Faith – Our monthly meeting on February 24, 2015

Matt Dillahunty is an increasingly well known atheist from Austin, Texas and the principal host of the weekly TV show, “The Atheist Experience”. He has recently announced that he is going to be working full-time on making presentations on atheism and engaging in debates as requested. In short, Matt is going “pro”.

Matt has been doing presentations and debates for a long time, but in the past it was mostly on a volunteer basis and he wasn’t asking for compensation or honoraria, etc. Now he has found that groups are willing to help fund his participation and he can make a living at it. His skill and popularity from the TV show has made him a bit of a celebrity.

In addition to his public appearances as an individual, Matt is also 1/3 of the “Unholy Trinity Tour” with AronRa and Seth Andrews who have also become “pros”. Matt has also begun producing short videos in which he articulates his ideas on various aspects of apologetics and other issues that are frequent sources of discussion and argument on the TV show. At this meeting we watched his presentation on the topic of “faith”. He does an excellent job of explaining how the concept of faith as a source of knowledge, understanding or confidence is without merit on every level. In the long run, the use of the word has become meaningless and ultimately an admission of ignorance or incoherence. So, not a great idea. Watch below for Matt at his best.

I suspect that at some point our discussions with the CPC group will bring us up against the notion of faith as a basis for holding on to a religious belief. I know that it is an idea at the core for at least some of the religious people participating. I don’t think I will push to have the group confront the notion of faith and I hope other GRAF members will be cautious too. We didn’t enter into the conversation in order to disabuse them of their beliefs. The goal was to have them become more supportive of us by virtue of discovering or confirming that religion and faith are not prerequisites for living a good and moral life. I think we have gotten a good portion of that accomplished. What remains is to seen is where that can take us in broadening the size of the religious community who “tolerate” or even support our right to non-belief. We need to find out how far we can go in getting the community to become “friendly” to those who have set aside any religious faith. We need to have being openly atheist is considered of little or no significance outside of conversations about their religion and our lack of it.

Great Twitter Quote

Pointed out during a Q&A debate on YouTube in which a fundamentalist Christian is addressing questions about homosexuality and rigidly defining what constitutes a marriage according to the Bible:

Jesus was a man with two dads and a surrogate mother. @LouisBuchler

I’m enjoying this debate so far, which also includes Lawrence Krauss with some interesting statistics on homosexuality in other species. He’s responding to the claim that homosexual behavior is unnatural and an immoral choice. He says that homosexuality has been observed in 1,300 species so far, and that 10% of all rams have sex exclusively with other male sheep. The debate will cover other topics as well–I haven’t finished it yet but it’s an interesting panel. Here’s a link:


Radio Program/Podcast FYI

This week’s “Atheists Talk” radio podcast will feature an interesting book and guest on a topic we’ve discussed at GRAF from time to time. I’ll paste in the description below. Of course, the broadcast time/date don’t really matter since you can download these free podcasts to any computer, tablet or smartphone and listen to them whenever you like.

If you have one of these devices and aren’t currently listening to podcasts, consider it! There are some WONDERFUL, thought-provoking, informative shows being broadcast for free every week that freethinking folks would especially enjoy. If you have an interest in setting this up for yourself, I’d be happy to help. Access to these diverse programs and many others on YouTube (also free and just requires a computer, tablet or smartphone connected to the internet) are a tremendous resource for those of us looking for education, enlightenment and entertainment beyond what’s available in the mainstream media. They can be set up to download automatically when you are connected to the Internet so they’re always there waiting to be listened to when you are ready. The simple search feature makes it easy to find programs that are a match for your interests, and to “subscribe” for free.

Three cheers for the Internet! I know many of you aready know how to do this, but I also know a lot of people who’ve never tried the podcast thing before and might appreciate a helping hand to get started.


Here’s the description of tomorrow’s show, taken from the e-mail sent out weekly by Minnesota Atheists:

“Nature’s God”, Matthew Stewart on Atheists Talk #304, March 1, 2015

A couple of centuries of national pride and the gentle glow that history casts on winners have given today’s U.S. citizens a rather staid view of the radicals and revolutionaries who built a country from former colonies. Not only did they wage treasonous war against their king, but many of the crafters of our constitution were religious radicals. There were Quakers and Methodists and Christians who rejected the authority of the Bible.

There were also deists among the people who shaped our government. In his recent book, Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic, philosopher Matthew Stewart tells their story. He traces the strains of deism in Enlightenment thinking and shows how it shaped our country.”


F—ing barbarians

So tonight, Rachel Maddow showed video of ISIS idiots who had broken into a museum in Mosul using sledge hammers and power saws to destroy ancient Assyrian artifacts. They also reportedly invaded the library and burned all texts not directly related to Islam.  These are barbarians of the first order, worthy of every possible condemnation.  The footage made me sick — these portals into the human past, these markers of one chapter of the human experience, these clues to understanding our collective existence — wantonly destroyed by a bunch of unmitigated morons.  Of course, what these ignorant fools do to living human beings (beating, waterboarding, crucifixion, beheading, etc.) is even more nauseating.  That such Medieval nonsense can gain purchase in the 21st century makes ones jaw drop.


Idaho.  It’s a fantastic state, the land of potatoes and…um, well there’s, no that’s, that’s not…but there’s, uh.

Well, that’s unimportant.  You see, a bit of hilarity has come creeping from the land of spuds, an odd little factoid about the state legislature.  Republican State Representative Vito Barbieri supports a bill that would prevent doctors from prescribing abortion medication through telemedicine.  Ostensibly, this is to protect women who may have negative side-effects from the medications, though lawmakers are in no way shy about admitting that this is just another step in making abortions harder to come by in Idaho.

In 2013, the then-Representative Ron Mendive asked if the American Civil Liberties Union if their pro-abortion stance also meant they supported prostitution.  That snippet was to show you what living in a state where, apparently, no one gives any fucks whatsoever about the concept of correlation.

While hearing testimony from a doctor who opposed the bill, and who had just made an anecdotal statement about how colonoscopies may utilize cameras to better give doctors an idea of what’s going on, Rep. Vito Barbieri asked the question–and I shall directly quote here–“Can this same procedure then be done in a pregnancy? Swallowing a camera and helping the doctor determine what the situation is?”

The doctor, presumably trying to hide her astonishment at the rampant idiocy of this man, replied that swallowed objects do not find their way into the vagina.

“Fascinating. That makes sense.”

Rep. Barbieri later tried to pass off this comment as rhetorical, but I don’t believe this spud-muncher for a second.  Not only is the comment asinine in context (the context supposedly being that he wanted to show the lack of correlation between a colonoscopy and an abortion) but it fits with the complete lack of knowledge of female anatomy Republicans so eagerly trot out.  I’m not saying this is on the level of Todd Akin’s belief that vaginas have shields against dishonest sperm (which may just be the nicest way of summarizing his legitimate rape claims) but it completely fits the prevailing theme with Republicans that, when it comes to how the female body operates, they have no fucking clue what they’re talking about.

Conversations with the CPC – 4 and 5

As the title conveys, I’ve gotten behind on my reporting about our discussions with folks at the Community Presbyterian Church (CPC). Our 4th meeting took place in January and the 5th in February. Our 6th meeting is scheduled for March 10th. The content of meetings 4 and 5 was rather similar, but the participants were a little different so I will cover both with this post.

in January, we decided to discuss a list of values that could be agreed upon by both secular humanists and progressive religionists. The list had been created by Herb Silverman representing the secular perspective and the editor of the paper in Charleston, South Carolina where they both live.

While we could find some changes in the wording that we might prefer, there was reasonable consensus that most of the list reflected ideas we found as  a positive expression of our core perspective. We even found that many of us arrived at the same position by similar processes of examining the world and applying reason to ideas we found to express a positive, affirmative and humanistic orientation toward our fellow humans. Religion did not need to be a driving force in that process to get to the same place.

Having found, yet again, that we could avoid disagreement, we decided to expand the group to include a more diverse representation of religion and additional secular views from more GRAF members. That became the 5th meeting on February 10th. A storm on that night left us with a smaller group than planned, but we had two people from the Baha’i group in Grand Rapids and someone with a Jewish background, but not actively practicing that faith. The new assistant pastor at CPC was included as well. Some CPC members who had missed many of the earlier meetings, rejoined the group and were reintroduced along with the new members.

The expansion brought in some different perspectives, but not a lot of differences of opinion about the list of humanistic values. One of the Baha’is brought in comments that had been posted by someone claiming to be familiar with attitudes in east Texas. The vitriol and intolerance expressed in those comments either by the author or his neighbors, was enough to lead us to wonder if there was any hope for connecting with similar people sharing similar anti-humanistic values locally. One CPC member shared an experience trying to talk with a group of women from the local NRA gun group. Their close minded attitude regarding guns left him feeling that it was hopeless and did not bode well at all for trying to get more inclusive in our conversation with people similarly closed in their perceptions relating to belief and non-belief.

For our next meeting they accepted my suggestion that we read and discuss David Brooks article published on February 3rd in the NY Times on “Building Better Secularists“. This article was intended as a response to the rapidly growing number of younger people who decline to report any religious affiliation. Brooks feels there is a risk for our broader society is these “nones” do not find ways to replace what they have lost in giving up on religion. I presented this as an issue on which we might find grounds for at last finding disagreement without necessarily discovering that we could no longer feel comfortable in our conversation together. Several prominent atheists have already taken Brooks to task for his ideas and others have been more accepting of his view. Plenty of room for differences among all the CPC participants.

Subsequently in conversation with some of the GRAF participants, there was concern that maybe we were avoiding all the huge obstacles between us or that we were talking to people who really didn’t believe the faith claims either. Maybe they just enjoyed being part of the church. So they might all be atheists but for the name. It may be that we are in fact discovering the “dirty little secret” that interfaith dialogues are successful only to the degree that they avoid faith altogether. Faithiests like Chris Stedman may just be fooling themselve by never bringing up the giant elephant in the corner. They imagine good feelings, but ignore what all the pleasantness hides. I don’t think that will be true of our group in the long run. I’m very certain that some of them will vigorously defend their religious beliefs and notions of faith if pressed. And finding those points that can’t be resolved may be the ultimate test of whether the conversation can be held together or not.

With that in mind I’ve decided to supplement the Brooks article with a piece by Gregory Paul that describes the failing status of churches in much of the world including the U.S., wHich underlies the rise in secular numbers. They aren’t just not religious, they’ve actively left the churches. Why and what does it suggest for the future of the church and religion? An article I recently saw regarding attendance at Catholic Churches suggests that no more than 15% of supposed Catholics attend mass on any Sunday. That can’t be good for the church. It also noted that most of that 15% consisted of the elderly.

A second article by Paul and Phil Zuckerman, summarizes the research that shows secular countries like Denmark and Sweden, have much healthier societies than the U.S. We know that various political and social events led to the development of these more robust safety nets and support in these countries, but why did that also result in a drastic decline in religiosity? What does it say about the role religion plays? What will progressive religionists say about their religions? Is it really just a salve for untreated social harm and not a real help at all?

I know that some in the group will be a bit more uncomfortable with this direction since it challenges them to consider the idea that improving our country’s  care and support for its citizens would further hasten the loss of those who feel obligated to believe. Atheists can claim it’s not our fault that your faith could be irrelevant and people are figuring that out. We could keep quiet and it would likely happen anyway. The very humanistic values you agreed you supported and shared with us are the ones that may ultimately lead to the extinction of faith if we put them into action. Somewhat ironic I suppose.



Exorcisms in India

Superstition is — or was once — ubiquitous, finding a home, probably, in every culture not touched by the Enlightenment.  This might sound Euro-centric, but it is not meant that way — Europeans have been at least as irrational as any other people at various times in their history.  It was the contingencies of history that allowed the Enlightenment to happen in Europe, and nothing having to do with any sort of superiority.  At any rate, the ABC News program “Nightline,” once a serious news program but now primarily yet another outlet for sensationalism, actually had an interesting piece tonight on “exorcisms” performed by self-styled “gurus” in India.  Note that when confronted by Indian rationalists, the temple closed up shop.  Watch the segment here:


The Chapel Hill Murders

Recently, three young people, who were also Muslims, were murdered in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  Their assailants describes himself as an atheist who hates religion.  We don’t yet know if this was the motive for his unspeakable actions, but let’s get one thing clear: anyone who kills in the name of atheism must be roundly and unequivocally condemned.  We expect religionists to condemn their extremists, so if this murderer committed his crime in the name of atheism, let us rebuke him in the strongest possible terms.  And if he is guilty, let’s hope he goes to prison for the rest of his life.

Evolution of weird–Arapaima

What are the defining characteristics of fresh-water fish?  Go ahead, think about it, I’ll wait right here…Done?  Have a good head-scratcher about this?  So, what did you come up with?  Probably things like “relatively small,” “muted colors,” “easier to bread and fry.”  Stuff like that.


So that’s why they call that show “River Monsters”


This here’s an arapaima, also called pirarucu, and it is one of the largest freshwater fish in the world, capable of growing to about 15 feet long.  Shaped like a torpedo, the arapaima has an infamous habit of leaping out of the water when in danger–as if being larger than the local crocodilians wasn’t already a safe guard–which can present a real hazard to people who accidentally hook these things while fishing.  Their scales are highly mineralized, with a corrugated surface and underlying layers of collagen fibers arranged at right angles to each other.  Translation: these things are both f**king flexible and f**king tough.

But even having partially metallic scales isn’t enough to get you on one of my evolution posts (scorpions transmit minerals they absorb from the insects they eat into their stingers to give them more punch), you gotta have something few others creatures in your corner have…like the fact that arapaimas breathe air.

We’ve all heard of lungfish (if you haven’t, you can always sign up at the college) which are fish capable of obtaining oxygen from the air, as well as the water.  It isn’t even that unusual, electric eels (which are actually more closely related to catfish) and mudskippers do it all the time, the rub being that they must respire through the water regularly.  The arapaima’s swim bladder is modified to act as a lung, and is so effective that arapaima must return to the surface every 5 to 15 minutes, these fish can, and do, drown.

Let’s say that again, the arapaima is a fish that can drown, which, as you may well be aware, is something fish are not supposed to do!

Where is the logic or intelligence in that design?  It serves a blatant evolutionary purpose, the Amazon River (where the arapaima lives) can become poorly oxygenated regularly as a result of the wet season when it overflows with silt, becoming highly stagnant.  As a result, creatures like the arapaima needed to adapt and find new ways of surviving, but the key difference here is that other air-breathing fish can hypothetically survive without returning to the surface, whereas the arapaima would drown.

Obama on Religion

So as I write this, Obama is speaking at the national prayer breakfast.  Some of what he says is laudable: he is speaking on behalf of tolerance an religious freedom, and he stresses the importance of humility.  He also is emphasizing the importance of separation of church and state, and affirming the right to have no religious belief at all.

That’s all well and good, and Obama is light years ahead of the cavemen presidential candidates in the GOP.  Still, there is a lot of god-talk and prayer talk, which in my opinion is very unseemly.  Perhaps we will someday get to the place where political leaders no longer need to kowtow to the religious.