Robert Ingersoll

Robert Ingersoll quoteMy second post on Secular Voices is now up: Robert Ingersoll, A Hero of Free Thought. Please share the link if you like the article.

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The unpopularity of atheists

Atheists are an unpopular group in the US. According to a Pew Research poll, 53% of Americans would be less likely to vote for an atheist. One person I know is afraid she’d lose her job if her employer knew she was one.

Personally, I don’t feel persecuted for my atheism. On November 1, 1996, the lead front page article of the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune began: “Gary D. McGath said he is an atheist…” Nothing bad happened to me as a result. The story wasn’t actually about me, but about a pagan ceremony which I attended; the pagans had been targeted with a death threat, but the ceremony happened peacefully. A reporter just happened to talk to me there. My song “Night of Halloween” is about that event.

It makes a big difference where you’re living, I’m sure. In New Hampshire you’ll be left alone with just about any religious view. In some other parts of the US, not so much, and there are still issues nationwide. The people who consider it a grave injustice that the Boy Scouts ban gays are mostly silent about its doing the same to atheists on the grounds that we can’t be “the best kind of citizen.” (As a private organization, the Scouts should be free to ban anyone they want, but they should admit they’re a religious organization and not get any favors from the government. The Masons’ requirement for a belief in God doesn’t bother me, since they’re an openly religious group and don’t claim I’m an inferior citizen.)

Distrust of atheists is related to the notion that without a belief in God there can be no morality. Religionists say things like: “If there is no Moral Law Giver (God), then how can there be a moral law that prescribes: ‘Be good.’ Every prescription has a prescriber, and this is a moral prescription.” In this view, morality is a matter of obeying orders. Something is right or wrong because an authority says it is. If God says, “Thou shalt not kill,” then it’s wrong to kill. If He says, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” then it’s wrong not to kill.

Weak as this argument is, the better-known secular ethicists haven’t answered it well. We hear that right and wrong come from our values, which is true as far as it goes, but they hedge on the question of where values come from. Some claim morality is derived from biological impulses, but they cherry-pick just the impulses which they like in order to arrive at pre-selected conclusions. Rand had it right: the only rational standard of value is human life. People don’t like this, though, because the life which is central to you, which makes it possible to value anything at all, is your own, and this is “selfish.”

Most people do act on the standard of life most of the time, but it’s understandable if they’re skeptical about secularists who flounder and dodge on the fundamentals of ethics. Until it’s more widely understood that life and the pursuit of happiness are moral goals that don’t require a divine commandment, the distrust of atheists will likely continue.

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The problem with atheist forums

Occasionally I’ve looked in on atheist forums on the Internet, but I’ve never stuck with any. The amount of hostility and mockery on them is just unpleasant. Whatever I think of religion, mocking it just isn’t worth very much of my time. One of them proved to be more an anti-Christian forum than anything else, with significantly more tolerance for any religion that wasn’t Christianity. Most of them have some good posts, but more are by people jumping on the most absurd actions of Christians or quasi-Christians. If you went by these forums, you’d think that the Westboro Baptist Church was one of the most important sources of religious thought today.

The idea of a discussion forum on the basis of a common absence of belief is just odd, and it’s not surprising it doesn’t produce much that’s positive. As far as I’m concerned, the notion that there’s a being that created the whole universe and yet bothers with how we think and act is too bizarre to take seriously; let’s just move on. People who think there is one don’t injure me unless they try to force me to act according to their beliefs or pay for their propagation. If they do, that’s an issue of coercion, not of religion.

Penn Jillette recently wrote: “Religion cannot and should not be replaced by atheism. Religion needs to go away and not be replaced by anything. Atheism is not a religion. It’s the absence of religion, and that’s a wonderful thing.” My reactions to his writing are very mixed, but in this case he’s on target. Reason is a positive and worth devoting time to; atheism isn’t.

Thomas Jefferson said, “But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” I think most atheists understand this, but the ones who are attracted to atheist forums are the ones who feel compelled to complain about religion. A discussion group centered on an absence really isn’t likely to have much to say. What would a “There is no Tooth Fairy” forum talk about?

First audio post: I’m an Unbeliever

Song blogging is one way to get an idea across. This is my own song, “I’m an Unbeliever,” with no connection to any better-known songs that might have titles something like that. Recorded at home using a Zoom H2. The lyrics have been polished a bit since the last time I inflicted it on people, and I’ve worked on the accompaniment.

“I’m an Unbeliever” is copyright 2012 by Gary McGath and Creative Commons License is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Download the MP3, if you prefer that to using the player.

Update: I’ve posted the lyrics.

Surrogate churches

If you’ve known me for any length of time, you know that I’m an atheist and that I seldom make a big deal of it. In southern New Hampshire it’s not a problem to be one, and atheism isn’t a belief but the absence of one, so I don’t normally talk a lot about it.

I grant, though, that churches offer values which have nothing to do with the promotion of religious doctrines. They provide a sense of community and offer support to members encountering difficulties. They provide an occasion for members to gather regularly. For many church members, these benefits are more important than the belief system. (By “church” I mean any nominally religious organization with regular local gatherings, whether it’s called a church, temple, synagogue, mosque, or whatever.)

Even without a belief system, a church-like organization can offer those benefits. The Unitarians, as a church without a doctrine, demonstrate this. Other types of organization aren’t at all church-like but provide a similar community focus. An example which I’m personally familiar with is science fiction fandom. It provides regular gatherings (club meetings and conventions), often provides encouragement and support for members with problems, and takes note of important events in members’ lives. The same is even more true, for me, of its subset, filk music fandom. (Take a look here if you haven’t heard of filk before.) Because I’m a member of the filk community, there are places all over the US, and in the UK and Germany as well, where I’m welcome as a friend and can ask for help in an emergency.

You could say that SF fandom has a belief system: a belief in the future. It’s mostly an optimistic belief, one that things can become better even if there are no guarantees. It always holds that our chances are better if we’re ready for change and think about what it may be like. It accepts cultural variety; if we’re even going to think about talking with beings from another planet, we should be able to find some common ground with people from Zambia or Thailand. (I don’t mean that all cultural practices are equally valid, but that difference alone isn’t a reason for dismissal.)

Filk fandom, the part of SF fandom for whom sharing music is important, also has a central belief: that people can and should make music, even if they aren’t supremely talented, rather than just listen to the professionals. The acceptance speeches of Barry and Sally Childs-Helton at the 2003 Filk Hall of Fame Banquet are excellent statements of this belief. Sally said:

In a way, we’ve been robbed. We have robbed ourselves of the joy of making music, of dancing, of doing art. This [the filk] community has taken that and pitched it out the window and said, “We are making music because we love it, we need to do it, it feeds our souls, it feeds our community, it feed us as individuals.” And we do it.

Barry’s closing remarks hint at the potential downside of any church or surrogate church, though I don’t think he intended to:

For this and for many other reasons, I consider the people of science fiction fandom to be my people, in the ancient sense that the tribesman will look at his tribe and say “These are my people”. That someone will look at his ancestors and say “These are my people” at his close friends and say “These are my people.”

The ancient tribesman who looked at his tribe and said, “These are my people,” tended to look at everyone else and say, “There aren’t my people. They may be enemies. They may not even really be people.” People tend to divide the world between “us,” friends, and “not-us,” enemies, with any difference providing an excuse. We see this in the term “mundanes” which SF fans apply to outsiders. Mostly the term is used with good humor, commenting on the puzzlement others feel when we do things that look weird to them. Too often, though, it reflects an assumption that those other people have no imagination, that they live boring lives, that they have nothing to offer except as part of the economy. This betrays the best part of fandom. IDIC — Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations — includes so-called “mundanes.” There are many kinds of communities and interests.

Community organizations can either support or stifle its members as individuals. In Barry’s case, the use of “this is my tribe” was just an odd piece of rhetoric; the filk community doesn’t at all give the sense of living in a tribe. Both actual and surrogate churches, though, are capable of instilling a sense of deep obligation to the group and hostility to anyone who’s different. Each organization has to be judged by whether it encourages its members to think for themselves, accept their own uniqueness, and respect differences.