Our monthly meeting for January 24, 2017 – Religion evolves?

This is the first post about the content of our monthly meeting in quite some time. Meetings in the recent past have focused on live presentations and discussions which were difficult to present in written format, but the most recent meeting featured discussion about the video embedded below.

The topic was the differences between christian churches representing different denominations and displaying very different views of what is important. Many churches cling to a very fundamentalist orientation while others have more flexible and “modern” versions of the dogma, rituals and atmosphere. Yet most of them are seeing a continued decline in membership as the number of people claiming no particular religious affiliation continues to grow. The “nones” as they are typically described don’t necessarily lose all their faith, they just don’t find church involvement to be particularly important.

In this environment, many churches are seeking answers as to how they should change or evolve to make themselves relevant for the future. This has often led them toward increasingly liberal positions on issues such as women’s rights, gay rights, etc. This evolution has been slow and sometimes painful as membership can decline further when members find the liberal positions less to their liking.

At our meeting we watched a video made in 2013 in which the pastor of a church in Toronto, Ontario Canada responds to question about here decision to define herself as an atheist and the difficulties reconciling this with the members of her church. While many left, others have stayed and the church has continued to explore its new role as a welcome place for those who have no faith or have a very limited faith.

The West Hill United Church of Canada has now begun exploring joining the Oasis program which connects other churches or groups embracing a secular humanist view and seeking to redefine Sunday morning services as serving a primarily humanistic purpose. We shall see if this evolution helps to preserve their existence or if they are just another step on the extinction of religion.

Brian Dalton – Our monthly meeting for February 23, 2016

Brian Dalton has been a person of interest from the beginning of our group. First as Mr.Deity and then as the Ray Comfort spoof The Way of the Mister. Now he has created a third “channel” called The God Distraction.This is a series of talks about his serious dissatisfaction with the notion of g*d. The general theme is “I don’t care if God exists and neither should you.”. I don’t know how many presentations he will create on this topic, but there are now 3 episodes. We skipped the first, introduction segment which is short and moved on to the second one called Arguments. In this episode he critiques the whole idea of debating g*d’s existence using nothing but arguments (aplogetics). What he considers essential at the start is some evidence. If there is no evidence, who cares what the arguments are or how strong they are. If you can’t establish the existence of this entity via evidence, you are wasting your time with arguments unless you just like arguing for arguing’s sake.

For the sake of being complete, I’ve embedded both the introductory talk and the first “chapter” regarding arguments.

This stuff is a bit more serious than Dalton’s earlier stuff although if you watch carefully, you will catch phrases and images that reflect his quick wit. Post your thoughts and comments below.

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.

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?

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”.

AronRa – Our monthly meeting on March 24, 2015

The Unholy Trinity Tour features Seth Andrews (from The Thinking Atheist podcast), Matt Dillahunty (from The Atheist Experience TV show) and AronRa (YouTube resource on evolution and science education). We had seen Matt’s talk on faith last month and seen Seth give a presentation way back in July. This month it was Aron’s turn.

Aron and his wife have been fierce advocates for good education in Texas, a real battleground over teaching creationism and distorting history (ex. removing Thomas Jefferson from history textbooks because of his state/church separation blasphemy). Since Texas is such a large state, book publishers frequently use the requirements for Texas as the standard for their books across the country. If Texas was a place supporting decent education, this would be fine. Unfortunately, Texas is a true backwater. On a regular basis, fundamentalists and right-wing nuts try to alter the book standards to insert creationist nonsense and history that ain’t real history. Aron regularly testifies in front of the Board of Education to prevent this stuff. Here is a presentation in which he demonstrates his fierce and informed stance.

AronRa is now a frequent presenter and debate participant. His intimidating looks are for real (he rides a big Harley) and he won’t back down when it comes to teaching our children properly. He and the rest of the gang are currently on a tour in Australia. I will be watching for videos of their talks once the tour is over.

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 to be 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 considered of little or no significance outside of conversations about their religion and our lack of it.