its opposite:

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Is there ever a situation in which lying is justifiable? Most people would say “yes.” Harris disagrees, and, in this very short book, makes a compelling argument for honesty. His move away from the “drum of atheism” continues in this book, and the rule with Harris is simple:  the further away he goes from his original topic of choice, the better his writing becomes.

This brings me to his fifth book, the amazing Free Will.

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Do I have free will?  Do you?  Does Harris?  It certainly seems as if we do, but Harris takes the point of view that free will is an illusion, and supplies ample evidence to support this position. Denying free will is a dangerous game, of course, for, without free will, how can anyone be held responsible for their actions? Harris does not avoid this problem, but tackles it directly. Reading this book has had a powerful impact on how I view a great many things.

There is more of Harris to read, for those who are interested. I follow his blog regularly (http://www.samharris.org), and he has a new major book release coming soon, as well. Since he keeps getting better with each new book, I am looking forward to it with anticipation.

My Unusual View of Islam

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My Unusual View of Islam

As most readers of my blog know, I am an atheist. All atheists differ, of course, and one of the ways I differ from almost all of my fellow atheists is that I have a very different view of Islam and Muslims.

I haven’t always been this way. 25 years ago, as an undergraduate, I had unconsciously allowed myself to be heavily influenced by media coverage of the Middle East. I’m embarrassed to admit now that, then, I concluded, simply and uncritically, that this entire region is chock-full of crazy people. I openly speculated that there must be some mind-affecting drug in the water there, to cause such madness as I saw on the TV news.

As I now know, TV networks are very selective about what they show. Burning American flags make the news, to the exclusion of coverage of the millions of sane, kind people in the Muslim world, for they are not viewed as newsworthy.

I will always be grateful to my Muslim friends for helping me make this transformation. They key was getting to know them, one at a time — not as Muslims, per se, but simply as people. After getting to know them, and calling them friends, falling into the type of thinking which is dominated by stereotypes quickly became impossible, for the stereotypes did not match the behavior of any of my friends. I was given a choice between believing TV, or the evidence gathered with my own eyes and ears, and that’s always an easy choice.

It is a shame, but it is true: bigotries are only lost one at a time. I am delighted to be free of my former Islamophobia.

I now have dozens of Muslim friends, all over the world. If it bothers them that I am not a believer, they politely keep that to themselves. They’re always willing to answer my questions about Islamic practices and beliefs, but never use such questions as an opportunity to try to convert me.

The contrast with Christianity, in my experience, is vivid. Of course, I do not experience Islam as one might in, say, Iran. I also do not experience Christianity as everyone else in the world, for I live in the American South, the part of the USA with the highest rates of religiosity, and a form of Christianity in ascendance which is often intolerant of others, in the extreme. Here, I have had many (but not all, of course) Christians react to my atheism quite negatively. I have to remind myself, often, that Christianity here is unusual when viewed through a world-wide lens. For example, consider evolution. Around much of the Christian world, believers have, long ago, “grown up” on the subject of evolution. Pope John Paul II himself said that he viewed it as valid. This in not the case here in the South, where Christianity often goes hand-in-hand with Creationism, a pseodoscience to which I have a quite negative reaction, due to my strong and life-long fascination with, and respect for, real science.

There is also my personal history in play here. I have suffered horrible abuse (I’ll spare you the details) at the hands of Christians, often with the abuse having specifically religious elements. By contrast, no Muslim has ever even tried to harm me, in any way.

Most Americans, of course, think “terrorist” when they hear the word Muslim. The cure for this is simple: make friends with Muslims, and discuss this with them. You’ll learn that most Muslims detest organizations such as Al-Qaeda, and are quick to disavow them. The fact is, the Christian world has its share of such people as well; they’re the types of Christian who shoot doctors and bomb women’s health clinics. Extremists can be found everywhere, and the only reason extremists are of a particular type is almost always the same:  a simple accident of birth.

Pick one hundred Christians at random, and its almost certain that you won’t find one fitting this description. Repeat this with one hundred random Muslims, and the odds against you finding a terrorist in your sample are also almost-certain.

Sometimes, people learn that I have a generally favorable view of mainstream Islam, and wonder why I don’t convert. That’s simple: I am unconvinced that any deity or deities exist, due simply to a lack of evidence, and one cannot be a Muslim without honestly believing that a single deity exists. However, I don’t need to be a Muslim to treat Muslims as actual people, and to fight the scourge of Islamophobia wherever I find it.

Unfortunately, there’s a LOT of Islamophobia out there — and it is, sadly, very strong in the loosely-knit community of atheists. I get asked, for example, to participate in “Everyone Draw Muhummad Day” on Facebook, every year. I always refuse. Is this censorship? No, it’s simply my choosing not to offend my friends for no good reason at all.

Throughout the years I have encountered many people who rabidly hate Islam, and they are usually either Christians or atheists. I try to reason with them. It usually doesn’t work, but sometimes it does, so I generally try it anyway. Hate doesn’t help anyone, and the more of it we can rid ourselves of, the better off all of us will be.

[Later edit:  part II of this post may be found right here — https://robertlovespi.wordpress.com/2013/04/07/my-unusual-view-of-islam-part-ii/]

I Prefer “Skeptic”

If there is one thing people who are not religious have proven they know how to do, it’s quibble over labels.

Atheist. Agnostic. Anti-theist. Non-believer. Non-theist. Non-religious. Bright. Pastafarian. Freethinker. And so on. They don’t all mean the exact same thing, of course, but there are common similarities, such as rejection of religious orthodoxy.

Some of those words apply to me, and some do not. The most familiar, to the largest number of people, is “atheist,” and it’s also a term that can turn a lot of people off in a hurry. Some of us who are atheists avoid using the term for that reason.

I have a different reason for my growing dislike of the word “atheist.” It’s really starting to bug me that the word doesn’t go far enough. It is simply too narrow in focus for my tastes.

All “atheist” really means is that one lacks any belief in any deity. It is possible, therefore — and yes, it happens — to be an atheist, and also believe in all sorts of irrational nonsense which has nothing to do with the divine. For example, there are atheists (not many, but some) who actually accept, and “use,” astrology, homeopathy, numerology, and their own (delusional) superhuman abilities. Even more numerous are the atheists who buy into one or more conspiracy theories. Merely putting a red “A” on one’s Facebook profile-pic does not immunize a person from error.

I don’t want to accept anything as valid without sufficient cause, and there is no reason to focus this attitude exclusively towards religion — nor anything else.

What is sufficient cause for accepting a proposition as valid? Well, mathematical proof certainly works, as does the scientific method (with the latter subject to later revision, of course, but only based on evidence).

I chose my preferred label in reaction to astrology, something I have disliked, intensely, since early childhood.

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Skepticism is an attitude, and it is all-encompassing. It protects the skeptic from accepting the invalid as valid — when correctly and carefully applied, of course. It includes, but is not limited to, skepticism about religious claims. There is, after all, no good reason to have such a limitation.

A Look Back at Thanatophobia

Thanatophobia is an irrational, exaggerated fear of death, not to be confused with the healthy biological imperative that compels most people, most of the time, to avoid dying if they can.  I had thanatophobia for as long as I can remember, up until two years ago, when it started to fade from existence.

Not coincidentally, this is also the period when I put aside those “What if I’m wrong about religion?” questions, stopped calling myself, primarily, an agnostic, and, as an atheist, just stopped worrying about post-death judgment.

We get judged by people enough while we’re alive. Adding eternity to that, on the basis on dubious or nonexistent evidence, is unhealthy.

I also must consider this:  the inevitability of my own death means there is some point in the future beyond which I will never experience panic, rage, pain, or hatred. Beyond that point, there are no responsibilities.

I just blew off an entire weekend. I was exhausted, simply needed to do as little as possible (or I was going to end up in worse shape), and proceeded to sleep for 40 of the next 48 hours. I have a lot of things to do, but I did take the weekend off. I don’t remember much about it because I was sleeping most of that time, but it wasn’t unpleasant. The only unpleasant thing about it was having to re-activate myself for the workweek, and the resumption of responsibility that comes with it.

What happens after we die?

I don’t really know, but I have no evidence that it’s anything like Heaven and Hell as depicted in the Bible, Dante’s Inferno, Robert Heinlein’s Job, and numerous other works.

I once heard James Randi give an excellent answer, in the form of a question:  “What happens to a computer when you turn off the power?”

I now have an answer of my own. The workweek ends. Troubles end. Everything that annoys me, won’t anymore. I’m certainly in no hurry to stop existing, but whether I see a triple-digit age, don’t make it to my next birthday, or somewhere in-between (the most likely of the three), death just isn’t terrifying any more. That should make the process of living the rest of my life more pleasant than if I resumed worrying about what happens to me after that life is over.