Are Atheists Fully Human?

Not according to Cardinal Cormack Murphy-O’Connor, recently speaking on BBC radio. Apparently a transcendent relationship with God is an essential part of the human experience, and one without which an individual cannot be fully human.

No word yet on whether the good Cardinal also finds sexuality an essential part of the human condition. One hopes, for the sake of local altar boys, that he is celibate – as indeed the Catholic Church demands he should be. Does he consider that this makes him less than human also, I wonder? I expect the Cardinal would reply that just because he can do something doesn’t mean that he should, or that he simply must.

So how does his abstention from one essential part of human experience somehow make him any more completely human than those who choose to abstain from a different (and much less necessary) part?

Answer: it doesn’t.

NYT: Nontheism Rising

The New York Times has published one of those feel-good stories today. At least, it makes me feel good: More Atheists Shout It From the Rooftops.

More than ever, America’s atheists are linking up and speaking out — even here in South Carolina, home to Bob Jones University, blue laws and a legislature that last year unanimously approved a Christian license plate embossed with a cross, a stained glass window and the words “I Believe” (a move blocked by a judge and now headed for trial).

They are connecting on the Internet, holding meet-ups in bars, advertising on billboards and buses, volunteering at food pantries and picking up roadside trash, earning atheist groups recognition on adopt-a-highway signs.

Of course, those of us within the community have seen this sort of growth for some time now. It is nice to see a mainstream media source like the Times acknowledging it, though.

Kiwis becoming less religious

A recent study by Massey University has shown a sharp rise in the number of New Zealanders without religious affiliation. 40% of Kiwis choose not to be religious, up from 29% when a similar study was performed 17 years ago.

The study also showed that just over half (53%) of those surveyed said that they believed in God, although half of those had doubts. Just over a third of the respondents claimed to be religious.

“The study shows that God is not dead, but religion may be dying,” says Professor Grendall, who headed the project. With no change in those who believe in a “higher power” rather than a specific god (at 20%), Grendall believes that “…perhaps the apparent decline in religiosity reflects a decline in traditional religious loyalties – rather than a decline in spirituality as such.”

This tracks with the most recent census results, with 29.6% claiming no religion in the 2001 census – a figure that rose to 34.7% just five years later in the 2006 census. This rapid rise in the numbers of non-religious is likely to be age-related. Only 11.8% of those over 65 recorded no religion in 2006, while 43% of children (aged 0-14) claimed the same status.

Massey news item here.

Can your country beat these statistics? Comment below…

The Auto-Pygmalion – by Eva Jones

The Auto-Pygmalion and the Christmas Creation

Last night I went with Greg to see his little niece in a Christmas play – secretly, I expect, he is hoping to show me how the wonder of the Christmas message, performed by the pretty children he would like us to one day have ourselves. The niece’s overdone joy at seeing me and the look that passed between Greg and his sister indicated a family plot.

I enjoyed the play, as much as one can when one can’t claim ownership of one of the performers, but the sister was not best pleased. The niece was playing Mary, and admittedly, she did look very lovely – at least until the fight between her and the child playing Joseph over who got to hold the baby when the Wise Men came to look at it. There was shrieking, over-excitement, and a beheading as the doll was smashed repeatedly into the ground until its head came off, to general wailing.

I loved every minute of it.

But apart from the humorous side of things, what struck me was that part of the reason I loved it was the change of story. Without meaning to, I’m sure, and to the dismay of the parent-teacher association, those children recreated the Christmas story their own way. It was still a story, just not the expected story.

What is it about Christmas that inspires creation? Not just in disastrous plays, but in decorations, music, art… Whether you believe in the religion behind it (I don’t) the mythology behind the birth of Christ has transformed into a yearly festival of story. Some call it the greatest story ever told (I don’t). And that story is essentially an act of creation, isn’t it?

451px-annunciationBut where is the human element in this creation? Did Mary contribute DNA, or was she merely an incubator? If the last, is there really any human part to the basis of this creation story at all? Where in the story do we fit?

If humanity has no part in this creation, the same cannot be said for the aftermath. Even if we believe that the story was divinely rather than humanly created we can still respond to it – elaborate upon it, mimic it, update it. To make it more our own? Is that why there is a tendency to alter it, to massage the imagined scene into something we can more easily relate to – something closer to us in the time-space of our imaginations?

There is no specific day in the Christian calendar for celebrating the act of Creation, where God supposedly thought to himself “Right, today is the day. Let’s start on the creation of light. Now what did I do with those photons?” In that sense, the celebration of that belief seems to have found an underlying place in the birth of Christ. The whole of nature responds to it – or so we imagine. Even the stars in the sky are not immune.

And neither am I. It’s a pretty story, and I respond to some aspects of it – most especially the old Christmas carols. But it’s the substitution of celebration that interests me most. The Auto-Pygmalion is interested in the question of creation; how can she not be? Not so much the question of outer world creation, as that is explainable by modern science, but the question of the creation of the inner world.

As a species we create, and as broad groups of cultures there are focal points for our creation. One of these focal points is mythology. We respond to traditional, scripted stories that speak to us in a mythological way, but we respond especially well when we can take part in them, recreate the original story. In a culture descended from the Christian mythic interpretation of world events, we instinctively recognise the story of creation. Perhaps that is why singing Christmas carols is so popular – even if we do not believe, it allows us to take part in the story, recognising it as a story. You do not have to believe in Christ to appreciate Come All Ye Faithful, just as you do not have to believe in flying, fire-breathing reptiles to sing along to Puff the Magic Dragon. But by doing so, non-believers can take part in a story that is not our own, and by taking part make it our own.

Ironically, is this not what Mary did? She gave birth to Christ, brought the story of Christ into the world. But according to the mythology, she did not create him – Jesus was planted in her womb by God. Mary did not create the story, she was merely the page it was written on. But no doubt she felt he was partly her own, and her interpretations of his actions and words and story would have been influenced by the lens of motherhood.

nativity_smallSo when I think of Christmas, it is primarily Mary that I think of. You don’t always have a choice with stories – sometimes you get caught up in them all unwilling. One can’t honestly say that Mary chose to become pregnant by a supernatural power – the poor girl had little choice in the matter. The story steam-rolled over her in an act of creation in which she had no part.

As an artist it is this aspect of Christmas, and of Mary, that does not sit well with me. Who would want to be at the mercy of a story like that? I’ve said it before, and will say it again: the only stories you can trust are your own, the stories you create by will rather than reaction.

But when push comes to shove, if will is better than reaction, reaction is better than nothing. Better to have some control, some presence, some creativity within the story than none at all. Perhaps that is the reason that celebrating Christmas has caught on so over the millennia, whether the people who celebrate the story believe in its veracity or not.

And perhaps that is why Greg’s niece, not half an hour after her play ended in the most wonderful shambles, was able to say, in pleased satisfaction: “We did do well, didn’t we?”

Yes. Yes you did.

Read more of Eva’s posts at her blog.

The Invisible Atheist – by Garnet

This month Nexus would like to welcome a new columnist. Garnet’s focus will be how she finds life as an atheist – an invisible member of society. Welcome, Garnet!

Some time ago, on a forum that shall not be named, I had a short-lived blog titled “The Invisible Atheist.” A friend asked me why I selected that title. Well, part of it comes from my experience in being actively shunned once in my life. When I left the last church I regularly attended, everyone, even people I had thought were my friends, shunned me. This is highly irregular behavior for a Southern Baptist church, by the way. What I didn’t know is that the church I attended wasn’t part of the Southern Baptist convention. I didn’t know this until a few years later. But, I digress. While I had not yet become an atheist, it certainly reinforced feelings I had experienced for most of my life of being on the outside looking in and of being an outcast.

All my life, from time to time, I’ve felt as if I was invisible. There are times when I can slip through rooms full of people and never rate a look, let alone have someone attempt to engage me in conversation. There are times when I can be in a store waiting for service and none of the staff will “see” me and they will go to help everyone else instead. I can’t tell you how many times in my life I’ve heard the phrase, “Oh, I didn’t see you there.” I think that I am a bit of a chameleon and that when I’m in certain moods, I just blend into the background.

It’s an oddity about me. Most times, I’m a highly visible outgoing person. I’m a business analyst, so I spend a lot of time conducting presentations and meetings and work sessions. I have no problems speaking to groups of people both small and large. Some of the work I’ve done in the past has required that I not only deal with groups of people, but also with fairly intense one-on-one conversations.

But then, the mood strikes and I begin to feel like the outsider, the leper, the one who is outcast and unclean. It’s as if I slip into a cloak that hides me and I move through places and right by people without being noticed at all. I often feel this way when I’m around my family these days. It’s as if we don’t have anything in common anymore and it’s my fault because I moved away, I’ve stayed away and I’m different.

It’s also a feeling I experience the most as a direct result of my atheism. It’s often manifested when I’ve interacted with certain believers and no matter what I say or how I say it, they keep returning to the falsehoods they’ve been taught about atheists. They joust with straw men instead of engaging in conversation with me. It’s as if my answers to questions are invisible and meaningless. There’s a feeling I get from some Christians that atheists should just shut up and slink away. We are bothersome, evil and the good folk would just rather not deal with us at all, thank you very much.

I think the main reason that I titled the blog the Invisible Atheist is that outside of bulletin boards I rarely discuss my beliefs. I tend to disengage from workplace and social conversations about religious beliefs. In real life, I only discuss beliefs with people whom I know and trust. That means that in essence, I’m an invisible atheist in a veritable sea of believers.

The Auto-Pygmalion – by Eva Jones

The Auto-Pygmalion and the inner predator

We were predators before we were shepherds. Despite what a liberal interpretation of myths such as Genesis might tell us – that we are caretakers of the Earth and all that inhabit it – our reality is that care-taking is primarily a sop to conscience, and that we have a preferred method of dealing with the world outside ourselves. Although “preferred” may seem like the wrong word, it is not. Humanity evolved as predators, and that is how we continue today. Even those of us who eat no meat cannot be said to abstain from that predation, as the evolutionary defences of plants make it clear that they too share in the hunting relationship. Some of them, such as pitcher plants and Venus fly-traps, even predate back.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Thus, in the sense of our own evolutionary history, the choice is made for us. We are predators, not caretakers; bloody-mouthed shepherds, not sheep. Yet along with our jaws and our running pelvis and our throwing arm, our minds also evolved, and it is that which gives us the choice of whether to retain our view of ourselves as predators, or to subsume that old knowledge into a new identity.

Yet as we look at the world today, it is not hard to see that this new identity has not been taken up by many of our fellow predators. For predation continues – on the weak and the helpless, those that cannot fight back, who are the lesser predators themselves. And deep within us – or, at least, deep within me – there is a small voice that says: “Do they not deserve it?”

It’s easier to remember your evolutionary heritage when you are physically strong. Then, any interaction with others is coloured by weakness – specifically, their weakness or lack thereof. It’s something that’s felt not only in real life communities, but in virtual ones as well, when each individual met is automatically put in one of two categories: they are weaker than me, or I am weaker than them.

It’s bragging to say it, but in most cases people I meet fall into the first category: men and women, physically and intellectually. And that is where my problem comes in. I can’t get away from the fact that I size people up like a predator – people or posts give out particular vibes, like an animal limping at the edge of a pack, like blood in the water.

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Alfred Lord Tennyson

It is the strong that survive, and the strong that should survive. Give me not that milquetoast “and the meek shall enter…” please. Why should they? I ask myself. And then that question gets damped down quite quickly, for the stronger part of me, the part that is not wholly predator, realises that a world run according to the will of the strong is more likely than most to end in bloodshed and destruction – and even in the service of a wider ideal, the improvement of the species, that is not a tactic that can be justified. Yet what is it that surmounts those millions of years of physical evolution? Is there a social evolution that moves alongside of it, a development of altruism that benefits the species, if not the individual? Some would argue that this knowledge comes from God, that atheists cannot explain the knowledge of good and evil in any other way – and yet, like the religious, atheists have that knowledge every moment of every day of their lives, for it exists within the body, “red in tooth and claw”.

If such as thing as God did exist, he would be the ultimate predator. You only need to read the Old Testament – among other religious texts – to realise that anyone who can and will slaughter entire cities of themselves can keep lesser predators in line when needed. But without that top predator, what keeps the rest of us from giving in to our own ability to predate?

There is the social contract, of course. If you don’t predate me then I won’t predate you. But if one were given the chance to predate, in an environment where that predation is free from risk or almost so, does that social contract hold? It doesn’t and neither does the religion – the fear that God will punish can and is often subsumed in the assumption that God will forgive, or that God will excuse or support a predation done for his sake.

Yet that God should doesn’t necessarily mean that we should – and are we not the predators with whom we should have the most concern? It’s inescapable that, whether you believe in the death penalty or not, the world is just better off without certain individuals in it. Few would shed a tear if instigators of genocide were to be brought down by their own packs, and their blood spilled in place of others’. There is a certain temptation in power that the ability to successfully predate feeds upon, and that temptation is ongoing. If we cannot match the ultimate predator with his ultimate forgiveness, our own mortal lives still revolve around our ability to predate and our ability to judge the predation of others, and of ourselves. A certain amount of predation is necessary to live, after all. Perhaps that is the duty of the evolving Autopygmalion: to live with the temptation of our own nature without wallowing in it or hiding from it. To know the truth of our bodies and ourselves.

I don’t know the final result of this conflict between our two natures – the natures of our past. Where will they take us in the future? Can there ever be a resolution, while we look at our hands and see the remnants of claws, while we can see the canines in each other’s smiles, and the soft pulse in the softer throats around us? Perhaps that is where we find the real knowledge of good and evil – in our ability to predate, and our reason to employ or withstand it.

Read more of Eva’s posts at her blog.

Our Stories – by epepke

I grew up in a vaguely theist family. We never went to church, except occasionally to the churches of others. Growing up in New York, I was exposed heavily to Judaism and Catholicism. After moving to Sarasota, Florida around 11, I was exposed to some Protestant sects. Sometimes, when I was very young, I asked why we didn’t go to church, and my mother always said, “God is in your heart, not in a house.” Which I suppose is the kind of thing you tell a kid, but I still think it’s a dumb thing to say.

Now, a lot of people here know what my brain is like. For those who don’t, my brain is highly unusual. Some might say freaky. I can’t really tell, because it’s mine, and it seems perfectly ordinary to me. However, I can infer this from how people sometimes react. Sometimes I am incredibly wrong in exactly what I infer, but I’m as sure as I am of anything that some inference is valid.

After I moved to Florida (I had already hit puberty), I inferred some things from the way people, especially those of the female persuasion, treated me. Those things I inferred were hideously wrong, but I was not to begin to understand that until 15 years after graduation. In any event, they set up in me the conditions ripe for a conversion to highly moralistic Christianity, which is what happened. I fell, and I fell hard. This lasted me through High School and about half of college and a marriage based on something like desperation.

I was also attracted to that “plate of shrimp” stuff about how the Mayans invented television and all that crap. That, however, was not entirely my fault. It was the 1970s, and it was all the rage. In school, we were subjected to the Propellor Beanies of the Gods nonsense and had a field trip to see a woman who claimed to be able to communicate psychically with pets. In the words of Frank Zappa, Pheeeeuw!

What I think kept me from being destroyed altogether consisted of two things.

First of all, it is a peculiarity of my brain that with respect to everything of the mind, including intellectual pursuits, I am either completely clueless and incompetent or an expert. This has nothing to do with intelligence. Intelligence affects the rate at which someone can work through the process, and I’ve been extremely slow and retarded about a lot of things that almost everyone finds easy and accessible. It’s just that the whole range of the average seems excluded to me. I can bang my head on a problem, sometimes for decades, without making any apparent progress at all, and then it all just falls into place. Many people report this experience, but for me it is overwhelmingly dominant. This has caused extreme unhappiness in my life, not simply with respect to the way other people treat me, but to the way I have viewed myself. Employers and potential employers either fail to understand me completely or think I’m the best thing since sliced peanut butter. This has resulted in long periods of unemployment and desperate poverty punctuated by fantastic and fascinating jobs.

It does come in handy, however. I think it is one of the reasons for my long-standing love affair with mathematics, where every problem is either impossible or trivial.

Another is that, due to my technical background and scientific bent, I had a healthy distrust of authority. Richard Feynman writes about this. My first exposure to Feynman was when my father gave me a copy of Surely, You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman and wrote in the overleaf “This reminds me a lot of you.” He also once became angry with me when I said, “I’m just a kid, what to I know?” I was nine years old and was hooking up vacuum tubes to power supplies to see what they would do. He told me never, ever to think that. He was a jerk in many other ways (especially once I surpassed him in knowledge and intelligence), but this was good for me. Many years later, in something like despair, he told me that I was physically and intellectually superior to him. I therefore know why he tried to destroy me and once said “I should have worn a condom,” but it does not make it any easier.

So, when I read the Bible, I really read the Bible. When I came across Bible study groups, and they all tried to tell me this and that and nodded simultaneously, I had an annoying tendency to laugh. I did see the Bible as a complete and coherent hole, and I now have the terminology to describe that in one sentence: The God of the Bible has borderline personality disorder. I was like 15 at the time and pretty messed up in the head, so I actually empathized with the god-character.

Specific events that got me away from Christianity and theism are as follows. I saw Cosmos, and it hit me on the same emotional level that Christianity had, but for good this time. I was exposed to a peripatetic preacher by the name of Brother Jed with his wife Sister Cindy, and they seemed to me ridiculous. This was the heyday of televangelism, with Jim Bakker and cronies running rampant. Pat Robertson had a specifically anti-Cosmos episode, and I saw it as unutterably stupid.

The final straw related to the fact that I previously had some expectation of a creator God. I did not reject evolution (fortunately, I had a great teacher in High School who taught good classes and sometimes called them Sex and Gambling), but I was familiar with thermodynamics and information theory, and I thought that the rate of information increase to produce a human being was too large to be accounted for without at least occasional tweaking by a Creator. I had probably been influenced by 2001, the whole point of which is much the same, and I was able to find justifications in the Torah.

That annoying curiosity got the better of me. I had just learned about computational analysis, and I thought it was way cool. So I made some assumptions and modeled the process of evolution on a gross level by a field of non-deterministic Universal Turing Machines. This is similar to the way people, including myself, have tried to tackle the Continuum Hypothesis (where it fails is that the aleph-1 counting part of the proof manifestly overcounts numbers in C, and it turns out not to be possible to count the number of numbers it overcounts, if that makes sense or even if it doesn’t). However, as a broad approximation, it works just fine. What I found was that evolving something like a human in about that number of generations only requires a reasonable and even unimpressive change in information, easily within the range of random fluctuation.

So that was pretty much it. It wasn’t a happy time, as my marriage was falling apart, and I was to face a two-year period during which I thought that no woman would ever touch me again, but my brain was telling me something, and I could not ignore it.

Anyway, the theism went away. The next couple of decades involved a stint as a research scientist, the Skeptical Inquirer, Lake Hypatia, some groups who actually payed me to speak (!), a masterwork called SciAn, some limited fame, some bad experiences with women, some not-so-bad but still not-so-good experiences with women, a long-standing program to overcome my crippling shyness, watching an institute I loved self-disintegrate, retraining for a new career that didn’t work, a second marriage that didn’t work, the death of my father, friendship with almost everyone here who is a friend, breast cancer of my mother for whom I cared when I was unemployed, eventual moves for work, much more unemployment, pancreatitis and a cholycystectomy, a sort of snapping of my mind that eliminated my mood swings but made me numb for a couple of years, and so on and so forth. All of which brings us to about two and one-half years ago, when things really came together for me.

I know this will come as a surprise and shock to some of you, but I have changed my beliefs dramatically. In terms of all particulars, however, I haven’t changed a thing. I still don’t believe in a god or gods. I still have little patience with paranormal junk. I don’t believe in the supernatural, and I don’t even know what people mean by “spiritual,” though as a famous Rabbi once said, it seems to be something for the sexually frustrated.

What has happened is that I learned how to be happy. I stopped, inasmuch as I found it possible at the time, listening to what other people thought, though “listening” isn’t exactly the right word. I pay attention, but I don’t buy it, and I always see more important truths behind the statements. I started paying more and more attention to the entire universe and to what I feel in my bones.

Things have been happening which I can feel, to the point where I don’t even have time to recover from them. It’s getting so common it seems unlimited. I do not know what to call this, so I will call it “mojo.” I do not know what it is, or why it happens. Other people have tried. There’s the concept of synchronicity of Jung and Pauli. There is paranormal junk. There are, I think, all the religions of the world. I’m not going to believe in any of them, nor am I going to say more than what I am reasonably sure of. I’m a good little skeptic, and I am very sensitive to confirmation bias, the sheep/goat effect, and all those other things that make it difficult to understand the universe. As Newton said, I frame no hypotheses.

I am not going to try to communicate this. I don’t think I can, and I certainly don’t have much of an idea of how to go about it. There is no vocabulary for it even if I had a good understanding, which I do not.

I can, however, say what I think at the present time. I could always be wrong, and it is always subject to change.

I think it has a lot to do with sex, or rather the concept mythically described as Eros, a place where the distinction between sex, love, life, health, joy, beauty, and happiness becomes meaningless.

I think a lot of people get this stuff in flashes, and then they sober up or go home to their families and make up stupid religions so that they can go to sleep at night.

I think it has something to do with the fact that sex has been an essential component of the evolution of multicellular organisms, including us. It may be a sine qua non as it has the ability to couple conscious choice with evolution. It may not be the only way in the universe, but it is what we are.

What we are is, everything else put aside, the part of the universe that appreciates and enjoys the universe. Alone amongst all the life we know of, we can look back into the farthest reaches of time and space and to the fundaments of reality. We’re not completely there, and we may never get there, but the point is that we can go through the process. If there be others in the universe who can do the same thing, then they be in the same boat.

I think that the universe really is very different from what we mostly perceive by the classical means of organizing sensory information. When people learn how to juggle and ride a unicycle at the same time, they throw the balls in the direction of travel, expecting to catch up. It doesn’t work. This is a fairly trivial example of how our expectations are not particularly good at modeling reality. I don’t know what the right model is.

I think I’ve seen something like this happen to other people before, most recently and notably science fiction writers Greg Bear and Philip K. Dick. They seem always to become religious nutters or grind their gears without oil. I hope that I’m not that dumb, but I have no way of telling. It doesn’t seem to last more than a couple of months in other people. With me, it’s been going on at an exponentially increasing rate for more than two years.

Physically as well as metaphorically, the top is down, the Scissor Sisters are playing, and I’m burning the blood of the Earth. I don’t know where I’m going; eventually to my death, I suppose, but isn’t that always the case? In the mean time, perhaps I’ll see some new scenery. No fear, no need, no shame, no guilt, no worries. What else is there? Madness, perhaps? Been there; done that. Got the T-shirt, showed off my tits in it, left it to mildew on the front porch. Sometimes it rains or the engine overheats, and ozone and glycol tang wrinkle my nose. That’s part of it, too, and it’s all good.