February 23, 2015 - 3:40 pm

I was horrified when I heard of the tragic murders on February 10 of three Muslim college students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. My sorrow was compounded when I learned that Deah Barakat, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, and her sister Razan Abu-Salha were shot by an atheist, Craig Stephen Hicks.

Media, of course, tried to learn as much as possible about Hicks and his motive for these senseless killings. Speculation included his hatred of religion, disputes over parking spaces, and whether it was a "hate crime." In Facebook postings, Hicks said, "I hate Islam just as much as christianity, but they have the right to worship in this country just as much as any others do." Hicks might be more pro-Second Amendment than anti-religion, because one post included a photo of a revolver and the warning, "If you are anti-gun, defriend me NOW!!!" (Several people said Hicks would show up at their door, gun on hip, to complain about a visitor who had parked in someone else's spot.)


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February 12, 2015 - 10:55 am

February 12, 1809 must have seemed like an ordinary day to those alive at the time, but we now know it was the day that two giants of humanity were born: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. Lincoln ended slavery in the United States in the nineteenth century, and Darwin made one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century.

But the same people vilified both of these great men, often for the same reason: biblical literalists found scriptural reasons to promote slavery and denigrate the theory of evolution.

Lincoln is now revered for what he accomplished — the humanist principle that it is morally wrong for one person to own another is commonly accepted. But moral issues are more easily understood than scientific ones, which is why so many Americans today who reject slavery still cling to a creationist worldview.

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January 28, 2015 - 12:01 pm

A few months ago, Patton Dodd highly recommended two books for Christians who are experiencing acute and painful doubt. Though I’m an atheist who experiences no such painful doubts, I do experience painless curiosity about books meant to “cure” such doubts. Eternally behind on my to-read list (if I believed in eternity), I decided to read one of these books.

Both recommended books promote liberal Christianity. I only read excerpts of My Bright Abyss, about Christian Wiman’s spiritual growth when confronted with his own mortality, coupled with suggestions on resolving faith paradoxes. I fully read the book with the more intriguing title, The Bible Tells Me So, by Peter Enns. Maybe I was inspired by childhood memories of the song by the same simplistic title.

Most atheists would agree with much of what Enns says about the Bible. I’ll first mention my points of agreement before explaining why we come to opposite conclusions.

Points of agreement

I agree with Enns that the Bible largely consists of made-up stories by unknown authors attempting to explain their views of the world and its origins. These authors sometimes modified stories from earlier cultures to shape their present needs and goals. There are countless biblical contradictions, as well as historical and scientific falsities.


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January 14, 2015 - 2:01 pm

Many people tell me they wouldn’t mind if I were an agnostic, but that I shouldn’t be so arrogant as to be an atheist.

I used to call myself an agnostic because I could not logically prove whether a god exists, so I took the agnostic position that the existence of any god is unknown — and perhaps unknowable. I was without belief in any gods and thought it highly improbable that any supernatural beings exist. When I learned that this view is consistent with atheism, I became an atheist.

So, my “conversion” from agnosticism to atheism was more definitional than theological. In reality, depending on how terms are defined and their context, I can accurately call myself an atheist or an agnostic, as well as a humanist, secular humanist, freethinker, skeptic, rationalist, infidel, and more.

I’m curious about why people find “atheist” so much more threatening than “agnostic” when self-described “atheists” and “agnostics” often hold identical views about deities. As with atheists, agnostics almost never give equal merit to belief and disbelief. For instance, I can neither prove nor disprove the following claims.


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January 8, 2015 - 10:24 am

The recent PBS documentary, Thinking Money: The psychology behind our best and worst financial decisions, never mentions religion, but I couldn’t help but relate the worst money decisions it describes to belief in God. (My favorite connection between money and God is the George Carlin routine about an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-wise God who just can’t manage money. His “messengers” always need more.)

Consider these 5 points from the PBS documentary, along with my related God thoughts.

Money Point 1: Security

People used to work for the same company all their lives and retire with a comfortable pension. Today’s workers are insecure about their financial future, which makes them more vulnerable to financial charlatans. For instance, some brokers promise big upsides to penny stocks with essentially no downside, even though such faith in future rewards almost never pays off.

Related God Thought

People who are insecure and unhappy in this life are more vulnerable to evangelical charlatans who promote big upsides in an afterlife. This requires lots of faith, often furthered by a financial “love offering.”

Money Point 2: Gambling

Most casino gamblers lose money most of the time. But casinos are designed so that a few players will occasionally win big if they play long enough. People remember wins more than losses (an example of confirmation bias), and so they return again and again.


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December 22, 2014 - 10:38 am

I recently I gave suggestions on what religious people shouldnot say to the atheist in the family. Here are conversations and suggestions that might improve family relations, especially at holiday gatherings.

1. Listen to the atheist.

You might have preconceived ideas on why a family member “turned his back on God.” You are probably wrong. Try to understand and respect his point of view, even if you disagree. That’s a prerequisite for most conversations, especially ones that can become touchy or emotional. Listening to the atheist will be an added incentive for the atheist to listen to you.

2. Look for common ground.

You and your atheist family member might differ on God beliefs, but you likely have a lot more in common than what sets you apart. You probably appreciate the same foods at family dinners. And since watching holiday football games has become somewhat of a national religion, you might all be cheering for the same team. Talk about those common interests and why you are grateful that you can still get along so well. If you also think behavior is more important than belief, say so.

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December 19, 2014 - 2:35 pm

I recently gave tips on how atheists can peaceably interact with religious family members at Thanksgiving. Now, here are tips for religious family members on what not to say to an atheist during holidays or any other family gathering. Next week, I’ll suggest what they should say.

I hope these tips help make family visits more pleasant for everyone. I also hope they won’t deter theists from talking about religion with atheists. Nothing here precludes having a respectful and friendly conversation with your family atheist, but more about that next time.

Here are seven things you shouldn’t say to the atheist in your family:

1. “Why are you angry with God?”

Atheists are no angrier with God than with the Tooth Fairy. Only God-believers can be angry with God. Some people might have become atheists because they are not satisfied with theodicyexplanations about why a good and powerful god would allow so much evil in the world, but most have become atheists primarily because they find no evidence for the existence of any gods.

2. “You’ll be a believer when you have a big problem.”

This is an offshoot of the “no atheists in foxholes” cliché. (See, for instance, the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers.) Atheists tend to address problems by looking for practical solutions to resolve them, and through supportive friends, family, and medical doctors. Many believers “talk” to God only when they have a problem, so such a comment is more applicable to theists than to atheists.


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December 2, 2014 - 10:32 pm

Groucho Marx famously said, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.” I’m thinking about joining a club that I thought would never accept me as a member. A Ku Klux Klan chapter is now accepting Jews.

My only public comment about the KKK, in 1987, was supportive — sort of. When the Charleston City Council in South Carolina, where I live, asked for citizen comments about whether to grant the KKK a parade permit to march, I said, “The Ku Klux Klan has done hundreds of horrible things, but I don’t want to deny them the one appropriate thing they do — use their free speech right to demonstrate for a cause.” The Klan was allowed to march, and it was especially ironic that the KKK Grand Dragon had to listen when our black, Jewish police chief, Reuben Greenberg, read him the permit rules and regulations.

So why would a liberal Jew like me even consider joining a hate group like the Ku Klux Klan?

1. I like diversity.

I’m happy when groups become more inclusive. Only one KKK chapter thus far is opening its membership to Jews, as well as to blacks and gays, but that’s a start. I also enjoy seeing hate groups argue among themselves about changing traditions. KKK Imperial Wizard Bradley Jenkins said about John Abarr, who started this new chapter: “That man’s going against everything the bylaws of the constitution of the KKK say.” This reminds me of a piece in The Onion about a small group of Klan reformers who claimed that blacks and Jews may be partially related to human, or White, beings, a controversial view that challenged one of the most dearly held Klan beliefs.

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November 19, 2014 - 4:09 pm

Should atheists come out to their religious family at the Thanksgiving dinner?

October was a good trick-or-treat month to wear masks and pretend to be someone else. The organization Openly Secular is encouraging atheists in November to remove their masks and reveal who they really are. But holiday gatherings can be filled with tension for atheists in religious families as they weigh staying in the closet or coming out as the “black sheep” atheist.

Here are my tips as you look ahead to Thanksgiving dinner, with the disclaimer that you know your family better than I do, so tread carefully.

1. Don’t come out as an atheist during the Thanksgiving meal.

The blessing may seem like an appropriate occasion for you to drop the news, but family gatherings usually have enough potential friction. It’s best to maximize the happiness of the occasion — or at least minimize the unhappiness. When you come out, try to begin with close and/or tolerant families members who are likely to be supportive. They might later become an advocate or mediator between you and less flexible family members.

2. Be yourself at the Thanksgiving meal.

For instance, you need not bow your head for the blessing. Anyone who notices likely isn’t bowing either, so you might connect with other atheists. (New friendships for me have sometimes begun with eye contact and a knowing smile during public invocations and benedictions.) If someone comments about your unbowed head, then you have an opportunity to engage in a discussion — preferably after dinner.

3. Sit respectfully while others at the table give thanks to God.

If asked why you are not praying, you can mention that you are thankful we have freedom of religion in this country and the right to worship or not worship as we see fit. Families thrive and become closer when they respect different points of view, including religious diversity.

4. If you’re asked to say the blessing, do it.

Most atheists may respectfully decline, but I think it presents a wonderful opportunity to give thanks — to the farmers who grew the food, the migrant workers who harvested them, the truck drivers who brought the food, the grocery store employees who displayed it, and the family and friends who helped prepare it. No need to mention any gods. (When invited to say some version of “grace” in a gathering of atheists and liberal religionists, I sometimes quote Bart Simpson: “Dear God. We paid for this food ourselves, so thanks for nothing.”)


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November 6, 2014 - 3:44 pm

I'm conflicted about privileging religion in prison, because government should not privilege religion inside or outside of prison. However, I think most prisoners should receive more privileges than they now have, and a substantial number shouldn’t even be incarcerated, yet they sit in prison because of our cruel and ineffective War on Drugs.

The purposes of incarceration should be to protect the community, to act as a deterrent, and to rehabilitate — not for punishment or retribution. More than 60 percent of prison inmates are functionally illiterate, and it’s no secret that people who learn to read are more likely to become productive citizens and less likely to end up in jail.

Similarly, those who learn to read, learn a trade, and learn coping skills while in prison are less likely to return once they are free. Help in finding a job upon release cuts recidivism significantly, and reducing recidivism through rehabilitation is less costly, more humane, and safer for the community.


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