Category Archives: Atheism

Atheist Ally for Interfaith Relationships

Tonight I’m over at Secular Progressive with a post on atheists needing to support interfaith progress.

You’ll have to read me over there, but while writing the entry, I realized I’ve yet to say anything about interfaith dialogue on this blog, although I’ve had quite a few posts on atheism and religion. So I’d like to add a personal side-note to what’s up at Secular Progressive.

When I admitted my atheism to myself as a first-year at Dartmouth, this acceptance was spurred by some negative experiences regarding religion during my orientation, regarding a poorly timed prayer and an appeal to Christ by our student body president (which caused a few Jewish students to walk out of the welcoming). So it’s perhaps not surprising that my hostility toward religion was then at an all-time high.

For me today, the jury is out as to whether religion has the potential to be a primarily positive force, and whether we’d be better off with a world of atheism or one that included liberal, tolerant religions. Regardless, religion probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, so interfaith work can at least impact how it impacts society. As an activist coming from an atheist/secular humanist viewpoint, I believe in the importance of explaining and defending those beliefs to people who have misconceptions about what it means to not believe in God. But I also believe that interfaith dialogue is suited to my goals of improving tolerance and countering conservative, fundamentalist religious elements.

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Read Me On Secular Progressive

By the by–as of last Wednesday, I’m now blogging weekly at Secular Progressive on religion & politics related content, on the kind invitation of founder Mike Tracey.

I made Mike’s acquaintance when interviewing about his scoop at the Campus Progress National Conference, when Bill Clinton admitted to personally supporting same-sex marriage. (See his Nation and HuffPost articles.) It became clear during the course of this conversation that we shared interests in the realm of atheism, religion, and politics, so when he later said he was looking for more contributors to his blog on “Religion, Politics, and Everything in Between,” I agreed to jump onboard. (Granted, “jump” might not be the right verb–I did take a few weeks to make good on my commitment.)

Why Secular Progressive? Bill O’Reilly coined the term “Secular Progressive” to give a name to the group he views as destroying the foundation of society, but us “S-P’s” are more troubled by the consequences of his right-wing rants. Mike reminds us in the blog’s first post that, oh right–“secular progressive” is not an insult. It’s a label to wear with pride:

No longer can those of us who identify as secular and/or progressive allow ourselves to be caricaturized by the likes of O’Reilly without putting up a fight. That’s how the Right stole the term “liberal” and it’s how conservative Christians have demonized the term “atheist.” Us S-P’s have ourselves a set of values, and we happen to think that they’re better than the alternative, or else we wouldn’t hold them in the first place. Rather than undermine society, we think that those values will actually strengthen our communities and our governments.

So look for me at the Secular Progressive on Wednesdays, and check out Mike’s latest on what happens to him after ordering a Book of Mormon. It’s the beginning of a short series of posts–I wonder what will happen next time with the young Elders Wilcox and Marble?

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The Land Before the Fall: Atheist Field Trip to Creation Museum

I wish I could have been in Kentucky last week for the atheist field trip to the Creation, ahem, “Museum,” where “Children play and dinosaurs roam near Eden’s Rivers.” Alas, I couldn’t make it down–but there are plenty of blogs sharing pics and videos, in particular this one from biologist PZ Myers, who is amused that the diet of a T-Rex specifies “After the Fall.”

I’m choosing to share a good laugh with PZ, rather than tearing up over the fact that people actually believe this, about the fuzzy dating: ~2348 BC is cited as the Jurassic, Upper Cretaceous, and Lower Cretaceous eras all in one. As PZ says, “Why does the geology even matter to them if they’re just going to ignore it all and compress everything into one year, a year given with such remarkable specificity?”

But it wasn’t all fun and games at the Creation Museum: one attendee got kicked out for making a snide remark to a friend (he’d earlier been forced to turn his T-shirt, which said, “There’s probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life”).

Oh well. I have to get back to fantasizing about frolicking with Littlefoot in the Land Before the Fall. Does the Creation Museum have tree stars?

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Feminists and Atheists for War?

Codepink‘s  provided such splashy anti-war protests, I plumb forgot that feminism is not equated with peace. I was yanked from this pink dream by an angry  Alternet headline attacking the Feminist Majority Foundation for supporting increased peacekeeping troops to protect Afghan women and girls.

Then, on Monday, Robert Wright, author of The Evolution of God, brought attentionto the warmongering of atheists like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris.

I recently discussed my frustration that today’s leading voices of atheism are predominantly male, despite my conception of the belief system as ideal for women, in bypassing the history of sexism (and misogyny) of most religion. Now feminism and atheism are bought being called out for their less-than-pacifistic tendencies.

I’m a recent convert to pacifism–I’ve always been primarily anti-war, but didn’t quite feel that I was a pacifist. After all, what about World War II? But under the influence of a close friend, I decided that I was a pacifist, though the deep imperfections of the world might mean you can’t always condemn a war (like WWII) as either right or wrong.

But I digress. Feminism and atheism are such core aspects of my beliefs, they feed into my support of pacifism in such a way that the links seem obvious. Of course, having studied the split in the international feminist movement and domestic organizations over support for the first world war, I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Then, too, pacifists assumed that their feminist comrades would oppose war–and got a rude awakening by the hyper-patriotic jingoism of many leaders of the women’s movement.

And then there’s atheism…with all the wars (crusades) that have been fought in the name of one religion or another, I breathe a sigh of relief from within my secular humanist belief system that there’s no god pushing me to the battlefield. Yet Hitchens et al are demonstrating that their loathing–and fear–of fundamentalist religion has lured them into a violent stance.

For me, feminism, atheism, and pacifism are all about equality, understanding, and peace. It looks like people who share this sense might have to fight for their beliefs–with the mighty pen, of course.

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Believing in God: I Just Don’t

A sure sign that my New Yorker instinct has yet to fully kick back in after four years of college in small-town New Hampshire: when a guy on the street asked me to stop and lend him my ear, I actually paused. Turns out he was selling God–or at least his church.

As  I gazed at my apartment building, just a block away, if asked if I’d heard about [insert organization of spiritual salvation here]. I hadn’t.

Then: Do you believe in God?

Me: No.

Him: Why not?

Me: I just don’t.

As he started in on something about Jesus Christ, I smiled, told him sorry, but I just wasn’t interested, and moved on. He said okay and let me go, which was a relief–religious or secular, salespeople on New York City streets can be very aggressive.

What kept me thinking about this brief interaction after, however, was my own answer: “I just don’t.” I just don’t? I’ve articulated why atheism is important to me on multiple occasions in my college newspaper, the Dartmouth Free Press“I just don’t” seemed a cop-out.

Actually, the first response that flitted through my mind was “personal decision,” but I dismissed that as really empty. I can easily write 3,000 words defending atheism, describing my own atheist and humanist belief system, outlining the background which lead me to this place, from “technically Catholic,” to agnostic, to firm atheist. I enjoy discussing atheism and religion. Why can’t I give a meaningful, brief response to why I don’t believe in God?

This isn’t the first time a random stranger has asked why I don’t believe in God. Visiting a friend’s college, a guy invited me to attend his church Sunday. I informed him that wouldn’t work out since I was an atheist, leading him to ask what led me to reject God, and was there a time I cried out to him and he didn’t answer? Um…no, I replied (actually finding the scenario pretty funny), and explained that I don’t reject God, a common misunderstanding, I simply don’t believe there is one–so there’s nothing to reject.

What it comes down to is there are many reasons I find atheism and secular humanism meaningful in my life, and as many specific problems I can point out with religion/Christianity. But, I realized, the question, why don’t you believe in God, isn’t asking about that. No meaningful response to that question exists for me.

Maybe next time I’ll try asking why the Christianity salesman doesn’t believe in Aphrodite or the rest of the Greek pantheon–maybe his response can give me an idea for a better soundbite. “God” doesn’t factor into how I live my life any more than Zeus, or Muhammad. Disbelief is the default. As Stephen Roberts stated: “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” Many people may find (or feel) reasons for faith in God–that doesn’t mean anyone else should need a reason for not sharing their belief.

So I guess my answer truly is: I just don’t.

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Calling Atheist Women: The Public Needs You

A couple years late, I came across Christopher Hitchens’ 2007 article on why women are “backward” in generating humor. I was duly pissed off, but I’ll keep my entire unhumorous rant on the subject to myself, because otherwise I’ll never make it to my intended destination: the union between atheism and women.

A woman commented on the Katrina vanden Heuvel post I discussed on Tuesday, saying that atheism shared the same ol’ male-dominated network as religion. As fervent a feminist as I am an atheist, I wondered: is that true?

The four big names of what’s been dubbed the “new atheist” movement are best-selling authors Christopher, Richard, Sam, and Daniel. The Bible was clearly written by men, and it’s looking like the tracts of atheism are following in that patriarchal tradition.

And yet…freed from Eve-demonizing faiths, atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, and humanists served a major role of the women’s rights movement. American Atheists was founded by school-prayer challenger Madalyn Murray O’Hair (think the new atheists rile people up? O’Hair called herself the “most hated woman in America”), and the Freedom From Religion Foundation was launched by a mother-daughter duo. Female writers do exist in atheist bookstores, such as Annie Laurie Gaylor and Katha Pollitt, with works focusing on the place of women in freethought vs. fundamentalist traditions.

Though some churches in the U.S., like the Episcopal congregation, have grown out of their misogyny and now ordain female priests and bishops, religion has a poor track record with women, and entrenched institutions find it hard to catch up with modern equality, even with progressive men and women working within their ranks toward change. Atheism is a logical place for women to thrive because it doesn’t have to deal with that sexist baggage–there’s no one text riddled with sexism for liberal scholars to try to explain, no one text at all to bow down to as “the word” on atheism.

But as a belief system whose explanation rests entirely in the hands of its followers, the who’s who of atheist stars does matter. It’s not so much about individual flaws and foibles as the need for missing voices (in another post, I could comment on their racial homogeneity in the same manner). Whether or not Christopher Hitchens has penchant for promoting sexist/borderline misogynistic stereotypes in his writing, the voices of public atheism are too testosterone-filled–even if raised in defense of women, it’s better that the ladies take the floor, too.

The last thing we need is another boys club.

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Oh, to be Secular in the Summer

Nation Editor Katrina vanden Heuvel blogged on something atheists had to celebrate this 4th:

“After eight years in the Bush wilderness — and an even longer period of ostracism by the Washington political establishment — a rising demographic of like-minded Americans and a new president are guiding us back to our roots as a secular nation.”

Jaws dropped when Obama referenced nonbelievers in his inauguration speech. Though the day had its issues, from Rick Warren to a multiplicity of religious references and figures, with one word Obama handed a vital commodity to “nonbelievers”: visibility.

Say what you will about Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, their snark snatched attention for atheism, which it desperately needed. (Now atheism has buses–I saw one of the mobile ads in New York yesterday.) While their less-than-perfectly-tolerant rhetoric might have offended some religious people, nonetheless I think they did more good than harm in capturing the spotlight. People often distrust the unfamiliar, so as long as atheists remain in the shadows, mistrust and misunderstanding proliferate.

Of course, Obama doesn’t need to grab headlines with ploys like Dawkins’ or Hitchens’. All he has to do is make use of his Obama star power, bringing visibility and a modicum of support.

Now, maybe you could complain that he could stand to do better than just a shout-out–and that he steered clear of the term “atheist,” which, for some reason, people tend to have trouble with (I recall a comedian once talking about coming out to her parents as an atheist–they knew she didn’t believe in God, but an atheist?!). He’s paid a lot of lip service to the LGBT community that hasn’t come to fruition either, once citing his Christianity as his reason for opposing gay marriage, and the inroads the Religious Right has made have not been reset to neutral. Just because atheists have been so downtrodden doesn’t mean we should give too much applause to scraps from on high.

Still, I’m happy for any help in confronting prejudice toward “nonbelievers” and helping draw them out of the closet. And for giving atheists a momentary warm fuzzy feeling: though rising above is admirable, it’s easier to treat religion with tolerance and respect when you’re getting a little in return.

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