Testing Religion and Offense – Our monthly meeting for November 24, 2015

This is a relatively brief (18 minute) video on the difficulties of sorting out different interpretations of religious tenets, dogma and such. The main point is that religious moderates can only be distinguished from extremists by a matter of degrees on a continuous scale. We can’t sort them into neat categories and declare extremists to be easily distinguished from moderates or progressives. Depending on the issue, we might find individuals to occupy different locations on the continuum of beliefs.

While brief, the video is rather chock full of information and ideas that can be thought provoking. It may take more than one or two times through to understand the scope of religious ideas and those who hold them. This video is part of a series by the same individual. I’ve only watched a couple, but they seem to be well done and generate a lot of thoughts.

Matt Dillahunty – Our monthly meeting for October 27, 2015

Matt Dillahunty continues as one of the regular hosts of The Atheist Experience TV show from Austin, Texas. However, he has also launched a new carrier as a “professional” within the secular community. He engages regularly in debates, makes presentations at many conferences and is producing a series of videos called Atheist Debates. In these videos he takes on one of the many arguments made by theists in defense of their faith. His goal is to systematically identify the weak spots in the arguments and show how they all fail. His comments are drawn from his long experience debunking faith on the TV show and the growing number of live debates in which he participates. Matt has become an increasingly effective and popular speaker.

The video we saw at this month’s meeting was recorded at the Gateway to Reason conference held in St. Louis, Missouri this past summer. It is based on one of his talks for the Atheist Debates series, but the video for that talk had audio problems so he decided to use this presentation instead. The issue he addresses in this one is the frequent use of personal experience as a defense of faith by believers. Briefly, claiming evidence for god and belief based upon some personal experience, known directly only to you, but similar to experiences others describe who share your beliefs. The fact that your private experience doesn’t constitute evidence that can be verified, tested, repeated, etc. makes it relatively useless as a defense of faith. But that doesn’t reduce its popularity. Here is Matt’s thoughtful and detailed discussion of reliance on personal experience as evidence for belief.

Faisal Saeed Al-Mutar – Our monthly meeting on September 22, 2015

This meeting was devoted to hearing from a native of Iraq who now lives in the U.S. because it is too dangerous for him in the middle east. He was raised in a mostly secular fashion in an area of the world where this is rather unusual. He now is working to develop resources to help those in the middle east advance a secular agenda, secular ideas and values. He gives a brief talk about the problems in the middle east and then provides a lengthy Q & A for the audience. This is not the same video we watched at our meeting, but one that he made somewhat later with a bit of improvement in the presentation. While the Q & A is different, the content of his presentation and his responses to the questions cover most of the same ground.

Al-Mutar does not really agree with those who argue for a reformation in Islam. He argues instead that it needs to be modernized and offset by a large secular trend. Not clear how that might go.

Jerry Coyne – You Don’t Have Free Will – Our monthly meeting for August 25, 2015

I’m finally catching up on posting items about our monthly meeting programs. This brings us up to date.

This program involved a recent presentation on the concept/topic of free will given by Jerry Coyne at the Imagine No Religion 5 conference held in Vancouver, Canada. Jerry has had a long time interest in the idea of free will and has staked out his own position by arguing that free will is merely an illusion and doesn’t really exist. The title of this talk is, appropriately enough given his view, “You Don’t Have Free Will”. The argument for his position is based on his perception that everything we know about the brain and its relationship to our behavior supports the view that it and the associated concept of mind ultimately reduce to material events and there is no real gap into which one can insert an immaterial, supernatural or spiritual essence. If the brain has only a material existence, all our actions can be explained by material events which could, in principle, be reduced to physical events which would lead to predictable outcomes. We have no choice in our actions separate from these material events even if we feel we do. This is not a position likely to produce a lot of jolly agreement from most of us.

So, watch the video, load up your arguments, take aim and give old Jerry hell for trying to wreck one of our favorite ideas even if it doesn’t feel religious.

Vyckie Garrison – Quiverfull – Our monthly meeting on July 28, 2015

Vyckie Garrison has been steadily making a name for herself by launching a website and making presentations at national secular conferences on the topic of the “Quiverfull Movement”. The website is named “No Longer Quivering” and is a support service for mostly women who have managed to “escape” from the movement.

For those who don’t recognize the phrase, Quiverfull is the name given to a non-denominational group of people that seek to live a completely “biblical” life as in the Christian bible. In practice this means that they establish their families as complete patriarchies where the husband holds all the power and the wife is expected to produce as many children as possible. The most famous family in this group are the Duggers who managed to get a reality TV show contract and have been making tons of money by exploiting their family relationships and children as they extoll the Quiverfull lifestyle. They currently have 19 children. Most recently however, they have lost their show because it was discovered that one of their older children had been abusing more than one of his younger sisters and another girl from a different family. Now I may see this as a reflection of the reality of the bible given the stories about characters like Noah, but Christian types see it as a nasty embarrassment.

At this meeting we watched two different videos. In the first “The Patriarch’s Wife”, Vyckie describes her life as a quivering wife and how her marriage represented a classical abusive relationship in which her husband was acting as an abuser by simply following the patriarchal dictates of Jesus.

In the second video titled “Fertile Ground”, Vyckie goes over the basic theology of the Quiverfull movement to show how it is built on the interpretation of the bible present in many fundamentalist sects within the Christian community. The church itself lays the foundation for giving yourself up to a vision of life which was literally life threatening to Vyckie herself and destructive of the lives of many of the women caught in the cult.

All in all, a disturbing picture of what a blind commitment to religious dogma can do to families and an encouraging story of how Vyckie is seeking to help others, like herself, who wish to escape.

Sarah Haider – Our Monthly Meeting on June 23, 2015

Sarah Haider is one of the co-founders of the Ex-Muslims of North America organization. She spoke at the American Humanist Association convention in May of this year. The subject of her talk was “Islam and the Necessity of Liberal Critique”.

In this talk, Sarah voices a complaint against the presumed progressive/liberal portion of the population who appear to object to anyone voicing criticism of Islam. She is surprised that they will fault her as an Islamaphobe because she dares to voice these criticisms. Like Ayann Hirsi Ali, she is puzzled by the willingness of atheist progressives to attack the other Abrahamic religions and show restraint when the topic is Islam. The idea that Islamic extremism is a reflection of the underlying nature of the Islamic faith seems to be completely unacceptable. The extremism is often attributed to problems with prior colonialism, poverty, other problems associated with countries not yet experiencing success entering the modern world, etc. etc., but never to the stated rationale of the extremists themselves which is their religious beliefs. Faulting the religion is often out of bounds even though many secularists would have no difficulty faulting Christianity under similar circumstances. So this video may be controversial, but confirmation bias shouldn’t contribute to turning away from an uncomfortable message…amiright?

Faith vs. Fact – Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible

Jerry Coyne’s new book referenced in the title above has now been published. I have a copy and I’m reading through it in my usual style of two or three pages at a time which guarantees that I won’t remember most of it and, therefore, can be excused for reading it over and over. He is starting to go through various book tour events and one of the first was held at Politics & Prose, a famous book store in Washington, D.C. A recording of his presentation is available here and is worth a listen.

The talk runs about 35 minutes and then is followed by another 30 minutes of Q & A. His publisher/agent advised him not to talk about what was in the book, but about why he wrote it, thereby being more likely to entice audience members to buy the book since they’d be more curious about what was in it. So Jerry tried to do this although he does give away some of the contents.

If you’ve followed Jerry on his “Why Evolution Is True” website for any length of time, you are probably familiar with his arguments about the incompatibility of science and religion. The book goes into more detail on some of his points and is an easy read so far. The position he takes is that science and religion make competing claims about the nature of reality even if religion also delves into issues of meaning and purpose. It’s the religious claims about reality that are most invidious because they are never supported by any evidence at all; they are simply assertions. There is no way to detect or correct errors within religion itself. It has no tools, no tested process by which to ascertain which of those claims, if any, is true. Hence, we have thousands of religions each making claims denied by some other religion. Science on the other hand, has a highly refined and thoroughly vetted system for searching out and identifying what is likely to be true. Hence, there is only one science, not American science or Chinese science or German science, etc. There is just the one system and it has succeeded in spectacular ways.

Jerry knows his book will be controversial and draw all sorts of challenges and complaints. His first presentation at the University Club of Chicago a couple of weeks ago gave him a taste when the wealthy old white men who make up the club invited him in to talk about his book. They were not amused. I wonder how they managed to invite him in the first place?

Back to Politics and Prose. The Q & A is also worth listening to primarily because of two people who wanted to make speeches instead of ask a question. The first is a nurse who claims that her work with patients relied heavily upon her faith and without said faith she fears she wouldn’t be successful in caring for others. Jerry points out that the word she should be using is ‘confidence’ rather than faith. She has confidence in her skills and those of her co-workers based on training, experience and knowledge. She misattributes this sense of confidence to a religious faith that really seems to play no real part. She is unconvinced.

The second is a fellow who describes himself as a rabbi and wants to lecture Jerry on how he needs to study religion even more since he doesn’t really understand his Jewish heritage. Too bad that Jerry didn’t talk at length about what was actually in his book. The rabbi falls into the trap of claiming that you have to read every single book on religion before you can criticize it. The correct reply of course, is for the rabbi to read every science book and then come back to talk.

These two speech makers take up a chunk of the Q & A time and Jerry has to be a little testy with them given the total number of people wanting to actually ask a question during the time available. It always amazes me when people try to use a Q & A to launch their own presentation instead as though their perspective is so important that they can impose it on the entire audience without permission or invitation. Jerry will likely need to practice his skills at telling people to shut up and sit down. I don’t think he enjoys doing that, but he doesn’t want to listen to the rants either.


Atheists: Inside the World of Non-believers – Our Monthly Meeting on May 26, 2015

This month’s program was a documentary produced by CNN in response to the continued rise in the number of those in the U.S. population who choose “none” when asked for their religious affiliation. While most of the “nones” seem reluctant to go as far as declaring themselves to be atheists, the percentage of atheists in this country continues to inch up. Combined with those who have simply walked away from organized religion, all of the “nones” constitute the fastest growing segment of the religious population, now outnumbering Catholics. It seems a bit odd to identify the “nones” as a religious group, but that’s how they tend to be portrayed in the media.

The documentary is a fairly balanced look at what atheism entails, the consequences one can encounter when giving up their faith and being open about it in public and how atheists remain decent people without god. So, a decent presentation that may counter some of the misunderstandings that are often encountered by those who are now part of the “nones”.

Steven Pinker – Our monthly meeting on April 28, 2015

Steven PInker’s well regarded book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” is considered an excellent read, but at 800 pages, clearly not a quick one. Fortunately for us, Steven is not only an excellent writer, but also an excellent speaker. In the video below he quickly gives us an overview of the massive book, hitting all the high spots and providing an easy to follow description of where his research led him and where things may continue to head. Here is his presentation at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in March in Minneapolis.

Pinker describes this as the most peaceful age in human history and provides a broad array of evidence in support of this claim. He ends with a description of the primary factors behind the dramatic decline in violence across the planet. In short, they include: empathy, self-control, the “moral sense,” and reason. Note the absence of religion. While religion is discussed in some detail in his book, getting to key points and arguments, Pinker clearly feels that he has no need for the “god hypothesis”.

FFRF repeats its request to the Elkington Middle School

As most of you know, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) wrote to the Grand Rapids School District in response to our notification that a poster advertising a “prayer time” in a classroom at the Elkington Middle School was on display in the hallway of the school. The poster identified a teacher and a classroom where the meeting would be held prior to the start of classes every Monday morning. Since the poster did not note that the meeting was neither sponsored or endorsed by the school district, it represented a church/state violation. It was also not clear that the teacher didn’t not actively participate or direct the meeting and this would further suggest a church/state violation. The School District had an attorney from the Twin Cities respond to FFRF and assure them that the poster would be corrected and that the teacher had no active role in the group.

A few weeks later at our monthly meeting, we learned that the poster was still on display with only a piece of paper tapped over the teacher’s name and none of the other requested changes. A photo of the poster was available and I forwarded this along with the other information suggesting the prayer meeting was still presenting a church/state problem. The FFRF attorney who had written the original letter to the School District has now sent a follow up letter noting that promised changes had not been made. He also noted that the School District’s mention of the Equal Access Act (EAA) raised further concerns since the EAA only applies to secondary schools and in Minnesota only the grades 7 through 12 are deemed secondary. Since the Middle School has children in the 5th and 6th grades, he asked for assurances that children of that age were not directly involved in the group as organizers or directors of the group. They would not be considered covered by the EAA.

We are now awaiting a second response from the School District and I will post that response as soon as we get it from FFRF. The failure of the School District to make sure that they were in compliance with the law suggests that they are not taking the problem seriously and may not have informed the teacher about his proper role and the limitations placed on teachers acting on religious beliefs while at the school and acting as an agent of the government.

Stay tuned.