Skepticism, Religion Archive

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Why Do I Spend So Much Time on Religion

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismThe other day, somebody asked me why I spend so much of my time on religion if I'm an atheist. Why am I reading the Bible? Why do I write so much on this blog? Why did I self-publish a book ($4.99 from Lulu)? There are actually multiple reasons. I covered this topic briefly in a short pamphlet that I wrote, A Brief Introduction to Non-Belief. I'll list a few quotes from there that begin to address these reasons, and then add some more explanation.


Well, the noble reason would be to say that it's for a love of the truth. And honestly, that is part of the reason. The universe is such a grand, wondrous place, that's all the more enjoyable when you view it without a filter. Looking back on when I was a Christian, it was almost like I was experiencing the world through a haze, and I do want to share that clear sightedness with others.

Anyone who reads this blog knows I'm a skeptic, and I mean that in the positive sense of the skeptical movement. A skeptic isn't a cynic. A skeptic is interested in the truth, and will research claims to determine their veracity. It just happens to be that people are gullible, and urban legends and myths can spread far and wide before someone with a skeptical mindset investigates them. Just take a look at any of my Factoids pages for an example. Most of the factoids I get in e-mail forwards are false, but some turn out to be true. With so many claims out there, once you've determined one to be true, it almost makes it special in a certain sense.

Religion is just one more subject for skeptical inquiry. After looking into it, I don't think any religions are true. And just like I share debunkings of other things on this site, I want to share the debunking of religion.

And like I wrote in that pamphlet, the universe really is amazing. When I was religious, my view was always colored by trying to fit everything into a religious framework. It's nice to to see the universe for what it really is, not tainted with mythology.


There are more pragmatic reasons, though. Thomas Jefferson once wrote, "it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." If people kept their religion private, I probably wouldn't be as motivated to write this. However, when people use religion as an excuse to bomb clinics, fly airplanes into buildings, interfere with school curricula, discriminate against homosexuals, treat women as inferior, etc., then I feel obligated to speak out.

This is perhaps the biggest reason I spend so much time on religion. I don't think people need religion to behave morally. Rather, I see religion as an obstacle to moral progress.

I just listed a few examples in that quote without providing sources. So, here are links to several examples of religion causing immoral behavior or retarding progress, including a few more examples than what I'd listed before.

I can give personal examples, as well. The other day, I overheard some acquaintances disparaging environmentalism because God gave humans dominion over nature. I know many opposed to stem cell research with the potential to help so many people because they think an embryo has a soul. And I've had people tell me that global warming can't be real because God wouldn't let that happen to his creation, so there's no need to do anything about it.

I could go on at length listing these examples. There's no shortage of immoral behavior motivated by religion. I know some people will read many of those examples and want to respond with some form of the No True Scotsman response. First of all, when enough people do something in the name of their religion, they cease to be the exception, rather they've become the rule. A lot of those examples above aren't fringe beliefs. Second, I'm actually reading the Bible right now (you can follow along in my Friday Bible Blogging series). I see a book full of immoral rules. If people read their Bibles and followed the Old Testament rules faithfully*, we'd be living in a much more violent world than we actually do.

Getting rid of religion is no guarantee to progress. You still need to get people to embrace critical thinking and humanism. But right now, religion is an obstacle to that progress.

But you can't simply outlaw religion. For one thing, our Constitution guarantees religious freedom. But even if it didn't, I'd want to live in a country that did. Only totalitarian governments try to dictate beliefs. And countries that have outlawed traditional religion in the past have simply replaced it by making the state the religion, such as the USSR. The only sensible way to reduce the effects of religion is by winning over hearts and minds - convincing people to face reality of their own accord. (There's also the slim possibility I might be wrong. I'm very, very confident in my atheism, but I don't have an unshakeable faith like I did when I was a Christian.)

So, in my own small way, I am trying to convince people to abandon religion. I'm not pushy. I don't go out on street corners preaching. I don't put leaflets in mailboxes or under windshield wipers. I don't go door to door proselytizing. I write for this website, and I won't shy away from discussing religion when it comes up in conversation (though even then, I mostly stick to the facts without trying to 'evangelize'). And the best way to engage in these types of conversations is to be knowledgeable. I also want to avoid the accusation of being close-minded. A christian might try to say that I haven't looked deeply enough into religion, and that's why I'm an atheist. So, by studying religion as much as I do, I can safely claim to know enough about it to reject it. In fact, this is one of my major motivations for reading the Bible a second time, to make sure that I truly understand what I'm criticizing.

In all honesty, I don't expect religion to disappear in my lifetime. It's simply too entrenched in society. But a more attainable goal is to get people looking more critically at their religion, and to 'soften' their attitudes. If people still claimed to believe in god but didn't participate in all those negative behaviors I listed above, then I'd probably lose much of my motivation to speak out against religion.**


There's also the fact that non-believers are deeply mistrusted in this country. I came to my atheism through honest inquiry. There's nothing dishonest or sinister about my worldview - it's simply the way I think the universe is. I could no sooner choose to believe in a god than you could choose to believe in fairies. I don't want to live in a society where people question my integrity simply because I believe in one less thing than they do.

There is a very high level of mistrust of atheists in this country. As summarized in the article, Research Finds that Atheists are Most Hated and Distrusted Minority, a study by the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis found atheists to be more mistrusted than any other minority they asked about. Almost 1/2 of Americans would oppose their child marrying an atheist. A Gallup poll found that just over half of Americans would vote for an otherwise well qualified atheist presidential candidate. According to a study by the University of British Columbia, "participants found a description of an untrustworthy person to be more representative of atheists than of Christians, Muslims, gay men, feminists or Jewish people. Only rapists were distrusted to a comparable degree." And as if all that weren't enough, there are even laws on the books in some states prohibiting atheists from holding public office (though none of those laws would have a chance in court) - Unelectable Atheists: U.S. States That Prohibit Godless Americans From Holding Public Office.

So, by writing so extensively on this blog, people can see the reasons why I became an atheist. There's nothing about my worldview that should be a cause of mistrust. I only became an atheist after seeking out the truth of the universe and being honest with myself. What is untrustworthy about that?


I'll add a fourth reason why I spend so much time on religion - it's a hobby. While some people go skiing, or skydiving, or collect stamps, or do woodworking, I like to study religion. I always have. In fact, it's probably my interest in religion that in large part led to my atheism. If I'd only been marginally interested in religious questions, I probably would have stayed a nominal Christian. But because I was so interested in these types of questions, I dug deeper and discovered the truth. And it's not just Christianity. I enjoyed reading about the Popol Vuh when I was in college. I like Greek and Roman mythology. I've read the Tao Te Ching. There's just something about religion that I find intriguing, even though I don't believe any of it is true.


So, I spend so much time on religion so that I can do my part to help loosen its grip on society, to help share the beauty of the universe, and simply because I like to.


*This is where you get into different interpretations. Many Christians claim that there's a New Covenant, and not all of the Old Testament rules apply anymore. However, according to Matthew 5:18, "For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished." There are other problems with the New Covenant interpretation which I discussed in a previous blog entry, The Old Testament - It's a Bit Strange.

**Yes, I realize there are liberal Christians who aren't fundamentalists. The problem is that they're a minority of Christians. You may run into them more often in intellectual circles, but go down to a Baptist church on a Sunday morning and see what types of attitudes the people have. For example, according to a Gallup poll from 2007, one third of Americans believe the Bible to be literally true, and all but 19% of Americans believe it to be the inspired word of God. As another example, ten years ago, more than half of Americans were opposed to marriage equality. Now, it's about a third (source - DailyKos). Granted, attitudes are changing, but where do you think the still sizable opposition is coming from?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Christian Morality

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismA couple weeks ago when I was checking out websites in preparation for my entry, The Bible on The History Channel - A Disappointing Adaptation, I came across the following page, Week 1 : In the Beginning / Exodus, part of an episode guide to the series. This particular episode contained the incident of Abraham following God's command to take his son Isaac to the top of a mountain to sacrifice him, only to have the human sacrifice stopped at the last second. As I've written a few times before, I knew I was on my path away from Christianity the day I heard this story and questioned its moral.

The episode guide had a bit of discussion on this story, and offered the following lesson.

Faith and obedience. If we obey God only when his command 1) makes sense to us and 2) we agree that it is good, then we are not really obeying God's commands as an expression of trust in his wisdom and his character. Instead, we are merely complying with God's requests only after he has justified himself at the bar of our own moral or intellectual understanding. Will we obey, or merely comply? Will he be the authority, or will we?

That right there is one of the biggest problems with religion. It stunts the development of people's moral compasses. Instead of being moral agents who must try their hardest to determine the best way to behave, people are reduced to slaves following orders. What type of morality can it be to blindly follow rules with no thought given to their consequences?

And even just pretending that there were some truth to Christianity, this blind obedience to God's commands doesn't make sense. Most Christians don't believe in just Yahweh, but also in Satan and his demons. How are we mere mortals to distinguish whether a command is coming from the one true God, or if we're being deceived by the Devil? The only thing we could do is try to determine whether the command was good or not, and only follow the ones that we deemed to be good.

Blind obedience is not a positive trait. We should take responsibility for our own actions, and always try our best to determine the consequences of our actions before we do them. Religion should not be an excuse to shirk that responsibility.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

VW XL1 + E-mail Debunking - China's New "Little Car"

I got an e-mail the other day about a new car supposedly being made in China. The e-mail was partly true, and partly not true. But the truth is so cool that I can't resist blogging about it.

The e-mail claimed that a new car had been developed in China, with a bit of input from Volkswagen, and that the car got phenomenal gas mileage at an unbelievably low price. Well, the price point is unbelievable, and the car was developed by Volkswagen in Germany, not be a Chinese company with input from Volkswagen, but the gas mileage claim is real.

Here are some pictures from the e-mail. These are for the concept prototype, not a production version. The concept was known as the VW 1-Litre Concept Car. The 1-litre designation is because the goal of the car design was to be able to go 100 km on 1 liter of fuel. The car managed to meet that goal, needing just 0.99 liters for 100 km, or to put that in terms familiar to us U.S. readers, it achieved 238 mpg.

VW 1-Litre Concept Car

VW 1-Litre Concept Car

VW 1-Litre Concept Car

Image Credit: Unknown

Volkswagen had a second prototype similar to the original one but with several improvements, and then moved on to a production version. The production version is named the XL1. Here are a couple pictures of it.

VW XL-1

Image Credit: Wikipedia

VW XL-1

Image Credit: Car and Driver

According to Volkswagen, this production version only needs 0.9 liters to travel 100 km, or in other words, it gets 261 mpg. That's pretty amazing. And it sounds like VW is planning on putting the car into production. The catch? It's not cheap. According to a Car and Driver article, the anticipated price is around $50,000.

For those interested in reading more about the car, here are a few good articles on it. And for those interested in the original e-mail that prompted this entry, I'm including that below the fold.

More Info:

Continue reading "VW XL1 + E-mail Debunking - China's New "Little Car"" »

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Progressive War on Science?

War on Science, Image Credit: Khairil ZhafriI subscribe to the Skeptic Society's Skeptic magazine and get their online eSkeptic e-mails. For the most part, it's a pretty good organization, and I enjoy reading their articles. However, nobody's perfect, and I find myself questioning their articles from time to time. This morning, I found a new eSkeptic in my inbox, with the title, The Progressive War on Science. It was a review of a book, Science Left Behind by Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell, claiming that the political left is just as anti-science as the political right. The reviewer mostly just repeated the claims of the book without providing any counter arguments.

Now, I don't think that the left is guilt free in regards to abusing science. It's a problem in society in general, so it's going to cross party lines. The issue is which side is worse. And when out of the entire crop of potential Republican presidential candidates, only three of them supported both anthropogenic climate change and evolution, and then two of them later backpedaled on their positions, I think it's pretty clear which side that is.

The book conceded that Republicans are anti-science on some of those highly visible issues, but claimed that there were other issues where progressives were guilty. The problem, at least according to the examples listed in the article, is that when I was reading through the issues claimed to be problems for progressives, I recognized many of them from the Texas Republican party platforms over the past few years. For example, here's one paragraph from the review.

And despite studies showing conventional crops to be equally nutritional and both personally and environmentally safe (never mind vastly less expensive), "organic" foods--whatever that means in a shamefully unregulated industry--are somehow superior products. Ditto for raw, unpasteurized dairy products and juices left untreated for foodborne illnesses.

Here's what Texas Republicans had to say about that in 2010*:

Unprocessed foods - We support the availability of natural, unprocessed foods, which should be encouraged, and that the right to access raw milk directly from the farmer be protected.

Here's another quote from the article.

They accuse progressives of propagating a number of socially destructive myths, among them the assumptions that everything "natural" is good and everything "unnatural" is bad. Accordingly, homeopathy is just as good as or better than traditional medicine, vaccines actually harm children, and nuclear energy promises unprecedented sickness and loss of life.

In addition to the quote above about unprocessed foods, here are a couple more quotes from the Texas Republican Party Platforms, the first from 2010, and the second from 2012.

Health Care and Nutritional Supplements - We deplore any efforts to mandate that vitamins and other natural supplements be on a prescription-only basis, and we oppose any efforts to remove vitamins and other nutritional supplements from public sale. We support the rights of all adults to their choice of nutritional products. We strongly favor legislation recognizing legitimate alternative health care choices. [emphasis mine - JRL]
Immunizations - All adult citizens should have the legal right to conscientiously choose which vaccines are administered to themselves or their minor children without penalty for refusing a vaccine. We oppose any effort by any authority to mandate such vaccines or any medical database that would contain personal records of citizens without their consent.

This isn't the first time Michael Shermer and the gang over at the Skeptics Society have tried to paint the left as just as bad on science as the right. Shermer had an article in Scientific American earlier this year, The Liberals' War on Science . It was refuted briefly by PZ Myers in his blog entry, Shermer's false equivalencies. As Myers pointed out, and as I alluded to above, ignorance of science is a general problem in the country. However, when it comes to the leadership of the parties, i.e. the elected politicians, there's much more of a problem among Republicans than Democrats. Rebecca Watson has a more in depth rebuttal in her blog entry, Is There a Liberal War on Science?.

There's an interesting article in Mother Jones, It's Not Your Imagination: Republicans Really Don't Like Science. It lists the results of a study looking at trust in science over the years. While conservatives, liberals, and moderates all trusted science roughly equally back in 1974, in recent years, the level of trust among conservatives has plummeted.

Admittedly, the article in eSkeptic this week did list a few problems that do seem to be more of a problem with the left than the right, but when half of your examples don't support the point you're trying to make, then your point probably isn't a very strong one. And considering the points made in some of the other articles linked to above, it really does appear that the problem of anti-science is more of a problem in conservative leadership, not just the rank and file.

Anti-science attitudes are a problem for the whole country and cross political divides, but it's more pronounced on one side in particular, and it's not the progressives.

Related Entries:

Image Credit: Khairil Zhafri, Flickr


*As shown by the 'Related Entries' links above, I've reviewed the Texas Republican Party Platforms for the past few years. I skimmed through my reviews to find the quotes I included in this article. There may be relevant sections to each of the issues from the most current platform, but I don't feel like wading through that entire document again. Plus, it's not as if 2008 is the distant past. Showing that Republicans were supporting those issues as recently as 5 years ago shows that it's not a 'liberal' problem.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Bible on The History Channel - A Disappointing Adaptation

The Bible on The History ChannelThe History Channel just aired the premiere of a new mini series, The Bible. Since I'm in the midst of reading the entire Bible right now (see my series, Friday Bible Blogging), and I'd just finished with the book of Numbers, I figured this first episode on the early books of the Old Testament would be right up my alley.

To be honest, I didn't pay very close attention to the commercials for the series, so my preconceptions weren't accurate. Since it was the History Channel, I was expecting a documentary, albeit one with a lot of special effects and reenactments of the stories (is 'reenactments' really the right word for myths?). Had I actually paid attention or looked at the History Channel's website, I would have known that this is a mini series. There is no commentary or analysis. It's simply a dramatization of the stories, with a narrator at points to help move the episode along.

Still, a mini series could be good. I thought it might be interesting to see some of the stories I've been reading about come to life on the small screen. Here's the description of the series from the History Channel.

The Bible comes to life in HISTORY's epic new series. From Genesis to Revelation, these unforgettable stories unfold through live action and cutting-edge computer-generated imagery, offering new insight into famous scenes and iconic characters. Created by producer Mark Burnett and featuring an international cast that includes Roma Downey, this 10-hour docudrama explores the sacred text's most significant episodes, including Noah's journey in the ark, the Exodus and the life of Jesus.

Sounds okay so far. What's more, while they're calling it a 'docu-drama', they're claiming to have consulted with a lot of experts in the making of the series. Here's a quote from the About page on Outreach.com, specifically from the section, Biblical Accuracy & The Bible.

According to an interview with Ms. Downey the miniseries, "...is being made with full hearts. We've had scholars and theologians help. We're not pretending to be biblical experts. We brought experts in once the scripts were created to take a look at the scripts to make sure we were accurate and true to the Bible, but obviously we're making a movie, and so we breathed creative expansion into that."

The Bible project advisors include:

Rick Warren - Pastor, Saddleback, Erwin McManus - Pastor, Mosaic, Jim Daly - Focus on the Family, Sam Rodriguez - National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, Paul Eshleman - Campus Crusade for Christ, Bobby Gruenewald - YouVersion Bible, Brad Lomenick - Catalyst, Leith Anderson - National Association of Evangelicals, Frank Wright - National Religious Broadcasters, Tom Peterson - Catholics Come Home, Geoff Tunnicliffe - World Evangelical Alliance, Gabe Lyons - Q, Luis Palau, George Wood - Assemblies of God, Craig Groeschel - Life Church, Denny Rydberg - Young Life, Andrew Benton - Pepperdine University

That sounds so promising (well, at least from the point of view that they'd tried to keep everything as close to the Bible as possible). Unfortunately, after watching just a bit of that first episode, I was extremely disappointed. As happens so often with film adaptations of books, too much had been changed. That's unexpected for a supposedly sacred book believed to be the divinely inspired word of God, especially when the producers are Christians themselves. I was also disappointed in that it left too much out. I know it would have been impossible to include every detail from the Bible, but some of the omissions were significant.

To get into details, the series began with Noah's Ark. For some reason, this has always been one of my favorite stories from the Bible. But the amount of coverage it got was miniscule - just a few minutes showing Noah reciting a paraphrased version of the first creation story from Genesis to his family while they were getting tossed about in the ark, with cuts to scenes of the creation. And that was it. No scenes of Noah building the ark, loading the animals, getting everything off the ark when the flood was all over, sacrificing all the animals, getting drunk and cursing Canaan. It was as if Noah's Ark was used only because it provided a good opportunity for special effects. (As a side note, I was also struck by how roomy the ark was inside - not crowded at all for a boat carrying specimens of every land animal on Earth.)

When Abraham and Lot were doing their travelings, and it became clear that their herds were becoming too big to keep together, the Bible states, "8 Then Abram said to Lot, 'Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herders and my herders; for we are kindred. 9 Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.' " Not so in The Bible mini series. At the urging of his wife, Lot told Abraham that they'd decided not to follow Abraham any longer, and to go settle near Sodom. And Abraham was distraught, begging Lot to remain with him. Why? It wasn't to help shorten the story to fit time constraints. It was a needless change.

And then there was the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Even the way the angels found Lot's house was different from in the Bible. Instead of simply meeting him and being invited in, they were being chased by an angry mob and were in need of help. When the mob tried to get into Lot's house, there was no mention of their wanting to 'know' the angels, and Lot never offered his daughters to the mob in exchange for the strangers' safety. Those omissions would have taken less than 30 seconds to include. But perhaps worst of all for this chapter of the story, when it came time to flee the city, it was a battle. And the angels were the warriors. I read one review that called them angel ninjas. It was ludicrous.

Abraham's story had so many interesting points that were left out. Sara never became the wife of the Pharaoh. Abraham never built his altars and made his sacrifices (there was a telling omission of animal sacrifices in general), nor dug his wells. The Tower of Babel and other stories were left out entirely. I understand that some details had to be omitted, but when there were gratuitous scenes like the ninja angels, or another invented scene where Moses fought with his step brother, you know that the producers did have the time to include some more actual details from the Bible rather than invent things out of thin air. It also seemed to me that some of the omissions were sanitizing the stories.

I could go on, but the main point is that this adaptation played very fast and loose in its interpretation of the Bible. Just about every part I watched (at least until I fell asleep some time around the Exodus from Egypt) had glaringly obvious differences from the book. Obviously, I'm not troubled by this for any theological reasons myself, but the nerd in me just hates to see film adaptations butcher their source material. If you really want to know what's in the Bible (and it's not pretty), go read it for yourself.

Image Source: BibleSeriesResources.com


Update 2013-03-08 Added sentence about Abraham being distraught when Lot decided to leave. Also clarified sacrifices as animal sacrifices.

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