February 24, 2014 - 4:09 pm

Several years ago, the math department at the College of Charleston, where I was a professor, hired a new administrative specialist in January. On February 2, Groundhog Day, I excitedly told her that Punxsutawney Phil had seen his shadow, which meant six more weeks of winter. When she laughed, I feigned surprise and said, "It's not nice to make fun of someone's religious beliefs. I'm from Pennsylvania, where some of us consider Groundhog Day the holiest day of the year." She then apologized profusely. Now that she knows me better, we annually joke about my "holy" day. This year, she even presented me with an autographed (paw print) picture of Phil on February 2.

I thought I had made up a new religion until learning that Groundhog Day is beginning to look a lot like Christmas, which was originally a December 25 pagan holiday. February 2 was also a pagan holiday, where people would light candles to banish dark spooks. Christians appropriated the date in the fifth century and named itCandlemas Day, where clergy would light and bless candles.

However, to my mind, February 12 is far more consequential. There is even a growing international movement to publicly celebrate February 12, Charles Darwin's birthday, as Darwin Day. With the encouragement of the American Humanist Association, Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) again this year introduced a resolution in Congress in support of Darwin Day. It recognized that Darwin's birthday is a "worthy symbol on which to celebrate the achievements of reason, science, and the advancement of human knowledge." The resolution also warned that the "teaching of creationism in some public schools compromises the scientific and academic integrity of the United States education system," and insisted that "advancement of science be protected from those unconcerned with the adverse impacts of global warming and climate change."

Continue reading at Huffington Post >>

February 12, 2014 - 10:46 am

In debates or discussions about the existence of God, I'm often asked, "What if you're wrong and there really is a God?" These questioners, who assume that God belief is of ultimate importance, are perhaps unknowingly applying Blaise Pascal's 17th-century attempt to defend Christian belief with logic.

In his "Pensees," Pascal said, "If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is." Pascal should have stopped there, but he didn't. He concluded that it's safer to believe in God because of what became known as "Pascal's Wager": If God does not exist, we will lose nothing by believing in him; but if God does exist, we will lose everything by not believing.

Via Washington Post. Read more at HighBeam>>

February 5, 2014 - 10:56 am

The atheist community is deeply divided about religious fundamentalism and creationism, but not about whether such preposterous claims have any validity. They disagree on whether scientists should debate fundamentalists about the "science" of the Bible. I think both sides have reasonable arguments in the debate on whether to debate.

Here are arguments against debating: What's to debate? Evolution is--true! That a man named Noah put pairs of all species from a 6000-year-old earth in an ark he built when he was 600 years old is--false! Sharing a stage with creationists just lends them credibility. In any case, evidence will eventually win. Debates are often more about oratory skill than evidence. Preachers and pseudoscientists usually have more debating experience and skills than do scientists. Should we also debate Holocaust deniers or members of the Flat-Earth Society?

Here are arguments for debating: If scientists don't defend scientific theories, we will lose the battle of public opinion. Many fundamentalists have heard only the preacher's side and a debate might spark illumination for some who listen to a scientific theory explained by a real scientist.

Continue reading at the Huffington Post >>

January 30, 2014 - 10:01 am

I've been actively engaged in two wars in my life, but I don't receive or deserve veterans' benefits. My most recent service occurred during the manufactured war by Fox News, the "War on Christmas." Yes, I plead guilty to wishing people "Happy Holidays" around winter solstice time, and I have even been known to provide a pagan history lesson to those who insist on telling me that Jesus is the reason for the season.

My earlier war arrived as a card game I learned at five, a game called "War." Two players are dealt 26 cards face down. Each then simultaneously shows the top card, and the player with the higher card takes both exposed cards and places them at the bottom of the player's stack. If both cards are of equal value, there is a "war." Each combatant places the next three cards face down, and the fourth face up. The card of higher value captures all the cards played and puts them at the bottom of his or her stack. The war ends when one person has all 52 cards.

I was very good at "War," or so I thought. I hadn't yet heard about "confirmation bias," which can cause us to remember more victories than defeats.

When I finally realized that the game was skill-free, I lost interest. Knowing that the outcome is completely determined once the deck is shuffled and dealt, I began to invent variations. For instance, I'd put all four aces (the highest value) in one stack and the remaining 48 cards in the other stack. After playing five times, the stack with four aces won all, but once. I concluded that it was better to start with the four-ace stack.

Continue reading at the Huffington Post >>

January 22, 2014 - 1:17 pm

For years I’ve been advocating for “big-tent” atheism, which includes agnostics, humanists, secular humanists, freethinkers, and more. It’s a tent where people can choose activities according to their circumstances and comfort levels, a tent where they can follow their passion while respecting and supporting those with a different emphasis. Fortunately, I think the secular movement has mostly stopped arguing about labels and has begun to cooperate on important issues we can all support.

However, we still have our differences. An article in the Guardian, based on a study at the University of Tennessee, described the six types of atheists as: activist (vocal about issues), anti-theist (assertive and outspoken), intellectual (philosophical and scientific), non-theist (apathetic), ritual (enjoy culture and ceremony), and seeker (open to different views). I criticize this categorization here, and am disappointed that the largest category of all was not even mentioned: closeted atheists, the ones most likely to change our culture by finally coming out.

A thoughtful piece in the Huffington Post by Roy Speckhardt, the Executive Director of the American Humanist Association, is entitled “An End to Arrogant Atheism.” Roy has no problem with most forms of atheism, but thinks arrogant atheism hinders our ability to build alliances. While I agree with Roy’s point that arrogance and humorless ridicule can be counter-productive in reaching out to others, I considered it worth pointing out that the fundamentalist worldview is far more arrogant than any atheist worldview.

Fundamentalist worldview: I know God created the entire universe just for the benefit of humans. He watches me constantly and cares about everything I say and do. I know how He wants me and everyone else to behave and believe. He is perfect and just, which is why we face an eternity of either bliss or torture, depending on whether or not we believe in Him.


Continue reading at Friendly Athiest >>

January 9, 2014 - 1:25 pm

I can’t say I’m surprised that Pope Francis (above) was Time magazine’s Person of the Year. And as an atheist, I’m not particularly disappointed by the decision. While Pope Francis hasn’t changed Church doctrine, he has at least changed its emphasis. I prefer a pope like Francis who focuses more on poverty and economic inequality than on birth control and gay marriage. I would have been more enthusiastic about Time’s choice had the Pope also acknowledged that birth control can help reduce poverty and that loving couples should not be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. In such an anachronistic and powerful institution, I would welcome small but significant reforms to Catholic Church doctrines that affect many outside the institution.

On the theory that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, harsh criticism of Pope Francis by the likes of Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh has encouraged progressive Christians and even some atheists to get on the Pope Francis bandwagon. While people can find biblical support to justify any position, some positions are more tenuous than others. That’s why I’m amused by Religious Right arguments for why Jesus, unlike Francis, is an economic conservative who deplores redistribution of wealth. In making a case that Pope Francis is promoting sinLance Pritchett inBloomberg Opinion justifies his economically conservative point of view with the 10th Commandment from Exodus 20:17: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, wife, slaves, ox, donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” Even if I were a biblical literalist, I’d try to ignore passages that condone slavery and regard wives as property just like donkeys. And isn’t “coveting” the engine that drives capitalism?

Unfortunately, just as I was feeling more warmly disposed toward Pope Francis, he had to go and burst my bubble with a statement reminiscent of his predecessors. In arecent homily Pope Francis said, “The spirit of curiosity generates confusion and distances a person from the Spirit of wisdom, which brings peace.” He added that “the spirit of curiosity is not a good spirit” because it distances oneself from God. The Pope has a point, at least in my case. Curiosity really did distance me from god belief, and I’m far from alone. Curiosity has turned many religious believers into nonbelievers.


Continue reading at Friendly Atheist >>

December 13, 2013 - 2:55 pm

Though most us might be biased, not all biases are created equal. There are degrees of honest biases, and there are clearly dishonest biases. But I’ll be generous and propose that biases are usually honest. The most common kind is Confirmation Bias: The tendency to selectively search for and consider information that confirms your beliefs, and ignore or discount evidence that refutes your beliefs. Political issues like Obamacare, Medicaid, Mideast policy, immigration, climate change, taxes, and whether government is a force for good or evil are certainly susceptible to confirmation bias. We usually recognize at some level when we are being biased, but we genuinely believe our position is correct and try to make the strongest possible case for it.

Perhaps a more honest and more naïve bias is what I’ll call Magic Bias: The belief that supernatural forces intervene in our natural world. In his wonderful book, “The Demon-Haunted World,” Carl Sagan argues for critical and skeptical thinking about such beliefs, while promoting science as a candle in the dark. Magic bias includes belief in gods, demons, horoscopes, psychics, tarot cards, miracles, and lots of other superstitions. People who accept some of these beliefs usually consider other magic beliefs ridiculous. I’m with “ridiculous.”

Miracle believers can find “evidence” for miracles, disregarding coincidence or luck or medical skill; psychic believers have their faith strengthened when a psychic predicts something that can be interpreted as accurate, forgetting predicted inaccuracies. While many may truly believe in magic, some just pretend to believe the unbelievable either because they are expected to play “make believe” or because they profit from believers. (Just picture your favorite charlatan.)

Continue reading at the Washington Post's On Faith >>

November 26, 2013 - 5:14 pm

There’s a major problem in any survey of Jews: deciding who is really Jewish, and who gets to decide. Orthodox Jews demand that the mother be Jewish, while more liberal Jewish groups are willing to accept those with a Gentile mother if the father is Jewish.

Jews stopped the practice of converting Gentiles in the fourth century C.E. for a very persuasive reason. At that time, the Roman Empire, having adopted Christianity as the state religion, made conversion to Judaism a criminal offense punishable by death of both the proselytizing Jews and their converts. Such conversions are no longer crimes, but Orthodox Rabbis discourage conversion and many reject would-be converts three times; if they remain adamant in their desire to convert, they are then allowed to begin the conversion process. Different branches of Judaism are more welcoming to those who wish to become Jews, but Orthodox Jews don’t recognize converts to Judaism by other branches.

And then there are Jews with adjectives. I know some Unitarian Jews, Buddhist Jews, and Quaker Jews. Most Jews don’t see such “Judaism plus” as a problem for Jews. I have an adjective, myself: atheist Jew, so some Jews might think of me as a “Jew minus.” However, I’m not such a minority. The Pew Research Center’s landmark new survey of American Jews found that 62 percent say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15 percent say it’s a matter of religion. Jews are considerably less religious than the U.S. public as a whole, with 23 percent of Jewish Americans saying they don’t believe in God, compared to only seven percent in the general public.

Even religious Jews are generally not very concerned about the existence of atheist Jews. They reserve their antagonism for Jews with a different adjective: Messianic Jews (Jews for Jesus). Much to the surprise of many Jews, the Pew Survey showed that 34 percent of American Jews think that a person can be Jewish if he or she believes that Jesus is the Messiah. Had I been surveyed, I would have been among those 34 percent. In fact, I think the percentage should be much higher. Ultra-Orthodox Jews have more beliefs in common with Jews for Jesus than with Jews like me. Both sects believe that a Messiah is coming. They differ only on whether it will be his first or second trip to Earth. When my Orthodox uncle died, his family flew his body to Jerusalem for burial because he and a number of other Jews believe that those buried in Jerusalem will be resurrected first when the Messiah comes.


Continue reading at the Washington Post's On Faith >>

November 13, 2013 - 3:55 pm

Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and Hopalong Cassidy were okay, but unquestionably my favorite TV cowboy in the early 1950s was the Lone Ranger. I’m not sure why I liked him when I was 10, but I now think he was a pretty good role model for atheists. He would initially arouse suspicion because of his masked appearance, as did his trusted sidekick and only friend, Tonto, because he was a Native American. People changed their minds about them after seeing their good works. But the Lone Ranger never hung around for reward money or praise. In each last scene some grateful person would ask, “Who was that masked man?” followed by the answer, “Why, he’s the Lone Ranger.”

Atheists are also sometimes viewed with suspicion, as if they are masking hidden values and questionable morals. When religious believers learn that some of their friends, colleagues, or even family members are atheists, it often dispels former negative stereotypes. But life is not a weekly TV show with happy endings, so good works by a lone atheist usually aren’t enough to change society’s mind. In fact, here are a couple of recent examples from my home state, where organizations refused to allow atheists to participate in charitable endeavors.

Last month, a Spartanburg, South Carolina soup kitchen excluded atheists from volunteering. Its executive director said she’d resign from her job before she would let atheists volunteer and be a “disservice to this community,” adding that her Christian organization that ran the soup kitchen “stands on the principles of God.” Apparently, allowing atheists to help the less fortunate goes against her Christian principles. Instead, the Upstate Atheists raised over $2000 to give care packages to homeless people across the street from the soup kitchen.

My own local group in Charleston, South Carolina, the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry has long been active in community building and charitable work. But when we applied this year to participate in the annual YMCA Flowertown Festival, the organizers refused because “We (the YMCA) are a Christian organization.” The legal center at the American Humanist Association pointed out that South Carolina state law prohibits discrimination based on religion in places of public accommodation, and threatened a lawsuit. The YMCA soon reversed its stand “through prayer, consideration and legal counsel.” I leave it for others to decide whether prayer or a potential lawsuit played more of a role in the reversal.


Continue reading at the Washington Post >>

November 5, 2013 - 3:55 pm

When I visited Papua New Guinea (PNG) in 1987, and again last month, I saw evidence of many Christian missionaries along with some of the fruits of their labor (both sweet and sour, depending on your point of view). PNG is now one of the most Christian countries in the world. More than 96 percent of its citizens identify as Christian, with Catholicism the largest denomination at 27 percent. Here are some of my PNG observations, then and now.

Then:  I first went to PNG for six months as a visiting professor of mathematics at the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) in Port Moresby, the country's capital and largest city. While in the country, I only traveled outside of Port Moresby to give math talks at universities in Goroka and Lae.

About 800 languages were and still are spoken in PNG, reflecting the isolation of its many tribes. In the 1930s, Australian explorers discovered the Highlands of PNG, home to roughly one million people who had never before encountered Caucasians. In a video I saw of this first contact, one PNG woman said they thought white men were gods, until they had sex with them.

Not only were most students at UPNG the first in their family to go to college, they were the first to leave their tribes. In the tribal "payback" system, if someone from Tribe A is harmed by a member from Tribe B, then members from Tribe A can take revenge against any member from Tribe B. Part of my mission was to inform students that UPNG was a payback-free zone.

Continue reading at Washington Post's On Faith>>