On Swallowing Toads

Some of us have begun to talk about “what next” after atheism.  In other words, we have come to the realization that there is no god, so how should we approach life with that in mind (and for others, this might be a non-question, as they never believed in a god in the first place)?  Many might turn to philosophy (I hope!), and among those who do, a high percentage might seek optimistic and cheery words of encouragement.  But there is much to learn from more pessimistic philosophers as well.  For example, consider the advice of the French philosopher Nicolas Chamfort, who wrote:

“Swallow a toad in the morning and you will encounter nothing more disgusting the rest of the day.”

Hard to argue with that, I guess.  Maybe there is wisdom to be found in honest pessimism.

An Overly Religious Congress

According to MSNBC, 92% of members of Congress claim to be Christian (I did not catch the source MSNBC used).  This is interesting and troubling, because according to Pew, only 78.4% of American adults describe themselves as Christian.  This means that, far from being the persecuted minority many Christians claim to be, they are actually over-represented in Congress.  Conversely, to my knowledge there are no open atheists in Congress (there was a representative from Arizona who was reported to be an “out” atheist a couple of years ago, but last I heard she was backing away from the A-word label).  And of course, there are lots of other people in this country who do not identify as either Christian or atheist, including many of the “nones.”  Maybe someday a coalition of non-Christians can unite to break the Christian strangle hold and make a more diverse representative body a possibility in what is becoming an increasingly diverse and secular nation.

Argument From Embarrassment

Over at WEIT, there is a screen shot of a tongue-in-cheek Tweet from atheist philosopher Maarten Boudry.  Boudry has developed a new argument for the existence of God.  It goes like this:

If you were God, wouldn’t you be so embarrassed by your earthly representatives that you would want to hide?

Ergo, God exists.

Atheist Ten Commandments

Over at WEIT, there is a post (by Grania) regarding proposed “atheist ten commandments.”  It should immediately be pointed out that these are not meant as “commandments” in anything like a religious sense, but rather as items of discussion; I think they are good in that regard.  Anyway, since we have been discussing shared values with the CPC folks (and even though that discussion has already taken place), I thought they might be worth re-posting here.

What does everyone think?

Atheist Ten Commandments


Inspiration from the Bible

I have been thinking about posting, from time to time, some biblical passages that might make believers uncomfortable, even progressive believers who like to claim the Bible is an inspirational book and a great moral guide. Of course, there are passages in the Bible that do contain some sound moral precepts, but, as Thomas Jefferson put it, it is a bit like extracting a diamond from a dunghill. Is that too strong? Decide for yourself. At any rate, here is today’s inspiration — I have long been familiar with this story but it just happened to be the topic on a Patheos blog I was reading:

23 From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” 24 He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.

Read more: Mock the prophet, get mauled: Morality lessons with ACE.

Conversations with the CPC – 3

Our third conversation took place on Tuesday, December 9th. The mix of participants was slightly different from the previous one, but the number involved was seven as at that meeting. We seem to have difficulty getting everyone who was originally invited to participate to make each of the meetings, but I suppose that is likely given the demands of jobs, family and whatever. Despite this, we continue to move “forward” as far as I can tell.

For this meeting we planned to explore a list of issues developed by Herb Silverman and a newspaper editor that represented points on which an atheist and a progressive Christian would likely agree. The list can be found here. For the most part, the list reflects what I would consider to be a secular/humanist orientation with the possible exception of the tenth item regarding the “war on drugs”. Some of the participants in our conversation suggested editing that they would like to do on the list, but none of the changes suggested would change the fundamental nature of the list.

It wasn’t surprising that both the CPC and GRAF participants would find common ground in this list given the content of our previous conversations. An initial question from a CPC member was expected. The charge is often made by those who don’t really know anything about atheists that we can’t have any basis for our morality or values because we lack a book of scriptures or theological teachings on which to rely. My CPC interlocutor didn’t seem to really hold that perspective, but just wanted to know if I had followed a different path than he had. It turned out that we had followed essentially the same route of developing our adult identities during adolescence, early adulthood and continuing until now. While he had taken inspiration from his religion in some part, that was a small difference between us. I could easily state that religious teachings per se had no role in my development of a secular/humanist perspective. In fact, I think I used religion as a counter example for myself. He on the other hand had developed an admiration for Jesus as an exemplar of humanism. I didn’t raise any questions about the reality of Jesus as an actual historical figure or point out any of the non-humanitarian perspectives attributed to him. None of that seemed crucial at all given that we had both arrived at mostly the same place.

Others in the group appeared to be quite in tune with the process we described. Their own processes of living and growing were the source of a progressive and humanistic set of values with some emphasizing the importance of religion and others not. The dominant theme became realization on their part that atheists could represent a group they could trust because of our shared values. They were intrigued by the realization that atheists were no more homogeneous than Presbyterians and were interested in the points of contention which are currently at play in the atheist community. They are much more appreciative also regarding the discrimination experienced by atheists as they had all seen the article in the New York Times regarding unconstitutional prohibitions against atheists running for or holding public office in several states. They seem much more inclined now to take our claims of discrimination seriously.

The CPC members also shared their frustration in being counted in the same camp as crazy fundamentalists and like some Muslims complain about the extreme elements “hijacking” their religion. It will be interesting at some point to see if they can handle the idea that they are enabling the fundamentalists by using the same bad epistemology and giving it “support”. So who are the true Christians? The fundamentalists or the progressives? As far as I can tell, all the arguments that can be made against the fundamentalists must rely upon using a humanistic set of values that are mostly divorced from religion (GRAF members have the same values for the most part). Challenging the faith claims by offering your own faith claims begs the question of how you are to verify which faith is true given the total absence of any evidence to support any faith claim. An issue for another day I think.

I took the opportunity to spend a little time at the meeting to voice the concern that we will eventually have differences in views that can’t be resolved without addressing the faith “elephant” in the room. Perhaps not with the current CPC members, but certainly with any new CPC members who are more traditionally aligned. There wasn’t any strong worry about that in the group, but I felt it needed to be mentioned. It is also likely that some GRAF members may feel they are having to bite their tongues if the faith idea never gets mentioned much as is the case so far. I don’t want to see the group shut down those questions in all cases. I’m not sure how we deal with them without damaging the relationship we have right now. Since the current CPC participants seem so close to being atheists, the GRAF members don’t encounter points where we might argue. The reference to Jesus as an inspiration offered a small opportunity since his existence may be as only a myth. I suppose myths can be inspiring.

This meeting ended with a decision to meet again in January, but to verify that most if not all of the original members can and will make it to the meeting. Our next task is to begin the process of inviting others to join in. That would mean both CPC and GRAF members. We need full participation from all the current members to be sure that everyone is comfortable with that and up to speed with those who have attended most of the meetings. We don’t know how many new people to invite, but we do know that they need to be prepared to follow the rules we have been living with successfully. I’m not sure how hard that will be. From that point we will work toward opening things up to religious folks who are not associated with CPC. That may be a real challenge. The CPC members cautioned against expecting too much from the possible discussion with some “bible thumpers” we are considering. They agreed with me that listening to “Testimony” wasn’t going to go well.

What Next?

So, you are an atheist.  You have let go of god, or perhaps never believed in the first place.  So what next?  You still have a life to live — how should you live it?  What is important and what is not?

This is known in philosophy as “the problem of conduct.”  What is the good life?  Is there only one type of “good life?” Is it available to anyone, or just a select few?

These questions were probably best addressed by philosophers of the Hellenistic Age (definition available on Wikipedia).  How to live a good life was the major unifying topic among Stoics, Epicureans, Cynics, and others.

English author and activist Alexis de Botton has come under fire from other atheists due to his endorsement of “atheist churches” and the like, but he is well versed in philosophy, especially the problem of conduct.  At our upcoming monthly meeting, Ken tells me (and sorry if I have stolen any of your thunder, Ken) that we will be viewing a video by de Botton regarding Epicurus, the Philosopher of Pleasure.  This moniker has gotten Epicurus a bad name; but before you judge, come and see exactly what it is that Epicurus meant by pleasure, and see if you agree with his prescription (or some of it anyway) for a good life.

Street Epistemology

UPDATE: Here is a link to see the large number of conversations that Anthony has had with various believers. Many are with street preachers, but others are just with random people he meets outside the University of Texas, San Antonio buildings and people visiting the Alamo site in San Antonio.


Some of you may recall Peter Boghossian’s book “A Manual for Creating Atheists” in which he advocated for engaging in “street epistemology” with believers. Briefly, Boghossian described these as encounters with believers in which he would engage them in a conversation about their beliefs and structure these somewhat like a Socratic dialog. He would ask them to explain the nature and strength of their beliefs and ask questions that would lead them to reconsider their beliefs and the way in which they defended them or sought to justify them. In the book, Boghossian provided a few examples of conversations in which he had engaged and talked a bit about various techniques that he considered crucial to having a successful dialog. In particular, he made it clear that he avoided getting into a debate or an attack on the person he was talking to and would merely strive to get them thinking more clearly about their beliefs. Shortly after the book was published, Boghossian announced that he was going to begin posting video examples of these conversations as a means of providing a tutorial for those interested in pursuing this idea. So far, that hasn’t happened and I suspect it might never happen. We’d be left with the short and incomplete examples in the book and have to figure it out on our own. My own interest was in merely having a more productive way to talk with a believer rather than attempting to argue with them, but examples would still be helpful.

Now, someone who read Boghossian’s book has done the tutorial work for him. Anthony Magnabosco has recorded several conversations he has had with believers in San Antonio, Texas, mostly on the campus of the university located there. The videos include all of the conversation, but some also include his analysis of what he was doing, what mistakes he made and what reactions he was able to observe in those with whom he was conversing. There are currently 4 of these conversations available online at the following URL: http://tinyurl.com/sebdplaylist/. It is best to view them in order I think. The first and the fourth are probably the best, but to get the full picture, you should look at all of them.

In addition to these 4 tutorials, Magnabosco has several other conversations which follow the same pattern, but lack the “breakdown” in which he provides commentary and explanation of what he is doing. A couple are with street preachers who are trying to engage in conversations so that they can proselytize for their faith to people willing to talk to them. Magnabosco gets them to become the object of the conversation rather than him.

Even if you are not planning on doing any street epistemology yourself, watching these videos gives you a very good introduction into how you can explore someone’s faith and open small gaps in their commitment to their beliefs by careful questioning. An interesting note is that he almost always asks them to rank the strength of their belief on a scale from 0 (no belief) to 100 (absolutely certain about their belief). All of them give their belief a rank of 100 suggesting that they feel their belief is unassailable, but in responding to questions about how they can support this assessment, they all discover there are problems. A couple begin to rethink things while others either reaffirm that they can’t be wrong or get uncomfortable and seek to end the conversation.

Magnabosco is generally very good in these conversations, but acknowledges that he is still learning and often makes what he considers to be mistakes. On the whole, his approach seems less confrontational than Boghossian’s and reminds me a lot of the “client centered” dialogs advocated by a clinical psychologist of many years ago named Carl Rogers. I had to learn this technique at one time, but hadn’t had any real need to use it for many years. I suppose I could build up my skills in it again since it isn’t particularly difficult to learn. In fact, you could learn much of it from watching these videos. The technique here is not being used as a therapy of course, it is just a way to keep a conversation going on a topic that might ordinarily become more difficult to discuss.

Conversations with the CPC – 2

Our second conversation with a group of members of the Community Presbyterian Church (CPC) occurred on Tuesday, November 11th. It was a somewhat smaller group since a number of participants were either away or occupied with other activities. However, we had a total of 7 people (3 CPC and 4 GRAF). So enough to have an interesting discussion with a variety of points of view.

I had come with a brief agenda developed with Kim that included discussing the choice of a name for the group should one ever be needed and then a return to the question about spirituality that we had begun with at the previous meeting. As it happened, discussing the name put us on an entirely different track and we never go back to the spirituality question.

One of the CPC members had sent out a notice about a group offering training on developing understanding among groups with different “worldviews” in the Twin Cities. She suggested that the term “worldview” might serve us better than referring to our conversation as an “interfaith dialog”. The problem with that phrase is that GRAF doesn’t have a “faith” position unless you count a denial of faith as having any value as a position. There have been lots of problems already with the use of “interfaith” because it concedes the ground to the religious and serves to imply that faith is the premier issue in a dialog between believing and nonbelieving groups. So, we began to discuss alternative words that we might use and that quickly led to some basic questions: What are we trying to accomplish? What is our goal? How can our chosen name more clearly communicate what we are up to?

At our initial meeting I had provided a very brief description of what I thought we were trying to do, but it emphasized what GRAF was seeking to get out of it and not so much what CPC might get from it. So I returned to that description and started to fill in some of the gaps and to clarify what was intended. Mostly, that came down to saying that Kim and I were in agreement that we shared a lot of values and goals in life – hers perhaps reflecting the dictates of her faith, mine reflecting a long standing attachment to the secular/humanistic perspective. Given that we shared these things even if for different reasons, it seemed we ought to be able to work together in the advancement of those values in the community as a whole and take action together on those values.

This led to affirming the first reason offered by Chris Stedman for speaking with a religious group which I had previously put aside as not really necessary at this point. It was the need for GRAF to partner with a larger and more resource rich group in some projects that would exceed our current capacity given our small membership. For the CPC members this required also giving examples of what we choose to work on as partners. It also led to a more detailed discussion of the prejudice and hostility GRAF has faced and would likely continue to face by becoming more visible and our need for support from others like the CPC.

The discussion became more and more relaxed and comfortable for all involved as we proceeded and discovered in our words support for the initial idea that we shared many values. I don’t know that the CPC members were surprised to find that we had or shared values similar to their own, but their interest was intense enough that they suggested we put aside the religious issues that we had started with and spend more time exploring all the shared ideas we had. I suggested we work with Herb Silverman’s list which I’ve noted here. They agreed to this and I was given the task of passing around the link to his article and also to break the news to Kim who was not at the meeting so she would understand why her desire to talk about belief and faith had been postponed.

So, an enjoyable meeting that cut the tension that had existed at the start. We still have a long way to go even with the list of shared values since Herb’s wording is not going to be exactly what GRAF or CPC members may be comfortable with. For example, Herb lists agreement that the bible contains a lot of wisdom, but shouldn’t be take literally. I would go farther and note that the bible contains a lot more lunacy and barbarism than wisdom and not only shouldn’t be read literally, but recognized as less than the “greatest story ever told”. Some parts shouldn’t be read at all let alone literally. While the CPC members we have met so far would likely agree with some of the limitations of the bible, I’m not sure they would be eager to trash the barbaric sections as eagerly as I might.

We meet again next month. This hasn’t been a bad idea at all…yet.


Find the Fatal Flaw

As many of you may know, there was a big kerfuffle on Bill Maher’s show last week. A fight broke out between Maher, Sam Harris, Ben Affleck, Michael Steele and Nick Kristof over Islam, the ISIS group, Sam’s rampant Islamaphobia, Maher’s Islamaphobia, Afleck’s failure to criticize Islam in the same way he might criticize other religions and I don’t remember much of what Kristof or Steele said except that I think they were on Affleck’s side. The conversation turned into a shouting match in which you couldn’t understand any of it. So Harris presented his ideas on his blog again and also got invited on the Lawrence O’Donnell show on CNBC where he could talk without being shouted down. So here is Sam’s take yet again on Islam and what problems it poses. Since I tend to side with most, but not all of what Sam says on the subject, I usually get lumped into the Islamaphobia bag as well. I guess I need someone to point out the fatal flaw in Sam’s argument. The idea or ideas that are totally off the wall or even partially off the wall and render everything he says as misguided and hateful. Once I’ve been enlightened I can proudly (well, not actually proudly), put on the sack cloth and ashes my Islamaphobia so clearly calls for.

If I had the resources, I could declare this a contest to see who can find and explain the flaw or flaws first and then award the grand prize. I shall be waiting patiently…sort of.