September 12, 2014 - 1:49 pm

Many stories describe supernatural events that turn skeptics into believers. This is not one of those stories. I have not had a “road to Damascus” experience, though my worldview did change a little after hearing about ghosts from Will Moredock, a professional tour guide in my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina.

Full disclosure: I interviewed Will for this article shortly after Will interviewed me for a piece in the Charleston City Paper about our local secular humanist group and our billboard, 20 Godless Years in the Holy City!

Will is a member of the Unitarian Church, a secular humanist, and a Charleston guide for Ghost and Graveyard Walking Tours. Ghosts, like fine restaurants and antebellum houses, are among the many attractions in this historic city, but I thought that Charleston ghosts, as in the film Ghostbusters, were only created for laughs and commercial success. (Coincidentally, Ghostbusters star Bill Murray lives near Charleston.)

 

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September 9, 2014 - 5:01 pm

a recent OnFaith piece by an anonymous pastor at a mainstream evangelical church asked, “Who’s Afraid of a (Partly) Fictional Bible?” I understand why the pastor might have wanted anonymity. See, for instance, Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind, where clergy reveal in confidential interviews how their lives of service are overshadowed by hypocrisy as they contemplate taking a leap from the faith of their congregants.

Although religionists often have heated arguments and even wars over holy book interpretations, our secular government does not condone killing for blasphemy. However, Christians may certainly fire sect leaders and shun family members for “incorrect” interpretations of their Bible. Literalists often disagree on what the Bible literally says, while non-literalists frequently disagree on which parts to take literally. Most Christians I know believe something equivalent to: “The Bible is literally true, except for what I say is allegorical.”

I agree with Pastor Anonymous when he criticizes people for reading “our twenty-first century lives into a book composed in an ancient and wholly different world.” However, we part company when he says that even the made-up stories “tell us the truth about God and his purposes.” Really? How can that be when the Bible mainly tells us the views of scientifically ignorant, misogynistic, and homophobic writers who were a product of their times? I regard the Bible at its best as akin to Aesop’s fables, with some positive moral lessons and universal truths (along with talking animals). I’ve written here about the value I find in the Bible.

 

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August 26, 2014 - 9:58 am

Each of the books below changed my worldview and my way of thinking to varying degrees. They are listed in the order I read them — and all but the last I read before the age of 20, when most of us are probably more open to learning about and considering new ideas. 

download (6)1. The Bible by authors unknown

I “knew” as a trusting child that the Bible was God’s word, and consequently the most important book in the world. I learned Hebrew in my Orthodox school by reading the Hebrew Bible (which we called Torah). We were praised for our ability to read fluently and follow rituals, but not so much for understanding what we were reading. Later we learned to translate and to converse in Hebrew. And, thankfully, my best Hebrew teachers encouraged us to question. And unlike Ken Ham, I found no answers in Genesis.

Teachers in my public school in the 1950s used to start the morning by reading biblical passages. One passage from 1 Corinthian 13:11 captured my evolving views about the Bible: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”Long before Judy Collins had any hit songs, I could say: I’ve looked at Torah from both sides now, from Orthodox Jew and atheist, too. But it’s Torah’s illusion I recall. I really don’t know Torah at all.

For better or worse, the Bible and the monotheistic religions it spawned have deeply influenced our culture and the world. For that reason alone, the Bible is worth reading. I regard it like Aesop’s fables, with some moral lessons and universal truths (along with talking animals). My problem isn’t so much with so-called holy books, but with adherents who take them literally. I’ve written hereabout the value I find in the Bible.

 

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August 19, 2014 - 9:58 am

The 1969 protest song "War" asks "What is it good for?" and answers "Absolutely nothing!" If I substituted "Prayer" for "War," I would qualify my answer with "Almost nothing."

Prayer can be good for its placebo effect when believers feel they are doing something constructive, which might "cure" a psychosomatic disorder. On the other hand, replacing accepted medical practices with prayer has led to countless preventable deaths and injuries.

Many well-meaning people rely on prayer because it makes them feel upbeat when they don't know what action to take in a situation that is out of their control. Regardless of logic and statistical evidence to the contrary, fervent believers remain convinced that there is a god who listens to prayers. I've heard comments like "Sometimes our prayers are answered and sometimes they are not" and "God answers all prayers, but sometimes the answer is no."

Prayer can also be good for providing a sense of community to those who hope to achieve a desired outcome. But such prayers might not always be for outcomes beneficial to all, as depicted in Mark Twain's "The War Prayer," a prayer for the suffering and destruction of enemies, as typified by "O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shred." This "prayer" was left unpublished until years after Twain's death because his family considered it too sacrilegious.

 

Continue reading at the Huffington Post >>

August 8, 2014 - 4:49 pm

I can empathize with religious groups whose mission is to convert everyone in the world, since I think the world would be better if everyone “saw the light” of secular humanism. But whether religious or secular, I believe the best form of proselytizing is to lead by example. I think Matthew 7:16 had it right — “By their fruits you shall know them.”

What follows are two lists that relate to atheist’s interactions with religious people. The first suggests ways we can change people’s views of atheists, and the second is about how, on some fronts, we’re not all that different from religionists.

Rather than seek converts to atheism, I think we atheists mostly want our worldview to be respected in a culture that has at least two pretexts for disliking us.

The first is that you can’t trust atheists because they don’t believe in a judging God who will reward or punish them in the afterlife.

This allegation is foolish and demeaning. I’ve been asked in conversations and on talk shows, “What keeps you from committing rape, murder, or anything else you think you can get away with?” My response is, “With an attitude like that, I hopeyou continue to believe in a god.”

 

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July 18, 2014 - 10:48 am

The phrase “More Catholic than the Pope” usually refers to someone who is more religiously strict than the Catholic Church requires. Gordon Klingenschmitt, Republican nominee for Colorado House of Representatives District 15, is not Catholic, but I’d add him to the club.

Klingenschmitt was upset when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling against a Wisconsin public school district that had been holding graduation ceremonies in a local church. He assumed that atheists were responsible, and responded, “I have a solution. Let’s do an exorcism and cast the devil out of them and then they’ll feel comfortable when they walk into church.”

Klingenschmitt had previously claimed that President Obama’s support for gay marriage showed that Obama must be possessed by demonic spirits. He’s also said that Jesus will eventually rule against gay marriage and toss all gays into hell. It’s bad enough that Pope Francis and other Catholic clergy perform exorcisms on the gullible faithful in their own Church, but Klingenschmitt wants to exorcise the devil from everyone who disagrees with his theological and political views.

I rarely feel I can speak for all atheists, but I’ll make an exception for Gordon Klingenschmitt: Dear Gordon, I don’t know what your problem is with atheists, but it won’t be resolved with exorcisms. Any attempt to cast the devil out of atheists would be about as effective as my attempting to cast the Tooth Fairy out of you. We atheists can easily get rid of any evil spirits you dream up by simply not believing in them.

 

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July 8, 2014 - 11:13 am

Unsurprisingly, Christianity is the largest religion in all 50 states. Surprisingly, Bahá’í is the second largest religion in my home state of South Carolina. This news inspired two local papers, the Charleston Post and Courier and the Charleston City Paper, to write articles about Bahá’ís. It also inspired me, an atheist, to attend a local Bahá’í meeting.

There are more Bahá’ís in South Carolina than Jews, Muslims, and Hindus combined; however, Bahá’ís do not outnumber atheists and agnostics. “Nones” (those with no religious affiliation) have grown to 15 percent nationally and 10 percent in South Carolina. And in a 2013 national survey of “nones,” atheists and agnostics were 50 percent of online respondents and 36 percent of those interviewed by telephone. Taking the lower percentage, more than 100,000 atheists and agnostics live in South Carolina compared with about 18,000 Bahá’ís.

The Bahá’í Faith likely became popular in South Carolina because of Louis Gregory, who was born in 1874, was raised in Charleston, and was one of the founders of the Bahá’í Faith in America. After this grandson of a slave became a Bahá’í in 1909, he travelled the country promoting racial equality. Gregory married a white Bahá’í woman in 1912, an act that was considered a crime at the time in parts of the country. The Louis G. Gregory Baha’i Museum is located in downtown Charleston.

Bahá’ís and atheists have not been very public about their views because they’ve been demonized within their surrounding cultures. The Bahá’í Faith began in Iran in 1844 when a young man now known as the “Bab” (meaning “gate” or “door” in Arabic) claimed to be the promised redeemer of Islam. The Bab also said that a second divine messenger would usher in the age of peace and justice promised in Islam. The Bab alienated Islamic clergy and was executed by a firing squad in 1850 at the age of 30. One of the Bab’s followers, Bahá’u’lláh, revealed in 1863 that he was the messenger foretold by the Bab. The teachings of Bahá’u’lláh are the foundation of the Bahá’í Faith.

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June 20, 2014 - 11:30 am

In an unintentionally funny comment, progressive Catholic theologian Vito Mancuso said about Pope Francis’ old-school interpretation of the devil and the need for exorcists:“He is opening the door to superstition.” Where to begin when describing a Catholic door that for centuries has been more open than the mythical Pandora’s box? In fact (really, in fiction), the Pandora myth deserves credit for a foundational myth in Catholic theology.
As the story goes, Pandora, the first woman, was given a box (actually a jar) and told never to open it. Of course, the curious Pandora did open it, whereupon evil escaped and spread throughout the world. So it seems that Pandora committed the original “original sin.”
Eve, the first woman according to the Genesis myth, was also led by curiosity to bring evil into the world. While both myths are unbelievable, people in pre-scientific times used “just so” stories to explain unknown origins. The Greek word “theodicy” is an attempt to reconcile traditionally divine characteristics of omnibenevolence, omnipotence, and omniscience with the occurrence of evil or suffering. I don’t think such reconciliation is possible, but that’s not a problem for atheists like me.
This brings me to Pope Francis’ belief in Satan as the cause for evil, which I don’t find any more superstitious than many other Catholic beliefs. 
 
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June 20, 2014 - 11:28 am

This is my 184th article for OnFaith since I started writing for the publication back in November of 2008. OnFaith was founded by Sally Quinn and remained at the Washington Post until late 2013, when it moved to FaithStreet. What I liked about writing for OnFaith at the Post, aside from it being part of a prestigious newspaper, was that it featured contributors who covered the full spectrum of religious and nonreligious views. On the other hand, FaithStreet is not a street on which I live. Its work is primarily about connecting people to faith communities, but I’m more interested in disconnecting people from faith communities and connecting them with atheist and humanist communities.

Out of the approximately 150,000 words that I’ve written for OnFaith a few have involved positive comments about religious leaders and issues they’ve espoused, but I’ve not had one positive word about “faith.”

Initially, I didn’t think I’d be contributing very often — if at all — to the newest iteration of OnFaith, nor did I think the new editors would be interested in my contributions. The first piece I pitched for the new OnFaith, entitled “A Dangerously Incurious Pope,” was rejected, and later published here. I assumed my relationship with OnFaith was over, and so I published with Huffington Post and elsewhere. Then a “miracle” occurred when I was invited by OnFaith to give an atheist’s perspective of Lent.

What you’re reading now is my tenth piece for OnFaith at FaithStreet. I prefer “preaching” to religious believers on FaithStreet rather than to those whose views are similar to mine. Jesus purportedly went where the sinners are, and I like to go where the “faith-ers” are. I also think OnFaith’s Patton Dodd is an excellent editor. He improves my articles but doesn’t try to soften my criticisms of religion. (That’s what my spouse does).

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May 28, 2014 - 1:42 pm

I'm a liberal, but not a knee-jerk one. I’m an atheist, but not one who thinks all religions are equally problematic or that they should be judged by the violent behavior of religious extremists. I think the Bible and Quran both contain ridiculous passages and reasonable passages. Religious fundamentalists can quote portions of their holy books to justify loving their neighbor or killing their (infidel) neighbor.

But at the risk of being called Islamophobic, I think Islam is the worst and most dangerous religion by all human rights standards.

I’ve been more critical of Christians than Muslims because I live in South Carolina, where politicians try to meld public policy with Christianity and worry about sharia law being used in our legal system. If I lived in a Muslim country, I’d be more openly critical of Islam and sharia law — unless I had good reason to fear for my life. The threat of death is part of the problem, but it’s not what I think is the root of the problem — the real issue is their pervasive commitment to reading the Quran literally.

I’ll illustrate with six memorable events in my direct and indirect dealings with Muslims and ex-Muslims. 

 

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