Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Ask An Atheist!

We at Reasonable Doubts are trying to start a new segment on the show called "Ask an Atheist" wherein we offer up answers to all your burning questions about atheism, skepticism, and any other topics that might be burning you-- but in order to do that, we need some questions.

These can be questions of your own or, for you heathens out there, they might be questions that you find yourselves being asked by non-non-believers. Questions might include: "What is Humanism?" or "Why do all you atheists hate my blessed Lord and Savior Jesus Christ so much?" or "Why are all of the Reasonable Doubts guys so damn sexy?"

Send any and all of your questions to doubtreligion@gmail.com and we will respond to them either on the podcast or here in the blog.

Send early and send often.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Sam Harris Addresses Common Missconceptions About Atheists.

Even many atheists cringe when you say the name Sam Harris. I guess I'm going to have to read End Of Faith because I'm still at a loss as to why. I've seen numerous interviews and read several articles by him and this is what I usually see, someone who is firm, but calm and soft spoken--challenging people to evaluate the basis of their beliefs, not just lashing out at them for being "idiots." The most serious claim I hear over and over again is that Sam Harris actually embraces and promotes intolerance towards the religious. That would indeed be a serious charge against him, and it may be true. But from all I've read the intolerance he's speaking of is (to use his own words) "conversational intolerance"--which means nothing more than expecting people to justify the claims they make in public on grounds which we can all share. Such "intolerance" is not hatred, or slander, or repression. It is the freedom to be comfortable with demanding evidence when someone tries to persuade you of the value of their beliefs. We should not have to trip over ourselves with politeness and defer to someone who asks that their viewpoint be respected and observed, but refuses to give any reason for doing so. No person has the right to demand honor without earning it. To insist on such reasonable, democratic standards of evidence in conversation is not "intolerant"... it is the very basis of mutual respect. Think of the much needed humility this attitude would introduce into our cultural dialog. Yes Let us talk. Let us acknowledge our diversity and try to learn from one another. Let us find common ground for governing society in a way that we can all be satisfied with. How? By using reasons which we can all accept, evidence that we can all see for ourselves regardless of our personal beliefs and private convictions. Surely, there would not be widespread agreement on controversial issues if this attitude was adopted for our public dialog, but I doubt we would be in the midst of a vicious culture war either.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Life After Death

One of the joys of being the campus heathen is that from time to time my classmates will come to me with their questions about being an atheist (the most common question being, "Why do you want to go to Hell so badly?"). Just last night, a girl from my school sent me a message via Facebook and because it's a very common question that theists have, I thought I'd share our correspondence with you.

[Note: I've chosen not to include her name because, frankly, I didn't ask her permission to do this. I've also cut out salutations and various other niceties because they are none of your business.]

Her letter:


This is really random but I was arguing the other day with someone about religion -- and we were talking about atheism (and I think that is okay and everyone is entitled to their OWN beliefs) and the person I was arguing with is a close-minded jerk and he said atheists go to hell.

BUT I was wondering -- and I hope that I do not offend because that is NOT my goal -- its just when my "friend" and I were talking about this I thought about YOU and thought I would/could ask you.

Anyways, I was wondering where do atheists believe/think they go when they die?

Cuz to me, and I could be wrong, correct me if I am, if a person doesn't believe in god then they probably dont believe in heaven and hell but then I wondered where do they think they go after they die?

I am really worried/scared about asking you this because I don't want to offend you in any way ... so if this is offensive or you just dont want to answer me -- that is completely fine!!

My response:

Please, don't ever be scared about asking me anything, especially a question like this. Your message actually kind of made my day. I love that you care enough about this to find out the truth and I'm flattered that you thought to ask me.


Alright, let me break the answer down for you . . . I'm probably going to give you more information than you want or care about because, frankly, I'm verbose, but here goes:

Atheism is not a system of believe, it's just the absence of a belief-- specifically lacking a belief in a god or gods. That's really all the label of "atheist" tells you. So, it's hard to really say "this is what atheists believe about . . . " because there's no rules, and there's no kind of creed that we all follow. For example, Buddhism is a non-theistic religion (which, to me is the worst of both worlds) so while most Buddhists do not believe in a god or gods, they generally do believe in reincarnation of some sort. Most other atheists, however, don't believe in reincarnation.

While atheists are free to believe whatever they want about what happens after death, generally speaking, those people who identify themselves as Atheists (or Materialists, Naturalists, Humanists, Rationalists and a good majority of self-identified Freethinkers), believe that when we die, we die. The End.


Atheists, by definition, don't have a god belief and by extension of that, most of us also don't believe in anything supernatural-- ghosts, angels, demons, miracles, etc. etc. and yes, even souls. And by soul I mean an aspect of the self that exists in some supernatural realm and that continues to live after the body has died (Dictionary.com offers 14 definitions of "soul" only four of which have anything to do with the supernatural). Because I don't believe in souls, I believe that when we die it's pretty much like when everything else dies. Sure, some people believe that animals have souls (lesser souls, but still souls) and get to go to heaven when they die (or be reincarnated) but most people regard an animal's death as the end of its life and not the beginning of its afterlife.

Humans are animals too. While we're differently evolved, have more advanced culture, the ability to reason and wear pants, we're still just animals. Luckily as humans we also have a highly developed sense of self-importance so we can tell ourselves that we're different, we're special and by golly, even though everything around us just dies we can somehow outlive even death because we're just that important. I think that's kind of arrogant of us and all the evidence suggest that, in fact, our deaths are just as final as the deaths of every other thing on the planet.


As I understand it, in Buddhism, the ultimate goal is to achieve Nirvana, which is not like Heaven at all, but is actually an experience of nothingness. Buddhists live life after life in order to attain that which we Atheists are pretty sure we're all going to get after just one go 'round. And please, don't take anything I say about Buddhism as gospel truth, my understanding of
Buddhism is shoddy, at best.


So, long story short, when we die our brain activity ceases. There's no more pain or pleasure. We're not conscious, we don't go anywhere, we don't experience anything good or bad. Which is kind of a bummer because Christians can always say "On Judgement Day you'll see we were right!" but Atheists never get to be proven right, because if we are right, there's no afterlife in which to gloat.

I know I've probably exhausted your attention and interest by now, but I want to say just one more thing, because it's really important: the idea that when we die, we're just dead can be seen as very bleak, very depressing. Especially for people who have lived their entire lives believing that this life is just training or a testing ground or a weigh station or whatever for the better, longer life to come. People think it cheapens this life, makes it meaningless ("Why not just kill yourself, then?" is a question religious people ask us non-believers all the time). But I think the opposite is true. I think that believing that this life is the only life we'll ever get to have makes it far more precious. Life matters so much more when we're not spending it looking forward to something afterwards.


There may be something after death-- I don't know, you don't know and anyone who claims to know is a liar because we simply can't know. But I know for certain that I have this life. And because this is the only life any of us is guaranteed to have, I think we need to do as much good with it as we can in what precious little time we have.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Seven Passages: Stories of Gay Christians

As the resident theatre buff in our troupe of troublemakers, I feel it is my duty to report the recent news on the intersection of church and stage.

Spectrum Theater in Grand Rapids, Michigan recently hosted the world premiere of a play entitled: Seven Passages: Stories of Gay Christians. Like most of the theatre we do in Grand Rapids, this is not the kind of Waiting for Guffman type of work that most people associate with community theatre. We take great pride in our theatre and we work hard at it.

The play was conceived and director by a theatre instructor from one of our local heathen-unfriendly colleges. Like The Laramie Project, The Vagina Monologues or the work of Anna Deveare-Smith, this play was created out of interviews conducted with real people—in this case, real gay Christians from West Michigan.

Reportedly over 100 interviews were conducted and from a script of seven million pages or so, the director and actors whittled it down to a much more workable hour and forty-five minute play.

[Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I want to point out that I know and like many of the people involved with the show. Friends and colleagues of mine helped write and perform in the show and other friends and colleagues of mine were characters in the show. Spectrum Theater is a place very close to my heart and Actors’ Theatre (the theatre company responsible for the show) is one of my favorites. They generally do very good work, and often times, they do very important work.

That being said, I was going into the show with some skepticism, too (but then, I go into everything with skepticism because, after all, I’m a skeptic). Some of the people involved with the show were not people I am a fan of. More importantly, it should be noted, I’m not really a fan of, y’know, Christianity. I love the gays (both specific members of the gay community and gays in general who I find to be a swingin’ bunch of cats) but not so much the Christians. Actually individual Christians I often like, but Christianity I don’t. As a former Christian myself I have a particular dislike for the way Christian dogma distorts people’s worldview.]

Now, I’m not going to bother reviewing the show because if you didn’t see it, you won’t see it (at least not this production, I believe it will be produced again next year in Kalamazoo) and if you did see it you already know what you thought. What I want to talk about isn’t so much the production as it was the content—the message, if you will.

In brief, for those of you who didn’t see it, the play tells the stories of real gay and lesbian Christians in their own words as they deal with living full lives as both homosexuals and Christians. The title, Seven Passages, refers to the seven biblical passages that are used to indicate God’s displeasure with homosexual activity (remarkably, one of the passages included is one of the creation accounts in Genesis. Though it doesn’t mention anything about homosexuality, it’s brought up in the play as part of the idiotic “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” rhetoric that many fundamentalists use to show that homosexuality is ‘unnatural’).

I hope this play will help facilitate discussion in the Christian community about how they deal with ‘the gay issue,’ (Actors’ made a real effort to get as many clergy members as they could to come see the show) because, frankly, Christians don’t deal with it very well.

Okay, that’s an understatement.

Let me try to be more accurate: Christianity is responsible for a vast majority of the homophobia in our country. And I’m not just talking about Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church; I’m talking about people like my mom and the millions of other Michigan voters who voted to amend the state Constitution so that homosexuals could continue to not have the right to marry. Many of these people don’t even think of themselves as homophobic or anti-gay, my mother included, but their actions speak louder than words.

Not all Christians are homophobic—clearly at least 100 Christians within 50 miles or so of me are themselves homosexual (which, of course, does not mean they are not also homophobic, but still) — not even all flavors of Christianity offer up the kind of subtle or not-so-subtle anti-gay rhetoric that others do but Christianity as an institution, Christian dogma and the way it has poisoned the thinking of billions of people, is anti-gay. There may be only seven passages in the Bible that condemn homosexuality, but its seven passages that hold a lot of sway.

I hope this play will also be helpful to the gay Christian community. I hope it will let them see that there is, in fact, a community for them. Based on the reactions I heard after the show, it is very “affirming” to people. And while affirming what you already thought is not really the highest aim of art, if it means one less gay Christian has to deal with depression or commits suicide, then I say “affirm away!”

And while I hope good comes from the play and I applaud the effort, my experience with it was mostly frustrating.

See, fairly early on in the play, they discuss the passage in Leviticus. You know the one. Leviticus 20:13: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed and abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” They also point out that in Leviticus, it’s made clear that God doesn’t want you to eat shellfish or wear poly-cotton blends. And that’s a wonderful point to make.

We don’t abide by any of the other crazy crap in Leviticus, why pick out that one passage as a modern code of conduct? It’s all interpretation, the play points out. Fundamentalists are just picking and choosing which ancient rules they think we should still abide by.

And at this point in the show, I wanted to stand up in the theatre and yell, “YES! You’ve got it!” They were on the cusp of truth, their thinking was right and yet . . . they missed it. Their logical train jumped the shark and they missed the only reasonable conclusion: It’s all interpretation! ‘This is the passage that God really meant. The gays are an abomination, but shellfish are fine’ is interpretation but so is saying ‘Leviticus is full of ancient cultural mores that we needn’t listen to in our modern world, and those six other passages are just silly too, but the other stuff, the stuff we like, well that shit’s totally true!” NO! You’re interpreting too!

There are only two ways to avoid hypocrisy here: either take absolutely everything the Bible says as literal truth, abide by every rule it gives OR throw the damn thing out. And since, the book is filled with contradictions and it is therefore impossible to take it as literal truth and live your life exactly in accordance with its teachings, the only solution is to get rid of it.

I was waiting for just one of the characters in the play to say: “So I gave up on all of the silly teachings of Christianity and now I don’t have to deal with the competing ‘truths’ of actual reality and Christian teaching about reality and I can just live my life as a happy, whole human being.” But it didn’t happen.

I wonder if that’s because none of the 100 people interviewed for the play did give up on Christianity or because that’s not the story they wanted to tell with this play. I don’t really know. But I for one would have appreciated the honesty in admitting that sometimes you can’t reconcile the irreconcilable, and that it’s not the “gay” part of the equation that’s causing the problem.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Check Out Our New Promo Clip

We have a new promotional Mp3, featuring a segment from our first episode. You can listen with the player below or click here to download. Give it a listen. And please tell us what you think. Also our RSS and Podcast feeds are up and running.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Ann Coulter On Those Inferior Jews

Props to Ann Coulter for Being Honest About "Inferior Religions"

Even though Ann Coulter has just denigrated another group of people whom she knows nothing about, it wasn't enough for her to land a spot on my shit-list this week. Her comment that Christians just "want to see Jews perfected" by believing in Jesus, (making New York nice and republican) is certainly as ignorant as it is offensive. Besides that its ridiculous. Give me a New York Jew over a fundamentalist Christian any day (I rather like the idea of playing chess and talking Torah, wed just have to stay away from the topic of divestment). But while offensive its hardly shocking or even surprising. That is, after all, what many Christians believe and not just out of bigotry or antisemitism. It says as much in the New Testament...

"But Jesus has now obtained
a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need to look for a second one...In speaking of ‘a new covenant’, he has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear" (Hebrews 8.6-13).

If that’s not convincing enough consider Hebrews 10.1

"Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities,
it can never...make perfect those who approach."

So what Ann Coulter said was entirely accurate from the standpoint of the New Testament--the Jews are imperfect because of their inferior worship. Perhaps that’s why the conservative commentator could not bring himself to criticize her comments...instead asking if any Jewish or Christian theologians were consulted when evaluating her claim. Where Coulter and her defender were mistaken was in the audacious statement that there is no reason to be offended. I wonder how Coulter would feel if a Muslim, who believes their scriptures to be superior, would have told her that she was of an inferior faith and needed to be perfected. That is, after all, what the Qur'an claims…

The Jews call 'Uzair a son of Allah, and the Christians call Christ the son of Allah. That is a saying from their mouth…Allah’s curse be on them:
how they are deluded away from the Truth” (Surah 9:30-31).

If I was in the room when someone said that to Coulter I would duck for cover (she probably owns a gun). Of course it’s offensive! Because its demeaning and arbitrary. If you are basing your judgments on faith and scriptural authority how can you possibly demonstrate your view to be superior to someone else who justifies their claims on
the exact same principle? That is the real problem with what she said-- "our ways are superior to your ways, not because we live better lives, or are more compassionate, or can claim better evidence for our beliefs. Nope, just because we believe we are superior to you." Coulter will never need to study Jewish history and culture. Shell never need to know the insights learned from exile or the impact of the diaspora on western civilization . She doesn't have to tackle the Talmud or learn how the tradition was transformed with the birth of rabbinical Judaism. She needn't fuss about contributions made by Jewish thinkers like Spinoza to the European Enlightenment. She takes her religious superiority on faith. And that kind of faith is only a short step away from intolerance. But it is so very un-PC to criticize faith, isn't it? Though every morally concerned person should recognize that faith can be and has been an enduring source of intolerance; by saying so you might come across as intolerant yourself. Wouldn't it be better for everyone to just agree that we shouldn't have to support our beliefs with anything as tedious as reason or evidence ? Of course we'll have to all play nice and agree not to talk publicly about how we really feel about one another, (or about what our scriptures really say about one another). But our silence will give us that trendy feel good illusion of tolerance without all that messy business of confronting its epistemic roots. Thats why I give props to Ann Coulter for being honest. At the very least she doesn’t hide what many good religious folks are really thinking…and she gives us all a great reminder that tolerance and humility--are not necessitated by faith, and are too precious to rest on that flimsy a foundation. And to those who insist it cannot really be faith, only fundamentalism or extremism, at the heart of the problem--I invite you to look at eastern religions. Because there is hardly a religious spectacle as disappointing as Buddhist monks who dedicate their lives to such noble qualities as compassion and detachment from ego--childishly engaged in bitter disputes over who's is the superior lineage. Or take Hinduism, arguably the most pluralistic and philosophically tolerant of religions--and yet the creator of one of the most socially repressive societies as well. Despicable attitudes towards women and the poor could only have survived the courageous work of Hindu reformers because they are legitimized by the doctrines of karma, rebirth, and caste. And before you think I'm naive, lets not forget those Communists who silenced anyone who would criticize the dogmas of dialectical materialism; anyone who challenged the fragile certainty of their conviction that the predetermined course of history was leading them to utopia. Even atheistic philosophies can lead to murderous intolerance when they become incapable of rational self-criticism. In all its guises, we must challenge the irrational superiority believers claim for themselves by faith. Which is why I can’t feel too sorry for any orthodox Jews offended by Coulter…not if they think they are “chosen ...out of all the peoples on earth to be [God's] people, his treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 7.6).

Upcoming Episodes



We are happy to announce our first two episodes will be out sometime in the next two weeks. It's been rough getting our project off the ground because our contributors are incredibly busy either teaching or attending classes. But thankfully we have two great episodes on the way. The first features an interview with Dr. Wesley Elsberry, former Information Project Director for the National Center for Science Education who is currently a Visiting Research Associate at Michigan State University, where he works with Robert Pennock studying the evolution of intelligence through computer simulations. His enlightening discussion focuses on the state of "Antievolution after Dover"--how creationists have been adapting their arguments after the devastating legal blow they received during the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial in late 2005. We will also feature an update on the Catholic Church's record-breaking settlement over allegations of child abuse in their Los Angeles Diocese--including the elaborate cover-up and shameful attempts of Catholic apologists to spin the story in a positive light. Our second episode features an interview with CFI On Campus organizer and Point of Inquiry editorialist Lauren Becker. Lauren shares the story of her transformation from Park Ranger and education enthusiast to secular activist and organizer. She also provides a heartfelt look at the challenges facing non-religious students on college campuses nationwide. She explains the mission of CFI On Campus, their strategy to promote critical thinking and challenge religious dogmas, and how anyone can help promote free inquiry at their local campus. Also featured in the second episode is a humorous look at evangelists trying to save digital souls in the web-based virtual world "Second Life." Be sure to check in over the next two weeks to hear the shows.

Welcome to Reasonable Doubts

Hello Everyone. This is our first post for Reasonable Doubts--the companion blog to the Reasonable Doubts Podcast: your skeptical guide to religion. RD is one of many podcasts to recently emerge, serving the freethinking community: those who consciously avoid basing their "world view" on any supposed revelation, doctrinal authority, or mystical experience. What distinguishes us from many other skeptical podcasts is our special focus on counter-apologetics. We provide detailed counter-points to the fallacious logic and blatant misinformation used by religious apologists when attempting to discredit skepticism and provide rational arguments for their dogmas. We also defend the sufficiency of reason, science and naturalistic philosophies to provide a satisfactory and morally compelling understanding of the cosmos, human nature, art and culture (so I guess you could say were also engaged in our own "naturalistic apologetic"). We try to do this all with fair-mindedness and humor. Check out some of our upcoming episodes. On the blog well have a chance to discuss topics in a little more depth...and a chance vent our frustrations between episodes. So please keep the questions, comments, and challenges coming. Also to any of our listeners/readers in the west Michigan area we'll keep you posted on events and news of interest in our beloved "bible-belt of the north."