Skepticism, Religion Archive

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Reminder of Texas BoE

Just a reminder to anybody who lives in Texas - the final vote on the state science standards is this week. If you haven't already done so, write you board member today.

More Info:
Steve Schafersman's Blog
Strengths & Limitations Entry on this Blog
Results from Earlier Meeting on this Blog

Friday, February 20, 2009

Why I Write about Atheism

The other day, my wife asked me why I write so much about my atheism on my blog. What am I trying to accomplish? Aren't I concerned about the possible negative consequences considering how prejudiced people can be towards atheists down here in the south?

One reason why I write so much about it is that writing things down helps me to organize my thoughts. When I'm simply thinking about things, I can have dozens of thoughts bouncing around in my head, and I may dwell on some of those thoughts, without following others to their logical conclusions. Writing those thoughts with an idea that someone else is going to read them forces me to present them coherently and to try to see the thoughts all the way through. Still, there wouldn't be any reason to publicize such writings if that was the only reason I did it.

There are actually several audiences I have in mind when I write my blog entries. One is the group of people who are very religious and have an open mind. I don't expect to 'convert' those people to atheism, but perhaps they will begin to question certain aspects of their religion and be a little less dogmatic (for example - the Christians who use the Old Testament to condemn homosexuality, but have no problem doing chores on Sunday, eating shrimp, or wearing a polyester/cotton blend shirt).

Then, there are the people who have already started to question things. I would hope that they find my essays informative and helpful. I would also hope that one more voice on the web helps them to see that they're not alone in having doubts.

The final audience is the group that's prejudiced towards atheists. The term, atheist, carries such a negative connotation in our society - many people even take it as a personal insult to be called an atheist. A recent study found atheists to be the most distrusted group out of all the options in the survey (which included other groups such as Muslims, homosexuals, Hispanics, conservative Christians, recent immigrants, Jews, Whites, and African-Americans). There really isn't any reason that it should be that way (or frankly why any of those groups should be distrusted). It's a term that simply describes one aspect of your view of the universe, and says nothing about your nature or what type of person you are. So, I would hope that those people who are prejudiced towards atheists would read my blog entries, and even if it changes nothing about how they view religion for themselves, that they will at least realize that most atheists aren't evil, amoral, hedonistic, or any of the other stereotypes that many believe. We're just normal people who happen to believe in one less thing than most.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Texas Board of Education - Bad Results for Science Standards

TEA LogoMan, this is frustrating. There's been quite a bit of discussion recently over a small phrase in the current Texas science standards, whether to teach the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories. I wrote a blog entry specifically about that language, as well as several related entries about the Board of Education (election results, teach 'both' sides, review panel, shenanigans, and Chris Comer). Basically, I considered this a rather small issue - the language has been on the books for over a decade, it doesn't explicitly call for teaching creationsim, and competent teachers are going to teach science well, anyway. The only problem is that it opens a loophole for incompetent teachers to bring up bogus claims.

Well, with as much as people have concentrated on the "strengths and weaknesses" language, it seemed like a victory when the board voted (7-7) to keep the draft standards recommend by the expert panel of scientists and teachers, which instead used the language, "The student is expected to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing". However, that sense of victory was very short lived, when Don McLeroy managed to get language inserted into the standards questioning the very concept of common descent. See Steve Schafersman's post or the Texas Freedom Network's post for more details.

I had sent an e-mail to Gail Lowe hoping to influence her decision as one of her constituents. Unfortunately, I don't think I had any effect, as she was one of the seven on the creationist side in all these votes. I'll keep on writing her for the final vote this March.

For anyone interested, my e-mail is included below the fold.

Continue reading "Texas Board of Education - Bad Results for Science Standards" »

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

My Atheism and My Family

I'm an atheist, but I haven't always been one. My "deconversion" was a process that began around 3 1/2 years ago, and took over a year to be more or less complete.

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. 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 at the time Intelligent Design was making big headlines. It made me wonder if I was being a bad Christian for not taking the Bible at face value. Well, the evidence for evolution and an ancient Earth are so overwhelming that there's really no doubt over them, so 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's not the point of this essay, so I won't bore the reader with those details (see here or here for more details, if you're interested).

It was around 6 years ago that I met the woman who was to become my wife. At the time, she was the one having doubts. Since I was still a good Christian then, I did a good job of telling her apologetics and getting her to start going back to church again. I was even the one who insisted that we get married in a church. Consider that it was only a few years later that I so thoroughly reversed my views, and you can imagine that she felt a bit mislead.

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, being a good 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 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'm extremely sensitive to pointing out to her that she's going to have to decide these things for herself. (When I was partway through my deconversion and still considered myself a deist, I wrote about this in a series of e-mails with another non-Christian parent. Some of what I'm writing here I brought up in that essay, but they're still tough issues.)

My daughter goes 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 gets 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 - plenty of scientists are religious, and plenty of religious people reconcile their beliefs with what we learn through science - but science teaches you to question everything and look for evidence. In that sense, faith just doesn't cut it.

Perhaps what I worry about with her the most is that she'll say the wrong thing to the wrong person. Kids can be mean (and when it comes down to it, so can adults). With the strong emotions that religion can elicit, I worry how others would react if she were to say that her father was an atheist, or even if she decided that she herself didn't believe in God. To be honest, it was such an incident that got me to write this entry to begin with. At one of her extracurricular activities, she got into an argument with a boy over whether someone had to believe in God to be a good person, and he gave her a hard time until my wife got there at the normal time to pick her up. I don't want my daughter to have to go through things like that. I don't want to live vicariously through her and have her fighting religious battles simply because I'm an atheist. But at the same time, I don't want to lie to her just to make her life easier.

In The God Delusion, one of the points that Richard Dawkins makes is that we shouldn't call children Christian, or Muslim, or atheist, or anything of the sort. Children are still too young to have given these issues enough thought, and we shouldn't classify them based on their parents' beliefs. Oh, if that were only the case! Unfortunately, it seems to me as if freethinkers are about the only ones who think this way, and the religious have no problem applying such classifications. A part of me asks why I have to be so damn sensitive to pointing out everybody else's beliefs, when almost everybody else simply teaches their kids their own beliefs as the truth.

Sometimes, I almost wish that I hadn't started to question religion at all. Things would be so much simpler. I wouldn't have to worry about how people would treat my family if they found out my beliefs. I wouldn't question what worldview to teach my daughter, and fret over whether I was raising her properly (at least on this specific topic - I'm pretty sure parents always fret over their children). I wouldn't have to worry about her being discriminated against for simply repeating something she might overhear me say. I wouldn't feel like I had betrayed my wife.

But 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.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Another Similarity Between Osiris & Jesus

OsirisIn my essay, Abadoning Christianity, I briefly discuss some similarities between Osiris and Jesus. I quoted E.A. Wallis Budge, from his introduction to his translation of the Egyptian Book of the Dead (starting on page li),

This is the story of the sufferings and death of Osiris as told by Plutarch. Osiris was the god through whose suffering and death the Egyptians hoped that his body might rise again in some transformed or glorified shape, and to him who had conquered death and had become the king of the other world the Egyptian appealed in prayer for eternal life through his victory and power. In every funeral inscription known to us, from the pyramid texts down to the roughly-written prayers upon coffins of the Roman period, what is done for Osiris is done also for the deceased, the state and condition of Osiris are the state and condition of the deceased; in a word, the deceased is identified with Osiris. If Osiris liveth for ever, the deceased will live for ever; if Osiris dieth, then will the deceased perish.

Later in the XVIIIth, or early in the XIXth dynasty, we find Osiris called 'the king of eternity, the lord of everlastingness, who traverseth millions of years in the duration of his life, the firstborn son of the womb of Nut, begotten of Seb, the prince of gods and men, the god of gods, the king of kings, the lord of lords, the prince of princes, the governor of the world, from the womb of Nut, whose existence is everlasting, Unnefer of many froms and of many attributes, Tmu in Annu, the lord of Akert, the only one, the lord of the land on each side of the celestial Nile.'

In that essay, I wrote, "The first paragraph above, shows the similarity in roles of Osiris and Jesus - that through their resurrection humans can attain eternal life. The second paragraph shows the similarity in how they are addressed in literature, although it would be easy to see how these lofty praises could be addressed to any powerful figure. At any rate, seeing some of the important traits of Jesus in a mythical figure that predates him, does call into question the source of those concepts in Christianity."

Well, I'm currently re-reading The Egyptian Book of the Dead (I meant to be finished before my visit to the King Tut and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs Exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art, but it's taking me a bit longer than I'd hoped). I just noticed another similarity between Osiris and Jesus (page cxxxviii).

It is to be noticed how closely the deceased is identified with Osiris, the type of incorruptibility. Osiris takes upon himself "all that is hateful" in the dead : that is, he adopts the burden of his sins; and the dead is purified by the typical sprinkling of water.

So, it's not only through Osiris's resurrection that the Egyptians thought they could attain eternal life, but they even envisioned Osiris as performing a function very similar to forgiving them of their sins.

And now that I'm through with Budge's introduction and actually getting into the Book of the Dead itself, I found an interesting passage right in the first chapter.

Thine enemy[8] is given to the (10) fire, the evil one hath fallen; his arms are bound, and his legs hath Ra taken from him. The children of (11) impotent revolt shall never rise up again.

[8 The enemy of Ra was darkness and night, or any cloud which obscured the light of the sun. The darkness personified was Apep, Nak, etc., and his attendant fiends were the mesu betesh, or 'children of unsuccessful revolt.']

So, here's a passage that sounds suspiciously like Lucifer's unsuccesful revolt from the Bible, and a subsequent banishing into a realm of fire. Although, I have a feeling that revolts against the primary deity are pretty common in mythology.

Just as a note on this, as I wrote in that essay, be careful if you plan to research this subject further. That's probably good advice for anything you plan to research, whether the old fashioned way or on the Internet, but I've found many oversimplified lists of the similarities between Christiany and previous religions that don't seem to be entirely accurate.

For further information, Budge's translation of & introduction to the book of the dead can be found here. Another online version with pictures can be found here.


Selling Out