Skepticism, Religion Archive

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Why I Am an Atheist

If you're at all familiar with the skeptical blogosphere, you've probably heard of PZ Myers' blog, Pharyngula, and you may even have heard of his 'Why I Am an Atheist' series. He put out a call for submissions for people to tell their own stories, and has been publishing those stories on a regular basis (here's an example of one of my favorites.) I sent in my own essay - we'll see if it ever gets posted on his site. It's a bit of repetition of things I've already said on this blog, but it brings them all together in one place, so I thought it would be nice to print it here.

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismI grew up in a religious house. We went to church every Sunday; my mother was director of the CCD program; my brothers and I were even altar boys (with none of the controversy that has come to light recently). This wasn't all just ceremony. I sincerely believed in God and Jesus, and thought I could feel His presence when I prayed.

But as I got older, I began to question my religious beliefs, and eventually realized that I'd been mistaken. There was no moment of epiphany. The gradual realization came after several years of research and intense self-reflection. I didn't become an atheist just because I didn't like going to church Sunday mornings, or because I didn't want to have to follow the rules anymore. I don't "hate God" (it's a little hard to hate an entity you don't believe in). I read the Bible. I studied science. I read up on philosophy. I became an atheist because that's the way I think the universe really is. But don't confuse atheism with Postmodernism or Nihilism. I still think there's an objective reality. I still worry about how to be a good person. I just no longer see a god as being part of that.


While there were numerous initial seeds of doubt, the process began in earnest in an attempt to reconcile the Bible with the actual history of the planet as revealed through geology and biology. It was at the time Intelligent Design was making big headlines. I'd just recently learned how many people were creationists (prior to that, I'd naively thought most people accepted evolution and the ancient age of the Earth), and it made me wonder if I was being a bad Christian for not taking the Bible at face value. So, I looked into evolution and creationism in a lot more depth than I had before. The evidence for evolution and an ancient Earth are even more overwhelming that I'd already known, and there's really no doubt over them. But still being a good Christian, I vainly thought I'd be able to write a convincing essay showing how the Bible could be interpreted figuratively and still be accepted as true. However, by the time I'd finished researching the essay, I realized that the Bible couldn't have been divinely inspired. I didn't give up Christianity all at once with that realization, but it was a big first step, and within another year or two, I'd basically become an atheist. Obviously, there was a lot more to the process than just realizing that Genesis wasn't accurate, but that could take an entire book to write. [cough, cough - $4.99 from Lulu (or free online)]

This period is also when I took on the responsibility of becoming a father. In fact, once I began having doubts about my religion, this responsibility was one of the main things that drove me to research the issue further - how could I teach my daughter things that I wasn't sure of myself? At first, as a Christian, there was no question on how to address religion with her - respect everybody's views, but Christianity was the true religion. But once I started having my own doubts, things weren't so easy. I'm pretty sure I'm right in my atheism, but I want her to think for herself, and I don't want to indoctrinate her into any particular view like I was into Christianity. So, I make sure that she understands that she's going to have to decide these things for herself.

Until very recently, my daughter went with one of her friends to her friend's church every Wednesday night - kind of like Sunday school, except, well, on Wednesdays. So in addition to me trying to teach her about various religions, she got to hear about Christianity from actual believers. The thing is, without that strong pressure from parents to accept Christianity, it's not an easy thing for kids to swallow, especially when they're being raised with a respect for science. I don't mean to say that religion and science are necessarily antithetical, but science teaches you to question everything and look for evidence. In that sense, faith just doesn't cut it.

Now that I have questioned religion, there's no going back. I didn't simply choose to be an atheist. I studied all the evidence I could find, initially in an attempt to become a better Christian, and atheism was the unavoidable conclusion. I could no more choose to go back to being a Christian than I could choose to go back to believing in Santa Claus, or choose to believe that the Earth is flat. I opened Pandora's Box, and it can't be closed again.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Book Update

Book Cover to Leaving Christianity: A Collection of Essays by Jeff LewisWell apparently, the link that I first got to sell my book on Lulu has changed, and I never realized it. So, anyone who clicked on the link in the sidebar of the blog homepage got an error message from Lulu saying that the product couldn't be found. I'm sure that explains why my book hasn't become a runaway best seller.

So, I fixed the link on the blog homepage, as well as in the Religion section of the site (where you can read the essays for free), and in all the blog entries that mentioned the book. I guess that now I can expect the profits to start rolling in.

Anyway, here are links to the various formats where you can buy the book.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Science and Engineering Indicators 2012

NSB LogoEvery two years, the National Science Foundation comes out with a report on Science and Engineering Indicators, detailing the state of science and engineering in this country, including public perception and understanding. The latest report is out at Science and Engineering Indicators 2012. Since 2004, I've written a short blog entry each time on that public understanding part (2004, 2006, 2008, & 2010). I'd always known that people didn't understand science well, but I was amazed at just how ignorant the population is.

Per my usual approach, I've reproduced some of the data from the section on public understanding of science. This year, however, I'm presenting the tables using an image format (I'm tired of fighting the formatting to make an HTML version fit). If you want an actual HTML version, you can find them here: Tables in HTML Format

This first table shows the U.S. compared to other nations. Honestly, the U.S. doesn't stack up so bad. Other than the questions that contradict a literal interpretation of Genesis, the scientific understanding of U.S. citizens is on par with those of other countries.

It's worth noting that the questions are organized a bit differently this year (separated between the physical sciences and the biological sciences). There was also a new question on cloning that hadn't been asked in years past. And two questions that were dropped a couple years ago to some attendant controversy have been brought back - the questions on the big bang and human evolution.

Science and Engineering Indicators Comparison Between Nations

This next table is something that had been included in previous years' reports, but I couldn't seem to find it this year. So, I made it on my own. Below that is a graph of that same data, making it a bit easier to see the trends. All in all, nothing much has changed since they started doing these surveys. The only two questions that have shown significant variation over the years are 'The universe began with a huge explosion' and 'Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria'. The big bang question only appears to have changed significantly due to an exceptionally high number of correct answers for the first year for which data is provided (54%). Since then, it's held steady at about 1 in 3 people getting it right. The antibiotics question showed a trend of significant improvement for many years, but seems to have plateaued in 2006 at 56% - the next two reports after that show a slight decrease.

Science and Engineering Indicators U.S. Trends

Science and Engineering Indicators U.S. Trends

Since nothing much has changed, I'm just going to quote my conclusion from two years ago, instead of trying to think of something new.

"Just look at those results - around a quarter of Americans think that the Sun goes around the Earth, half don't realize that electrons are smaller than atoms, and half don't know that it takes a year for the Earth to go around the Sun! Keep that in mind whenever you hear people citing public opinion polls on the validity of concepts like global warming or evolution.

"It's always a bit depressing to see those numbers. It's hard to believe that the people of our nation are so ignorant. If there's one lesson to take away from these results, it's that we need to vastly improve our education system."

Friday, March 2, 2012

Evil Girl Scouts

Girl ScoutsThis is a bit old news by now, but I couldn't let it pass by completely without comment.

The Indiana House of Representatives had a resolution to recognize the 100th Anniversary of Girl Scouts of America. One of the Republican representatives, Bob Morris, refused to vote for the resolution. His reason? Among others, that Girl Scouts is a "radicalized organization" that "promote[s] homosexual lifestyles", and that they're being used by Planned Parenthood into "sexualizing young girls through the Girl Scouts".

Morris wrote a letter to his fellow Republicans explaining his views. It can be read in its entirety at the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette.

While Morris was the only member of the Indiana House to not support the resolution, he is not a lone crackpot on this issue. There are more people than I'd like to imagine who are opposed to Girl Scouts for the reasons he discussed. So, for that anti-Girl Scout movement, I think it's worth taking a look at Morris's letter.

Morris's comments haven't gone unnoticed. The council up there, Girl Scouts of Northern Indiana / Michiana, has released a statement responding to Morris's claims:
What We Stand For

I guess I should also add that my wife and I are the co-leaders of our daughter's Girl Scout troop. While that may make us biased in favor of the organization, it also means that we're actually involved and know what actually goes on in Girl Scout activities.


Morris's comments are what I've come to expect from the extreme right - a combination of some things that simply aren't true, and some things that are true but where I disagree with his opinion. Let's start with this one from near the start of his letter.

The Girl Scouts of America and their worldwide partner, World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS), have entered into a close strategic affiliation with Planned Parenthood.

No, they haven't. How many times do different branches of Girl Scouts need to set the record straight before he'll believe it. Neither the council in Indiana nor the national GSUSA have any official ties to Planned Parenthood. I don't know for sure abut WAGGGS, but they don't set the agenda for GSUSA, anyway.

Here's one of the claims about Planned Parenthood's influence.

A Girl Scouts of America training program last year used the Planned Parenthood sex education pamphlet "Happy, Healthy, and Hot." The pamphlet instructs young girls not to think of sex as "just about vaginal or anal intercourse." "There is no right or wrong way to have sex. Just have fun, explore and be yourself!" it states. Although individual Girl Scout troops are not forced to follow this curriculum, many do. Liberal progressive troop-leaders will indoctrinate the girls in their troop according to the principles of Planned Parenthood, making Bishop Conley's warning true.

Now, I don't know whether or not that pamphlet might have been used, but I'll assume it was included as part of a training program for leaders as an example of the type of material they could use when talking with their girls, if they were going to get into that topic. We haven't gotten into any type of sex ed with our troop (and if we ever do, I doubt I'll be a part of that meeting), but it is something I expect a scouting organization to at least touch on. It was something I had to do when I was in Boy Scouts years ago. Remember that any type of sex ed in scouting is kept age appropriate, and that scouting covers a broad age range. It's not as if people are talking to Brownies or Cub Scouts about sex. Those discussions are for the older scouts, who have already reached puberty, and who will have questions about it. And the policy of the Girl Scouts is to make sure that parents approve beforehand of their girls being in those types of discussions. It's not something leaders would just spring on the girls.

Not knowing exactly what was in that pamphlet, I can't see any problems with what Morris quoted from it. No, sex is not "just about vaginal or anal intercourse". It carries a lot more emotion than simply 'making babies', and is as much about an emotional connection with your partner as a physical one. The part about "no right or wrong way" and to "have fun, explore and be yourself" sounds entirely reasonable to me. It's removing the stigma so that people will be comfortable in their sexuality, not ashamed of 'dirty' feelings.

(Well whaddya know - per Snopes, the Girl Scouts never did use those handouts.)

Many parents are abandoning the Girl Scouts because they promote homosexual lifestyles. In fact, the Girl Scouts education seminar girls are directed to study the example of role models. Of the fifty role models listed, only three have a briefly-mentioned religious background - all the rest are feminists, lesbians, or Communists.

Oh, the horror - lesbians and feminists. Just because Morris is bigoted doesn't mean the Girl Scouts should be. One of the things I've been really impressed by with the Girl Scouts is their tolerance and inclusivity.

Plus, I'd sure like to see some documentation of what he's claiming. I can't recall any of the literature we've gotten from the Girl Scouts with anybody being used as a role model because of their sexual orientation. In fact, I can't recall any literature that discussed anybody's sexual preference at all. And I certainly can't think of anybody who was used as a role model for communism.

As far as feminism - what does he expect? Sexism has been a major problem in our country's history, and it was feminists who fought against it. Shouldn't Girl Scouts point out some of those feminists who paved the way for the girls of today.

World Net Daily, in a May 2009 article, states that Girl Scout Troops are no longer allowed to pray or sing traditional Christmas Carols.

World Net Daily? Really?

Anyway, I can assure you that none of that is true. Our council (much to my own personal chagrine) starts dinners and luncheons with a prayer. We've never been told that we weren't allowed to pray with our girls (though obviously, I don't do it), and there are no rules against singing 'We Three Kings'.

Boys who decide to claim a "transgender" or cross-dressing life-style are permitted to become a member of a Girl Scout troop, performing crafts with the girls and participate in overnight and camping activities - just like any real girl.

Who the hell cares? If a kid wants to dress up like a girl and do 'girl activities', and their parents support it and have talked to a counselor about it, who am I to disagree? To be perfectly honest, I'd prefer that there was just Scouts, without the gender distinction. That's how Campfire does it. And once they get old enough, girls can join the Explorers branch of Boy Scouts.

The fact that the Honorary President of Girl Scouts of America is Michelle Obama, and the Obama's are radically pro-abortion and vigorously support the agenda of Planned Parenthood, should give each of us reason to pause before our individual or collective endorsement of the organization.

Does this guy know what 'honorary' means? She's a figurehead, with no real influence over the organization. The First Lady has been the Honorary President since Lou Henry Hoover. They're not picked for their political leanings, but simply because they're the wife of the president. (I can only assume that the first female president will also be made the Honorary President of the GSUSA.)

Now that I am aware of the influence of Planned Parenthood within GSA and other surprisingly radical policies of GSA, my two daughters will instead become active in American Heritage Girls Little Flowers organization. In this traditional group they will learn about values and principles that will not confuse their conservative Hoosier upbringing.

Yeah, all that tolerance from the Girl Scouts sure is confusing.


If you have the time, I really do recommend reading the What We Stand For section from the Girl Scouts of Northern Indiana / Michiana. Here are excerpts of a few of my favorite sections.

GSNI-M remains dedicated to our values of creating an accepting environment where girls build leadership skills necessary for success, supported by our committed staff and dedicated volunteers. We believe that Girl Scouting is the place to develop moral values, strong ethics, and a social conscience which will serve girls throughout their lives.
That said, if the child is recognized by the family and school/community as a girl and lives culturally as a girl, then Girl Scouts of Northern Indiana - Michiana is an organization that can server her in a setting that is both emotionally and physically safe.
Yes. Girl Scouting suuports girls from all backgrounds and beliefs. While we are a secular organization that refrains from teaching religious or spiritual beliefs or practices, we believe that the motivating force in Girl Scouting is a spiritual one, and we greatly value our longstanding partnerships with religious organizations across many faiths that share the values of the Girl Scout Promise and Law.

Their response exemplified the values of scouting, without being craven and caving to pressure from extremists. After reading it all, it made me proud to be involved in the Girl Scouts.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Local Church Misunderstands Evolution - Why Are There Still Apes?

My wife spotted an interesting message on a sign out in front of one of the churches here in town. So, she took a picture of it and texted it to me.

Church Sign

For anyone that can't download images, here's the message.

IF MAN CAME FROM APES WHY ARE THERE STILL APES?

I've been seeing this as a parody of creationists for so long, that it's almost a bit surreal to see someone actually using it seriously. And it's not just some random commenter on a blog, but the message a church is putting out to the public. Even if the sign person at the church has enough freedom where the message doesn't have to get approved by someone else first, my wife tells me that the message has been up for over a week - plenty of time for someone in the congregation to say something about it.

I could just point and laugh at the sign, which may even have been enough for this entry, but that's not very productive. So, while I've covered this on the blog before, since the prior coverage was brief, I'll go through again explaining why this question sounds silly once you actually understand evolution. Since I have covered this before, some of the content below has been copied copiously from a previous post.

One of the easiest ways to see the error in this line of thinking is to use an analogy. I'll use myself as an example. My great great grandfather and grandmother on one side were German - not just of German ancestry, but born in Germany and immigrants to the U.S. So, I can quite literally say that I am descended from Germans. But it's also quite obvious that I'm not descended from any living Germans. A certain group of Germans and I share a common ancestry through my great great great grandparents. The descendants of my great great great grandparents split into two lineages - one that continued in the U.S., and one that continued in Germany. That lineage in Germany is composed of my cousins, not my ancestors.

Another way to see the error in this line of thinking is to pose it with a different group of animals. It's a bit like asking, 'If crows evolved from birds, why are there still birds?'

It's a very similar case with us and chimpanzees and bonobos. Around 6 million years ago, there was a population of apes that was neither human, chimpanzee, nor bonobo. Over the generations, this population split into multiple lineages, each of which evolved independently. Most of those lineages have gone extinct, but there are still three of us left. We are cousins. We can go back further in time and find the ancestor that we share with gorillas, and further to find the ancestor we share with orangutans, and on and on all the way back till life began. None of those ancestors will look exactly like any of their modern descendents, since evolution has been occurring in all of the lineages. (Obviously, we haven't actually found fossils of all species that have ever existed. But, in the same way that you know you must have a great great great great great great grandmother, even if you don't have any record of her, we also know that we must have common ancestors with Earth's other organisms, even if we haven't yet found their fossils.)

I think there's another misconception associated with this assertion. I think it goes back to the Great Chain of Being, where people feel that evolution is directed, and that us humans are the pinnacle. That's not the case. Much of the change that occurs in evolution is through mutation and natural selection (though those aren't the only drivers). Mutation is random. It just happens, without any conscious intent. Think about yourself - did you pick any of the mutations that make your DNA slightly different from your parents? Did you pick any of the mutations that make your children's different from yours? Natural selection isn't random. It acts like a filter - eliminating the mutations that don't work as well, while allowing the ones that do to pass through. But it's only a filter. It relies on the raw material from random mutations.

It's also important to keep in mind that mutations aren't good or bad on their own. It all depends on the environment an organism is living in, the animals lifestyle, and other factors. DNA to make gills is very useful for a fish, but wouldn't do a damn for us.

So, let's go back to that ancestral population of apes. Somehow, it got split into at least two lineages. Those lineages, once they became reproductively isolated, could no longer share DNA between each other. So, whatever beneficial mutations popped up in one population would have been available only in that population. Any mutations that made the eventual chimp lineage better at climbing trees, for example, would have been unavailable to our lineage. Likewise, any mutations that made or lineage better at walking on the ground would not have been available to the lineage that led to chimps & bonobos. So, once that population was split, the two lineages went their own separate evolutionary ways.

Environment could also have played a role. Now, I doubt the following is exactly what happened, but it's an interesting thought experiment. What could have caused that ancestral population to become split? Imagine that it was a new river, that cut through their range. Imagine that the river became so big that the ancestral apes couldn't cross it. And suppose that on one side of the river, the forest stayed largely intact, while on the other side, the forest gave way to savannah. Now, with one lineage living in forest, and the other in savannah, you can see how natural selection would have favored different mutations in each of the two lineages, causing each to evolve markedly differently.

So, once you understand a bit about how evolution works, the question 'If man came from apes, why are the still apes?' seems nonsensical, and even a bit silly.


Here's a related blog entry I wrote a few years ago:
Why Do People Have a Problem With Our Relation to Other Apes?

That entry also addresses the semantics of this a bit. In my opinion, we are just a type of ape, so saying that we evolved from apes just seems obvious.

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