Thursday, September 15, 2011

Doubting Thomas - Where are the grounds for mutual respect?

24 But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.
25 The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the LORD. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.
26 And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.
27 Then saith He to Thomas, Have you been feeding the poor? The widow, the orphan, the sick?
28 And Thomas answered and said unto him, My LORD and my God, of course I have. It is what you command, and it is good.
29 Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, it matters not then whether I live. Believe what ye will, and do not be ashamed of that which ye knowest not, for belief is not a debt owed. Act in good faith in all you do. May no man demand any more from your heart and your mind.
30 And Jesus performed no signs.
31 But these things are written, that you might also see with your own eyes, and having not seen what others see, still do good.

I really do wish that something more like the above were what the Bible really said. It just isn't the case, though.

Somehow, the following always comes up: the importance of respecting beliefs, living, and letting live. The article this time is 10 Myths Many Religious People Hold About Atheists, Debunked, though there are many like it. Since the moderate is in favor of living and letting live, then you might naively expect them to welcome an article taking a step in the direction of clearing up hurtful myths about atheists. The sooner that portion of the theists give up their prized caricature of a lazy, wicked, miserable, shallow, deceptive, cowardly, and hellbound atheist, the faster amicable understanding can grow and the quicker the living and letting live can commence. An exceedingly naive reader might expect such a thing, but I know better by now.

As usual, a moderate-to-liberal believer expresses concern that the article is too defensive even though its explicit aim is to debunk negative myths a lot of real people actually hold about atheism. If the tone seems defensive, it's because the intention is to defend.

Another such believer trots out the line, "as long as it's not hurting anyone, why does it matter what people believe?" They're too busy being offended by the thought that they might be (falsely?) implicated by the post that they don't even seem to care that these myths are the product of the very faith that they're blithely assuming does no harm. To listen to them talk, you would think that Christianity at large had even a passive, neutral respect for atheists, and that atheists started a fight for no reason other than to be mean. You would think that a better article could be constructed from the same bullet points under the title 10 Myths Many Atheists Hold About the Attitudes of Religious Adherents Toward Atheism, Debunked.

Never, ever, ever do they say, "I am very sorry. I happen to believe in God, but I've heard what they say in those churches, and it just isn't fair. They lump us non-literalists in the same Hellbound boat too, so naturally I am just as offended by it as you are. If there is a god worth worshiping, it surely isn't theirs."

Never, ever, ever do they come out and say what it is that they actually do believe; I'd like to think it's something other than, "I agree that you are indeed going to Hell, but at least I'm polite enough not to talk about it in polite company." But I don't really know. If they believed what I wished they'd say, then I don't know why it would be hard for them to say it; I am only left to imagine that the truth is somewhere in between, and that bothers me. Maybe they think, "Ok, fundies think that I'm firewood, but you don't believe in God at all, and that's about equally scary, so let's please stop talking now."

Even though they're too embarrassed to talk about their beliefs, they feel it's legitimate to dismiss an atheism article for being too "defensive," probably not seeing any irony. All they want you to know is that the strokes of the article are too broad, that they feel condescended to, that they're actually just as smart as atheists, and the article just plain doesn't apply to them. And that the conversation should end without them saying anything specific about what they claim the truth of the matter is when it comes to gods and the grounds for mutual respect between believers, non-believers, and the rest. They won't say why they quite obviously feel implicated and even threatened by such an article, even though they pride themselves so much for not being that kind of believer. What gives?

The truth of the matter is that the founding text of Christianity has very little respect for atheism, agnosticism, doubters, or anyone else of less-than-100-percent Christian convictions (except as potential converts). At the worst, atheists are scoundrels, evildoers, and firewood. On the other hand, the most charitable view the Bible ever expresses toward atheists is that under some circumstances, they are objects of affectionate pity, to be prayed for and patronized, as long as they're impressionable enough to be receptive to that kind of thing.

It is definitely a mark of progress that some branches of Christianity either do not have that attitude, or at the very least are ashamed to admit to it. In liberal-to-moderate circles, it is a bit of a taboo to go on and on about how nice it would be if everyone were to find Jesus. (Most likely, I think they're dimly aware that other gods more or less fulfill the same role, and maybe that's sort of ok). But this awareness about the ickyness of proselytizing doesn't seem to have reached below the epidermal level of mere table manners to a depth that marks any kind of serious ground for fully accepting atheists in good faith on a level field. I do not hear much about pastors who say, "This fable is flawed beyond repair. Its emphasis on belief in signs and miracles is unacceptable, and not the least bit instructive. It is a fatal distraction from the messages about loving your neighbor. Either Jesus was wrong, or he was misquoted."* To the contrary, I suspect that this fable more or less continues to be cherished without reservation. Atheists might not be firewood, but they're just... not quite as blessed as the believer.

It is merely assumed that the atheist is supposed to take it for granted that everyone means something else, even though they don't. Theists get to keep the real Bible verses, and the moderates get to chide the atheists under the hidden assumption that my fake Bible verses above are what is actually there: religion is about community and being nice, and nothing more.

But there is more. Being nice is number two, and belief in God is always the main and ultimately only thing. When I went to church growing up, our pastor was not a moderate or left-leaning interpreter. He didn't hint at some vague, semi-metaphorical Heaven to which believers of all sorts probably have some undefinedly better chance of going. He told us the following quite explicitly and often:

If you don't believe in God, you will go to Hell. If you believe in the wrong God, you will go to Hell. If you do good things for your neighbors, but you don't do it in the name of God, having received His salvation, then you will still go to Hell. Even worse, you will be a hypocrite on top of your other sins, and a liar, because you tried to fool God. But God is so much smarter than you, and as the Bible says, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; it is by grace we are saved through faith, not by works, lest any man should boast.

If you don't find Jesus, then you won't ever be happy. No one can be happy without Jesus. If you don't believe, then you can briefly find a shallow shadow of pleasure that you mistake for happiness, but in fact you're rotting away in misery. Your life can't even begin until Jesus transforms you into a new creature, and until then, you are hopeless and lost.

And when you're saved, you have to be very careful how close you get with non-believers. You must always love them and be kind and helpful to them, but you can never date them or otherwise get caught in their self-imposed misery. They need to be saved before you can truly bond with them, and if they will not be saved, then you should pray for them, but you should not let them in to hurt you.

This is not live-and-let-live. This is not a "no harm done" teaching with no implications. This is not a case of atheists throwing the first stone and raining on a nice, friendly, wholesome parade for no reason at all.

This is playing at scare tactics. This is bullying. This is righteous posturing. This is control. This is isolation. This is the church putting itself first always. This is the church breaking people while they're impressionable to manufacture demand for its invisible product. This is the bitter-sweet sigh of your aunt praying for the Doubting Thomas of the family, never to have her prayer answered.

It really happens, and it happens a lot. They don't respect us. They're afraid of us, they're afraid of becoming us, and they want us to be just as afraid as they are.

Don't feed the hungry. Don't play the piano. Don't sing. Don't dance. Don't draw. Don't play. Don't try to be happy. Don't fall in love. Don't go to college or have a career. Don't feed the hungry. Don't help your neighbor. Find Jesus first, and then you can think about these other things. Without faith, you are nothing. Without faith, everything is nothing, and everyone is no one. Without faith, good deeds are evil, kind words are lies, and love is vanity.

These are not strawmen or exaggerations. This is the constant pulse of the pulpit every Sunday morning of my entire childhood. Eventually, I found the third way - I no longer dutifully hang on for signs. I do not hold my breath in anticipation that the circle may be squared. I do not come to their church humbly seeking guidance, longing for a way to see what they claim to see, eager to be taught by their Teacher.

Now I merely call the bluff and walk away. Though their stories gave me no role models for it, I figured out how to stand up and walk away somehow all the same. The only path available was not adorned with flower petals or the glimmering sequins of destiny, virtue, and belonging, or bathed in warm, everlasting daylight. I had to slide off the celebrated pages of the Christian suburban fairy tale and into obscurity and otherness, taking on an aura of dissonance, grating against defied expectations and thick, tacit disappointment that might never go away. I was trained by professionals to feel it all the way down that life couldn't ever start this way, but somehow it had to anyway, and I had to do it alone, becoming a prodigal son forever whether I return home in body or not.

All of that just to earn the right to not believe in a fable.

The faithful can easily accept the meek transitional Doubting Thomas, but they can not accept the principled Thomas who flatly disbelieves for good reason. Such an acceptance would destroy them. The born again has no biblical model for how to accept atheists, and so they fail to do so in any meaningful way. Many moderates clearly don't seem to be able to accept them, either, choosing instead to beseech the atheist not to be too entrenched; please, take up the role of Doubting Thomas, and play the uncalled-for role of Thomas the Principled Disbeliever no longer. It is up to the atheist to conform to the familiar role of the loveable and submissive Doubting Thomas, and it is all for the greater good, for this is the cost of the shallow harmony so deeply craved by the moderate.

The cost is your identity and the prize is amiable pretense. The faithful do not respect us. Everyone knows it, and we are not to blame merely for bringing it up in polite company.

If you want grounds for mutual respect between believers and unbelievers, then you must build upon the demolished remains of the fable of Doubting Thomas.

(* - Perhaps John Shelby Spong would be willing to go that far, but as far as I can tell, he is a rare case.)

Monday, February 28, 2011

Let's actually talk about abortion - part 2

Ok, to recap - I'm on board with the pro-choice stuff, but I wish the bumper-stickers and catch phrases I usually see associated with it were intelligible to outsiders.

I say this because I wasn't always pro-choice. Back in the days before before my 20s, the bumper sticker slogans and favorite rallying cries of the pro-choice movement failed so badly to address the arguments of the pro-life side that I assumed that the movement was the domain of a coven of heartless, thoughtless, sadistic harpies, and that the entire camp didn't have a leg to stand on. My previous entry takes on what one would think would be central to the debate - namely, "what is a fetus and what significance, if any, should it be accorded as a human being?" Strangely, this issue is more or less avoided entirely in the majority of pro-choice posts and comments I've seen about the topic, though the same certainly can't be said about the pro-life side.

For example, "Don't like abortion? Then don't have one." I wonder if they'd allow themselves to be caught applying the same reasoning to child molestation - I would hope not. If the only argument out there were of this "it's none of your business" sort, then I probably never would have changed my mind. "My body, my choice" is slightly better in that it at least touches on part of the actual reasoning someone might have, but being to a large extent another "mind your own business" argument, it again falls fall short of addressing the primary immediate concern of the pro-lifers - that is, what an abortion actually is. Before I rethought my positions, I was more or less offended by what I saw as willful obliviousness to this - to me, it seemed like "my body, my choice" equated having to carry a baby to term with having to get a boob job - something that no one would ever think to make women do for any reasons other than malevolent ones. And if someone insists that it's about the status of a human life, often one that was created in a mutually willful act? Then it's offensive that they insist on bringing it up, and it's obvious that what they *really* want is mandatory boob jobs, and you obviously don't think the father should be held accountable either, and how dare you, QED. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that this was my entire exposure to pro-choice argumentation throughout the first 20 years of my life.

It is true that I vastly underestimated the burden entailed by having kids, and that I didn't have a wonderful plan for how to pick up the adoption slack in an economically sustainable way, and that I more or less didn't expect any of it to ever affect me outside of the abstract. For a while, I was in that "cases X and Y are unfortunate, but..." camp before reconsidering the status of the fetus itself. But all of this is something I learned to appreciate from reading more thoughtful and reasoned accounts on the internet later on in my college years, not something that was ever clearly explained in sound bytes, slogans, bumper stickers, posters, etc. It also didn't help that most of what I heard was picked out by our pastor and preached against, to be used as a strawman, but then what I actually ran into in the wild matched it fairly well. To be fair, the better pro-choice arguments are rather nuanced, and I was a middle schooler, and so were the people who would have argued with me; my teachers probably would not have had much to gain in the way of job security by attempting to present us with carefully-reasoned arguments to the contrary.

Now I'd like to talk about I used to be a pro-life Republican. My initial reaction to this essay was very negative, but on a second read, I calmed down a little and merely felt a bit mixed about it. The reason is that I had a somewhat high and fairly specific expectation for it, and this expectation was not met. My expectations for an essay with the title "I used to be a pro-life Republican" takes the form of a thought experiment: I should expect nothing less than whatever it was that it would have taken to convince a younger Andrea to change her mind on the topic, or, more realistically, get her to stop for a minute and really think about something she hadn't considered before. I think that this is more or less what such an essay should aim for. It is indeed a high mark, but I think it's important to shoot for it. Not everyone can see into the mind of a young pro-life Republican simply by thinking back to high school, but Andrea can, and I can. I wanted her to convince herself, but I don't think she did. I could be wrong, but based on my limited information about her, I doubt it. I'm fairly confident that I wouldn't have changed my mind, though.

Suddenly: I was the dirty, filthy slut. I was the horny bitch. I was the callous murderer-in-training. What, did I think my womb was going to grow a toaster if we had a condom mishap?
Of course not. I didn’t think babies were toasters and I didn’t believe I was going to birth a toaster if I got pregnant, so how had I managed to belittle women for years with this condescending, patronizing line about a small kitchen appliance? I was frozen in a kind of moral limbo–I couldn’t believe I found myself simultaneously relieved that I could access an abortion if I wanted to, and saddened and stressed out by the possibility of having to make that decision.
What did she think, then? I don't know. As far as I can tell, she was expecting a toaster. What answer does Andrea Present have for Andrea Past? "I KNEW it wouldn't be a toaster! I'm not dumb! Stop belittling and patronizing me!"? What would Past Andrea have answered to that - "sweet Christ Jesus almighty, you're right! I was being a bit of a tosspot"?
Today, I see that nothing about my religious anti-choice views did anything to prevent abortion. They did a lot to shame myself and my friends, but nothing to prevent abortion. Today, I hear anti-choicers talk about the babies and the unborn and the American genocide, but what I really hear beneath all that is slut-shaming and fear of female sexuality. I hear that language clearly because I spoke it once, myself. It is a familiar language to me.
Is it really so 100% clear-cut? If she really had no concern for the unborn, then why would she be "saddened and stressed out by the possibility of having to make that decision"? Perhaps the stress and sadness is nothing more than embarrassment at the prospect of being exposed as a hypocrite; I doubt it, though, and I would like to give her more credit than that. I agree that slut-shaming is problematic, gratuitous, unnecessary. But the same people who have the capacity for great callousness toward moral trespasses also have the capacity for empathy. We rage when we think we see idiocy, we grin when we fondle our significant others, and we cringe at the specter of death. I think the "sonogram bill" writers are wrongheaded, but I don't think I could dismiss them as insincere. Nor do I think Past Andrea was insincere, either, though "condescending" and "callous" could be fair assessments, and I similarly regret similar attitudes I had at the time. I wasn't consciously co-conspiring with a sophist's alibi, though - I was mean and nasty, but I believed that there was a reason that "baby-killing harpy-sluts" should be ashamed. My previous entry touches to some extent on how I came to think otherwise.

On a brighter note, this remark in particular may have had some chance of convincing Past Andrea to support contraception and education, if not abortion:

I know that what has kept me from having to make a decision about an unintended pregnancy is not the prospect of hearing a fetal heartbeat or having to go through a 24-hour wait period, but safe, easy and affordable access to contraception and good, honest medical information disseminated by doctors and medical professionals
If both sides agree that less demand for abortions is a step in the right direction, then there you have it; from reading bumper stickers and so on, I had no idea that this was the case when I was a zit-faced pro-life Republican teenager. But one task remains, in that case: we need to convince teenagers that it's even desirable to encourage or enable non-procreational sexual activity in the first place; this might be somewhat self-evident to a lot of us older and more liberal folks, but this is also one of those things that is probably quite difficult to explain to a conservative-minded teenage abstinence warrior in terms that they would "get". This is a somewhat tangential can of worms, but perhaps I should get into that someday. Whatever sex is, it's nigh-irresistible, or at the least just barely good enough to gamble on making a fetus to get it. The human life cycle really is something.

Maybe everything is futile and there's no hope of getting anyone to understand anything except in retrospect, but if that's the case, perhaps that's a lesson I'll have to come to understand in retrospect, myself. But I'd like to think it's not futile to share what you're really thinking with people sooner than you came to think that way yourself. I haven't given up on Past Watt just yet.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Let's actually talk about abortion - part 1

An alarming amount of talking past each other usually occurs when people with differing viewpoints talk about abortion. While I generally identify as pro-choice, I'd like to cite a couple examples of people who either don't speak for me, or people who are doing a very bad job of attempting to speak for me. People I generally respect and agree with on many things have been promoting both of these lately, and it just doesn't sit right with me.

The first is Anthony Weiner's recent tirade against the infamous distinction between rape and "forcible rape" that was to be added to the Hyde amendment.

The second is an essay, I used to be a pro-life Republican.

There's quite a bit to go through here. Let me start with what they have in common before I give my own views, and then I'll return to the samples in part 2.

Neither of these leftists can be bothered to condescend to even begin to answer the question of what they think a zygote/blastocyst/embryo/fetus is, and what significance, if any, they think it should be accorded, or why. In any case, I've more or less found it somewhat pointless to try to talk about these basic underlying issues, even with people whose conclusions I mostly agree with. In forums or wherever, I often get the feeling that I'm harshing everyone's trip just by being male and having any interest in the topic that takes any form other than rabidly agreeing with the "self-evident" axiom that a fetus is whatever its mother says it is and that all further thinking on the subject should only be done by her explicit invitation. Actually, even stating the axiom out loud in those words is going too far to draw attention to the question of what a fetus is, for some tastes. I get the feeling that maybe 10% of the left has any interest in actually addressing the question, whereas the other 90% are insulted that anyone would think to ask it.

Fortunately, PZ Myers has an essay on this particular topic which I more or less agree with. I used the overly-long terminology "zygote/blastocyst/embryo/fetus" before on purpose - it's a partial sequence, and I could have even listed "egg and sperm" at the beginning and "baby" at the end. I could've carried it out further as well, with "toddler", "child", "adolescent", and so on. The point being that they are not all the same; in fact, vertebrate species in general tend to be difficult to distinguish from each other early in the embryo stage. To me, it is not clear when exactly to draw a line. Certainly a blastocyst that fails to implant is entirely unable to comprehend what is happening to it when it dies, while a toddler who dies from cancer certainly does.

What happens in between falls on some sort of continuum, and though I am not intimately familiar with the particulars, I would certainly feel differently about a later stage of a pregnancy compared to an earlier one, and without question, I would prefer all abortions to that do happen to happen sooner rather than later, all other things being equal. While a second- or third- trimester fetus has many features that make it closer than ever before to self-awareness and humanity, what isn't so clear to me is the extent to which it has earned a status greater than that of a pig, cow, or chicken. The pig, especially, I would expect to be much more capable of contemplating its own misery, fear, and pain as it is killed. It is anything but clear to me why this capacity for experiencing what is happening to it should be given so much less weight.

Only by acknowledging a continuum and a strong disanalogy between toddlers and fetuses is it possible to proceed. I would think that pro-choice persons would generally have some interest in establishing this disanalogy as well as they can manage to explain it, but it's not the first time I've been surprised and disappointed. (I suppose it would be an interesting philosophical dilemma if a Horton Hears A Who micro-universe were living inside of my brain tumor and I had to decide whether to operate, but that is neither here nor there.)

In fact, third-trimester abortions are rare, for a variety of reasons.

(From Wikipedia. The far-left bar is misleadingly wide; heights have NOT been adjusted so that the AREA is proportional to the abortion rate. The HEIGHT times 1000 is the number of abortions per year in the entire range of development.)

I am pro-choice, and I am not a vegetarian. To me, it seems not at all coincidental that PETA ads resemble pro-life ads so closely, and this reason can be discerned at least dimly even without a more-than-passing interest in biology. I am not lacking in all ability to empathize in either case, and I would probably be a little unsettled by having to watch a butchery or an abortion being performed, probably to about equal degrees. The horror of death by chopping, shredding, and puncturing is a somewhat prominent feature of the natural world, though, and one that is beyond our means to eliminate, except perhaps by complete annihilation of all life on the entire planet. If the goal is to minimize suffering, then, the best one can do is precisely that; depending on how one regards livestock, one may be right to have concern for how they're handled. A field mouse caught in the maw of a cat may be mutilated and allowed to die slowly, but livestock and pets are under our own watch, and we may find some merit in the idea of allowing their lives and deaths to be of similar duration and quality as they may have been otherwise, even while we use them toward our own ends.

It is exactly when the questions about abortion are posed in terms of maximizing genuine happiness or minimizing suffering that it is possible to even begin to make traction with the pro-choice argument. Anyone who thinks that abortion always - or even usually - contributes suffering more than it alleviates is most likely coming from a very sheltered point of view. It probably goes without saying that an abortion is cheaper than welfare and possibly later on prison. When the problem is posed in terms of suffering, pro-choice wins.

The other issue I'd like to address is the issue of potential life, perhaps the weakest of all common pro-life arguments. Potential life is unbelievably cheap - any time any potent man fails to impregnate any fertile woman for any reason whatsoever, potential life is lost - each of the millions of sperm that may have paired with one of thousands of eggs marks one of literally billions of lost potential lives - and that is for just one man and one woman; multiplying this again by a billion for the number of men and again by a billion for the number of women, and one sees a vast landscape of lost potential, though I don't intend to lose sleep over it, and neither should you. If my mother had ovulated a different egg 28 years ago rather than the one she did, someone else would be writing a different blog post about something else, and no one would have noticed any difference, other than perhaps in the abstract as I am doing now. Saving sex for marriage isn't the murder of potential life. Refusing to have unprotected sex with the first man to come on to you in a bar isn't the murder of potential life. Stopping at just one wife isn't the murder of potential life. And - at the risk of being controversial - I would go so far as to say that the use of condoms is not the murder of potential life.

The difference, then, between abstinence and abortion is not potential life - the difference is entirely contained in however many weeks constitute the life and death of the fetus, and in whatever regrets the mother may or may not experience afterward. When someone says, "I'm glad my parents didn't abort me," I have to wonder how they'd feel about saying instead, "I'm glad the two or three blastocysts before me didn't implant." I hope that such people don't want everyone to make as many humans as possible - that would be a scary thought, but the logical end to which to take this exercise in avoiding losses in potential life.

That, roughly, is why I am in favor of legalized and subsidized abortion.

But before I go on, it should be noted that, without any exceptions I know of, even the most vocal proponents don't particularly want to be involved in one for its own sake. If abortion is orders of magnitude cheaper and less life-changing than childbirth, then consistent use of contraception is several more orders of magnitude better still. Just judging by the estimated costs to the welfare system alone, helping all women avoid unplanned pregnancies is a strikingly effective investment by any conceivable estimate, even if the quality of life of these women is of no concern to you. For my part, I'm concerned about both, and am duly horrified to see Planned Parenthood funding on the chopping block.

I firmly believe that proper education, subsidies, and screenings can, indeed make "safe, legal, and rare" a thoroughly sane approach to abortion. This slogan of Bill Clinton is not a contradiction, but a summary referring to several interacting parts of a general plan. Abortion is not made rare by being made safe and legal - it is only by enabling as many women as possible to have only those pregnancies which are intentional in the first place that abortion can be rare. When it is beyond a certain natural base level, incidence of abortion could be regarded as a barometer for coercion, misinformation, and poorly distributed resources. Criminalizing abortion would not solve these other problems, but solving these other problems could only decrease the incidence of abortion.

In Part 2, I will compare my own reasoning and what convinced me to switch over with what is typically presented in a discussion.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Don't tell me you're praying for me

This is a more or less hard-and-fast rule for this blog: anyone who says that they're praying for me or any other "unsaved" person will not have his or her comment approved, depending on what he or she seems to mean by that.

Some "live and let live"-style atheists may even welcome it as just another kind thought that differs from any other only in a trivial choice of religious language, but I am absolutely unable to honestly take it in such a way if I know something else is meant by it, and the distinction is not an idle one I am willing to let slide.

If "I'll pray for you" means "I'll pray that you join my religion before it's too late to save your soul", then I can only take it as an insult and a willful refusal to even try to understand anything you've read here. Of course I can't stop you from praying for me or anyone else in this particular way; by all means, go ahead if you really can't help it. But please don't tell me that you're doing it. Trust me when I say that in showing such restraint, you will be sparing me the kind existential despair one feels when one tries to make a phone call to a living, thinking, responsive human being and instead receives an answering machine message one has already heard a thousand times or more. It would hardly be an exagerration to say that I've heard it all before... and that is not a challenge to come up with something I haven't.

This is harder to explain than I thought it would be, but I will try.

It seems as if it is difficult for many believers to appreciate exactly how insulting and thoughtless such a gesture is. Allow me to explain how it more or less looks from my point of view: I have never seen anything that even begins to suggest to me that any particular religion ever known to humanity is correct. Neither fossil evidence nor historical evidence nor anything else has ever done anything to confirm that anything other than human feelings, speculations, and repetitions of hearsay is needed to account for the existence of religions, nor have I ever felt anything at all like an "inner voice" greater than myself or anything like that. All I have to guide me are my own instincts, my own personal preferences, my own reason, the things I've tried to learn from others, and my own ideas about what kind of world I want to live in, and my best estimates of what the likely consequences may be of the actions that I take.

I feel that torture - let alone everlasting torture - can be nothing more and nothing less than sadism, and that calling such a thing "justice" is not a justification, and that it is special pleading, and that it does not even begin explain anything. I do not accept that burning "morally impure" things is a noble end in itself, and I don't even know what that means. All I know is that torture is a disturbing idea and that I don't want anyone subjected to it - myself, or anyone else; that bringing Hitler back to life just to pour hot acid in his mouth would do nothing to make anyone anywhere happier, more loving, more artistic, better musicians, smarter, better at cooking, or anything else.

I know that the justice system we have in the USA is, in its unrealized, idealistic best form, is not based on vengeance, but on the best interests of general public - that is, an enlightened justice system does not hold "throwing the book" at "evildoers" as its goal, but rehabilitates offenders when possible, keeping them confined and out of the public only because it acknowledges that it isn't so trivial or even consistently possible to rehabilitate. Punishment needs only be severe enough to discourage potential offenders; going beyond the point of diminishing returns on this front would not make anyone's life better, except maybe to satisfy a sadistic itch or two.

It is with complete lack of comprehension that I ponder the idea of human who could earnestly praise a god who would administer torture, especially in response to an "offense" like failing to worship him. He can either torture someone, or he can not; the idea that there is a natural "order" or an abstraction like "purity" or "perfection" that makes burning the "unclean" necessary is just an arbitrary pile of empty abstractions that never makes any sense to me, no matter how often it's all reworded and repeated. A god who tortures people is not a god I want to have anything to do with. If there were such an omnipotent god, and the only way to avoid his torture were to sincerely love him and worship him, then I would have to conclude that the universe itself had gone mad, and that all of humanity were trapped in a frantic race to see Who Will Be Eaten First in a world where madness itself is salvation. I'd like to live indefinitely as much as any other self-respecting vertebrate would like to, but I neither see any reason to think that this god in particular is real, nor would I begin to know how to worship it if I thought that he were.

This is why Christopher Hitchens, who was diagnosed with esophegeal cancer last year, when asked if a deathbed conversion might lurk around the corner, responded, "not while I'm lucid".

When a Believer prays for someone like Hitchens to come around to their religion, these "good thoughts" they are thinking are for a person that in no way resembles the person he or she attempts to pray for. The person prayed for is either some romantic abstraction - at the bottom, a lost little lamb who just hasn't opened his or her eyes yet - or a demented shell of a previous consciousness, worn down by disease, fear, trauma, altered states of consciousness, and possibly even brain damage, all in a perfect storm conjured up by the almighty for the sole purpose of replacing a strong and disbelieving person with a battered, empty, and eager vessel ready to be led around by the hand like a child by the first grownup with a comforting word to say; at any rate, I'm not so sure that such conversions away from an examined position are even the least bit common. The most celebrated cases are spurious.

In either case, I want nothing to do with it, whether your prayer is for an imaginary me who lives only in your fantasies, or an actual me who has been contorted in horrible ways. I do not want to hear about your "good will" in this matter. Do not pray that your god will change me; if you must involve gods in this at all, ask your god whether he really intends to go through with all this hellfire business, or if perhaps he has been misunderstood by one of his human scribes somewhere down the line, or if the religious texts might leave the issue ambiguous enough to be honestly interpreted differently.

What I'd like to hear, if you sincerely believe so, is, "I don't think you're going to Hell." And if you believe that, but what you mean by it is, "I think you'll come around to my religion before it's too late," then I don't ever want to hear it.

I already know that millions of people around the world think that I'm going to Hell at this rate - my parents think so, my grandfather probably thinks so, the first girl I ever kissed very well might think so, at least a couple of my grade school teachers likely think so, each church youth leader who has ever tried and failed to explain to me how you know god is real probably thinks so, now-grown kids whose houses I used to sleep over at think so.

That much I know. And here is the part that I don't know, the thing I can only feebly attempt to speculate about: how do they go along with it? Some of them may not know that I'm an atheist and am unlikely to change that. Others may know. What do they think of this afterlife - will they lose all memory that every unbeliever they had ever known had ever been? And then will they live together forever blissfully even though their happy family tress are missing so many links in the generational chains, but no one notices or bothers to comment or pay any mind to their whereabouts? Or are they perfectly well aware of who's missing and where they are and what's happening to them, but their bliss will be impenetrable to such concerns? Or are they simply assuming that the night is young and that we'll all get saved eventually - except, maybe, for just a few lowest of the lows? Or do they simply think it's all part of The Plan and try not to think about it, meditating on how much better it is to "lean not on your own understanding"? I honestly don't know how a believer could take the thought experiment of Heaven and Hell seriously and get out with their faith intact, if they go through the trouble of thinking of people they actually know and claim to care about in the scenarios, both the tortured grimaces of the damned, and the radiant smiles of the Chosen whose bliss can't and won't ever be punctured by anything that goes on downstairs.

I'm well aware that millions of minds can't and won't be changed on this matter, and I don't expect to have much of an impact. Just don't remind me, and especially don't dress it up as if it were nothing more than a friendly gesture. I can't take it as such; at most, I can try to be polite on the outside, if I'm feeling unusually charitable. All that you can hope to accomplish by reminding me of all of this is to aggravate my pessimism about humanity.

I can't be alone in feeling this way. Some atheists might honestly not be bothered it at all; I do not know to what extent that's really true, and to what extent that is just appearance. But I am bothered by it every time, and for good reason. Such comments will not be approved here.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


Hello. You can call me Watt. I have decided to remain anonymous for the time being, but I was born and raised in the USA, born in 1982, and am one of the many white, middle-class, straight, male atheists on the internet writing what he thinks about things. I hope to give you a better idea of who I am in a sort of literary sense as I write more posts.

To start off, I'd like to describe what I have in mind for this blog. When the topic being discussed is atheism, I often find myself in an odd situation when it comes to the "new atheists" - though I agree with something like 85-95% of what they say and write, something strikes me as lacking holistically about the general approach of writers like Richard DawkinsPZ Myers, and Christopher Hitchens*.

This is not to say that I think they do more harm than good; quite the opposite. After all, I belong to the choir they preach to, and I indulge in a vigorous, scathing venting session quite often myself on Facebook or in a casual blog where I mostly choir preach to even more like-minded people in turn. But there's more to my appreciation of "new atheist" writing than the mere fact that I sometimes indulge in the style myself for fun, catharsis. Before I started reading people like them and their predecessors like Bertrand Russell, I was an agnostic on the fence about a very "born again" style of Christianity in which the choice is, quite literally, between putting your faith in Christ and burning in Hell forever. I knew that I was not "saved", and when I tried to figure out how I could know for certain that Jesus was real, I often began to have thoughts like those of the "new atheists", but I would shut them down half-formed and hover over their edges like a kid afraid to jump into a swimming pool, poking at the surface with my toes and feeling unsettled about its being there in the first place. I knew that I was supposed to have faith and walk over it as a spider or a savior walks on water, but I could do neither, nor could I swim in it, for that was unthinkable; I know that really I was supposed to trust Jesus to do this carrying or something like that, but this path was always completely incomprehensible and the explanations of adults only served to make it more so. Only through reading atheist writings - with their unapologetic tone and all - did I find a well-established and well-traveled intellectual and emotional ground to build a world view. I had only known this ground as a pathological, lonely terrain traveled aimlessly by me and me alone with shame, doubt, and confusion, but knowing that others had thought similar things and carried them out into complete sentences, paragraphs, essays, books, and lives changed everything - I had the right to take my own thoughts seriously, to regard doubts and reservations on their merits and evidence, rather than according to a spoon-fed set of moral answers in the back of some divine textbook with which I must eventually come into agreement at the end of whatever labors I took. There is no telling how much longer I would have fumbled along waiting for the light had I continued to hold the assumption that faith held the answers and that my epiphany to clear it all up just hadn't come yet.

Yes, a lot of the so-called "new atheist" writing is choir preaching - but it is not pointless or in vain, especially for those choir members who do not yet know what choir they belong to. When in no uncertain tone, the thoughts and attitudes of an unabashedly atheist community are broadcast clearly, humanly, and in detail, the faithless listener who hears and reads can no longer romantically pity himself as a Doubting Thomas, but instead finds himself growing a spine, some self-respect, and maybe even the infamous chip on the shoulder "new atheists" are so famous for having. At least that's how it was for me.

No, I don't want to write off the "new atheist" movement or scold them on their tone. I merely wish to fill a different niche here. I do not have much of an interest, at least in this space, over "the God debate" - I'm more or less tired of it, and know fully well that it just goes in pointless circles after a certain point, and I am nowhere near being "on the fence" on such matters anymore, and haven't been for the better part of a decade. I am not here to rally the atheist troops against the latest initiative of James Dobson.

What I more specifically have in mind is something like this strikingly human post on Reddit, in which Michael Behe's** oldest son discusses his recent deconversion from Christianity (sample quotes here), and other young people share similar experiences and their attitudes toward the religion they were raised in and later rejected. These kinds of feelings and experiences are undoubtedly very common, but not the kind of thing that is likely to come up in the persuasive format common to the so-called New Atheist bestsellers of the '00s. Or to cite another example, there is Blankets by Craig Thomson, which is so loose and directionless, defying well-trained narrative expectations and cliched notions of "destiny" precisely because it is faithfully adapted from real life directly to the page, but communicates life experience so much more honestly precisely because of its matter-of-fact lack of a "moral" to take home.

This is what I'd like to do: write clearly about my experiences in a way that makes it that much harder to write off atheism as reckless, unexamined, thoughtless, hateful, pitiable, one-dimensional, rebellious, or selfishly contrived out of short-sighted convenience. Atheists are human, and many of us have considered religious questions much more seriously than we're likely to be given credit for from the pulpit on Sunday. In order to undo the caricature, there is no substitute for providing the real person.

I am not here to be a shill for atheism and claim that it's wonderful and fulfilling and the best thing that could ever happen to you or anyone; I am here simply to be honest about it, so that there can no questioning the sincerity or motives of whatever I say. Whether atheism is a happy view or not is a race in which I have no horses. I just want to speak honestly about it, and to be regarded on my own terms in a light in which I would be able to recognize myself, not as a Doubting Thomas or a prodigal son or a silver-tongued devil, but as an ordinary person who sees no reason to believe in gods and probably never will.

To my knowledge, the exact niche I'm looking for isn't quite filled yet, but in terms of non-polemical atheist writing in general, Greta Christina comes highly recommended - in fact, I might skip over a great deal of "What (Many) Atheists Think And Why 101" material, secure in the knowledge that a somewhat comprehensive resource exists already with which I agree on most points. Her blog strikes a very nice balance of maintaining an even-handed and civil tone while remaining firm, clear, and even uncompromising. Her writing avoids the siren call of polemical rhetoric that makes for good choir preaching, but is sure to alienate all but the most questioning, open-minded, thick-skinned, fair-minded and agnostic of the believing, half-believing, and trying-to-believe crowd. I can't recommend her enough.

In the near future, I hope to include a little more required reading, which I expect everyone to read before commenting, seeing as I'm looking for a very particular kind of discussion here of a very literary quality. All comments will start out screened, and I will unscreen them only if I find them to be keeping with the goals of this blog. This is not a debate forum, nor is it a place to fish for men, nor is it a place to unload volleys of polemic against religion. Though heartfelt criticism of religion has a place here, I expect rhetorical flourishes to serve the goal of clarity, not that of hammering nails into a coffin. Clearly expressed profound disappointment is allowed and encouraged, but barrages of insults and anger are not. Stories about how a reader came to be a believer might, in some cases, be acceptable, but something about such a story should be unusually honest in a way that distinguishes them from the fairy-tale conversion stories I was subjected to by the dozen in my childhood. Similarly, discussion of how get along with or otherwise relate to the atheist in your life will not be allowed to go in the "how can I get X to come to church and/or find Jesus" direction.

At times the difference between open conversation and raw polemic can be ill-defined and hard to discern, and I reserve the right to make judgment calls. I cannot guarantee that writers and readers will not be upset by what I choose to leave out or include, respectively.

* - There are nice exceptions; Hitchens also edited the more even-handed The Portable Atheist; some of Myers' more effort-intensive posts are very thoughtful and even delve into ruminations on mortality, but he updates a LOT and can't write like that all the time.
** - An excellent NOVA documentary on the Dover trial can be found here.