The most awesome thing to arrive in my mailbox in some time.
The most awesome thing to arrive in my mailbox in some time.
Richard Dawkins helped me understand why religion is incorrect. Christopher Hitchens helped me understand why it is evil. If Dawkins was my motivation to finally declare myself atheist, Hitchens was my inspiration to enter the fight against religion’s dehumanizing effects with vigor.
Millions of words have been written this weekend in memory of Christopher Hitchens, who died Friday following a long fight with esophageal cancer. One of the original “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheist movement, Hitchens, along with Dawkins and fellow authors Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, launched a veritable revolution among the godless. Their popular books brilliantly expressed centuries of atheist thinking in a way that was not only accessible, but also catalyzing for members of the most reviled minority in America. Hitchens’ work is one of the primary reasons millions of atheists are mad as hell, and not taking it anymore.
Hitch’s contribution, “God Is Not Great” was the second of the four books I read. At the start of the book, I still harbored the ex-believer’s common warmness toward religious stories — Jesus seemed like a pretty nice guy, and the Bible still seemed to contain much that was commendable, even if I didn’t believe it was true. By the end of “God Is Not Great,” I wanted to punch JC in the face. He laid bare, in a single volume, the moral horror that religion entails when it places dogma over human needs (which is to say, always).
Quite apart from his work on behalf of rationality, the thing I’ll miss most is Hitch’s inimitable writing style. He was an absolute master of the high-brow put-down. In a time when smug cleverness is often mistaken for wit, Hitch showed what the latter really meant, simultaneously delivering both seriousness and humor that gave an intimidating glimpse into the mind of what must have been one of the most well read people alive. Even if he was writing on a subject about which I knew little, I devoured his columns just for the pleasure of reading some of the best writing on the planet.
We’ll miss you, Hitch. There’s not another like you.
Kids get on weird kicks all the time, where they want to talk about the same thing incessantly. Since we moved from the city to the burbs, my kid’s thing has been death. And farting. My kid’s two things have been death and farting. And peeing outdoors. Among my kid’s many weird things have been death, farting, and peeing outdoors…
But I digress. We were talking about death. And have been, a lot. This comes up in 2 main contexts: squished or no longer moving insects, and warning him against doing dangerous things that could, in his words, “make me dead.” When a family friend’s mother recently died, it became slightly more concrete with people.
Because we don’t believe in an afterlife, I don’t want to shield him from the idea of death. I’m hoping (in an age-appropriate way) to help him understand what it means, and that it’s a natural part of life. Our current working definition of death is “sometimes someone gets very sick, or hurt, or just old, and their body just wears out and stops working. When that happens, they can’t do anything anymore. It’s like going to sleep and not waking up.”
So far, this has sufficed to explain things without visibly terrifying him. But, man, do I feel like we’re walking a tightrope. I want him to understand the basic concept and its implications enough not to do reckless things. But no one wants to get a preschooler preoccupied with the idea of dying. That kind of stuff can really haunt a kid.
I think back to my religious days, when it would have been so easy to say “our friend’s mommy went to heaven.” Easy, but so much less honest. And, in a real way, so devaluing of the loss. When you accept that there isn’t another world beyond where we’ll be reunited, it makes the finality of death horribly tangible. But it also challenges you to value the one and only life the deceased had to live, and how they lived it. And to live your one and only life as richly and presently as possible.
Yesterday, Texas governor Rick Perry appeared at a seven-hour prayer and fasting marathon in Houston called “The Response: A Call to Prayer for a Nation in Crisis.” Although some have characterized a sitting governor’s overt participation in such an event as “unprecedented,” it’s important to understand that the message of the rally, and the extreme mixing of church and state Perry’s participation represented, are absolutely mainstream, noncontroversial ideas in evangelical circles. Reliant Stadium was not filled with a fringe sliver of extremists. It was filled with the same people who fill evangelical churches by the millions across the US.
I used to be one of those people. And in my rural Indiana church, prayers for the nation were always bracketed with the conviction that we were a lost people, living in depravity, losing our way from the God who could guide us. That was 20 years ago. In the 2 ensuing decades, this kind of rhetoric has continued, but is now buttressed by historical revisionists declaring that the US was founded to be a “Christian nation,” a fusing of a political party and a religion that is so complete as to make an openly non-Christian running as a Republican laughable, and a 24-hour “news” channel willing to promote this worldview while willfully excluding any inconvenient facts.
One of the attendees summed up the hopes of evangelical Christians nicely:
“Yeah, I think it would be extremely beneficial to our nation to hear some of our top leaders, especially if he gets elected as president, to take stands like this,” [Jason Cole, who drove a bus from the Church of Glad Tidings in Austin] said, “and preach from the White House, ultimately from the White House.”
“Preach from the White House.” Those words should concern anyone who believes in secular government, because they are part and parcel of the single largest segment of American religious people.
Spotted this in a Philly shop that frequently features Christian kitsch aimed at an African-American audience in its front window. In case the imagery isn’t brutally clear, a wad of cash + gun = drug dealer. So, according to the artist, a young person’s choices are: (a) be a Christian, or (b) be a drug-dealing street thug. In a city with no shortage of churches in rough neighborhoods, it would be far more accurate to substitute a math book for that bible.
The Little Atheist has been collecting coins in a couple of piggy banks, most recently as rewards for potty training success (in case you’re wondering, the going rate for a poopy is 2 cents). His banks were getting heavy, so we decided to open them up, empty the contents, and start a savings account for future money-teaching purposes. Imagine our surprise when, among the legal tender, we encountered this:
I googled the image, and it is indeed a “guardian angel” coin. We have no idea who put it in there. I strongly expect My Very Catholic Mother-in-Law, but there are certainly other possibilities – my mother, a babysitter, a good friend who dog sits on occasion.
I was a little irritated at first, but now it’s just amusing. The religious are, almost by definition, fairly superstitious, but this just takes it one step further. Do they really think the spirit or essence or something of an angel is held within a cheap little coin? Or does one have to bribe guardian angels to come near with pretty, shiny objects? The whole thing is just too silly.
Every so often, something reminds me just how radically different an atheist mindset is in the US. Listening to NPR recently, I heard an ad for a conference on technology and religious faith. The tag line was something like, “exploring the role of technology in doing God’s work.” What an idea! Doing the “work” of a deity was treated like any other application — word processing, accounting, web surfing…saving souls. Naturally, the conference was aimed at a believing audience, but the sheer ordinariness of the ad was jarring. God, and that God’s “work,” was just assumed to be as real as cola or laundry detergent.
It triggered memories of my time as a believer when the existence and presence of God was just an assumption. I didn’t question it. I didn’t explore it or consider why I thought it was true. Daily experiences didn’t really confirm or disprove it, because it was a proposition beyond evidence. If pressed, I likely would have said I just “knew” God was real, maybe would have invoked the bible. If pressed further, “faith” would have been my only refuge. Push a little more and the conversation would stop. I was and am a very academic person, but my belief wasn’t buttressed by anything like the reasons I myself would have demanded of any other discipline.
It was not until I began questioning my beliefs that I could even step outside myself and see how I thought about God. Therein I see the starting point of my future dealings and debates with the religious — trying to help them see how they think about religion, and how different it is from how they think about anything else. Try to make their own cognitive dissonance apparent to them. I expect a quick retreat into defensiveness in most instances. But perhaps it will help someone at least start thinking about the God assumption. It seems like a productive path, at least. And I’m all for pushing God back into the ghetto of “faith,” where we can at least stop arguing whether there is evidence for his existence.
Has anyone has experience with this line of argumentation? Can believers be lead to view their beliefs as they view the rest of the world?