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.

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.


At a Loss for Words…

Many of you are aware of Brittany Maynard, the woman with the malignant glial blastoma who moved with her husband from California to Oregon in order to end her life on her own terms.  Well, the Vatican has condemned her.  On WEIT, Jerry Coyne has reproduced a portion of the Vatican’s “Declaration on Euthanasia, which reads in part:

“. . . According to Christian teaching, however, suffering, especially suffering during the last moments of life, has a special place in God’s saving plan; it is in fact a sharing in Christ’s passion and a union with the redeeming sacrifice which He offered in obedience to the Father’s will.”

This makes my blood boil.  The tumor that led to the inevitable death of Mrs. Maynard is the same that my mother was diagnosed with several months ago.  My mother was able to have the tumor excised, and radiation and chemo have extended her life, though we don’t know how long.  But before we knew she had a tumor, I witnessed firsthand some of the effects.  She was often disoriented — we thought she was developing Alzheimer’s — she was anxious, and she was unable to perform simple tasks she had carried out all her life.  It sounds like in Mrs. Maynard’s case, there were also seizures (which my mother may have had — she fell on a couple of occasions and doesn’t know how she got on the ground) and pain.

This condition is fatal.  My mother will die of it also, if something else doesn’t happen first; all we were able to do is buy her an undetermined amount of quality time, although the quality of her life has been seriously curtailed.

My mother would almost certainly not make a decision such as that of Mrs. Maynard.  But damn it anyway, if she chose to end her life on her own terms as an autonomous human being, shouldn’t she be afforded that right?

You see, there is a point — I saw this with my dad when he died of leukemia — when it is all down, down, down, with never an up.  There is nothing to look forward to.

So the Vatican wants to condemn people who choose to end their life before brain cancer takes everything from them, including their identity.  Let the pope die that way if he wants to, but it is none of their damn business what others choose to do.

And this business about sharing in the suffering of Christ?  What the hell is that?  I thought Christ suffered so we did not have to.  What a stinking crock of shit.

Children and Religious Parents

A few weeks ago, Jerry Coyne had a lot on his blog about children who were denied life saving medical procedures because of their parents’ absurd religious beliefs.  I had this discussion with my students today, and I told them that while I am not trying to get them to think like me, this is an issue I am passionate about.  Imagine a child who by definition is not able to make adult decisions dying because their idiot parent is into a partuicularly pernicious form of woo.  Yet I was surprised that there were those who needed convincing that this was not a matter of relgious freedom, but of children’s rights.


I wonder if this is a topic we could bring up at the CPC.

Interfaith Dialog – What’s the risk?

While we are waiting for a chance to start our conversation with the Community Presbyterian Church, I have been contemplating what it might be like, what we might find ourselves discussing other than the things I think we should be discussing and whether there are risks to our group and our perspective in this dialog. I started writing all these thoughts down and commenting on the thoughts of others on the notion of common ground with the religious and, finally, exploring some of the ideas of Chris Stedman as the designated atheist speaking on behalf of an interfaith dialog with the believers. Stedman has a large number of detractors including PZ Myers and it is worth considering their critiques of his position as well.

This turned into a small disaster as I discovered the post was getting enormously long. I realized no one would read the whole thing or watch the extended video in which the topic is discussed at a conference in Australia. So this is a somewhat trimmed down version. It’s still too long I guess, but I can’t see breaking it up into pieces.

Continue reading

The Supreme Court F**** It Up Again

Sorry for the strong language in the title, but the Supreme Court has once more handed down an infuriating ruling, this time in favor of Hobby Lobby.  The founders of that corporation had claimed that providing health care plans for their employees which included contraception was a violation of their religious freedom.  This is absolute BS.  Health care coverage is an earned benefit, as are wages, and employers have no more right to tell employees what they do with that benefit (so long as it is approved by certified medical professionals) than they do to tell employees how they can spend their wages.

This is also another step in the direction of the ridiculous notion of “corporate personhood.”  So a corporation can now have religious views?  What utter nonsense!

Until we can break the conservative-reactionary majority on the court (and this can ONLY be done by continuing to elect Democratic presidents!) we are in for a lot more of this kind of crap.


An atheist and a preacher walk into a coffee shop…

Sort of sounds like the start of a joke when it’s said like that, but is probably much too mundane to generate any kind of punch line. All it means is that I am scheduled to meet with pastor Kimbrel Johnson from the Community Presbyterian church for a get acquainted meeting on June 25th, location and time to be determined. This will be the first step in seeing whether we can have any dialog with each other and lay the groundwork for any collaboration.

If our first meeting is successful, we would seek to create a small group meeting that would include invited participants from both the atheist community and the Presbyterian church. The small group would explore more fully the possibility of forming an alliance which could engage a larger gathering of both religious and non-religious community members. The ultimate goal of all of this isn’t defined yet, but GRAF and the Presbyterians would seek to present themselves to the community as an existing alliance rather than as totally separate and undefined as to purpose. As I understand pastor Johnson’s position, she doesn’t want to present our partnering as something up for debate, but as something already accomplished. Presumably we would speak to issues we see as important to the the community as a whole and our voice as one of reason and moderation. So, in this context, I am trying to determine what specific issues will we have to contend with in the process of forming this alliance.

I think that it may begin with determining what misconceptions exist about atheists among those I meet initially, even if that is only the pastor. We know that the atheist community has a better understanding of the religious than they do of us by virtue of the atheist community arising from the relgious one. Most of us were part of a religion at some point and chose to leave it behind while the religious are very rarely former atheists who have decided to embrace faith. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who is religious who says they used to be an atheist. I know you sometimes hear of such folk, but I’ve never met any. If the preacher harbors some of the usual misperceptions and misunderstandings, it will almost certainly be the case that her parishoners do as well. Dispelling these must surely be part of the process. I’m certainly open to having my misunderstandings corrected, but at this point I have a hard time imaginging what they might be. Perhaps I will be surprised.

Once we get the fundamental misunderstandings identified, then the task will likely switch to exploring our shared values and perspectives wherever they may lie. Based on my brief review of what Presbyterians believe or include in their doctrine, are the following:

  • Strong support for the separation of church and state – I think we will find agreement there although how it is expressed may differ. It could be that the Presbyterians aren’t bothered too much by prayers at city council meetings or at school ceremonies, sports games, etc. They may not think it is as important as I do to fight the small stuff.
  • Strong humanitarian perspective – They may see this as a reflection of their religion, which is fine, but need to understand that belief in god is not a requirement for taking a humanistic perspective. The recent news that the church governing body has voted to accept and perform gay weddings is an encouraging sign that they let humanistic goals trump old church dogma.
  • Tolerance of different faiths – While they wouldn’t take this to the point of asserting that all faiths are equal and which one you follow is unimportant, but might be willing to grant that each has its own “reading” of what the faith requires. They seem inclined to be more ecumenical than those who are more fundamentalist in their perspective. We can agree to tolerate different religions (we hold all of them to be equally false), but need the absolute lack of faith to be included.

With just those three issues we have a lot in common. It will be interesting to see how they (the larger congregation or community) react to finding that atheists aren’t that much different on things that truly count.

So what else might we discuss with the Presbyterians? I’ve written down some specifics that are mostly subsumed under these larger ideas, but would be interested in anyone else’s ideas.

Ethics, Religion, and the Dalai Lama

All of us are well aware that religion is not necessary as a foundation for morality.  However, many religionists argue that it is.  Recently, one major religious leader, the Dalai Lama, has conceded that religion is insufficent as a base for morality; apparently, he has a book out on the topic.

Well, philosophers have taken a bashing from time to time for overreaching, and in some cases this is deserved.  But when it comes to ethics and morality, philosophy still shines (sorry Sam Harris fans).  Philosophers have long discussed morality without reference to a deity.  For those who are interested in one plausible approach, check out this debate between the secular philosopher Shelly Kagan and the onerous divine command theorist William Lane Craig.  Though who “wins” and who “loses” a debate is, to me, usually a matter of little import, in this case, Kagan’s trouncing of Craig is enjoyable to watch, becaus the latter is such a smooth-talking charlatan.


Atheism and Agnosticism

There is a good deal of confusion over the words “atheist” and “agnostic.”  This is especially the case when those of us who identify as atheist point out that their truth claims are provisional; that they would be willing to modify their view of reality — and even believe in a deity — if there were sufficient evidence.  This is a hang up for believers, who assume that all atheists are dogmatic absolutists with respect to the truth.

I like the way Matt Dillahunty puts it.  The word “agnostic” and its corollary “gnostic” deal with knowledge.  A gnostic, in the broad context, is someone who claims to know something.  The prefix “a” means without, so agnostic means “without knowledge.”  Since Dillahunty doesn’t think knowledge of a deity is possible, to him, all of us — believers and atheists alike — are agnostics, whether we realize it or not.

But it is possible to be an agnostic and be either a theist or an atheist.  This is becaue theism and atheism deal not with knowledge (or claims to knowledge), but with belief.  A theist is someone who has a god-belief; an atheist is someone without such a belief.  Or, technically, a theist is an agnostic (whether they admit it or not) who believes in a god, and an atheist is an agnostic who does not.

Thus, it is possible to be an atheist and an agnostic at the same time. It is also possible to be an atheist without developing a state of doxastic closure, as Boghossian would put it.  In more simple terms, one can be an atheist and still an open-minded seeker of truth, or, as I like to think of it, one who attempts to emulate Socrates.

Sean Hannity Eats (Jim) Crow

If there’s one thing Hannity likes, it’s everything that normal people despise.  This came to a head when Hannity was caught–yet again–associating with a racist.

Cliven Bundy is an old libertarian living in Nevada who, for decades now, has refused to pay grazing fees required to graze his cattle on public land under the argument that the federal government does not really exist–an odd position to say the least, as he has been filmed horse-back riding with the US’s flag under one arm, and has been consistently sued by this very government for roughly half-a-century.

Sean Hannity, eager to support anything that could be seen as a poke in the eye to the black-man-in-office, jumped at the chance to support Bundy in his hour of not-need.  After having the dipshit on enough times to call him a friend of the show, Bundy came out with his racist wisdom that all black people are on wellfare, abort their children and put their young men in jail because the modern generation never learned to pick cotton.


And this isn’t the first time; Sean Hannity once had a stirling friendship with Hal Turner.  For those of you who don’t know–a camp I was in until I did a quick Google search–Turner is a dirtbag racist who loudly calls for the murder of all non-whites, whites who are pro-immigration, and politicians whose opinions he doesn’t like.

He was arrested and charged with making death threats to a US Government official (actually several but whose counting, besides the court?) and found guilty in 2010.

But I’m getting off track, Turner was a frequent caller into Sean Hannity’s radio show where he introduced himself as “Hal from North Bergen”.  Though he was not the shit-pushing neo-Nazi he is today back then, he had a serious track record of racially inflammable comments that did nothing to stop a friendship between the two.

And now Hannity made friends with another racist…I guess birds of a feather really do flock together.

An apology to all noble avians–crows, vultures, shrikes–insulted by association with Hannity.